Closing down the US government is a politically and pragmatically ridiculous act that puts an undisclosed number of people along with their families in a place of financial insecurity–oh, by the way, except for those who caused the shut down whose salary checks are still being processed and deposited without interruption. It’s easy to make decisions that negatively impact others, but not ourselves, isn’t it?
Many of us have family members and friends who work for the US government and, thus, who suddenly have no income. Maybe some of you yourselves have seen government pensions or government contracting compensation get furloughed along with the professionals who normally are engaged in making sure you get paid on time.
It’s tough for a number of people hard-hit in these ways NOT to worry, and I was worried myself when I began hearing about the possibility of a government shutdown happening right in the middle of my sermon series called, “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.” How fair is that?!?
Nonetheless, here we are–citizens of an “indefinitely gone-to-lunch” government–gathered to reflect spiritually and practically on how not to let worry win. The hopeful word for us today is “revalue.”
In the sermons that have been preached in this series so far, we have tried to consider this model: we are not asked to try to force ourselves to be unconcerned about truly pressing issues though we must recognize that worry is worthless in problem-solving. Even if the worry is inevitable, then, it still cannot, will not contribute anything to a solution.
Jesus asked some of those listening to one of his sermons one day, “Can all the worry in the world extend your earthly life by an hour?” His first hearers answered immediately, “Of course not.” Modern readers of Jesus’ material are more inclined to delay answering and then say in imaginary conversation with Jesus, “Well I don’t know for sure, Jesus. Maybe it helps a little bit anyway. I’d hate to be forced to give it up, Jesus. It has been such a faithful companion.”
One way of refusing to let worry have the upper hand is by doing a quick assessment of our thoughts and impressions. Not every thought and impression we have is on target, and not all are as important as others might be. If we’re going to take one of those and run with it, we need to be sure it deserves the priority we have placed on it. This is what re-valuing is all about.
If we don’t master this practice, we are putting ourselves and our relationships in serious jeopardy. There are multitudes of people who entertained the possibility of suicide but didn’t follow through; thankfully, they were not slaves to first thoughts and first impressions. They re-valued that horrible notion, and appropriately–for their long-term benefit–let it go.
Less severe than acting on a suicidal impulse is blurting out whatever crosses one’s mind. Some people feel utterly controlled by whatever crosses their minds; if they have the impression, for example, that someone is doing something wrong and, thus, that the world is going to fall apart if they don’t try to correct what they sense is the person’s error, they will offer what is often received as rude if not destructively critical. Even would be constructive criticism tossed out to strangers is unacceptable. Re-Value. Realize that your impressions are not always on target, and, even if they are, you must earn the right to talk about how others think and do. Furthermore, on that note, since none of us is an expert on everything, the corrective we can’t bear to keep to ourselves may not be the proper corrective at all.
In “Macbeth,” Shakespeare has Banquo saying: “If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then unto me.” And Plato said, “Wise people speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”
Surely two of the more memorable images Jesus created, among a pile of them, were the two around which he built what was probably his most definitive teaching on worry. The lilies of the field are decked out in all their natural beauty, mesmerizing in the finery they do absolutely nothing to own. And the birds of the air find plenty to eat each day without fretting in the least.
Both of these images if pressed beyond the simple, surface interpretation lead to problems in understanding and application. One could say that the lilies of the field are lovely as they develop naturally; thus, human beings are also most attractive without anything to cover them. Pressed this far, the lilies image could become a favored scripture passage for a spirituality-focused nudist colony. And the birds of the air who freely find food each day cannot be paradigms for people who, if they only look in a relaxed faith-oriented way, will find all the food they need, some days finding a feast-full of nourishing food items without having worked a single second to produce that food. Obviously, this has nothing at all to do with what Jesus taught since he knew firsthand about the struggle too many of his sister- and brother-Jews faced every sunup hoping they would somehow find enough food to keep them alive another day.
So, Jesus’ teaching here about letting go of worry has nothing to do with learning to be happy in your birthday suit rather than with store-bought togas or with having enough faith to search calmly each day for readily available food. Clearly, a drought could kill off in a matter of days all the beautiful flowers as well as the birds.
Jesus’ message then is what? If gorgeous flowers and happy go lucky birds were symbols of human beings, their default emotional settings would be “worry-free.”
