Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What, We Worry?

I used to think that it was because I am a bi-vocational priest that the bulk of my sermons are written on Saturday between the time I get off work as a nurse until 2 or 3 in the morning, with a final edit on Sunday from 7 am until I must hurl myself into the shower. It's why I walk into our church at times muttering about how it must be a Satanic conspiracy that the ink in my printer always chooses to start running out on Sunday morning. But it turns out I'm not the only preacher who does this. A friend said she wondered why her preacher/grandfather used to go into his bedroom on Saturday evenings, close the door and yell at himself. And in the era of Facebook, I've gotten ample evidence that sweating out sermons on Saturdays is common. Just this Saturday a colleague posted this question: "If you never worry about tomorrow, will the sermon get done?" Another colleague added: "Yes, by your successor!"

Does Jesus really mean what he says in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells us not to worry about tomorrow? Yes, but notice that Jesus is not saying do not plan for tomorrow or do not prepare for tomorrow. He's just saying not to worry about it. It's a sad commentary on life that we have trouble conceiving of being ready for the future apart from harboring anxiety over it.

Short-term bursts of stress are actually good for you. They help you meet a mental or physical challenge, make yourself stand out at work or in a dating situation, run a race or give birth. A shot or two of good stress is why we read suspense novels, watch scary movies or ride roller coasters. It's chronic stress, unrelieved long-term stress, that leads to anxiety, upset stomach, chest pains, sleep problems, depression, substance abuse and other troubles. And it isn't a modern phenomenon. Jesus' audience lived in an occupied country where society was stratified and static, most people were poor or slaves, life was short, and disease was largely incurable. So they knew what it was to worry.

Jesus counters this by pointing to the good things God gives us and to the fact that worry solves nothing. It won't give you a stitch of clothing, an inch of height or an hour of life. Worry poisons the present over a future that may not come to pass. What we need is not fretting but faith.

But isn't that naïve? We can't live like the birds, can we? Except birds don't lie around waiting for something to fall into their beaks. They always have an eye out for something to eat. What they aren't doing is sitting around worrying that they'll never get another worm or another fish or another berry. They use God's gifts to find their food. And while they're at it, they soar.

In an honor/shame society, such as ancient world, people were acutely aware of what their clothes said about them. They would agree with Mark Twain who said, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." And that goes for the shabbily dressed as well. When Jesus is talking about contentment with one's clothing, he was talking about those were dressed, just not as well as they wished. Again the modern world is not that different.

Jesus says the cure for worry is faith. And by this, he doesn't mean a vague belief that things will somehow turn out well. He means faith in God. When we trust that our loving, just and forgiving God is in charge, we can let go of useless thoughts that only cause us to lose hope and to brood on what we don't have. We can instead think productively of how to make God's reign concrete in our lives whatever our circumstances. And if we pour our energy into that, rather than negative, largely self-fulfilling prophesies, we will find what we really need along the way.

Francis of Assisi was not an organizational genius. When he founded his order, the brothers concentrated on spreading the gospel, not going after funding. Yet in short order, the order grew and became popular and well-funded. This led to real controversies because of Francis' emphasis on poverty. But the point is that, according to worldly wisdom, the order should have floundered; instead, it flourished, not by focusing on money, but by focusing on serving God and preaching the gospel.

Worry does more than ruin the present; it can narrow future options. If our concern over a possible future becomes worry, we may hesitate to take necessary risks and kill perfectly good initiatives. Or if we do make the right choice, worry can weaken our resolve to follow through and do things properly. Scott Adams gets a lot of emails about company decisions even sillier than the ones he makes up for his "Dilbert" comic strip. One person wrote of how his company decided to make the sales force more productive on the road by giving them laptops. Unfortunately, one middle manager was worried that the laptops would disappear. So he had them bolted onto the sales staff's desks. Influenced by his worry, he completely negated the company's attempt to make the salesmen more mobile and efficient.

Of course, it's easy to say you won't worry; it's harder to actually shed the angst when it comes unbidden. But there are proven techniques to lessen anxiety like exercising, eating right and getting enough sleep, as well as meditation and thinking about God. Personally, I have a prayer about God's presence being peace that helps me. In addition, studies show that people who are attend religious services weekly tend to be happier, healthier and live longer. Just as Jesus said, trusting in God trumps being worried.

Another thing Jesus tells us to do is take it one day at a time. Why transfer tomorrow's troubles to today? Tomorrow will be here soon enough. Concentrate on tackling today's tasks. In doing so, you may lessen the severity of some of tomorrow's problems.

Since it is hard not to worry when you or someone you care for is facing something threatening, the best thing to do is to ask God to take the burden of worry from you. Lay it at his feet. Ask him to take it to the cross, to nail it there, to bury it. That way you can be free to think about the problem without the interference of feelings of anxiety or dread, without the repeating loop of distressing images and hopeless scenarios playing endlessly in your head. Nothing messes up thinking like having your guts twisted in a knot.

One big worry, then as now, is money. In Matthew 6:24 Jesus says one cannot serve 2 masters: God and money. As Paul says, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. (That's the proper translation of that verse, by the way.) It seems obvious that we shouldn't love money more than God. But neither should we let worries about money eclipse our faith in God. Any obsession with money, even a negative one, can take our focus off of God and chisel away at our trust that he will provide for us. Now I know that it's hard not to worry about money, especially at a time when people are losing jobs and homes. Think of it like this. When you're trying to climb out of a hole, you need to concentrate on where you put your feet and hands and keeping your balance, not the distance between you and the bottom of the pit. God is our rock. If we stay in close contact with him, and keep moving in the right direction, focused on the task at hand rather than constantly checking on how far we've come or have to go, we will make it. We may have to move around obstacles, we may have to stop to rest, we may have to reconsider our route, but we can't be constantly taking measurements and fretting over each inch up or down we must travel if we are to get to our destination.

One of the most horrifying conditions one can imagine is locked-in syndrome, in which a person's body is paralyzed, while their mind is awake and aware of what is happening around them. We know this by their brain activity. In most cases all these people can do to communicate is blink their eyes. It was a great surprise when a recent study found that the majority of such patients reported that they were happy. That's the ultimate refutation of the idea that our happiness depends on external conditions. Stripped of all ability to control their circumstances, these people have discovered an inner resource, something that provides contentment in what should be the most distressing of situations. What could provide happiness to such a person? According to the study, 72% reported being happy and 70% reported being religious. When all else fails, God is sufficient to sustain us.

Jesus never promises us a trouble-free life. He promises us triumph through him. But that means we must stop trusting in the things that people typically think are necessary for happiness. In fact, the more things we try to accumulate, the more we have to worry about and the more they weigh us down. Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Jesus doesn't tell us to stop working, but to stop worrying. He doesn't tell us to stop wearing clothes but to stop worrying about them. As we learn from locked-in syndrome patients, what is essential is internal: trust in God, the one who made us and loves us and will be our companion, our food, our wealth, our protection from the elements, if we let him. We need to let go of our worries, so we will be able to take his hand and he will lead into his kingdom, not through fear, but through faith.

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