7.30.2012

Finding Hope in an Age of Anxiety

Sunday, July 29th
First Congregational Church of Western Springs

Revelation 21:1-6

I can’t remember what I originally intended to preach about this morning. I only know that it didn’t address the grief, fear, and sense of doom that deepened each time I’ve read the newspaper or listened to the radio lately. It reached a fever pitch last Sunday night, when in the same sitting I read about the devastating events in Colorado and the increasingly alarming effects of climate change. On Monday morning, I typed up a quick Facebook update to share with my friends: “I decided to change my sermon theme for next Sunday. New topic: Finding Hope in an Age of Anxiety. New item on to-do list: find hope in an age of anxiety.” The gallows humor hit a nerve; the unusually large number of responses to the update confirmed that this is indeed a necessary theme.

I want to begin with a definition and a caveat. First, I want to clarify what I mean when I borrow the phrase “Age of Anxiety”, which was coined in 1948 - not by a journalist or a psychologist but by a poet [W.H. Auden]. In a recent column about anxiety – yes, the New York Times runs an entire column dedicated to covering anxiety – Daniel Smith wrote, “From the moment it appeared, the phrase [age of anxiety] has been used to characterize the consciousness of our era, the awareness of everything perilous about the modern world: the degradation of the environment, nuclear energy, religious fundamentalism, threats to privacy and the family, drugs, pornography, violence, terrorism.”

The caveat is buried within that helpful definition. The age of anxiety of which I speak describes the consciousness of our era – a sort of cultural, mass experience. I’m not, at the moment, addressing individual anxiety disorders – though that is something I know something about, on a personal level. I might say some of the same things to an individual suffering from, say, panic attacks. But here’s the thing. You can’t offer pastoral care to an entire society. You can’t say: hey, Society, anxiety is very real, and it’s obviously affecting your quality of life. Maybe you should think about discussing medication with your physician, and let’s see if we can’t find a great therapist to talk to about this.

That said, individual anxiety disorders are one of the symptoms of our age of anxiety. That same Times column noted that about 18 percent of adults in America have experienced anxiety disorders, making anxiety “the most common psychiatric complaint by a wide margin.” As a member of that eighteen percent, I’m grateful that my periods of acute anxiety have been relatively brief and that I have responded well to holistic treatments. Yet, I still have to monitor my reactions to the news. Like my brothers and sisters in the 18 percent – and like our society as a whole – I am vulnerable to anxiety about “everything perilous about the modern world.”

Perhaps this is just my anxiety talking, but I actually believe that this particular vulnerability is totally rational. I think it is reasonable to be afraid of the fact that assault weapons are legal in this country. Since the Federal Ban on such firearms expired in 2004, civilians like the recent shooter in Colorado can purchase guns designed not merely for killing, but for slaughter.

I also thought it was reasonable to shudder at Bill McKibben’s current cover story in Rolling Stone – it was, after all, titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Setting aside the political, ideological, and theological arguments that usually make up the public conversation about climate change, McKibben used laymen’s terms to share chilling new scientific evidence that suggests that the rapidly changing environment will have profound effects not just on the lives of our children or grandchildren, but on our lives.

I also think it is sensible to be anxious about the lack of mental health care for the thousands of young war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and wise to be horrified that there have been more than 250 homicides in Chicago since January, and prudent to fret about the strands of the flu that could quickly become global pandemics, and oh my goodness, I didn’t even mention the economy yet. The fact of the matter is this: there are real dangers. Some of them are statistically unlikely to affect any of us directly, but we would be foolish to believe that there won’t be, for example, another public shooting spree somewhere in America.

So where on earth – or in heaven – do we find hope in this age of anxiety?

I recently heard a noted author speak about fear. She said a lot of interesting things, but nothing struck me more than this: Christians should fear God and nothing else. [Marilynne Robinson actually said that Calvinists fear God and nothing else; simplified to focus on the point.]

Christians should fear God and nothing else.

