Jeffrey Sartain, February 26, 2017
Scriptures: Matthew 6:24–34; Psalm 131
I don’t know how things go at your house, but at our house we tend to be sort of mildly to moderately disorganized. And so added into the normal stress of life, we also spend some time each week looking for things.
We don’t usually misplace anything important like a passport, a wallet or a dog—although those things have happened. What goes missing is more along the lines of someone’s sweater he hasn’t seen for a month, or a particular pair of shoes, or a tie. It isn’t a big deal; but it can seem like it.
Years ago we developed a little ritual. We wanted to be able to show some concern for what we know the other one is going through, but we also wanted to be reminded how insignificant it really is in the scheme of things. When the one who is hunting for something is noticed to be darting around the house making huffing and disgusted noises, instead of offering to help, we ask, “Should I be worried about something?”
The answer in this little formula we’ve come up with is, “Yeah, worry about my sweater.” Or “Worry about my brown shoes.” Or “Worry about that green plaid sport coat.” Then we answer, “Okay. I’m on it.” Of course, we aren’t worrying at all. We know whatever it is will turn up, and when it does, whoever was looking for the lost thing calls out, “You can stop worrying now!” And we respond dramatically something like, “Wow, that was a close one.” Or, “I was just sick about that.”
I only realized this week that there is a connection between that little game and the scripture Seth read for us this morning: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear” . . . not even your green plaid sport coat.
We know such little things don’t merit any worry, but when life gets worrisome in bigger ways, those little things can seem pretty monumental. It’s good to learn to laugh at them.
Worrying is actually no insignificant matter. We know, as the scripture says, that we cannot add a single moment to our lives by worrying, but we do it anyway. It is a part of being human.
Advice on worrying is easy to find but hard to follow. American author and educator Leo Buscaglia somewhat famously wrote, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow; it only saps today of its joy.” That’s descriptive but doesn’t really give us any guidance as to what to do about it. Martin Luther said: “Pray, and let God worry.” That’s more helpful. I’ve drawn on that many times. Except if you start thinking about it, it’s a little disturbing. “Let God worry”? If even almighty God is worrying, we must be in some bad kind of trouble. That is a worry all its own.
The Psalmist wrote, “I do not occupy myself with things too great or too wonderful for me.” That is also good advice, but very hard to follow. After all, we have problems the ancient writer didn’t have, right? The world is presenting us with unprecedented volumes of things to worry about every minute of every day. The Psalmist didn’t have to deal with Twitter.
We are in an information-saturated culture, and as a result, our worry and anxiety as a nation has risen to new highs, according to recent studies.
The American Psychological Association has coined a term, “constant checkers,” to describe the phenomenon of addiction to smart phones and social media. People grab their phones and are thrown into a rage before they even get out of bed—or while at a stoplight when they are driving. They let it interrupt dinner with their family or friends.
These studies show that people who check their work email every day of the week are especially vulnerable to these all-time-high stress levels. Guilty as charged! People voluntarily subject themselves to a constant onslaught of deadlines and demands, and when I say “people,” I mean “me.” I’m doing this.
And because email isn’t enough, through social media we also ingest a steady diet of hyperbole, half-truths and outrage. It is having an impact on our mental health. We are quite literally worried sick as a people, and getting sicker.
Much of what we do to relieve our worry intuitively feels good in the moment but actually ratchets up the worry in the end. In addition to the constant checking I mentioned, there is also the all-too-common venting, for example, like on Twitter or Facebook. It feels like a relief when you are the “vent-er,” but the “vent-ees” are often left carrying and even magnifying your initial worry. Posts to Facebook provide an outlet to people’s worries, but then create new ones on the receiving end.
There is another danger as well with this worry-driven culture we are developing: Our actions in response to our worries and concerns far too often lack focus or strategy. When we live in a constant state of barely managed hysteria, we can’t plan a response that merits what is at stake. We may be justified in our worry and our deep concern, but we have to ask ourselves, does all this anxiety produce anything good?
