Saturday, February 18, 2006

Of True and False Anxiety

(The below is a sermon I've prepared for our JPUSA "Senior Church" -- the older folk who share the top three floors of 920 W. Wilson with us JPUSAns. I trust there are political implications to the below which those who have ears to hear will pick up on... if not necessarily agree with. Apologies to Kierkegaard fans and/or scholars.)

Today, I’m going to talk just for a few minutes on a cheerful little Scripture. Just two verses, found in Phillipians 4 verses 6, 7.

4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
4:7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Now, I said that is a cheerful Scripture. But that depends on how we understand what they’re saying.

What is anxiety, anyway?

There’s the kind of anxiety I had in school about a test. You know, that sort of hollow feeling you had when you knew you could have done a better job on the homework? Or maybe you were a good student… never mind.

There’s the kind of anxiety we have when we just finished some spinach at a restaurant and find someone glancing at us funny. Uh-oh… do I have some stuck between my teeth?

Or maybe we’re anxious because we’re meeting someone for the first time.

There’s the kind of anxiety we have when among a bunch of people who we want to impress. This anxiety is a bit scary. One strong-willed person with a bigoted, twisted idea and the boldness to arrogantly strut it can often get the rest of us – those of the right religion or color, anyway – to follow his lead. The results? American slavery. Auswitz and the gas chambers.

That brings up what I would call “false” anxiety as opposed to the deeper forms of anxiety which in fact are the mark of more whole human beings. A person can be anxious to please their friend, yet fail to be anxious about the evil and even demonic ideas their friend is promoting, for instance.

But even that anxiety is not the type of anxiety I’m most interested in. Let me tell you a story.

In 1973, my parents took a number of us kids to see the Grand Canyon. How many here have been to the Grand Canyon? It is incredible! Well, we went out onto one of the many tourist overlooks. These are basically giant flat outcroppings of rock where you can go right up to the edge of the canyon and look both across and down for miles.

Now I should tell you that as a teenager I really had little fear; I did stuff that since then has given me chills to recall. I once had a German Shepherd go after me, and instead of running away, I turned around and chased the dog! It fled, which really impressed my friends. You get the idea.

So here we are at the Grand Canyon. And I have this camera with me, snapping photos of this and that. We walk up to the edge of this cliff, and down below us is the Snake River. Someone said it was over a mile straight down.

For safety’s sake, there are these white steel railings about three or four feet from the edge. I took one look, and before anyone could say a thing, I put one of my long legs over the railing, put the other one over the railing, and sat down with nothing between me and a one mile drop to the bottom of the Grand Canyon except my backside on a foot-wide piece of flat rock. Then, I leaned forward, looked through my camera’s viewfinder, and took a picture. I had new tennis shoes, and I wanted to get a shot of them hanging out over the canyon, you see? So I stuck my feet out even further over the empty space below for better effect.

Well, once I was done, I stood up and looked at my Mother. She was a whiter shade of pale, if you know what I mean. She had five boys, so I guess maybe she should have expected something like that, but no, Mothers are always in a state of anxiety. For good reason.

But here’s the thing. Every last one of us is sitting on the edge of that cliff, looking down, with nothing between us and death except the faint pumPUM pumPUM of our heartbeat. I’m pushing the image here, but the Grand Canyon we’re staring down into is our own mortality. Hear me, now. It isn’t just about heaven and hell – it is about what we are, what we mean, why life itself is even worth living. Those are the deep anxieties, and frankly, the most surprising thing is how few people really seem to struggle with those anxieties vs. the “Do I look good in this dress” kind of anxieties. Never mind that I would look terrible in any dress….

This is what fascinates me. We are all anxious about one thing and another… but how many of us are anxious about the right things, the important things?

A brilliant, if often depressing, Christian thinker, Soren Kierkegaard once wrote a book called “The Concept of Anxiety.” The title is often translated “The Concept of Dread” – and no wonder. Kierkegaard wrote, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom… when freedom looks down into possibility…” Well, what did he mean?

