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Sunday 16 February 2020 – Sung Eucharist
Romans 8:18-25 Matthew 6:25-34
Not long before Christmas, I was having a casual chat with a ten year-old girl. At one point she slipped into the conversation an admission that she was having trouble sleeping. When I asked her what the problem was, she said she was having anxiety attacks. ‘About what?’ I asked. ‘Well, two things, really,’ she said: ‘Climate change and Brexit.’
I have to confess I wasn’t too surprised that climate change was a concern, but I was a little taken aback by Brexit. I hovered between feeling rather impressed, on the one hand, that she was so politically aware at such a young age, and angry, on the other, at what our politics were doing to the mental health of our younger generations.
When I asked her what it was in particular about climate change that concerned her, the reason given was fairly stark: she was worried there might not be a planet left for her to live on. As our discussion progressed, she said she wasn’t alone in being anxious. Many of her friends were also experiencing significant feelings of worry and anxiety about all sorts of things, but particularly about climate change. At the deepest level of all, I suppose, her worry was about life itself, about the threat of extinction, not only as an individual, but also as a species and as part of the whole wonderful living organism we call planet earth. I recalled that when I was in my early twenties, I was worried in a not dissimilar way – along with many others at the time – that the single push of a nuclear button might blow us all to smithereens.
At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, we heard Jesus saying, ‘Do not worry about your life…can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?’ At one level, this sounds like singularly unhelpful advice. It can be quite irritating to be told not to worry. We all know worry doesn’t get us anywhere; the problem is we don’t always know what to do about it. And this is where Jesus is a spiritual master. He does indeed know how to deal with worry; but I’ll come on to that in due course.
Anxiety and depression are the most prominent indicators of mental health difficulties in our society today and these things are now considered to be widespread. Some might be inclined to think it’s all a bit hyped up, as if we’ve gone rather soft. There’s no consensus as to whether there are more mental health problems today compared with previous generations, or whether there’s just a greater awareness of them and willingness to do something about them. Either way, addressing mental health issues is a sensible, mature and compassionate response to the difficulties we all experience at some time or other in life. According to mental health experts, the most common behavioural symptom of anxiety is actually avoidance: pretending there isn’t a problem in the first place or simply ignoring it. So, as we’ll see, Jesus’ wisdom actually turns out to have extraordinarily contemporary relevance.
In some situations, anxiety’s a perfectly normal and healthy response. If a lion were to come bounding into the Minster right now, our hearts would start racing and the adrenaline would start pumping. These bodily responses would alert us to real danger, something we’d need to be anxious about. We’d be imagining all the various possible outcomes. And while the advice of Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones – ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic! – might be theoretically correct, it’d be misleading if we took it to mean just ignore the lion and pretend it isn’t there! The real question would be how to deal with it.
On the other hand, if we’d spent time in Africa in childhood, and had seen our father mauled by a lion, we might be excused if every time we saw a lion, we became more than just a little anxious. So, if a lion appeared on a film we were watching and we started screaming and ran out of the room, others might conclude we were over-reacting, and in many ways they’d be correct. But if the effects of that childhood trauma, absolutely real as they were, had never been properly addressed, they’d continue to influence our behaviour in ways which weren’t always in sync with reality as it is now. The issue wouldn’t so much be the anxiety itself, as the original trauma, and the failure, whatever its cause, to deal with it and come to terms with it.
The widespread incidence of anxiety in our society today seems largely to be the result on the part of all of us to be unsatisfactorily adjusted to the way things really are. I mean this not just in relation to our lives as individuals but corporately and socially, too. Is it any wonder, for example, that when someone on universal credit’s informed that their payments are to be stopped, pending further investigation or information being provided, that mental health issues arise? Money to live on doesn’t just appear from nowhere, so it’s not surprising that in such situations stress, anxiety and depression are common responses. These things can’t be resolved at an individual level alone, though: they relate to the kind of society we all want to live in together and how we bring that about.
This is where Jesus’ teaching about anxiety comes in full view. He neither ignores the reality of anxiety nor pretends it’s easily dealt with. After all, he says, tomorrow will still have worries of its own. Problems and challenges don’t disappear, they’re part of life. The question is how we respond to them.
At the heart of what Jesus says in this gospel passage today, and everywhere else, as far as I can see, is a recognition that God, creation and humanity are essentially good. The problem is that we’re misaligned in relation to this truth, which leads, amongst other things, to mental health problems, like anxiety. The response to this is to discover our correct alignment. In this, the Church hasn’t always been as helpful as it might be, for the way the gospel itself’s so often been presented hasn’t really been gospel – good news. The message, or at least the implied message, has often reinforced the sense that human beings are essentially bad, corrupt, lacking, deficient, unacceptable, even depraved, leading us to internalise attitudes of self-judgement and self-condemnation. But this isn’t who we really are. Jesus’ core message in this passage is that anxiety results from this misaligned perception, so the remedy lies in discovering how things really are. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the invitation to trust: to trust in the grace and goodness of God and in our essential goodness, too, as those created in the image and likeness of God. This is why he uses the analogy of the birds of the air or the lilies of the field. They are simply themselves, they are just as they are by nature, and because of that they have no cause to worry.
The anxiety which characterises our whole condition as human beings results from not trusting our basic goodness. It’s not enough to expect God to deal with this from the outside, as it were; it has to be dealt with from the inside, by the transformation of how we see ourselves, others, the world and God. This is why Jesus begins his preaching with the word ‘repent.’ This isn’t the message of a moralistic crusader. Rather, it’s an invitation to change our minds, to change the way we see things, to see that our essential nature is actually love, compassion, wisdom and goodness. The problem for all of us is that we find it difficult really to believe and trust this, so we live and act not from who we really are but from a diminished sense of self. It’s ultimately from this that all our mental health problems, the problems we share together as part of our common human condition, arise. Trust, says Jesus. In the final analysis everything really is all right, including you in your misalignment and anxiety, for everything’s grounded in the love and grace of God.
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