I suppose this is something to debate. If fear or worry or anxiety causes us to engage in some sort of action, then I suppose it is serving a purpose. But it is like guilt; worry is useful in a very limited dose. One of our racial justice consultants, Colette Campbell, says guilt is helpful for about 30 seconds, and after that dose is exceeded, then it is just as likely to paralyze us or cause us to give up as it is to motivate anything positive. I think the same is true of worry.
If we are really going to rise to the occasion we now face, when critical values that God’s people share across all sorts of divides are threatened—values like caring for the poor, values like stewardship of our planet, values like treating those whom society deems “the least” with greatest honor, values like sacrificing what is good for each of us so that we can pursue what is good for all of us, values like welcoming the stranger; these basic moral values—if we are going to ensure that these values thrive in our society, then we will need something more than worry and outrage. We will need a plan. And we need a plan, first of all, to keep us tethered to our source so that we can have the internal resources to actually effect the change we believe in. One more outraged Facebook post will not bring in the realm of God.
We need strategies to address the big issues of the world, but first we need a strategy to calm ourselves down, to stop the cycle of hysteria so we can, as the scripture today said, seek first the realm of God. We need to simmer down so that we can rise up and do the things our faith requires of us: to love kindness, to seek justice and to walk humbly with God, as Micah taught. I fear right now too many of us are going from outrage to action and skipping the elemental step of grasping hold of the hand of the one who made us.
I remember my mother pacing, worried sick about an older sibling on the road or in some other perceived danger. She had a strategy. She would make banana bread, right? It might be 10 at night and she’d start getting out the mixing bowls. It was a way to calm herself enough so that she could pray, for her to pass the time without ramping up the worry, for her to take the energy caused by the worry and put into something nurturing, soothing and centering rather than just freaking out.
This scripture lesson today calls us to interrupt our worry so that we can turn our worry into prayers, before we then turn our prayers into plans and then our plans into actions. It is a time now to stop spinning, to calm ourselves, to think clearly, to pray earnestly, to see the whole picture and then to respond.
The Psalmist says, “I have become like a weaned child that is with its mother. My soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”
The image the writer gives us is not a nursing child, not an entirely dependent child with no agency, but it is a weaned child. I think of the little children in my life and how as they grow and gain their independence, they learn to venture forth, and yet they are wise enough to keep their mother, or whoever is caring for them, nearby. It is that kind of relationship the Psalmist describes. It is a two-fold relationship of love. First, I am like the weaned child with God. And second, my soul is like a weaned child in me.
There is so much there, but for today let us lean into this: worried ones, fretting ones, angry ones, for whatever reasons you are thus, find a way to bake some banana bread. I know you want to rush to action, to do something, anything. I don’t want to burden you with one more thing to worry about, but do try, if you can, to pause.
At first it will be a pause only to realize that you are freaking out. Some of us have established panic as a new normal, so at first you will learn just to notice what is happening inside your heart. At first it will be to discover some love for yourself and therefore to refrain from looking at your phone—at least until you are out of bed. Keep it gentle. One of my yoga and meditation teachers, when she gets an urge to look at her phone, will talk to it. “Oh beautiful cell phone, oh dear Facebook, you’re awesome, but I just need a break. It’s not you. It’s me. I’ll look at you later.”
Try to create some intermediate interruption to the patterns of panic and get out some mixing bowls. I’m using that as a metaphor, of course—but not necessarily. That might actually work for you. Get out some knitting needles, go work out, do some yoga, breathe, go for a walk, sing a little song. And once your worry-cycle is interrupted, remind yourself of this:
You are not alone. You are walking with God. You are surrounded by love.
When you have found that center, when you are like that weaned child with God and when your soul is like a weaned child within you, worry less and wonder more; wonder at the beauty of the earth, wonder at the signs of hope that are all around us, wonder at the love that holds you and also wonder in a different way. Once you are calm and close to God, let yourself wonder how you can be exactly what this world needs—not out of panic, or fear, or anger, but out of a deep reservoir of peace.