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Do People on Their Knees Still Bite Their Nails?

October 10, 2011

“Do People on Their Knees Still Bite Their Nails?” Philippians 4:(1-3)4-9 © 10/9/11 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In all twenty-three seasons of “The Simpsons,” I have seen only one episode. In it, perennial problem child Bart has just found out that if he can’t pass his exam in American history, he will be held back and must repeat the fourth grade. The hours spent in front of the TV instead of with books have borne the expected fruit: a dismal academic record. Faking will not work any longer; Bart is indeed in a crisis.

Cheating backfires on him, so Bart decides of all things to try to study. When that bores him to sleep, he gets the school brain to help him in return for teaching the nerd, the dork, how to be popular. Even that turns out wrong. Finally, in desperation, Bart is on his knees in his room, begging God for help, anything to give just one more day to study. Bart’s sister is looking on. Her comment: “Prayer—the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

No doubt that little girl was right. When all else fails, goes the common wisdom, try prayer. Some years ago, a prominent national figure spoke of “resorting to prayer.” We routinely hear people say when they are out of answers: “All we can do now is pray.” In other words, exhaust every possible avenue, scheme, strategy, and trick, then when it becomes clear nothing we do will make a difference, call on divine help for a miracle.

Paul would insist that such an approach is completely wrong-headed. Prayer is not a desperate, last-ditch attempt to get a favor from God. It’s a way of living, an attitude, an essential link with God. It’s life “in Christ,” “in the Lord.” “In everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God….” Prayer is for good times and bad, for the daily grind as well as the crisis, for the saint living faithfully as well as the scoundrel in trouble.

The apostle is particularly interested in how prayer can bring peace in the midst of anxiety. Our ears prick up like a dog listening to a sound. We’re interested, because we experience fear, anxiety, and worry. Those are words we hear all the time these days in the midst of the nation’s continuing unemployment and fiscal woes.

Anxiety can keep us from action, wreck our health and dominate our lives. Having said that, of course we know that some kinds of fear are good. For example, long ago the adults here learned to have respect for the hot stove or the busy street. Don’t put your hand on the burner; look both ways before crossing. We are rightly apprehensive about walking alone down a dark alley at night in a crime-ridden neighborhood. The college student is wise to trust her or his instincts about a potentially compromising situation at a party and get out of there fast. A project with a close deadline at work has us working a little harder, out of worry that not finishing on time may have an adverse effect on our future employment. A man or woman afraid of getting caught doing something immoral or unethical may be restrained by such fear from doing the deed. Even the hero in battle is not free from fear. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer” (The Sun, April 2005: 48). To be afraid of real dangers or to care about genuine concerns is one mark of a sensitive, alert, healthy person.

Yet, as I said, there is that sort of fear that threatens to unravel the very fabric of our being, that keeps us from being whole. It gnaws at our insides like some awful insatiable rodent. It controls our every waking moment, even invades our sleep, coming to us in our dreams, or should I say, our nightmares.

I once heard the story of a woman who experienced a great many personal difficulties: divorce, illness, changes in her company which made her position insecure. She became obsessed with the possibility of losing her job. Ironically, in the process her performance and judgment suffered and worsened. She consulted colleagues on every small detail of her work and couldn’t make decisions on her own. Her fear actually brought about the very thing she dreaded. We call that a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Or say there’s an elderly man who was always busy with many projects. He could figure out anything and was extremely versatile. Now he suffers from dementia, and has lost his ability to solve problems, even remember and do everyday tasks. So he is always asking his caregivers, at times obsessively: “What’s next? Am I doing what I’m supposed to do?” He is not responsible for his anxiety, given his condition, but still it robs him of enjoyment and relaxation.

We could think of other all too real examples. The teen afraid of being unpopular or saying or doing something un-cool may withdraw from social contacts, and thus assure that relationships never develop. He or she may act out anxiety in some antisocial, even violent, manner. The possessive parent afraid of losing the affection and/or respect of a child may actually cling too tightly and bring on ill feelings and resentment. The man anxious over the approach of middle age and the end of young adulthood may try to recover lost vitality in one of the ways that have become a cliché. Fear is a magnet, drawing to us what we are afraid of. Fear is a black hole, sucking away our energy and preventing us from being the light of the world.