Maybe like me, there’s a part of you that winces at this statement. Our church isn’t really in the business of talking about a fearsome God. We talk about a God of grace and mercy and love, not a God who is, well, scary. Seriously, as an anxious person, the last thing I need is a God who induces more anxiety.Yet I was so drawn to the possibility of fearing nothing else that I had to spend a little more time with the idea.

Fear-of-the-Lord is a common biblical concept. It is lifted up as a faithful response to the divine in both the Old and New Testaments. The book of Proverbs teaches that “The fear of the Lord leads to life: Then one rests content, untouched by trouble.” One writer defines this life-giving fear as “a fear that pulls us out of our preoccupation with ourselves, our feelings, or our circumstances into a world of wonder.” [Eugene Peterson]

Fear-of-the-Lord is, in a word, reverence. To fear God is to put your ultimate trust in God’s goodness, even God’s sovereignty. This is a humbling thing. Fearing God means admitting that we are not in control, and nothing scares an anxious person more than losing control. But control is an illusion. Much of life is profoundly beyond our control. So we must make a decision and live with it. Do we believe that we are ultimately at the mercy of all that terrifies us, or do we believe that we are held in the palm of God’s hand?

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” These are the words God speaks to the author of Revelation. It’s easy to get caught up in the weirdness of this last book of the Bible. It’s also easy to let the book be ruined by Christians who read its rich apocalyptic symbolism as literal predictions. I want to set that aside and rejoice in the hopeful vision cast by John of Patmos, the author of the letter. He bears witness to the ultimate restoration of a fallen world. The work that God began in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to redeem the world will be fulfilled. “God himself will be with them;” John wrote. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” What is most astounding is that these words were penned during a season of profound mourning and crying and pain. Christians were the target of intense persecution. The blood of martyrs stained the streets of Rome. Despite the evidence that everything was going to hell in a handbasket, in John’s vision of the end of time, evil is eradicated, sin is washed away, and love wins.

There is a lot of suffering in the book of Revelation before you get to the triumphant culmination – just as there is a lot of suffering during that week we call Holy before we get to the victorious celebration of Easter. If you were telling someone the story of Jesus, you wouldn’t stop on Good Friday; that is simply not where the story ends. John’s letter to the Revelation vows that no matter how bad it gets, no matter how terrible our trials and tribulations, you must have hope. There is yet another chapter.

I love how the Brazilian author Paolo Coelho puts it: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, then it’s not the end.”

This is the thing. Putting our faith, hope, and trust in God does not let us off the hook. Believing in that vision of a new heaven and a new earth does not mean we should shrug off concerns about the care of our planet. Just as Paul vehemently denied that the freely given grace of God does not give Christians license to sin, trusting that God will restore Creation does not mean it doesn’t matter how we live. The message of the gospel is the exact opposite. Jesus walked this earth as a teacher, preacher, and healer. All of his ministry pointed in one powerful direction: the Kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is not merely some heaven, faraway. It’s a reality for all who count themselves followers of Jesus. Christians are called to be citizens of the Kingdom of God, living according to the way of the new heaven and new earth.

It is a way of love, justice, mercy, freedom. And it is a way of hope, even in an age of anxiety. If God is truly our beginning and our end, we can find hope in every circumstance, from the deepest dark age to the brightest golden age. Fear God, and nothing else.

The absolute best thing I read all week, in response to the tragedies in Colorado, was a sermon called "Defiant Alleluia" by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. I highly encourage you to go find it yourself; perhaps we can include a link to it on our website. Rev. Bolz-Weber writes, “the reason we can stand and we can weep and we can listen is because finally we, like Mary [Magdalene] are bearers of resurrection. We know that on the 3rd day [Jesus] rose again. We do not need to be afraid. Because to sing to God amidst all of this is to defiantly proclaim like Mary Magdalene did to the apostles, that death is simply not the final word. To defiantly say that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness can not - will not - shall not overcome it. And so, evil be damned, because even as we go to the grave, still we make our song Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.”

Let us stand and sing our Alleluias.

[At this point we sang When All Is Ended by Brian Wren, which begins:
"When all is ended, time and troubles past,
shall all be mended, sin and death outcast?
In hope we sing, and hope to sing at last:
Alleluia! Alleluia!]

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