Sunday, February 27, 2011

Back to Nature

So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. (Matthew 6.31-32)

Fascinating Lesson

For the moment, let’s set afterlife theology aside for an ersatz reincarnation scenario in which we choose our next lives. I can say without hesitation I’d return as a pet—not any pet, but my pet or your pet. (Having heard many of your stories, life in your care would be a swell thing indeed.) The bond between master and pet is unique because the terms of the relationship are clearly defined up front. When we adopt animals, we realize they’ll totally depend on us for everything they need: food, shelter, health, discipline, companionship, love, and so on. We commit to cleaning up their messes, forgiving their sins, tolerating their stubbornness, and accepting their quirks. We assume these duties voluntarily and soberly. In exchange, they repay us in loyalty, affection, and endless surprise. Who wouldn’t want to be our pets?

It’s said pets teach us a great deal about life. I believe that. We learn one fascinating lesson in how quickly and unabashedly they trust us. Once they grasp our roles in their lives, they have no reticence about expecting us to perform them. We feed our cats, Cody and Maxwell, every morning at six a.m. Whether we got to bed late, want to sleep in, or could use more rest, they expect to be fed at six. “Not today” means nothing. Nor do “I did it yesterday” or “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Yesterday was yesterday. Tomorrow will be tomorrow. This is today. Confident we won’t let them go hungry, they’re waiting bedside to escort us to the kitchen when the alarm goes off. If there’s no alarm, they wake us. Of course we get up. Because we love them, we’re true to them. And since Max and Cody trust us to stay true, they don’t worry. We all know how it works. Why should today be different? It’s a terrific way to live. And in Matthew 6 we hear Jesus insist it's precisely how we should live.

Stealing from Ourselves

Today’s Gospel stands pretty tall among the most beloved of Jesus’s teachings. Few of His statements compare to its poetry and simplicity. But Jesus has more serious reasons than eloquence for framing this message as He does. He uses imagery and accessible comparisons so His audience can see what He’s talking about and internalize what it means. The central theme is “Don’t worry. God will take care of you.” That sounds straightforward. And it is. Yet difficulty accepting it at face value today helps us relate to how much tougher it must be for His original listeners. Our worst nightmares—irrevocable loss, catastrophic disease, financial ruin, legal disasters, family crises, and so on—are identical to theirs with one exception. Those gathered for Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount live in a nexus of uncertainty. Regimes topple overnight. Common people are crushed. Healthcare is a luxury. Property is often a greater liability than asset; if people want what you’ve got, there’s little to prevent them from taking it. Life can be glorious one day and wretched the next. These people have a lot to worry about. Merely assuring them God will see to their needs won’t ease their anxiety. Jesus presses them to see we don’t work the same as God works. With no convincing example of this in human affairs, He goes back to nature.

Jesus urges them to “look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6.26-27) He asks why they worry about clothes. “See how the flowers of the field grow,” He says. “They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” (v28-29) Does Jesus really mean we should trust God much like pets rely on us? That we should grasp God’s’ role in our lives, expect God to perform it, and not panic if we can’t predict how things will turn out? That’s exactly what He means. Anxiety is contrary to nature, He says. It’s counterproductive to life. The clock starts ticking the moment we allow anxiety to overtake us. Every second we worry we’re stealing from ourselves. The only thing that worry changes is us, and not once has it done us any favors. Jesus wonders, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Of course we can’t. And since we can’t, perhaps the only concern worth worrying about is wasting time on worry.

Now is All We’ve Got

So, we ask, what’s the alternative to worry? Well, let’s consider what worries us. Either we fret over something we did or may have to do, what’s lost or may be lost, what happened or may happen. Even if we find satisfying reasons for past mistakes and miseries, we can’t rewrite the record. Lessons learned remain timely; tests don’t. What if tomorrow unfolds as we worry it will? Tying ourselves in knots about inevitabilities won’t alter them. Anxiety about the future is like hiding in a cellar on a gorgeous day because a storm’s due to hit the next morning. What we’ve been given now is all we’ve got. Worry destroys that and promises nothing better.