There are a number of ways to deal with our anxiety. For example, there is an old song by a singer called Bobby McFerrin. You may remember it; it was tremendously popular in its day. “Don’t worry; be happy,” McFerrin advised his listeners to a nice reggae beat. And people lapped it up, hungry for some way to deal with the chaos of their lives. The number of copies sold was testimony to how many people, including preachers, would like to find freedom from concern, kick back with a cold beverage, and let the day take care of itself. This strategy might be summed up this way: if we pretend long enough that we don’t have troubles, maybe they will in fact magically disappear. “Don’t worry; be happy.”

A second approach is similar. We can insulate ourselves from the world, stick our heads in the sand, ostrich-like. I once read of a clergyperson back in the day who cancelled his subscription to a newspaper because the stories of war, crime, power games, and political manipulation disturbed his meditation. That’s a far cry from Karl Barth’s idea that preaching is about having the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other! So, according to this way of dealing with anxiety, we can turn off the TV or at least never watch CNN of Fox, only sitcoms and “reality shows.” We can cancel our Internet service or go online only to shop, not to catch up on news. We can never go out unless we have to, avoid all but essential business and social contacts, and never interact with anyone who might upset us. In other words, practice what the late singer Warren Zevon once termed “splendid isolation.”

But consider. Can we really render ourselves invulnerable, build a wall around our souls, defend ourselves against the world? How much energy does it take to do that? To borrow language from science fiction, how long can we keep the force field up around us before we are drained of life itself? How long can we hide from the sometimes painful, horrible reality of our nation and world, with their crises, corruption, greed, and war?

But if we can’t simply wish troubles away or go hide from them, what are we to do with our fear? How about this? “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer…let your requests be known to God.” Such an idea would sound like more Bobby McFerrin if it did not come from Paul with all his battle scars. You recall his experiences: hardships, shipwreck, hunger, stoning, rejection, emotional pain, some debilitating condition that may have been epilepsy or poor eyesight or both. Now he was sitting in prison probably awaiting execution. So when he says not to worry, Paul knows that’s not easy. It was the advice of someone who had taken some of the worst the world could dish out.

Paul saw Christian faith as lived in the thick of things. It’s not an escape. So, if prayer takes us out of the world for a time, it is only so we can go back to the world with courage to face our own anxiety and help our neighbors with their fears as well.

Prayer is a way of becoming focused for mission. We are given power for living. Paul called on the church in Philippi, he asks you and me, to shift the focus of our lives. Our usual way of acting is to try to protect ourselves, to defend what is ours, to grab for all we can to try to satisfy some longing inside. But instead of that, the apostle is asking us to pray and to live with joy and thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is at root the admission that our lives are a gift. Every moment comes from our Creator. We don’t belong to ourselves, we don’t make ourselves, we can’t ultimately control our own destinies. There is another who takes care of us, supports us, has given us gifts beyond imagining.

So we don’t obsess over what we can do, how we can defend ourselves, ensure our safety, and protect our nest egg. Instead, we give over our hearts and heads and hands to God , and what he can and will do and is doing. Rather than running around here and there seeking easy solutions and bailouts, Paul insisted that the Philippians be centered “in the Lord.” That they stand firm “in the Lord.” Rejoice “in the Lord.” Find peace and security “in the Lord.” Instead of trying to create an insulated, isolated space above the world, as the false teachers of the day urged, let these fractured, frightened, frazzled people trust “in the Lord,” whose peace went as an escort with them on the hard journey, the harsh pilgrimage. God’s peace, not something they conjured or created, not a weapon of their own design, God’s peace, would stand guard on their hearts and minds.

When we pray, then, we ask not so much to have our fears removed as to have courage to launch into action in spite of our fears. We call on God to help us remember whom we trust to secure our existence. We beseech God to grant us faith in himself as Guardian and Defender. Prayer sustains this relationship with the One who is guiding the future as he has the past, and as he does the present. Anxiety tells us the lie that we are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past, that things are going to go wrong, that tomorrow is a threat and a burden. The faith that comes from prayer helps us to see that the future has a smile on its face. It’s open, and promising. This is not a rosy, shallow optimism nor does it deny that suffering is real and may come. Instead, it’s the assurance that we are not alone. We know who is with us. We become settled and satisfied in God, who has acted for us—imagine that, for us—in Christ!

Maybe even Bart Simpson, the cartoon kid, discovered a little of that graciousness of God in his last ditch attempt to pass the fourth grade, a little of the power of the one who is “bigger than Mom and Dad put together,” a little of the promise of an open future. The next day, it snowed.

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