Wednesday, May 28, 2008

relax (matthew 6)

For a number of years I led a retreat that was required of all first year pastors in our annual conference. I always began the retreats by encouraging the participants to relax. There is that stage at the beginning of a retreat, when you encourage those present to begin to disengage with everything they’ve left behind---work, families, other demands---and to enter into the retreat. You’ve probably experienced the same dynamic in transitioning from work to vacation. It takes some time and effort, for all of us.

I would then usually reflect on the passage that is the lectionary gospel for today---do not be anxious about your life, consider the lilies of the field, will not God take care of you?, live one day at a time, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.

Then I would read the passage from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, and I would pause, for some time, over a particular phrase within that passage, our passage. “What I am trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving”.

Now I realize that we are not on a retreat. We haven’t carved out two or three days, it is more like two or three hours, but the principle is the same. We’re all in the process of disengaging from whatever we left behind, at home this morning, or on the way to church, or even in the car: something on television, a family disagreement, an errand that needs to be accomplished or a bill that needs to be paid, a phone call that needs to be returned, the sign on the way to church that said gas was $4 a gallon! I am trying to forget about that one! And so I am encouraging us to leave all of that behind, to disengage with it, and to enter into this teaching of Jesus.

The gospel falls in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and it follows a brief teaching about money. That is not accidental. Much of our anxiety, much of our spiritual struggle is related to money. Most of us worry about money, no matter how much or how little we have of it. This has to be related to something that is embedded deep within us, the question, “will there be enough?” Maybe it is in our genetic code, the hunter-gatherers anxious about whether there would be enough food for that day.

We wonder and worry: is there enough to provide for my family, enough to make that college tuition payment, enough to retire on, enough to make it to the end of life?”

Jesus gives us this teaching. Across two thousand years not a great deal has changed. We are anxious. We worry. Jesus prompts the question: why do you worry? Has anyone, by worrying, ever added an hour to her span of life, or, it could be translated, an inch to his height? The answer, logically, is no.

Then Jesus asks his disciples to participate in an experiment. In the Message, “look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God”…. Of course birds don’t have mortgages, or children in college or businesses to sustain, but that is not the point. We are not comparing ourselves to birds. We are simply taking note that God provides for them.

Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin, and yet look at the beauty! Look at the grass of the field, the most transient of the objects to which Jesus guides the disciples, grass growing for only short periods of time in a desert region, today it is here, tomorrow it is gone, and of course, there is meaning there too. The birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the grass that is alive today and tomorrow has withered, what does Jesus want us to see? That God provides for the creation, even a small and insignificant bird, even the petal of a flower, even a blade of grass, and how much more will God provide for you and me?

So “do not be anxious about your life”, Jesus says. What I am trying to do here is to get you to relax. Relaxing has to do with trust, and I am aware that for many trust is difficult. Many of us have had life experiences that have made it difficult for us to trust. Many of us know how uncertain life is, and the more tense and anxious we become, the more difficult it is for us to trust.

We live in the most affluent and yet probably the most anxious nation in the world. The gospel, along with the verses that precede it in Matthew 6, would say that there is a connection between these two realities. The men and women who settled this nation lived with a great deal of uncertainty, with tremendous vulnerability, with shorter life spans, with uncertain outcomes. And yet they were able to live in trust. The people of Haiti, with whom we serve several times a year, live in extreme poverty. There is illness, loss, poverty, hunger, victimization. And yet there is also peace, and joy, and trust.

The spiritual question is a simple one: how can I learn to trust God? We can ask it experientially: how can I learn to relax?

As a college student I spent summers leading backpacking groups on the Appalachian Trail. A portion of the training was experiencing several kinds of climbing---rappelling, traversing, climbing the vertical face of a mountain. It was for the purpose of developing skills but mostly team-building. I completed the training, but I did not enjoy it! I did it, but it did not help me to bond with the others, and when it was over, I was glad! Years later I was involved in a leadership training experience where we were asked to do many of the same things. For some reason, I found it much easier to do. Perhaps I am learning to trust. Life experience has something to do with that, aging has something to do with it. Perhaps I have been asking people to trust for so long that I am beginning to believe it myself!

Trust is important. And in the scripture Jesus is talking about trust. Our spiritual development is directly related to our ability to trust. What is Jesus saying to us, in the gospel?

Do not be anxious about your life. Translated positively, this is the invitation to relax. But how can we do that? We can remember that God is the creator and sustainer of all that is. As the children sing, “He’s God The Whole World in His Hands”. That’s good news. I am not in control. God is in control.

I have been reminded of this in several ways recently. Last month we commissioned a new group of Stephen Ministers. In the Stephen Ministry there is a wonderful saying, which has relevance for all of us: We are the caregivers, but God is the caregiver. I like that. It reminds me that I have a role in God’s healing and caring work in the world, but the outcome is not ultimately up to me. That is freeing.

I also came across a poem that I had read years ago, a poem by T.S. Eliot, written after his conversion to Christianity as an adult. The poem is entitled “Ash Wednesday”, and it concludes with these words:

Teach us to care and not to care”.

The wisdom there has to do with our understanding of what is possible and appropriate for us. We are creatures, we are human beings, we are not God, we have limitations. Teach us to care---to care enough, to love enough, to be, as someone has said, a “good enough” parent…Teach us to care and not to care…”Not to care”, not to become paralyzed by anxiety over matters that are beyond our control. Trusting God is participating in the life that we have been given—the work, the relationships, the mission---trusting God is not passive, it is active, but trusting is also relinquishing the outcomes, ultimately, to God. He’s got the whole world in his hands.

I am aware that it is one thing to say, to someone else, or to myself, “relax, trust” and it is another to do it, or even to know how to do it. I want to share another insight, which for me was helpful. It comes from Gerald May, who was a spiritual director and a psychiatrist in the Washington D.C. area.

Gerald May talked about the relationship between relaxing and paying attention. He said that in American culture, we associate relaxing with drowsiness or sleep. At the end of the day we relax, and we soon find ourselves asleep in the Lazy Boy or on the couch. When we relax, we fall asleep. In the same way, in our culture, we associate paying attention, alertness, with tension. The more alert we are, the more awake we are, the more tense we are, the more stressed we are. When we pay attention to things we want to control them.

May offers this profound invitation: to pay attention without the need to control. To pay attention while remaining relaxed. Jesus says, in the Message:

What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax…to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving… Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now.”

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now… He continues, “don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow”. Live one day at a time. Live in the present moment. When your child is four, enjoy them as a four year old. Don’t worry about what may or may not happen tomorrow. We often miss what is happening today because our minds are wandering or worrying about what is ahead. Relax. Live one day at a time.

The spiritual lesson is to trust in providence, to be still and know that we are in the presence of the One who is our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. “Teach us to care, and not to care.” This is possible when we pray, when we sing, when we move toward relationships that sustain us, when we immerse ourselves in the stories of scripture, when we look at the world and really see the beauty and the order and the design. I love the words of the spiritual:

I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free.
For his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is the good news of our faith. It is the radical freedom of an orthodox Christian vision of who we are in relation to God. And yet it is also a way of life that Jesus is teaching us, again, from the Message.

What I’m trying to get you to do here is to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works Fuss over these things But you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-initiative, God-provision, God-reality.

Don’t worry about missing out.You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now,

And don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever comes up when the time comes”.

Sources: T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”; Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality; Tom Long, Matthew; Gerald May, Addiction and Grace.


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