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I will never forget the moment some years ago when, in the midst of a very large supermarket, I suddenly realised that my four-year-old son was no longer by my side. I tried to stay calm and think clearly – but it was as if my heart stopped beating, and my pulse rate trebled, both at the same time! Casting aside any concern about what people might think, I yelled his name as loudly as I possibly could.

I was reunited with Matthew just a few minutes later. Mary and Joseph had to wait three days. Mary’s words sound like classic English understatement: your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. Their anxiety must have been very high indeed. And it is anxiety on which I wish to focus today.

It has been said that we live in an age of anxiety. It’s a powerful emotion, and sometimes people deliberately exploit it, seeking to manipulate our anxiety for their own ends. At the individual level, it can lead to paralysis or to violence. Within groups it can spread like wildfire – whether that’s a sports club, family, or a church. And whole societies or nations, indeed the international arena, at times seem to be in its grip.

I have found it helpful to come to understand something of the physiological effects of anxiety. They kick in when we feel threatened. Our response tends to be one of fight – confronting the threat, of flight – running away, or of freezing – like a rabbit in the headlights. Our blood supply gets diverted to enable a strong and quick reaction. We lose the ability to use the more developed parts of our brains – the parts that enable perspective, a long-term view, or creative thinking. And if we were tired or run down to start off with, the effect is even greater. It is thus so easy to see red, and sometimes we find ourselves reacting in ways that just aren’t helpful. What’s more, if the other person also sees red, it’s very easy to get locked into a negative, downward spiral. It has been said that biology is morally neutral, but that its effects can make us feel immoral, and very stupid.

And so to the Epistle, the letter to the Christians in Colossae. Bear with another, we are told. Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. We generally know that that is the aspiration. The trouble is, perfect harmony can seem rather elusive – both in the life of a family over the Christmas period, and in the life of the church. The fact is, Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of the year – with the most anxiety. And this exhortation to live in perfect harmony can feel like the last straw.

So let’s examine that word, harmony, and for more closely. It’s a musical word. For me, if music is to be interesting, if has to have some sense of direction. It’s not just static, but it’s going somewhere. And in the course of going somewhere, there is normally a pattern that repeats: harmonic tension being increased, and then resolved – at least temporarily; more tension, then a resolution; more tension, then a resolution. For me, perfect harmony means having space for different voices to be heard, for tension to increase, and then a resolution to be found – even a temporary one.

Christ is indeed the Prince of peace. But being his people does not mean the end of anxiety. It does not mean static unanimity, in our families, our workplaces and our churches. Rather, let’s accept as normal that difference and anxiety will come. They are signs of humanity, not of failure. And let’s seek, like the young Jesus, to continue to grow in wisdom, and to grow together in Christ, even in the midst of an anxious world.

Questions:

  1. What have you found helpful in dealing with anxiety?
  2. What do you think of the idea that perfect harmony might include space for tension and anxiety, as well as resolution?