“To notice what I notice”: Faith and Anxiety

Andrew Saunders Notes for NZCIS Winter Lecture 2021Firstly, some clarifications. I see anxiety as resulting from concerns about the future and what will happen; whereas I think depression is struggling with what has happened in the past …To me faith, as Hebrews states (11:1), is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what […]

Andrew Saunders

Notes for NZCIS Winter Lecture 2021
Firstly, some clarifications. I see anxiety as resulting from concerns about the future and what will happen; whereas I think depression is struggling with what has happened in the past …
To me faith, as Hebrews states (11:1), is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. Faith looks forward – so should rightly counter anxiety – but it is not as simple as that – our faith must grow to match our experience.
I was infant baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church as a thirteen-year-old. My commitment to a lifelong faith did not evolve until my first year at university. Since then, I have been involved in student mission in tertiary institutions for fifteen years have taught in secondary schools for twenty years and more recently I have specialized in coaching and spiritual direction. I’ve also been married for thirty-seven years, have three adult children and one grandchild.
So, I have seen a bit of life, have continued to grow in my faith and have had my fair share of anxiety brought about by stress, sickness, overwhelming circumstance, failure and ultimately disappointment with self and others.
Today, I am sharing what have I seen and learnt about faith and anxiety.
I will do so with seven examples from the stages of life and share some hope …
Young people generally adopt the faith of their parents until their teenage years. As they emerge from home their faith develops from parental to peer group to personal faith and values. We can become less self-centered and more other centered as we age and can also shift our emphasis from task to process or from doing to being.
A young school girl (aged 8 to 14) goes to school eight hours a day before (mostly) returning to a loving family. Girls, like boys, can be bullied at school or subjected to peer pressure. Bulling used to stop when they left the school gate but these days through the cell phone and social media girls are never free from social pressure … My solution – do not allow your child access to social media from the age of 8 to 14 – as it continually tells them what they lack or have too much of …
At the UoA we run ‘Hope Space’ from 11 to 2 pm each Wednesday ‘you chat we listen’ is the message on the stress balls we give out. Nico – a Maori student from Gizzy in his first term away from home dropped by to chat last month. Still a teen he misses his mum keeping him on the straight and narrow but appreciates the family that took him in with cheap weekly board. However, there is some weird stuff happening at home and he has started to drink. He longs to reconnect with faith but does not know how and is anxious about getting behind in his study. Nico would benefit from a faithful friend – someone his age and stage to keep him steady …
When I started teaching in my mid-twenties, I was a Master of Science. However, I had only done stage 2 chemistry so when I was given the top year 12 class (6th form) I quickly realized some students knew more than I did. In the first three weeks I was out of my depth and often went to the toilet on the way to class to steady my nerves and practice breathing. The solution was my elder brother whom I rang each night so he could explain to me what I did not know – within 3 weeks the acute anxiety passed. So many young adults find the learning curve in their first job so tricky. What they need is someone more mature in the faith or work to nurse them through …
In my thirties I became a leader of a national student mission. The wheels almost fell off after five years of sacrificial grind, alongside raising three boys under five and long term family sickness. I was also beset with a reoccurring dream – the spider of my youth that used to leave cobwebs in the windows of my father’s garage now left cobwebs in the corners of every room of my dreamtime home. I was struggling to lead the staff team and keep up with the demands of family life. I started seeing a spiritual director who listened to my stress, angst and self-loathing – but I could never get rid of that damn spider – the monkey on my back. His gentle suggestion, ‘have you ever considered that the spider, is you?’ helped me to realize in the eyes of God I was special and loved even if some of the things I accomplished seemed to be a mess.
In my forties I returned to the classroom. Following extensive digging of trenches and foundations to bring down the cost of a home renovations I slipped a disk and required back surgery. The acute pain and slow rehabilitation were something I have never experienced before. When I returned to the classroom I often had to lie on desk at the back of the room during lessons as I sought to teach biology and theology to alternate classes. During Saturdays I would coach cricket while lying on a blanket on the edge of the field. The students, of Samoan, Tongan, Indian, Filipino and African descent, were so tolerate and supportive. I had to learn a whole new way of being – of receiving help from others – something I had rarely had to do.
In my fifties I was told by close friends and colleagues I should lead – a school or a bible college. So, I applied and applied … after twenty applications over several years I had a bunch of silver medals and no one to lead. I found it personally difficult and it began to impact my current job, my close friendships and my marriage. Failure was a constant friend and I was anxious about the future. So, I left teaching which did not help. I avoided friends and that did not help either, I saw a life coach which helped while I was in the session. I was not depressed but lacked hope for tomorrow. There seemed no path forward. Riding a bike with a group of new friends helped – they knew nothing of my struggles but gave me companionship as we struggled up hills or sailed down bush clad valleys. These friends asked few questions but were companions on life’s journey.
Finally, in 2019 as a 60 yo I started a spiritual director’s course and explored different ways to connect with God. I stopped rigorous disciplines like bible reading plans and became open to explore different ways of being. I returned to writing poetry about my condition and began to explore my identity in Christ: To listen rather than speak, to be rather than do, to wait rather than struggle. In early 2020 one morning I walked into the Maclaurin Chapel – and the long awaited Binney, Kawaupaku, Te Henga (black shag), (pic) had arrived and was hanging resplendent in the sanctuary (pic). I was overcome with emotion and with eyes full of tears sank to my knees in grateful admiration. The shag to me was the ‘Spirit of God’ hovering over the water and crying out in the morning sun ‘all will be well’. Since that day I have begun to notice what I notice. Birds, always my favourites in God’s creation, have loomed large in my world view. I know their circumstance and behaviour from years of birdwatching both as a student of biology and an early riser.
These days the birds of the field or the sea are a bridge for me to connect with God through prayer. As I sit and meditate or walk, cycle, talk and listen to God birds are ever present. In my conversations with God at dawn I now know birds convey His love for me. When I gaze at ‘a bird of the air …’ (Matt 6:26) I am reminded not to worry about my life as our heavenly Father cares for birds and for me so much more. ‘Look at the birds of the air… are you not much more valuable than they?’ Kawaupaku, Te Henga’s stylised simplicity captures these Scriptures in one beautiful image, and represent to me the Spirit of God that came down on Jesus like a dove.
I have come to see the presence or song of a bird outside my window as God reminding me he loves me. The Father knows the morning sparrow that peers at me as I pray (Matt 10:29-31) and I am known so much more “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care…. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’ As I contemplate birds I see Jesus ‘as he appears in gospel events and let (myself) become absorbed in what he is like, what he cares about, and what he is doing’. And My own concerns, worries and anxieties seem to slip away.
My encounters with birds now give me confidence in what I hope for and assurance about what I do not see. God’s love transcends my daily anxiety. It is not that troubles, obstacles and stresses never come – but rather now I have a flight path to faith, hope and love. My identity resides in my relationship with him …
Andrew Saunders

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