Holding on in unknown waters

by Denise Anderson

Text: Philippians 4:1-9

These past several months have felt like a barrage of horrible stories in the news: multiple hurricanes, devastating wildfires, the horrific Las Vegas tragedy, gross abuse by people in powerful positions, and white supremacists marching and spreading their hate. It is hard to absorb all of this terrible news, let alone make sense of all that is going on in the world today. Sometimes it feels like the small boat that we are navigating in has hit choppy water. As we sail on, instead of getting calmer, the waves are only getting bigger.

It seemed like only a couple days after Vegas, there were people already talking about healing and how we were “beginning to heal as a nation” from this event. I was still in shock, and trying to wrap my head around it. How do we heal when we haven’t even had a chance to talk about it and grieve the loss of so many lives? How many more terrible tragedies can our country take this year? How do we move forward when there is so much pain and sorrow in our midst? How can I respond to the violence in our own country, in our own cities? How do you as leaders guide the church in the reality of the world today?

I want to look to the apostle Paul for some words of wisdom, as he writes to the early church in Philippi. I find it helpful knowing that Paul is writing from a place of uncertainty in his own life. He is in jail and awaiting his own fate. The letter to the Philippians is a letter of encouragement to the church and is written by someone who should have been receiving encouragement himself. Paul is encouraging his readers to seek unity, to work together, and to support one another.

Paul first rejoices in the Lord – not easy to do, when your ministry has been cut short, and you are in jail! His first instruction for the Philippians is that they would be known for their gentleness. Not their strength or their power, or their determination, but their gentleness. They must strive to be gentle with one another, especially in the midst of conflict.

Are we known for our gentleness in the world? I would doubt many people would describe evangelical Christians as “gentle” people. We are to seek to be gentle with one another. That only happens when we approach others with humility. How are we gentle with one another even when, and especially when, we disagree?

Jesus of course, paved the way of gentleness, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). We seek the Holy Spirit to give us the gentle spirit of Christ, both as individuals, and as the church in the world.

Paul next writes, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (verse 6). Don’t worry. Instead prayerfully ask God to help you.

And then in verse 7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” God will give you his peace. He will give you peace of mind and guard your heart. He may not fix your problem or calm your storm, but he will give you his peace.

This all sounds wonderful. Except when you are actually in the midst of tragedy or crisis, then it may sound like someone is pushing aside your pain, because they don’t want to deal with it. When someone is down, we want to cheer them up: “don’t worry,” “It’s not that bad,” “You just need to pray more.” But minimizing someone’s pain is not going to help them feel better. Sometimes the best way to help someone is just to listen to what they are saying and hear their pain and struggle.

Christ is the one who comes and sits with us in our pain and in the chaos. We constantly invite him in our prayers to show us his perfect peace.

Now, how do we as a congregation or denomination sit together, not filled with anxiety and worry, but allowing God to fill that space of the unknown? We enter into prayer, we enter into moments of silence and listening, we seek God in scriptures and in the community of believers. It is not easy to leave the space open-to allow God to give us wisdom.

Trusting God means we don’t know the way that we are going. We are following after a God who through thousands of years has taken his people on all kinds of unexpected journeys. We seek to rest in God, to lean on him when we have doubts. When we have the path laid out clearly, but it just isn’t happening that way. When we have to sit without resolution to our pain or sit in the chaos. We so often don’t get those answers.

When I was completing my clinical chaplain hours at Lutheran General, one of the things I had to learn was to allow people to ask questions, and not feel the need to jump in and try and give good theological teaching. I wanted to fill that void, that open-ended question. However, the truth was it was God’s space. I was there to witness it, to be present with someone in their pain and doubt, without filling up that space with my anxious words.

We are promised that God’s peace will protect our hearts and minds. This doesn’t mean that there is not going to be pain, or that God will stop bad things from happening. How we learn to walk forward again after those moments, is not trusting in our own ability to weather the storms, but in trusting God’s ability to carry us through it. We may not come out unscathed, but we will come out with a faith that is stronger because it has been put it to the test.

The last two verses, 8 and 9, call on the church to do the honorable thing, the just and right thing, the excellent and pleasing thing. When we take time amidst the chaos and confusion to stop and listen and seek out God, we are given God’s peace, which surrounds us.

Remember the image of the boat being met with larger and larger waves. The image I have in my mind is that though the storm keeps coming, and the waves keep on building and crashing, nevertheless there is Jesus sitting with us in the boat, offering a seat next to him. Will we trust him? Will we listen to what he is saying in the midst of the storm? Will we lean on him, in our uncertainty?