The Hebrew storytellers who passed along the amazingly told myths of creation pictured a world brought into being, system by system, by God Godself in which plants, animals, and humans were intended to live a stress free, pain free, worry free existence. Kristin Chenoweth and Brian d’Arcy James brought this memory joyfully to life singing and speaking the roles of Eve and Adam in the musical production, “The Apple Tree.” The song, “Beautiful, Beautiful World,” is what I’m remembering from that life-lifting show:
I see animals and birds and flowers.
Ev’ry color, ev’ry shape and size,
Moss and pebbles and a host of wonders,
Gleaming ev’ry where I aim my eyes.
So, if ever I’m attacked by boredom
I’ll just open my eyes and see
This diversified, curious, fascinating, bountiful,
Beautiful, beautiful world.
And if things only were as they seem, we’d be good to go, wouldn’t we?
One of the reasons that the lilies of the field and the birds of the skies are worry free as Jesus makes his point is that they don’t want anything. Now, less so in Jesus day and more so in our day, a great deal of worry is based on how much we want and what we want and when we want it. If it doesn’t come through as anticipated or desired, we worry.
- “Where is Ruth, my UPS delivery person? What could be taking so long to get those new shoes to me? Amazon promised two-day delivery on them. Geez!”
- “Seriously? They expect me to pay this much for a meal and then sit here half the day to be served? Please!”
There are members of the Silverside family who make it possible for people in need not to have to want-worry about some things at least. Some of our folks sort clothing through one of the ministries of Friendship House so that when people need clothing to be clothed or for warmth, clothing donated by anonymous folks who care has been sorted and sized for those needing clothing to utilize. And some of our people notably Marie Neal make sure that on the thirteenth of every month a tasty, healthy meal is served at Emmanuel Dining Room, and anybody around there who is hungry is free to come in without worry and know that they can eat.
Even if the coat is a little too smug or little over-sized it’s still a beautiful sight to see someone who would otherwise be cold buttoning up that coat in the chill of January. Seeing someone suitably clothed for the season is as beautiful as looking at the lilies of the field because for a bit she or he does not have to want for attire. Similarly, seeing the people line up at the front door of Emmanuel Dining Room waiting for it to be opened at noon so that they can file in and take a seat in a comfortable place to eat is also a beautiful sight. For that meal at least they are as confident of finding food as are the birds of the skies to whom Jesus pointed; they, for a bit, do not have to want or worry.
I was pastoring in Baltimore when pagers became passé and cell phones took center tech-stage. I’ve always been hooked on communication technology so I had a cell phone as soon as I could afford one. One of my congregants saw me standing in the hall one day fiddling with my cell phone. Without pausing to chat, he said as he walked right by me, “The more STUFF you have the more you have to worry with.”
“Thanks for the tip, Charles,” I said, mentally tossing aside such an antiquated attitude. Well, I am still hooked, but I have remembered, in the midst of tech failure a hundred times or more what Charles Starr said to me that day.
The Apostle Paul wrote to his spiritual charges, “I have learned to be content in all seasons of life, whether feast or famine.” The ability to make the same claim would be incredible. Of course, how he introduces his claim to his first readers is as important as the claim itself: “I have learned.” It was absolutely a process requiring tremendous effort and undertaken over a period of time–a YEARS long period of time.
The “Serenity Prayer” comes to mind. Originally penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1943 after circulation in oral tradition, it was first used in larger circles by the forerunner of the National Council of Churches in a prayerbook/servicebook for military personnel. Only years after the prayer’s composition and substantial military use did Alcoholics Anonymous adopt the prayer as its official prayer. What we read and hear used today, however, is an excerpt from a fuller prayer as Professor Niebuhr originally set his prayer to written form:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right If I surrender to Your will, So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Not my theological cup of tea from start to finish, the prayer, nonetheless, certainly is realistic, and it contributes to the possibility of re-valuing–that is, not placing supreme importance on every thought or impression that may hit us. The prayer also provides a model for praying that has those praying it to focus on the right now–rather than on what MAY happen out there somewhere. Gandhi said, “I do not want to foresee the future. I am concerned with taking care of the present. God has given me no control over the moment following.”
Living for today since tomorrow will surely have troubles of its own, as Jesus said it, and within this day living moment by moment causes to face the what is, rather than the what might be. Perhaps in that focus, we may see the beautiful flowers and the happy, confident birds–living their worry free existence. And, for a moment, if only for that moment, we may join them.