27th February 2011 - "O what needless pain we bear"
Usha Hull - St Peter's, Tewin and St Michael's
‘Some of your hurts you have cured, and the sharpest you still have survived, but what torments of grief you endured, from the evil which never arrived,’ says the author and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Another famous American author, Mark Twain, was to say about worry, ‘I am an old man, and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.’ Yet another American, Thomas Jefferson, one time president of the US, was to lament, ‘How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened.’
Mankind has worried throughout history and the 21st century is no different. We seem to live in a culture of worry. We worry about everything and nothing. We worry about our families, our futures, about success and failure, about health and money, about responsibilities, personal security. We worry about being lonely and we worry about not having enough personal space. We worry about going to the dentist, we worry about not going to the dentist. There are a million things we worry about in the course of our lives. And mostly we find that all our worries amount to nothing, that the scenario, the problem, the dreaded outcome never comes to pass or even if they do are not as bad as we expected.
For millions of people in the world we live in today, worry is the misery of choice, taking away our joy in life, stunting us in our spiritual growth, shutting us off from the freedom and clear sightedness that a life free of worry can bring. And sadly, worry has a negative impact not just on our spiritual health but on our physical health as well. Two typical diseases of the present day world are the stomach ulcer and coronary thrombosis. Both it seems are the result of worry. It seems our affluent western way of life does not decrease our tendencies to worry by one iota. Health professionals of the 21st century recognise more and more that poor emotional health may lead to the risk of major health problems, and they increasingly link positive emotions to better physical health. A paper published in Science Daily in 2010 argued that people who had a positive and worry-free outlook on life were less at risk from heart disease. It found that feelings such as joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm and contentment had positive health benefits.
The Lord had a very shrewd knowledge of human nature and in today’s Gospel urges us in no uncertain terms not to worry. This is a passage from the Scriptures we are all quite familiar with, and it comes after the sermon on the Mount. But just supposing, for an instance, that you were reading this passage for the first time, that you were looking at it from the point of view of an outsider. How do you think unchurched people would view the words of Jesus, ‘Look at the birds of the air, they sow not or reap’ as a way to conduct our lives? In today’s economic climate would they not, for example, scoff at the Christian ideal as being impractical and naive? At a time when homes are being repossessed, when so many are losing their jobs, at a time of sharp cuts when the pain is felt throughout the land, is it practical to urge that we do not worry? Could it be that the Lord’s message in this passage of Scripture is meant for some other time, some other people and not us?
To answer these questions, we need to look a bit at who Jesus is and at who he would have us be. Former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, asks, ‘has it ever struck you what a basically happy person Jesus was?’ Wright points out that we tend to regard Jesus through very serious lenses based on the biblical portrait of him as described in Isaiah as ‘a man aquainted with grief’, the suffering servant, the person who took on all the sins and cares of the world. We know for instance he felt anger when he overturned the tables of the money lenders, that he knew grief when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, that he struggled for long hours in the Garden of Gethsemane trying to come to terms with the horror that awaited him.
We rarely tend to think of him as happy, yet he must have been so. Who but a happy person would love children and welcome them coming to him. Who but a basically happy person would be gentle and courteous towards women. Who but a basically happy person would trouble to provide wine at a wedding, particularly when the wedding guests had already had a few. Who but a basically happy person would take the time and the care to observe the natural passing of the seasons, the rhythm of the earth as the sower went out to sow, the farmer to take in the harvest. And who but a basically happy person would admire the beauty and simplicity of a flower, the wheeling of the birds overhead, the ripening of the wheat in the fields.
The happiness of such a person would come deep from within, and nothing, no earthly sorrow, no fear, no evil could ever diminish it or detract from it. The happiness of such a person would come from a source of peace and contentment that sprang from a close relationship with his Creator. It was his relationship with his Heavenly Father that gave Jesus his strength, that made him see the world as a manifestation of God’s goodness and beauty, that opened his eyes to the wonder, the mystery, the power, the overwhelming majesty of our creator, a creator he could yet call ‘Abba’ or ‘daddy’ because at the heart of everything Jesus did there was trust in his Heavenly Father, a trust that was childlike and total.
The Father whom Jesus trusted so much he saw as being intimately involved in the world, tied up in our cares and sorrow, our laughter, our pain. When he was telling his followers not to worry about tomorrow he was drawing on his own example of putting his Heavenly Father at the centre of all things. He knew that when we put God at the centre of all things, when we make God and the things that are of God our priority, then as surely as night follows day we will be freed from the a huge burden of care.
So really, it comes down to a question of trust. In his book ‘Mr God, this is Anna’ Fynn says about trust: ‘And what a word that is! Define it how you like and I’ll bet you’ll miss the main point. It’s more than confidence, more than security; it doesn’t belong to ignorance or, for that matter to knowledge either. It is simply the ability to move out of the “I’m the centre of all things” and let something or someone take over.’
To move out of the ‘I’m the centre of all things’ and let something or someone else take over. In this 21st century how difficult do we find that! We live in an age that screams at us constantly to make ourselves the centre of all things, we are bombarded with advertisements that would have us strive to appear younger, thinner, more fashionable. We live in an age where we are urged to have bigger, better, newer, and why? Because we’re worth it, the adverts will tell you. Is this really what life is all about? Will this be an antidote for our worries?
One time Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, in his book ‘The Gospel of Matthew’, says that when we worry we refuse to learn three lesson: the lessons of nature, of history and of life: of nature because we have only to look at the world around us, as the Lord did, to realise the joy that underpins all creation; of history, because we ignore what God has done for mankind in the past; and of life, because no matter what we have been through personally we are still alive.
The Lord never asks us to do things he hasn’t done himself. We know from the gospels that he appreciated food and wine and attended weddings. We don’t know how he himself dressed. I’m guessing that since he came from a poor but respectable family he would have dressed simply, possibly in clothes that were handwoven. Certainly, when he came to be crucified the soldiers wanted his tunic, which was woven from one piece, so much that they cast lots for it.
So to return to the question I asked earlier about whether it is practical not to worry about what we should eat, drink or wear, the Lord isn’t telling us that these things don’t matter. They do matter but only to a certain extent. Rather, the Lord is saying that when we let God take over, we open the way to true joy in life, that we do things with joy rather than with worry. The Lord is saying that when we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, when we seek first the things that are of God, He will see us through no matter what befalls us.
What today’s reading tells us is that there is a difference between worry, which is wasteful and deadening and life destroying, and true concern which moves us to right action and hence to healing. Worrying about tomorrow is time wasted, but planning for tomorrow is time well spent. When we worry we fear the future and find it difficult to trust God. But when we think and plan ahead carefully we place our hand in the hand of God, we live one day at a time, we trust in the God who created us and who loves us.
We live in difficult times, dangerous times, uncertain times. We live in a world full of surprises, where we can witness history being made through world changing events on our television screens. We live in a fragile world, where illness can overtake us at any time and death come suddenly and unexpectedly. But throughout it all we know that the Lord has said to us, ‘I will never fail you or forsake you,’ and we can do no better than to trust and to take it all to the Lord in prayer. So I end with a verse from that most beautiful Hymn by Joseph Scriven:
‘What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.’
Let us ever trust the Lord.