What are you so afraid of?
This is a question we could ask of our entire culture and everyone in it. People would answer in all kinds of ways: Pain, insecurity, running out of money, etc.
In fact, I’ve noticed that people are usually more than ready to list each of the ten thousand problems that are currently plaguing their life to one degree or another. They recite this litany of sorrows, thinking that if they could only think of ten thousand solutions to go with each one of these ten thousand problems, they would finally be happy. However, I have yet to see anyone come up with such a list and happiness seems to be as elusive as ever in this world.
There was a 20th century philosopher and theologian named Paul Tillich who explored this subject in a very famous book called The Courage to Be. He pointed out that our fears related to each of those ten thousand problems were really just echoes of one deeper, larger problem, which he called anxiety.
According to Tillich, our overall state of anxiety is not related to any of the particular crises that may or may not be taking place in our life right now, but rather to our awareness that it is possible for us to not exist. Each of us is generally aware that there was a time in history when we did not exist, therefore it is entirely possible that there may come another time in the future when we will return to that state of non-existence. The same thing is true of every other person and object in the universe, up to and including the stars and the universe itself. None of these things is essential or necessary. Each of them can either exist or not exist. The philosophical term for this state of affairs is contingency. You, me, and everyone we know are all contingent (as opposed to necessary) beings. If we ceased to exist, the universe could simply keep going without us.
This fact scares us like nothing else. Paul Tillich says that each of our smaller fears is really just a reflection of this deep, inner awareness. If this is the way things are, we think, then what’s the point of it all? Is life just empty and meaningless? This is our human anxiety, which we then project into each of our little fears and problems, thinking that we might be able to cure our overall anxiety if only we can find the solution to our next problem.
This futile problem-solving strategy becomes the source of much of our conflict in the world. In an attempt to look tough and strong in the face of adversity, we hide our anxiety and cover over our fears with the more socially acceptable shroud of anger and outrage. Think of the President of the United States on September 11:
He would have been ridiculed if he had gone on TV and simply said what each of us was feeling that day: “I’m so scared; I don’t know why this happened; this is so horrible; I don’t know what to do!” Anger is more socially acceptable than fear (because it gives the illusion of strength), so the response instead was, “We will not be deterred; we will find these people; we will bomb them; we will kill them.” And his approval ratings shot through the roof.
Anger is more socially acceptable than fear, but it has a cost: the breakdown of social relations. When everyone is covering for their fears with anger, they turn on each other. They fight with one another. Just turn on Fox News or MS-NBC and you can see it happening right there.
If you ever want to know what a person is really afraid of, just pay close attention to what makes them angry. Rage is a cover for fear, which is itself only a projection of our deep, existential anxiety over the fact that it is possible for us to not exist.
St. Paul noticed this tendency in people and he wrote about it in his letter to the Christians at Philippi, which we read from this morning. There was just such a conflict going on in that church, where two people were projecting their anxiety into anger.
Paul names two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who were fighting with each other. The text of Paul’s letter doesn’t tell us exactly what they were fighting about, but as we’ve already seen, that doesn’t really matter so much. The fact is that they were fighting.
And Paul, genius that he was, draws the line of connection between anger and anxiety when, after urging these two Christians to stop fighting and get along, he moves almost immediately to say, “Do not worry about anything.” For Paul, anger and anxiety are two very closely related concepts.
When our relationships break down into endless conflict, what we’re really dealing with is a breakdown in our faith, which is when fear starts to take over. People start acting like wounded animals who have been backed into a corner, which is when they attack.
Paul’s proposed solution, which strikes at the heart of this problem, is prayer. He advises the Philippians, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Prayer is a very misunderstood practice in the modern world. I would even go so far as to say that it is equally misunderstood by religious people and secular people alike. Secular folks tend to disparage it as pointless superstition. “Prayer doesn’t work,” they say, “You might as well be casting magic spells. What we need is measurable, concrete solutions!” And religious folks, like us, tend to get all defensive and come back with, “It does too work!” And we get all these inspirational stories about the miraculous power of prayer that are supposed to “put those atheists in their place.”
But here’s the thing: I think both of those responses ultimately miss the point of what prayer is all about. Prayer is not about getting results. The efficacy of prayer does not depend on us getting or not getting what we pray for. Prayer changes us. Prayer changes our relationship to reality.
My favorite one-sentence definition of prayer comes from our denomination’s constitution, the Presbyterian Book of Order. The Book of Order defines prayer as “the conscious opening of the self to God” (W-5.4001). I love that definition. It reminds me of the line from the hymn: “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love; hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above.”
Prayer is the process of reframing our life, with all its joys and concerns, within the larger context of God.
This kind of prayer, which I believe Paul is talking about, is more than just the occasional outcry in a moment of crisis (i.e. “Oh God, please help me!”). I believe Paul is talking about prayer as a regular discipline and a daily, repetitive practice that works its way into our worldview. Paul says to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
For Paul, it begins and ends with rejoicing. When? “Always” and “Again.”
The contemporary spiritual writer Fr. Richard Rohr says it this way: “Prayer is not one of the ten thousand things in our life; it the lens through which we see those ten thousand things.”
Prayer is not about getting results, as we modern people understand it. However, prayer does produce an effect. What is it, according to Paul?
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The effect of a regular, disciplined prayer life is peace:
Peace in the internal, psychological sense that “guards our hearts and minds.” It allows us to face our ten thousand little problems without that overall, crushing anxiety because we know in our heart of hearts that our life, our existence, rests not upon ourselves, but on that which is infinitely greater than us. Prayer reminds us that we are indeed “leaning on the everlasting arms” and shows to us that “place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God.”
Prayer also produces peace in the external, social sense. In this same passage, Paul says to the Philippians: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
That word “gentleness” in Greek is Epieikesis, which literally means “seeking what is equitable by setting aside the demands of justice.” A better translation might be “forbearance”. It means rising above our “tit for tat” scorecards with each other and living from the place of grace that extends to our neighbors the free mercy that God has already bestowed upon us.
This commitment to peace, which grows out of a regular and disciplined practice of prayer, is what has the power to break the endless cycles of anger and violence. We no longer have to attack each other like cornered, wounded animals. Instead, we now have the power to become veterinarians for our neighbors’ inner beasts. We can say to them (even if their animal nature cannot understand us), “It’s okay, I’m here to help.” A regular, disciplined prayer life gives us the spiritual strength to do this well.
The monks and nuns of the Benedictine tradition have lived this truth better than anyone. Their first call is to a life of prayer. As a fringe benefit, they also happened to save civilization in western Europe for almost a thousand years during the so-called “dark ages”.
In a time of bubonic plague and civil unrest, it was the monasteries that became known as places of safety where hospitality, education, healthcare, art, and culture could be preserved. They were (and are) of great service to their communities, but “Job #1” for them was always prayer.
I wonder what effect it might have on our communities today if we Christians were to commit ourselves to the same kind of regular, disciplined prayer?