"The Backstory: Anxiety Seeking Peace"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
In that first year of transition from my calling as an architect to my calling as a pastor – both callings holy I believe – I experienced a lot of anxiety. I really wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into – sometimes I’m still not. That anxiety erupted in various ways – one of which was anger. Anger certainly wasn’t new to me. But as I entered the unknown, it would creep up on me unexpectedly seizing me by the throat, causing my vision to blur, cutting short my breath, and clouding my judgment. It was just like being strangled, and no wonder. The origin of our word anxious comes from the Greek word “to strangle.” It got bad enough that I attended Emotions Anonymous for a time – a 12 step recovery group for those whose emotions – especially rage – seize control of our lives. During that time, my clergy colleagues and supervisors were talking about cultivating a “non-anxious presence.” For a while I began to understand anxiety as a purely evil thing – something to be controlled, hidden away, if possible surgically removed. As I look back now, that is a false peace. That is the peace of empires – the Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica, the Pax Americana. That is the peace that is established and enforced through violence, oppression, privilege, and accusation. That is the peace that executed Jesus of Nazareth – the one whom we follow and call the Prince of Peace.
More recently, I began to study a way of understanding conflict and dysfunctional relationships called Family Systems. This work suggests that anxiety is actually the energy field of relationships – all relationships. It’s like the heat that arises from two molecules that bump or rub up against each other. Anxiety wants to flow. It is not a bad thing unless it is bottled up – enough of it can fester, rot, or explode. Or it can fuse together, and prevent the natural growth and development between any two beings. Complex systems, such as families, congregations, or nations, seek stasis – or at least dynamic balance. The problem is that each component in a system – each being – is constantly changing and growing, however imperceptibly. Anxiety runs amok when the balance is upset or we try to freeze the system in place. Anxiety wants to flow – like water.
The first step in cultivating “non-anxious presence” is to know yourself deeply – a constant task for a living, growing being. It requires knowing your FOOI – your family of origin issues, and how they tend to play out generation after generation. When we feel our anxiety rising, it’s time to ask ourselves, what of my deep or muddy past is getting churned up by this person or that event. What serpent from my childhood is being evoked or awakened. When we know what is happening, we can face it, acknowledge it, and if necessary, set it aside. More likely, we will need to deal with it – or there will be no peace.
This systemic process can play out on many different scales – from the molecular to our personal interior life, from the planetary web of life to the cosmos. In fact, the word “cosmos” means “system.” I’ll admit that my first impulse is almost always to skew to the scale of the community, the culture, or the cosmos when I am seeking meaning in scripture, tradition, reason, or experience. I generally tend to see and hear the communal context and message. So, for instance, as we read Isaiah, my thoughts go first to the implications of our life together, our place and responsibility in the global context, the realization or the thwarting of the common good. I think it’s the liberal impulse in a way – to seek the common good. This is especially true when it comes to applying my understanding of the Gospel.
For several years during my childhood, my dad, a United Methodist pastor also, was a campus minister. Those were the days of the Viet Nam war, and he was actively engaged in encouraging the Christian students he worked with to seek Conscientious Objector status. I grew up marching for peace. It formed me deeply as an unconditional pacifist. I could not even bear to hold a hunting rifle, and declined invitations to go pheasant or deer hunting – even with a bow.
On the surface, despite the perverse logic of more than one historic theologian, I do not believe in “just war” – partly because it is never just war. There are always unintended consequences and residual side-effects. In one way, I believe that Constantine was right when he declined to be baptized until his deathbed. He knew that war and following Jesus are mutually incompatible. Let me give you just a brief review of the context of what is called First Isaiah, chapters 1-39. “The context for this oracle is the difficult period of tensions around the Syro-Ephraimitic war in 733 BCE, when the northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus tried to force Judah and King Ahaz to join their rebellion against Assyria. On Isaiah’s advice, Ahaz refused (in those days rulers sometimes actually listened to prophets); but then, instead of joining the rebel alliance, he called on Assyria to intervene. They did so with devastating impact, eventually leading to the destruction of the Samaria and the end of the northern kingdom in 721. Isaiah objected to this dangerous move by Ahaz, but he was hopeful that the young Hezekiah who would follow Ahaz might be the righteous Davidic ruler long hoped for. ”[i] Do you hear echoes of our modern predicament? On the literal political stage as well as in the metaphorical kingdoms of American politics, these systems of conflict persist.
