Worry is a difficult and unpleasant companion.
Sometimes, worry originates when our brain chemistry gets off-kilter, anxiety, fretting and insomnia take on a life of their own, and therapeutic intervention is required. But often, worry has an origin you can identify, arising in a time of uncertainty, when we have just enough information to stimulate the fight, flight or freeze instincts and with worry. Sometimes we worry about ourselves – a lingering cough, a strange ache, a long wait for test results – and sometimes the worry is about people in our circle of connection: people dealing with illness or job loss, struggling with life or relationship transitions, hammered by addictions. Sometimes, a bit of additional information – or a pathway to do something productive – will release the worry, but other times we just ride it out until the situation resolves.
The Apostle Paul, writing to Christian friends in Thessalonica, has heard that a number of them are worried. They had believed, as many early Christians did, that Christ was going to return, soon, to lift believers up to the eternal realm. Problem is, twenty years had passed, and some in their community had died. What did this mean? Was this a punishment of some sort? Was it simply a matter of terrible timing? Had they missed out on being raised with Christ? While these worries might seem simplistic or naïve, if one was that close to the Jesus experience, I imagine your hopes would be immediately present to you, and when things didn’t work out as you had expected, it would be heart-rending.
I find myself less drawn to the details of Paul’s answer to these worried Thessalonians, than I am to the shape of his response. The details of his response reflect a top-down, striated picture of heaven and earth that has little resonance for me – but the shape of his response basically says this: “of course you are worried about the beloved departed, that’s what we do when we love someone. And into that worry, hear this: the presence of Christ Jesus is trustworthy, now, and always. In your life now and in life beyond life, count on the love of God in Christ to endure, always.” He hears the weight of their anguish, and he connects their distress to the never-ending love of Christ. It may not be exactly the way I wish he had answered them, but Paul gives a meaningful pastoral answer to a group that was carrying great worry.
Recently, I’ve seen a couple of Facebook memes saying something like, “you think 2020 restrictions are rough? Try 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.” Almost immediately, someone will quite rightly point out that it’s rarely helpful to compare who’s got the worst basket of woes, but I think there’s something here worth paying attention to. Right now, here and in many nations, there is a lot of worry: about COVID itself, about loneliness as the days shorten and the temperature falls and additional contact restrictions seem inevitable, worries about a US Election that might be fully resolved as early as 2024, worries about the economy and the environment and, well, lots of things. The hardships endured in other times and places does not dismiss the legitimacy of these present concerns.
But Remembrance Sunday, and Remembrance Day this Wednesday, do give us an opportunity to reconnect to another time when there was a long-lasting, wide-spread sense of alarm. I’ve not lived through a war, so I rely on the stories of others: stories here in Canmore about making do, one family having an icebox, one family having a car, another family having a phone, a few people doing their best to grow a “victory garden” in our stellar, 56-day growing season. Rationing of sugar, coffee, tea, butter, meat. Watching that your teenagers and breadwinners would volunteer to join the war effort”, then longing for letters from them to know they were still safe. I have heard the stories of those who lived closer to the action, in continental Europe or the UK – a Dutch friend of my parents’ describing how his family stayed alive eating tulip bulbs, British acquaintances talking about air raid sirens and taking shelter down in the tube stations. A Cree gentleman told me of going off to war and for the first time feeling that “being Canadian” was one unified thing, then coming home afterward and dealing with the same old two-solitude reality as before. He dealt with that by entering the Anglican Priesthood, and spending his career attempting to bridge the gap between settler and indigenous lives. And every Remembrance Day, I cannot help but recall the story of a woman in Saskatchewan whose husband, an RAF pilot, went missing in action in 1944. Forty five years later, I asked her how she had resolved that uncertainty. She paused, and looked at me and softly said: “there isn’t a day go by that I don’t expect him to walk through that door.”
We hear the sum total of these wartime stories and recognize in them varying levels of resilience, and a variety of coping skills that helped people get through to the other side. Much like our COVID experience, the price was not paid evenly by all, yet there is a sense of commonly held upset and uncertainty, a unifying experience that none of us would choose if the choice was ours to make.
While acknowledging the complexity of these difficult situations, and the diversity of human response to an ongoing state of alarm, I turn once more Paul’s approach to his worried friends in Thessalonica: he heard the weight of their anguish, and he connected their experience to the never-ending love of Jesus Christ. As we recall the end of World War II, 75 years ago; as we re-commit ourselves to Christ’s vision of a world without violent conflict; as we acknowledge the societal pressures created and revealed by the ongoing stress of this pandemic, combined with the political turmoil we hear so much about – it is so important to be sensitive to the reality, that not everyone will carry that stress in the same way. And however this is being held, it needs to be heard, and held, and engaged with love. In particular, we need to hear the woundedness of those experiencing full-on PTSD, and hearts that are aching for something predictable and doable..
Within that anxiousness, we hear what Paul attempted to convey to the worried ones in his circle of care: the voice of Christ, the presence of love. Life in Palestine 2000 years ago has more differences than similarities to the lives we live, but the powerful presence of compassionate, supportive, patient love has never left. Depending on the circumstances, the power of loving friendship can sit with woes that are not easily resolved, and may even be able to help encourage actions and attitudes that take unproductive worry and transform it into a healthy motivator for action. Our experiences, and the experiences of the War years have some parallels, and in both cases it is important to hold a generosity of spirit as we examine the hard choices and big losses, and to acknowledge that these challenges have weighed heavily on some, while sparing others. And lest we only look backwards in history, may we also take pause right now to imagine daily life in a refugee camp, or in the embattled lands of Yemen, or the knife-edge unpredictability of the Korean peninsula. Around the world, chaos emanating from many sources predated this pandemic and then got a whole lot worse. We are fellow dwellers on one precious but precarious planet, and letting that perspective of one-ness help to shape our responses brings us a lot closer to the over-arching love of Christ Jesus, a love that experienced the joys of community and was wounded by betrayal and humiliation, a love that perseveres even across the chasm between life and life-beyond-life.
Today we open our hearts to the worries of the world… we acknowledge our own worries, and examine what those worries are really saying… we remember the challenges of those who have gone before us, and those who live in our day with multiple challenges…we seek productive ways out of unproductive worry.. we invite the love of Christ into this chaos, and celebrate the ways that Christ’s love is already being experienced… and we let ourselves be held, within the continuous, expansive, indefatigable love of God. From everlasting to everlasting, there is God, there is love, there is life. Amen, and Amen.
CBC Kids. “Did you know we had to ration food during the war?” https://www.cbc.ca/kidscbc2/the-feed/did-you-know-we-had-to-ration-food-during-the-war#:~:text=Sugar%20was%20the%20first%20basic,they%20started%20to%20ration%20meat.
Vasan, Nina and Marisa Leon-Carlyle. “How to Prepare for the Coming Mental Health Pandemic” found at https://www.politico.com/agenda
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.