Finding Calm in an Anxious Church
Readings are Revelations 4 available here and Luke 8:22-25 available here.
Given at Lancaster Priory
Nearly 20 years ago now, I had just finished school and was living in South Africa, where I worked in a posh private school in Johannesburg, helping out in their chapel and teaching Divinity, RE as we call it here and, this may surprise you given my athletic physique, PE of all things. In the holidays, being daft and young I decided to go and hike in the Drakensburg mountains with my friend Ryan. We walked under the looming Cathedral peak over the course of 3 days. All we had was 3 loaves of bread, dried noodles and a couple of litres of water. Ryan forgot the cooking gear so a diet of dried noodles and bread that was increasingly stale was all we ate. Thank goodness we found streams to refill our bottle at. While camping on the mountain, we found leopard prints outside our tent in the morning and a bush fire could be seen burning nearby. My sons really don’t know how lucky they are to exist. But full of the invincibility of youth we enjoyed our hike. The Drakensburg mountains are simply glorious. Cloudless days with the deep azure sky above that somehow is so much bigger in Africa looming over the mountains and the beautiful grasslands of southern Africa in a riot of colour and contrast. We were so high in the mountains I remember watching in the early morning the eagles circling on thermals except that I was looking down on them as they rose to our height, looking for prey.
The most dangerous moment came when we were descending back to the hotel at the foot of the mountains where we had left the car. The path took us down along a ridge of the mountain that slowly descended to the plain. On the left was a near vertical drop and on the right was another near vertical drop down to deep valleys with little streams playing through them. As is true in many mountainous regions, the weather is particularly unpredictable and a sudden gale arose, literally it was calm one minute and the next it most certainly wasn’t. To stay on the path, in the gale, we were forced to lean over the edge of the precipice and lean into the wind. We knew that if the wind stopped as suddenly as it started we were going down the mountain the quick way. This wasn’t a danger that either of us had engineered through idiocy or poor planning, like many of the other dangers we had experienced. This was a danger we suddenly had to face and we were pretty anxious as we descended to the bottom. That hour of careful descent was a moment of profound anxiety for me. We all face anxiety at some point don’t we? Times of danger or worry, not of our own design but just situations we can find ourselves in. You will have times in your own life too, no doubt where anxiety has been a major part of your story for a bit and perhaps continues today. For most, although not all, and I speak from personal experience here, anxiety should be a fleeting experience.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that is habitually anxious all the time. In a world dominated by 24-hour news coverage, news full of things to be afraid of or fear, people become anxious. We live in a world where social media allows anxious minds to spread fear and offer false cure all’s or snake oil, a place where people make up their own truths to comfort their own fears, where lies spread faster than ever before in human history. We live in an anxious world where the storms of life seem ever present and as soon as one fear subsides, the next, the next is right there on our screens, blaring over the radio, splurged over the print. In a recent study from 2020, it was found that incidents of generalised anxiety among young people had trebled since 2008, with something like 30% of young adults having generalised anxiety in some form or other. As a former sufferer of generalised anxiety disorder, I can vouch for its awfulness, and I sure some of you who have suffered panic attacks or anxiety will know what I mean. When suffering from anxiety, our world closes in, we cannot see the wood for the trees and our ability to make good choices is hampered. We are living in a world that worries perhaps more than it has ever done in the past and people are getting sick. The church is not immune to this prevalence of anxiety either.
In the church anxiety of how to pay the bills, or aging congregations, or crumbling buildings is rampant. As a fairly new priest in the church of England who was only called to this ministry some 11 years ago, I have never known anything else but a church that was anxious in some way and I suspect this anxiety goes back further.
This anxiety, at least it seems to me, manifests itself at all levels from the local to the national, although it has been a delight to come to a diocese where this is very much less true. Anxiety stalks the hallowed halls of our churches, it prowls within our communities and poisons our personal lives. Like I experienced in my descent from Cathedral Peak in South Africa, many of us, either corporately or individually experience anxiety, the only difference is now our descent never ends, we never reach safety and anxiety becomes a lifestyle rather than a response to a dangerous situation.
