Be anxious for nothing, 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. (Philippians 4:6-7, NASB)
I’ve always admired those Christians who remain positive through the toughest of times. You know the ones. Their faith seems never to waver, their demeanor beams positivity, and they express gratitude as naturally as a New Yorker says “How ya doin’?”
It may not be fair to say I admire them. I envy them. The social scientists tell us their positivity is likely genetic. Most character traits are, and some people gravitate toward radiance and gratitude. In moments of envy, I just tell myself they’re lucky.
And there are those Christians who put on the brave face, but the lack of authenticity oozes through. Greeted in the morning, they’ll say, “I’m blessed,” while their energy communicates they are beset by life. Some church traditions enforce positivity; they interpret grief and anxiety as a lack of faith. These theologies shame people for expressing their true pain, so they “fake it till they make it.”
I came to Jesus during my high school years through the ministry of a healthy Southern Baptist church. We memorized Bible passages. I learned Philippians 4:6-7 in the New American Standard translation, quoted above, and I held it as a promise for challenging times. If I could just turn to God in prayer, sprinkling in a measure of gratitude, I would experience peace.
Friends, we are living in challenging times. If you’re reading the news, you’re seeing the worst COVID-19 numbers we’ve yet encountered — and we’re eight months into the pandemic. If you’re on social media, you’re getting a little weepy from the testimonies of nurses and doctors who face patient deaths multiple times a day and bear the news to distraught family members.
A lot is being asked of us. Thanksgiving approaches, but we’re told not to gather. The days are shorter, the opportunities for outdoor recreation diminish, and we’re told to hunker down in our homes. No grand Thanksgiving celebrations. No over the river and through the woods for Christmas. That means no big family gatherings. That’s if we’re fortunate. Others are combining their daily work with new careers as educators to their children. Or they’ve lost their jobs, and they don’t know the path forward. Or they’ve been directly affected by Covid. We’re being asked to sacrifice, to hold out and hang on in the face of the unknown.
We are likely anxious. Is Paul, well, full of it?
Part of the answer depends on our native spiritualities. How we experience God is a very personal thing, but it’s shaped by our social experiences. Some of us were formed in warm, pietistic traditions where we feel the daily presence of Jesus as a personal companion. We draw on that experience in hard times. It’s remarkable how quickly we recognize companions who share that same capacity. Others are shaped by liturgy, experiencing the sacred presence in patterns of prayer and worship.
Most of the time, I feed off the Jesus-and-me spirituality of my youth and a genetically sunny disposition. On scorching August days in Alabama, we all dreaded high school football practice. As we stretched, I’d call out, “It’s a sun-shiny day!” I can still hear Scottie Sharper reply above the groaning, “Shut up, Greg!” I couldn’t see him, but I’m sure I’d made him smile just the same.
Scottie died of Covid this spring. I miss knowing that he was in the world.
Not everyone has that sunny disposition. And I know what it is to lose it. The details are personal, but I went through an extremely challenging few years in my forties. That sense of Jesus’ close presence felt galaxies away. Gratitude was elusive. I’d distract myself most any way I could.
During that period, I learned to listen to Paul again. Paul wrote Philippians from prison. The Romans didn’t put you in prison for, say, three months because you’d violated a law. They put you in prison to frighten you or because they didn’t want you out and about. As Paul writes, he has no idea whether he’ll ever leave prison alive, and he meditates on the likelihood of his death. I recommend we all read Paul’s reflection on his situation in Philippians 1:18-26.
I reconnected with Paul not directly but sideways, through practices of meditation. One meditation exercise has stuck with me — I do not remember where I encountered it. But the prompt involved sitting quietly and mindfully, then occasionally allowing a small smile to cross my face. It seemed silly, inauthentic. But sure enough, that meditation transformed my mood that one day, and I’ve returned to it many times since. I even use it on morning runs. Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, I allow that same smile to cross my face, and I do better.
It can make a difference to reconnect with our faith by “letting our requests be made known to God,” with prayer and thanksgiving. It’s no magic pill. I would never minimize the very real effects of personal distress or mental illness. Nevertheless, Paul reminds us that we have many things for which to express gratitude. And when we open ourselves to God in that process, a measure of peace often comes. How we need that peace today.
More than a year ago, a doctor shared some news I didn’t want to hear. There’s a good chance I won’t live as long as I tended to assume. None of us is guaranteed anything, but to put it mildly I was shook. I still don’t like it. Most of my friends still don’t know. I don’t mean to overstate things. I’m fine. I feel great. But I’ve made some changes. I now carry my phone and contact information on my morning run in case something happens — that routine makes one think twice about mortality.
I wasn’t feeling particularly good on a recent run, and somehow my mind slipped into gratitude. I remembered rich experiences from childhood, especially the people who bathed me in love. I recalled similar moments related to my children, my grandson, my wife, and my friends, along with the gratification of a most rewarding career. The journey I’ve experienced with God came through, too. I wonder how I didn’t trip or run into a mailbox, my mind wandered so much. I was filled with a sense of gratitude that still sustains me. And you know what? As Dr. King said at a very particular moment, “It’s all right with me now.” I will forget from time to time, but it’s all right.
Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary and an active layperson in the United Church of Christ. His books include studies of apocalyptic literature, the parables, the Gospel of Luke, and the ethics of biblical interpretation. His most recent books are Stories Jesus Told: How to Read a Parable and Using Our Outside Voice: Public Biblical Interpretation. In addition to serving on multiple editorial boards, Greg chairs the Professional Conduct Committee of the Society of Biblical Literature and serves on the Leadership Team of the Open and Affirming Coalition of the United Church of Christ.
Facebook | @gregc666
Twitter | @Greg_Carey
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