Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
One of the most common commands throughout the Bible is, ‘do not be afraid.’ It appears in all sorts of situations where fear is the logical response to the circumstances; outnumbered by foreign armies, overwhelmed by storms, stretched beyond your psychological capacity, threatened with imminent death. Angels said it to shepherds on hillsides confronted with overwhelming spiritual reality. All situations where fear was instinctive, where the reflex to self-preservation becomes overwhelming.
Fear and anxiety are an epidemic in our culture at this time of COVID. This low-grade anxiety has economic, social and environmental aspects. Back in the 90’s, long before social media, the therapist and Rabbi Edwin Friedman described five features of western culture, that were just discernible then, but now glaringly obvious. He noted a reactivity to external events. By this he meant an emotionally driven response, rather than a rational one. Social media makes its money pandering to this. I made the mistake of looking up an article about the American election on YouTube the other day, and now I can’t escape a constant stream of fairly left-wing political commentary every time I turn on my computer. All this fosters an anxiety as these posts are not neutral. It’s easy to see how people can disappear down a rabbit hole of emotionally driven polemic promoting fear of the other. Although we pride ourselves in our individuality, the flip side of which is an epidemic of loneliness, we are instinctively herd animals who love to belong. The attraction of gangs to young people in some of our inner cities is all about belonging. It manifests in adults as well, just in more socially acceptable ways.
Thirdly he identified blame displacement. Instead of reflecting on our own agency and responsibility, there is a tendency to blame others for our misfortunes. You see that all the time in organisations in decline. Even in the Church we are prone to ask, “whose fault is it?” Don’t worry though, Bishops are paid for it to be ours!
Fourthly, he talks about a quick-fix mentality and corresponding low levels of resilience and perseverance. We seem peculiarly vulnerable as a culture to believ in simplistic solutions to complex problems. It explains something of the popularity of ridiculous conspiracy theories. Finally, he criticises what he calls undifferentiated leadership. By which he meant leaders who don’t have very clear emotional boundaries between themselves and the people they lead. Decisions are made on the basis of who shouts the loudest; the popular triumphs over the right every time. We see this perceptive five-fold analysis: reactivity, herd mentality, blame displacement, quick fix and undifferentiated leadership playing out in many areas of contemporary life.
Forgive the sociological reflection, but this sort of analysis is helpful. Culture is simply ‘the way we do things around here.’ Its the water in which we swim and we can easily be either oblivious to it or accept these things are normal. It leads me to consider how we as a church should respond to this. What does, ‘do not be afraid’ look like in our context. Friedman coined the phrase ‘non-anxious presence’ to describe how leaders and communities can counter this destructive pattern of relating to each other.
Jesus was always a non-anxious presence. He had enough margin always to welcome interruptions with love. He operated from a place of sabbath rest. He valued deep relationships and vulnerable, authentic friendships. He prayed – a lot, and ministered out of that place of relationship with God.
One of the things the government didn’t understand about this lockdown is that we Christians too move into the world purposefully from a place of prayer. The opposite of contemplative prayer isn’t action, its reaction. Finally, he demonstrated the quality of indifference, in the sense that it’s used in the Book of Common Prayer’s set intercessions. His decisions and actions were completely divorced from the needs of his ego. He was always motivated by love in its purest sense – the right thing in the service of another. St. Ignatius called it detachment, learning that we don’t need to control other people or events for our lives to be happy.
He said this,
“We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.”
As we draw nearer to God this Advent may we, individually and corporately, learn to be a non-anxious presence, drawing people to the God of peace. Do not be afraid, because the only real definition of anxiety is a future without Jesus in it, and we follow Immanuel: God with us, always, now and into eternity.