In our gospel reading we see the disciples facing a similar situation. The wind, rising from the mountains that surround the sea of Galilee, whips up a storm, and dare I say most of us can imagine what a storm is like given the last week, and they begin to take on water, among the wind-swept sea. Notice that it is clear that they are actually in danger, we are told so in verse 23 plainly. When Jesus rebukes them it isn’t because they were not in danger. A disciple wakes Jesus, full of anxiety and Jesus calms the storm, He stops the waves, He brings peace. Afterwards He turns to them and simply says ‘where is your faith?’ I always wonder and we can’t know, but wouldn’t be surprised, if Jesus went and got comfortable again and went back to sleep. The disciples, afraid and amazed wonder ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’
The disciples are rebuked, and so clearly have got something wrong. What should they have done? I mean, clearly, they were in danger, most of these fellas were fishermen so they would have known the signs. Why then does Jesus rebuke the disciples? It seems to me eminently sensible to wake everyone up to help bail the boat if nothing else. Why the rebuke? Because in their anxiety they are screaming about the problem, not praying for the solution. Their anxiety has led to a place lacking in faith. We can see this perhaps more clearly in Mark’s account of this miracle when the disciples say “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown? Anxiety rules among the disciples.
How often do we do this? Many of you have been in churches longer than me, and will not be surprised to hear that in one church where I was on placement, the congregation where fighting, leaving and splitting over the use of an old metal tea pot. Seriously. Of course, what was really happening had nothing to do with the tea pot and all to do with that congregation’s anxiety over their future, falling numbers and changes, spilling out onto their chosen battleground around a blinking teapot. Instead of praying together faithfully, living in faith, the people were imploding under the weight of anxiety. The disciples are rebuked, not because of the danger they faced, but because of how they responded to that danger. We will face dangers, but we are invited to face those dangers as Christ’s family here on earth in faith.
It is with faith that Esther approaches King Xerxes. It is with faith that David approaches Goliath. It is with faith that the Paul and Silas sing hymns when imprisoned. It is with faith that Stephen sees heaven opened as he becomes the first martyr. It is with faith the disciples face their executions. It is with faith that the saints of old have faced danger some escaped, some experienced. It is with faith that Wesley preached before the people in Bristol. It is with faith that Mother Teresa brought dignity to the dying. It is with faith that individuals and churches do that extraordinary ordinary thing of being a witness to Christ in our land daily. And without faith we cannot hope to face the dangers, real or imagined that we face individually or corporately today as community or as church. That faith doesn’t remove anxiety but that faith allowed us to face whatever causes our anxiety knowing the God is with us and the great gift of Christ crucified guarantees us victory. My friends we play with loaded dice, and one day we will see that picture of heaven we hear in Revelations. Do we have the faith to believe that? Where is our faith?
That question is ‘where is our faith?’ is one that I think is central to ourselves and our church. When we are in the midst of anxiety and destruction and danger and failure where do we turn?
Our answer, surely must be to trust God in faith. It is worth asking that question again and again, ‘Am I, are we putting our faith first in Christ? Do we really believe He can calm the storm we face, whatever that is? Do we trust Him really? When it counts, when He feels distant, when disaster looms will we panic and crumble or in defiance to insurmountable odds do we sing a hymn of praise, standing tall, with the Holy Spirit in our hearts trusting completely in God to do His will whatever that may be? Do we know where our faith is?
I pray for a church that has faith to move mountains. I pray for individuals to have faith as large as a mustard seed. I pray for communities to be lit by the unstoppable faith of Christians standing against the howling winds of worry, darkness and oppression in this world as lights on a lamp stand. Our role, it seems to me, is to stand in that counter cultural place in defiance of the storms of the world and point to the calm and the peace that Jesus brings, in faith and with courage knowing that one day calm will come, the only place where faith hope and love truly can be found, the only place where we find salvation from our broken world. In my experience, when we are living in faith, God surprises us and instead of trying to dig ourselves out of what ever danger we are in, we are rushing to respond to the blessing God is bestowing. Running after what God is already doing is a seriously wonderful place to be. It is in that place of faith that we will often see miracles.
We all will face anxiety individually or corporately. Some of anxieties will come to pass, some will never happen, and other dangers we couldn’t have imagine will surprise us. Storms will happen. What we can do is decide how we respond. If we can have the faith to trust God, to love our neighbour to love one another, to preach the good news, feed the poor, welcome the outcast, provide for the refugee despite our anxiety by having faith in God not only am I convinced will we see miracles we couldn’t imagine but we will also be running to keep up with the God who calms. Can we let our anxiety take a back seat so that God can bring calm to us, the church and the world? It seems to me that is exactly the kind of miracle that our world needs right now. Amen