The peace that Isaiah paints in this allegory known as the Peaceable Kingdom does not jive with reality any more that the mountain of Adonai’s house as the highest mountain on earth. It would absolutely defy the natural order. Thus, it is not meant to be a prediction that suddenly natural predators would begin to coexist without consuming their natural prey. So we could interpret this as an allegory referring to different nations. Some are the wolves, others are the lambs. Some are the leopards, and some are the baby goats. But that picture doesn’t jive with reality either. After all, when it comes to nations, there are usually just a few lions, and many kittens. Some of the kittens grow up to be lions. Others end up as lunch.
A deeper look takes us to the interior realm. I’d guess that you’ve heard the tale about the two wolves.
An old Cherokee is teaching a grandchild about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the child. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – made of anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” The grandparent continued, “The other is good – made of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandchild thought about it for a time and then asked this question. “Which wolf will win?” The Old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The predators and the prey are inside of us. And I’m pretty sure that each of us has at one time been predator, and at another been prey. Just think for a moment about a time when you have been predator, and a time when you have been prey.
If we plumb the depths even further, I am convinced that we come to the reservoir of peace that underlies all beings. The boundary between individual and corporate, between personal and public, between spiritual and physical, between inner and outer, breaks down. That barrier is artificial – if we reach deep enough into the well of the soul, we tap into a common reservoir of being – the depths of God’s love. Beloved, that is where we need to draw our peace in this time of anxiety. Our deepest anxiety comes from the unknown. That’s why we cling so dearly to certainty. But in Jesus Christ, we have already encountered and defeated the ultimate unknown. In our continuous and ongoing baptism, we have died and been raised in the Anointed One. The font is front and center one again. This is not to say that baptism is comfortable or easy – especially not the baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire that John foretells.
Friends, today I am anxious about my friend Kelly Dahman-Oeth, who is at Standing Rock today. Kelly is the pastor of Ronald UMC in Shoreline. He’s anxious too. And right now he’s probably cold and little hungry. But Kelly reports that today he is more alive than he can ever remember being. That reservoir of peace is pouring into his heart that has been broken open by his anxiety for the First Nations people and their land.
I’m also anxious about the next few nights of sub–freezing temperatures. And so, together with other faith communities on the island we are hosting a shelter here in our education wing Monday through Thursday nights. After that we will regroup and see what needs to come next. I’m anxious because there are many unknowns. But we can tap into that deep well of peace and move ahead knowing that God has called us to be in solidarity with the widow, orphan, and stranger – the cold, the hungry, and those who are in the captivity of poverty.
Sometimes I’m anxious about the future of the church. We face great unknown. But it is at times like these when we can singly or collectively respond to the anxiety of the world, drawing from our deep well of peace that I am confident of our significance and future. Who else would respond? Perhaps someone. Who else has the resources? Perhaps others have more. But it is clear to me that we have been called through our relationships, our money, our wellness, our time and place, and most of all our truth, to step in to the stream – into the living waters – into the death and new life of baptism.
Beloved, as much as we would like to, we ought not to be so quick to cast aside our anxiety. In fact, I think Advent is the perfect time to investigate and learn from our anxiety. Anxiety has a role to play in our search for peace – the peace that the Celts called the deep peace of the running wave. God is about to do a new thing. We don’t fully know what or when, and thus we face the unknown. May your Advent be unsettling. Make it shake your foundations. May you know what deeply matters. May it cause you to seek the deeper peace, the peace that is not simply the absence of conflict, but the presence of reconciliation and trust. May you know yourself deeply, so deeply that you tap into that Being that so perfectly express the source of all being – that Being whose peace we know in the birth of a Holy Child.