I mentioned Auswitz a little bit ago. How did Hitler come into power? I believe he came into power because of the very thing Kierkegaard addressed. That is, we are all afraid of the future, all the possible futures, out there. And one future is not only possible, but absolute; we will die. Psychology says that we cope with death usually by denying death’s existence, or at least by selectively looking away at the right moments. Hitler, whether even he knew it or not, keyed in on those fears of death the German people had. And he picked the right people to pick on; Jews. And despite the fact that Jesus, our Lord and Savior, was a Jew, the Christians in Germany mostly went along with Hitler’s plans.

Why? Because Hitler’s lie was simple. He was establishing a Reich – a kingdom or empire – that would last a thousand years. Or so he said. A few million Jews here or there… what was that to establishing immortality for an entire nation? His lie offered meaning, a deeply satisfying, if completely false, meaning. Nationalism, racism, name your ism…. All of them are or were popular because they offered people meaning.

You see, our death can be experienced in a few different ways. We can die physically. That is one kind of death. But we can also die as far as our lives having meant anything. If we lived a life that meant nothing to anyone, maybe are living such a life even now, how much better is that than being physically dead? That is what the dictator promises…. A life of meaning and even heroism.

But let’s go back to anxiety. Because here we are. And we don’t want to go the way of the Nazis, the murderers of Martin Luther King, or the killers today who use various religions as an excuse. So I suggest going the way of Soren Kierkegaard instead. Listen to a very curious thing Kierkegaard said about anxiety:

“With the help of faith, anxiety brings up the individual to rest in providence.”

See, anxiety means you are awake. When I sat on the edge of that cliff, looking down at my shoes through the camera lens, I felt no fear – no anxiety – at all. But when I’ve thought back on it, I almost tremble with the absolute risk I took. One slip, one miscalculation, and I would have plunged into the abyss. I wasn’t awake. I was asleep to my true frail condition as a human being. I forgot that I was finite, that I had limits.

To Kierkegaard, true anxiety is our friend because it wakes us up to our peril. Not only that, but if we refuse to choose a cheap lying substitute and insist that we remain awake, anxiety will lead us up from the abyss of death and into the rest only Jesus Christ offers us.

The only other option to either remaining unconscious or submitting to God is despair, according to Kierkegaard. Some people admit they can find no meaning or purpose except pleasure. And pleasure wears out soon enough, doesn’t it? Others wallow in despair, making their agony a sort of heroic struggle.

It all comes back to where we started; those almost cute little two verses of Philippians. Only I hope by now you see that they are not cute at all, but instead are earth-changing, despair shattering words:

4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
4:7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

In Christ, once our true, awakened sense of anxiety and dread bring us to Him, we will find a peace so deep it transcends all understanding. No, God does not promise us we will not suffer. That would be a lie. But he does promise us that we need not be anxious for our lives’ eternal meaning. Our only meaning is in Him, and in His love.


Chris and Melissa said...

Hey Jon, this is off-topic from your post on anxiety, but I was wondering if you were following the controversy with James Dobson supporting "limited protections for same-sex couples."

Maybe he's just supporting it as a ploy to erode support for a more drastic bill, but to me it seems like a good (maybe once-in-a-lifetime!) excuse to applaud him, especially because he's taking hits from people more extreme than himself (yes, apparently such a thing is possible...)

Anyway, sorry for the random comment, but it popped out on my socio-cultural radar screen. :)


Jon Trott said...

Thank you. I don't really know what to make of it... I, too, support the idea of same-sex couples being granted legal protections under the law. I'm not in favor of it being classified as "marriage," a term with religious as well as civil significance. But a civil recognition of a same-sex couple seems a good compromise -- that is, no one will be happy with it, which is probably a good sign it strikes a balance.
I could get into the deeper elements of this, but won't for now.