How do our pets understand time better than we? Watching Cody and Max move through their day is a wonder. When it’s time to eat, they look to us to feed them. When it’s time to play, they drop their toys at our feet. When it’s time to exercise, they expect full run of the house. When it’s time to sleep, we let them sleep. Every day follows the same pattern. Every day we provide what they need when they need it. And when new needs arise—if one of them is sick or wants extra attention or stumbles onto mischief—we’re there. Does Cody stress about not eating? Does Max dread the possibility we won’t play with him? Perhaps, but not likely. Our natural impulse is to care for them, just as God cares for us. So what are we so worked up about? Why can’t we understand how it works?

“Stop worrying,” Jesus says in verse 31. “God knows what you need.” Then, in verse 33, He says, “Seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first, and all these things will be given to you as well.” That’s how we discover God is present now. God meets our needs now. God gives answers we need now. Now comes when tomorrow turns into today, and not a minute sooner. “Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow,” Jesus tells us. “Tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (v34) That’s the nature of things. And all the worry in the world won’t change it.

Cody (l) and Max (r)—without a worry in the world. If they get it, why don’t we?


Sherry Peyton said...

Oh Tim, so fun. I wrote about this as well, and as usual, I think you captured it somewhat better than I, but frankly, I think we got to the same point. I wish I had all the time back that I've spent needlessly worrying about this or that. Such a valuable lesson, and one I find so hard to implement.

Tim said...

Sherry, was heading your way after checking on comments! Can't wait to get your take on this.

Today, our pastor tied the text to concupiscence--not in the negative sense of sinful lust, but in the sense of a longing for presence, namely God's. Worry, she said, is the agent that instigates our making do with substitutes (hence the darker side of the coin). That's where "seeking God's kingdom first" comes in: if we fill our need for presence with God, we are relieved of worry.

I never put all of that together. It's really "seek first" and then "don't worry." Hmmmm. That makes it much easier to contemplate for me.

Blessings, my dear sister. I'm headed your way right now!

Tim said...

To all: I've just returned from Sherry's reflection on this text and topic. It says everything I hoped to say here with much greater clarity and thoroughness. I highly recommend it:

genevieve said...

A wonderful analogy,Tim. Our pets are loyal, also. I think of the verse 'a friend being closer than a brother'.

I recently lost much of my belongings in storage because I'm living in a shelter at the present time. My spouse was annoyed. I said to her that those thing are replaceable. I just happy that I have Jesus.

Tim said...

Oh, Gen, it grieves me to hear of your current circumstances--and I sincerely apologize for not staying in closer touch lately. This business with my mom has commanded center of my thoughts lately. If there's anything I can do to help you, please please let me know (via email is best).

If you're acquainted with the fine folks at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, I would recommend getting to know them. Not only are they a truly committed faith community, they are staunch supporters of LGBT people and a wealth of resources and ideas. If you like, I can write to the pastor, Donna Schaper (who's been a longtime friend of S-F) and introduce her to you.

Yet your comment also lifts me--because your faith remains strong and our God is true, a friend who is closer than any brother. I've never believed what Jesus talks about here is a "pass," an invitation to disavow our responsibility to do our best to care for ourselves. But in situations like yours--times we all face when we're troubled on every side (as Paul describes it)--are precisely what this passage addresses.

Be not dismayed, my sister, God will take care of you.
Through every day, along the way, God will take care of you.

I hold you in my heart and prayers always,

genevieve said...

Thank you for the encouragement, Tim. I am waiting for a housing voucher with VA. So far things are moving along. I'm seeking employment also. I'm receiving some help now.

I know where Judson Memorial is. I've passed by there many times.

Tim said...

Gen, I'm so sorry about the delay. I've been wrangling with a miserable head cold that's slowed me down and am just catching back up.

I'm so glad to hear things are in the works for you. Keep me posted and anything I can do from here to help you along, I'm more than happy to do.

I'm delighted you know Judson. It's a great community. Some time when you have time to drop by there, I'd be most interested in your response!

Blessings, dear friend,