Silence, Anxiety, and my Dad, a sermon preached for Epiphany 8

We are not a people easily given to silence. We are an anxious people, full of action physical and mental. Silence, for us, has to be learned. We are called “human beings,” but sometimes “human beings” functions more as an aspirational statement. Jon Kabat Zinn, a professor of medicine and teacher of meditation more accurately describes most of us as “human doings.” Being still. Silence. Just being, for us isn’t easy.

My Father can attest to this. My parents live in Denver Colorado, where my dad practices law, and my mother is a priest. Years ago now, my mom took a group of parishioners to a conference on Christian meditation, and dad came along. They sat for a session of silent meditation, led by the world famous contemplative monk Thomas Keating. After a few minutes a horrified look came across my mother’s face…you see my dad is an epic snorer. He had closed his eyes in contemplation and drifted off. They laugh about it now, and Thomas Keating would not have been upset. He teaches that falling asleep in meditation is perfectly okay. Silence does not come easily to us.

My Dad being "contemplative" with a beer at Sunset on Roatan
My Dad being "contemplative" with a beer at Sunset on Roatan

When it does come, it can be such a break from our constant mental processing that our body will simply fall asleep, like my dad did. The truth is, we are an anxious people. And friends, we live in an anxious city. Moving here from California was a major mind shift. So many of my friends in DC work 60 hour work weeks, and still feel like they don’t get enough done. For so many of my peers, the district is where you come to prove yourself. DC is a town of striving. Outside of WallStreet, I can’t think of another area code where so much is at stake for so many people at any given time.

So understandably, Washington is an anxious place. And today we have “don’t worry be happy” Jesus. The Gospel for this morning is our last from the sermon on the mount. Jesus paints several lovely word pictures, which if you are at all like me, are a little irritating. I don’t know about you, but if I am in one of my anxious moods, if I’m in that place of anxiety, the last thing I want is for someone to tell me: “consider the lilies of the field.” I am not liable to respond well. If someone tells me to look at the birds or consider the lilies, silence will not come easily.

Jesus’ examples probably worked the first time, but centuries later they have been used in ways that are trite. Their meaning comes in the final verse. Jesus tells us not to worry. Well, in the translation we have in our bulletins he says not to worry. We’re reading from the New Revised Standard Version, but for this verse I want to read you the Old Revised Standard Version: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” I prefer this translation to the NRSV, which tells us that “tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” If I’m anxious, hearing that tomorrow will bring more worries isn’t helpful, Jesus. Luckily that’s not what he said. The Old Revised Standard Version is closer to the Greek: Jesus says “tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” This is Zen Jesus, giving us reassurance through poetic language, we have to ponder what tomorrow being anxious for itself looks like, but this takes the anxiety off of our shoulders.

Additionally in the translation the distinction between “being anxious” and “worrying” seems important. Worry is more specific. I worry when I have something to worry about: a grade on a test, a friend who is having an operation, Worry tends to have a specific end point. Being anxious doesn’t. Anxiety has a certain constancy to it. The Buddhists, who spend a lot of time trying to quiet their brains, call this “monkey mind.” I can work something over and over again, like a canker sore that you can’t stop bothering with your tongue. “Being anxious” is a state. Getting my mind to quiet down, to go to a place of silence, does not come naturally.

For some of us anxiety is a medical condition, that requires medical care. The anxiety I’m talking about, and that I think Jesus is talking about, everyday anxiousness, seems one of the most common frustrations of modern life. And, not surprisingly, there is insight from Jesus about the source of this anxiousness. Our Gospel begins this morning: “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth.” For Jesus, the question here is about idolatry. David Foster Wallace, sort of a post-modern literary genius, gave the commencement address at Kenyon College a few years ago, and put the same idea this way:

“here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

Foster Wallace goes on to list several other things that people in our day worship. Power, intellect, the list goes on. He finishes with this sentence: “the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.” Jesus and David Foster Wallace both tell us that, unconsciously, we don’t allow God to be God. Our society shapes us to grasp after wealth, or power, or beauty. We build up a lot of energy, a lot of mental processing, a lot of anxiety, searching after status and things. We end up striving to achieve some image of success, we end up anxious. When we encounter the real living God, the only response is awed silence: to be still, and know that God is God.

Being still may not be what comes to mind first when we’re baptizing squirming infants. But baptizing babies this morning teaches us something about that still silent knowledge. There is beauty in adults making a statement of faith. But we still baptize infants as well. Babies are incapable of saying yes to our questions, but we baptize them anyway. It is a reminder that God does not need our intellectual assent to be God. When we carry children to the waters of baptism, we plunge them into the mystery of a community shaped by death. Paul says so much in his letters to Romans: “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” Paul goes on to say that baptism is about allowing our old sinful selves to die, about rising to new life with Christ.

It strikes me that so much of the work of Christianity involves letting our selves die to our desire for money, power, control, prestige. Living as the Baptized involves dying to all of those wonderfully quantifiable measures of success in our world. Christian exercises in meditation and contemplation are about letting go of all of those thoughts that over-occupy our mind. Beyond all of that worry and anxiety, beyond that desire for us to control, in the silence that comes, we find God. If we are able to let our own grasping stop, we are set free to seek the Kingdom.

We are in the build-up now to Lent, that season where Christians get very serious. If you are looking for a Lenten discipline, I want to commend to you any of the spiritual exercises that help calm and quiet the mind: Christian Meditation, Centering Prayer, even Zen meditation. I do so with the caveat that it is easy to make our spiritual practice into one more thing to be anxious over, so remember those lilies. Any practice that helps us give ourselves to silence, should be freeing rather than another “to-do” item. There is a definite connection between Christian contemplation and the Christian practice of sabbath. If you are going to add meditation to your plate for Lent, be sure it is as a way of letting go rather than adding to your anxiety.

I can report that there is something to silence. Not so much from my own life, I am still a struggling student in the school of silence. I told a story earlier on my Dad, so it is only fair I finish with another. I admit to being an anxious person, and if you were to tell me that anxiety was an inherited trait, I would believe you. My early memories of my dad are of a very preoccupied person. It makes sense, he was building a law practice. He was also improvising the art of parenting (his own mom and dad had died when he was young). And my father was often anxious. Dad may not have been able to sit through meditation with Thomas Keating, but he found another teacher of the contemplative way. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, and about a decade ago my dad went on one of his retreats. Since then dad has become a bit of a mystic. A couple of years ago when the economy was at its worst, it became clear that the law practice my father had spent so much anxious energy building was going to shrink drastically, if not close entirely. The man I knew when I was a boy would have been a wreck, angry and frustrated. His anxiety would have passed around to all of the family members, this is anxiety’s wont. When I talked to my dad about how things were at the firm, I was amazed. He could laugh at himself, and he took the whole process lightly. His biggest concern was helping his employees search for other jobs.

Dad kept quoting Julian of Norwich, the 15th century English Saint. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” My father had allowed all of the anxious energy that occupied him to die, he had let go. My father had ventured into silence, and the God he encountered in silence left him changed.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

2 thoughts on “Silence, Anxiety, and my Dad, a sermon preached for Epiphany 8

  1. Michael,
    I must admit that I learn so much about God, Greek, you and others I. Our family when I read your sermons!

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