I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You’ve heard of “preaching to the choir?” Sometimes we preachers are guilty of that. More often than not, however, the words we preach are directedprimarily at ourselves- whether we’re conscious of it or not. One of the great preachers of the early church, St. John Chrysostom, said that if a preacher doesn’t practice what he preaches, he shouldn’t be stopped from preaching, because his own words might convince him to change.
I have a suspicion that St. Paul’s words in today’s second reading were intended for himself as much as for the Philippians to whom he was writing. He encouraged his readers not to have anxiety, but instead to pray and think about positive and lovely and true things. Certainly this was advice that the Christians of Philippi needed to hear! But Paul himself had worries too. He admits as much in his first letter to the Corinthians, in which he speaks of his “anxiety for all the churches.” He worried that they would be torn apart by divisions or led astray by false teaching. It’s possible that he was concerned about his own acceptance as an apostle, as he wasn’t part of the original twelve selected by Jesus. And because his was in constant danger of being imprisoned and tortured, we can imagine his sometimes being worried about this too. On one trip, for instance, Paul admits that he and his companions “were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life.”
How Paul dealt with his own anxiety is surely reflected in the advice he gave the Philippians; he was preaching to himself as much as he was preaching to them. Of course, he’s preaching to us too. And we would do well to pay attention, because many of us, in some way or another, struggle with anxiety, worry, and fear- particularly these days. People worry about the economy, their jobs, retirement, house values, terrorism, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effects of global warming. And let’s not forget worries about health, kids, reputations, the effects of growing older, and the inevitability of death. Such worries can paralyze us, consume our thoughts and energies, ruin our mood, strain our human relationships, and effect our relationship with God too. We get angry with God, forget all the good things he’s done for us, lose sight of his presence in our lives, and worst of all, come to doubt his care and love for us. Yet this doesn’t need to be the case. St. Paul, in spite of everything he might have worried about, never lost his trust in God. He always remained grateful even in the most difficult circumstances, and he never failed to persevere in faith. The inspired advice he gave the Philippians certainly worked for him. Perhaps we should take it to heart too.
To begin with, Paul explains that when we begin to worry, we should lift up prayers and petitions to God. This may sound simple, even naïve. But have you ever been so consumed with worry that you forget to pray? We wring our hands, but forget to fold them. Not praying, however, only makes our worry worse. Yet when we pray, we put the whole matter in God’s hands, ask him to give us the help that only he can give, are reminded that he loves and cares for us, and we allow him to give us direction on how to deal with the things we’re worried about. Have you heard the slogan, “Give your worries to God each evening; he’s going to be up all night anyway?” It’s corny, but true. Whenever we find ourselves worrying, we should turn that into a prayer opportunity. Even if the only prayer we can muster is “Help!”
In addition to praying, St. Paul says, we also need to change the way we think. Instead of letting our hearts and minds be filled withanxious thoughts, we should think instead of those things which are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, and excellent. Paul knew that we can lose sight of these things when we’re worried, and in so doing, it warps our view of the world. We see only the darkness, and are blinded to the light. Have you ever been so consumed with worry that you failed to notice the sights and smells of a beautiful morning when you stepped outside? However, when we make an intentional effort to think of those things Paul mentioned, we’re reminded of what’s good and beautiful in our world, all of which comes from God’s loving hand. And whenever we remember the good things of God, we remember the goodness of God himself.
It’s important to recall that Paul didn’t make any false promises or create unrealistic expectations. He didn’t say that praying and changing the way we think would take away our difficulties.He wrote his advice, in fact, while he was in prison and in great danger. He knew full well that sufferings and hardships are inevitable for anyone who chooses to follow a crucified Lord. We can’t avoid it. What we can do, however, is avoid losing sight that God can bring good out of evil, and that Jesus’ victory over evil offers us an eternal life without it. Praying and thinking won’t erase our problems. But they can replace anxiety and despair, with trust and hope.
Paul may very well have been preaching to himself as much as he is to us. But we can be grateful for that, because his advice is so timely and true, and we can see the good fruit that Paul’s practices bore in his life. He is, after all, a saint! However, there is one final thing Paul wrote today that’s intended exclusively for us: his request that we imitate him. For if we do, “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100211.cfm