Look at the Birds
To people living with anxiety, Jesus said something incredibly simple and also amazingly profound. But before we get to that, I want to clarify a few things about anxiety and fear. Often, we misunderstand the nature of anxiety and fear as well as what God says about them.
First, if you are not feeling some sense of anxiety in the midst of this global pandemic, then you are likely not paying attention. Anxiety might not be ruling you but some level of anxiety and/or fear is the normal response to seeing people getting deathly sick and wondering if you will be the next to lose your job. If you aren’t seeing it directly or asking those questions directly, it should be unnerving as you consider those who are. In addition, the massive changes to regular routines and having to stay at home shifts things in our bodies and souls even if we are not aware of it.
Disorientation is what everyone is experiencing. To be oriented is to have regularity, rhythm, peace, and a sense of place. Even for those who normally experience significant emotional and spiritual health, these days are disorienting. Things are not normal. And, this affects us. For some it is debilitating and for others it is milder but we are all in the same boat. We are in a boat of unchartered waters and we aren’t sure where exactly the boat is going and we aren’t sure what’s in the murky water around us.
Second, fear is not a bad thing. I’ve heard so many saying, “Don’t be afraid.” Or, others quoting Bible verses that command “do not fear.” This is a simplistic understanding of both emotions and the biblical text.
Fear is a good thing. It is a gift from God! Fear is a bodily response to dangerous situations. Or, at the very least, it is a response to perceived danger. Fear is a warning light on the dashboard of our souls that tells us we need to stop and investigate what is going on.
If we couldn’t feel fear, then we wouldn’t get out of the way of a grizzly bear charging at us. Or, we might not take seriously the threat of getting sick if we are not wise about how we orient our lives during a pandemic. However, there are also times that we experience fear and it is something for which we don’t need to be afraid. For example, we might be afraid of a committed relationship because of past hurts or failures. Or, we might find ourselves in fear of God because we grew up in an environment that told us God will punish us if we engage in a certain behavior. And, another issue that might arise is the intensity of our fear. Some fear might be appropriate in a situation but not to the level that it leaves us unable to live in peace.
The challenge is discernment. As we experience fear, it is a place to meet God in prayerful presence, asking God, “what do I need to see about this situation?” and “how should I respond?” Ultimately, this kind of discernment leads to a place of trust and surrender to the will of God. When we simply say, “I’m not afraid,” it could very well be that we are ignoring reality or ignoring our own experience. In addition, we can’t rid of fear by willing it away. We can’t deal with fear by acting like it is not there. When we do this, we shut down a part of our soul and we miss out on the opportunity to grow deeper into the reality that we are the beloved of God, cared for and held by His grace.
Third, when the Bible says “do not fear,” there is often more going on than a simplistic, blanket statement that fear should never be a part of our experience. The challenge to not fear in the Scriptures is an acknowledgment that fear is a part of the human experience. And, these commands are not judgmental in nature. I would suggest that they are more invitational. When Jesus says, in Matthew 6, “do not be anxious,” it could also be translated with the tone: “you don’t have to be anxious.” In other words, this is not how you have to live. Finally, many of the Scriptures that talk about fear are encouragements to not fear the supernatural – for example: do not be afraid of God, do not be afraid of this angel, do not be afraid of God’s calling in your life, etc.
As we bring our lives into the prayerful awareness of a good, sovereign God, fears are put into context and we are able to live with a sense of peace. There is a difference between fear being our dominant reality and living with peace and confidence and hope in the middle of situations that scare us. I can “feel” certain things and also rest in the knowledge that my life is secure in the love of God. Most often, our responses to fear are described with the words: fight, flight, or freeze. “Fight” can look noble but it can end up damaging others and ourselves. Flight takes us away from things that truly matter. Freeze can numb us to the point where we don’t feel much of anything. Faith, on the other hand, is a settled, peaceful experience that doesn’t come through any of these three paths.
In Matthew 6, when Jesus says, “do not be anxious,” He invites us to a way of life in which anxiety and fear do not dominate us. He doesn’t simply say that we should stop being afraid but He offers a practice and way of perceiving life that can fundamentally shift our way of being.
He says, “look at the birds” and “consider the flowers.” Both verbs speak of looking intently at something or we might even say, contemplating. As we contemplate the birds and the flowers, two things happen and both of them are suggested in the text.
First, we shift our focus onto the love and care of God. Rather than wondering if we are going to have something to eat or wear, the birds and the flowers remind us of God’s provision and care. By scale, how much more does He love us? Jesus also says, “Is not life more than clothing and food?” When we stop and look at the birds and flowers, we are reminded: “yes, life is more than that! It is about resting in relationship” (seek first His kingdom). And, then, we are challenged to remember than anxiety is unproductive. In the hands of a loving, caring God, my life is secure because I can’t add anything with worry.
Author and psychologist James Finley says: “If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things, then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and ourselves with love.” (shared by Pastor Jim Clark, Saint Barnabas on the Desert Episcopal Church) The birds and flowers ground us in the love of God.
Second, contemplating the birds and flowers roots us in the present moment. “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow.” The simple act of stopping and looking at birds and flowers roots our bodies and souls in the now. We get into trouble with anxiety and fear as we fixate on the future. When we are continually living in the future with “what if” and “what about”, we are not present to reality. The ability to plan and think about the future is a gift from God but we are not meant to live in the future. Now is where God is. Now is where relationships are. Now is where Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So, I would argue that Jesus wasn’t simply using birds and flowers as teaching props but also as an invitation actually stop and contemplate. As we do, we can experience being grounded in the love of God and being rooted in the present moment. Then, fears and anxieties serve us rather than dominate us. Then, we are free to love and live with God and others.
Today, how will you stop and contemplate the birds and flowers? Perhaps, it is on a walk. Perhaps, it is through pictures or a video. Perhaps, it is through your imagination. However, you engage it – let it be a prayerful noticing that God is holding your life through all things!