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Listening to the Birds, Looking at the Flowers

For Sunday May 25, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Isaiah 49:8–16a
           Psalm 131
           1 Corinthians 4:1–5
           Matthew 6:24–34

Flowers (see larger image).

           I wish I didn't worry so much. I might even qualify as a compulsive worrier.

           On the outside I'm affable and easy going. That's a genuine part of my personality, and not a masquerade. And my life is full of God's goodness many orders of magnitude beyond anything I might have reasonably expected, earned, and deserved. Still, despite a friendly exterior and a fortunate life, on the inside my engines are always running. And so I worry.

           I make lists of things to do, like "take out the trash for curbside collection." As if I'd forget this trivial chore after doing it every Tuesday morning for thirteen years. Only a worrier knows the satisfaction of crossing out something on your to-do list; there's nothing quite so satisfying as looking at those dark horizontal slashes through each line item.

           At night I find it hard to locate the off switch for my brain, and so I've become a predictably fitful sleeper. My wife calls this "whizzy brain," and even though she's a deep sleeper, every once in a while even she succumbs to it. And I'm definitely a "clock head" who'd rather be an hour early than five minutes late.

           If I had thousands of dollars and knew a good therapist I could probably figure out why I worry. But I don't have either, so I'm left to my own diagnoses. That's not all bad. As a veteran worrier, the tapes in my brain play in a continuous loop, and so I've done my share of ruminating, brooding, and wondering about the constant conversation in my head. In fact, I think I have a pretty good idea why I worry.

           I remember my grandmother Hildred (and her twin sister Helen, for that matter) as a good-natured, cheerful "nervous Nelly." Her little salt box house was as neat as a pin, and she made sure you didn't get it dirty. Like many people, she channeled her anxieties into a smoking habit. My own mom inherited similar traits from grandma, but with much darker outcomes that included severe clinical depression late in life. As a teenager I remember my dad trying to quit the habit of biting his finger nails. So, I come by my worry honestly, thanks in part to the random roll of the genetic dice and the inheritance of my family of origin.

'The Scream' by Edvard Munch (1893)
Painted hills (see larger image).

           A lifetime of small choices has also shaped my character bit by bit. I'm sure that in some important ways my interior psyche reflects the accumulation of these thousands of choices.

           Powerful cultural forces feed my worries. In recent years we've seen just how manipulative and powerful a politics of fear can be. Our capitalist economy legitimizes greed, creates artificial wants and needs, perfects advertising techniques that shape our attitudes, and makes sure that money, no matter how much or little you have, is our number one worry. The most insidious effects of capitalism might be on those who succeed at it rather than on the poor who fail. A culture of competition and meritocracy makes you worry about where your kid goes to college, even though you know that your child can enjoy a deeply satisfying life no matter where (or even if) she goes to college. No one is immune from these and other powerful cultural forces. I know I'm not.

           I try not to be too hard on myself. Some worry is part of normal human nature. We ought to worry about some things — like how to help Myanmar where a cyclone killed tens of thousands, or like losing your job on a wintry February afternoon in Michigan when your wife is pregnant, as happened to me in 1991. My grandmother lived through two world wars and a great depression. My mother grew up during the depression, raised six kids as a house wife, then at age fifty found herself divorced and forced to look for employment with limited job skills. How'd they do it?

           No one should imagine that they'll ever be entirely free of worry. The apostle Paul once said that he was "harassed at every turn — conflicts on the outside, fears within" (2 Corinthians 7:5). He admitted that he worried about "all the churches" (2 Corinthians 11:28). The early desert monastics counseled Christians to "expect trials until your last breath." And St. Makarios of Egypt (5th century) was brutally realistic in a comforting sort of way: "I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety. . . . Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety."

'The Scream' by Edvard Munch (1893)
Poppy slope (see larger image).

           But there comes a tipping point when normal worries become unhealthy anxieties. There comes a time when you ought to worry about your worry. It's impossible to generalize exactly how, when and why this happens. It's been said of pornography, and even of love, that it might be hard to define, but you know it when you see it. I don't know if I worry too much, but I will say this — the very familiar words of Jesus in this week's Gospel resonate with something deep in my soul. I wish that I could live in the way that he describes.

           Jesus offers two words of advice. He repeats himself five times: "Don't worry," says Jesus (Matthew 6:25, 27, 28, 31, 34). Don't worry about your life, for your heavenly Father knows what you need. Listen to the birds and consider how God cares for them. Look at the flowers and learn from their effortless beauty. Don't worry about wealth like the pagans do, for despite what the advertisers say, your life doesn't consist of your possessions. Don't fret about the past or obsess about the future over which you have no control, but rather learn to enjoy the present moment.

           While Jesus compared God to a tender father, the Old Testament readings this week compare him to a strong mother. "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast / and have no compassion on the child she has borne? / Though she may forget you, I will not forget you! / See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands" (Isaiah 49:15–16). "I have stilled and quieted my soul," says the psalmist, "like a weaned child with its mother" (Psalm 131:2). These analogies to a parent's care pale in comparison to the reality of divine compassion.

           The English mystic and Benedictine nun Juliana of Norwich (1342–1414) had reasons enough to worry. She lived during the Black Death that killed 75 million people in medieval Europe. Many people interpreted the bubonic plague as divine punishment, but not Juliana. In her unapologetically optimistic view of life, she believed that God loved every person and that he would redeem every tear. In her book of visions called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love — by some accounts the first book published in English that was written by a woman — Juliana wrote one of the most well-known sentences in all of Christian history that's also the perfect antidote to worry.

'The Scream' by Edvard Munch (1893)
Tehachipis (see larger image).

            In her thirteenth vision or "shewing," Juliana concluded that she was wrong to worry about the sins and sorrows of life. Jesus told her that these trials and tribulations were, in fact, "behovely" (from which we get our word "behoove"). Even our sins and anxieties are somehow incumbent upon us. They're part of our human story. Despite "all the pains that ever were, or ever shall be," Juliana believed that God longs to "comforteth readily and sweetly." He does so by reassuring us that, because of the certainty of his boundless love, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

For further reflection

* What causes you to worry?
* How do you deal with worry?
* Reflect: "Cast all your anxiety on God because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7).
* Consider: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7).

Image credits: William T. Newsome.