Worry and Wonder

Matthew 6:25-34

Our story begins quite removed in a castle far away. Our story unfolds, unfortunately, on a very unfortunate day. You see, this morning when the world awoke, no one was in a mood to joke.

But one was still happy, and bubbled with joy, for he played with life as you play with a toy. He would dance to its rhythm, being light on his feet. He would sing to its tune, which was gentle and sweet. For he was the Jester and gesture would he make people laugh and fill them with glee. He had a special helper, as any Jester should. A friend by the name of Pharley, a piece of talking wood.

But today when the Jester broke out in his song, how could he have known that something was wrong. When he started his routine and strutted on the stage, how could he have known that the King was in a rage?

“The Jester has lost his jingle!” the King yelled in dismay. “His bells no longer tingle! That’s all I have to say!” Then without a thought and on a whim, the King decided to banish him.

“The world has lost its sense of humor,” Pharley sadly said. “It seems a nasty rumor, but laughter must be dead.” It isn’t you at all! It’s the world that must be sick. We must find that sense of humor and bring it back here quick!”

They looked in vain for flowers. They heard no songs of birds. But they saw lots of angry faces and heard lots of bitter words.

“Everyone here is so moody. Everyone here is so mean. I must confess this city is the saddest place I’ve ever seen. Maybe someone here can tell me. Maybe someone here might know. How come people aren’t laughing? How come spirits are so low?”

“Ask that man,” Pharley motioned, “that man over there, the one with the briefcase blowing smoke into the air.” [So over they went and talked to the man, asking him why laughter had become rare.]

“Laughter! That’s a laugh! The best I’ve had in years! The world is not a funny place. It’s filled with pain and tears. Don’t you read the papers? It’s all there in black and white. Everything is going wrong, and jokes won’t make it right. I have no time for laughter. I have no time for you. I’m sorry that’s the way things are…There’s nothing you can do.”

Thus begins David Saltzman’s children’s book titled, The Jester Has Lost His Jingle, which goes on to tell a story of the importance of getting in touch with the laughter inside us, and discovering how “silly and scary and wonderful this world of ours is.”

Recently it seems the man with the briefcase blowing smoke is right. The world is not a funny place. Everything, it seems, is going wrong. There’s so much pain and tears in the world. In Iraq. In the terrorist attacks in London. In the ballooning deficit that threatens government programs for those on the margins. In the brewing battle over the nomination of the new Supreme Court justice. In the unspeakable genocide in Darfur. In the nuclear weapons being developed by Iran. And all that is just from a scan of the most recent headlines in the papers.

“Do not worry,” says Jesus. Don’t worry?!? Is Jesus being hopelessly naive? To be human is to worry. We worry about big things in the world that are beyond our control. We worry about big and small things in our personal lives. We worry about some things before they happen. And we worry about other things after they happen. In each of our lives we could make a list of more than enough things that make us worry. What makes your shoulders cramp up? What feeds your ulcer? What keeps you awake at night? I hardly know a person who would say they have nothing at all to worry about. For there is always something that troubles. Even little things cause us worry.

A man named Stan Isaacs told this story in a piece he wrote in the Sunday New York Times. He said, “My friend Don Parker was interviewing a 94-year- old man in Port Washington Long Island as part of an oral history project. Don asked the man ‘At this time in your life, what gives you the most satisfaction?’ The man thought for a moment, then responded, ‘No peer pressure.’”

Of course, peer pressure is only one of the many forces that combine to raise our blood pressure and create anxiety. The fact is, that it really isn’t easy to live in this world. It’s normal to have problems in life. It’s particularly difficult for those of us who have very high expectations of what we’re supposed to get out of life. And the pressure is especially acute if you come from a family of high achievers — a family that has arranged things for their children with the goal of producing another generation of high achievers.

Last fall I was at a luncheon sitting next to a young woman who was in her senior year at New Trier. She was bright, engaging, a delight to talk with. At one point in our conversation, I asked her what she was planning to do after graduation. “Well,” she told me, “I didn’t do as well on my PSAT’s as I needed to, so I won’t be going to Yale or Brown like I hoped.” When I asked what other colleges she was considering or had been accepted, she mentioned two schools in the east that I know to be both selective and excellent. Her evident disappointment would have been reason for celebration for many other students.

For those who have been groomed for “success,” there are no excuses. If you don’t get into the right school, if you don’t get the promotions and the title, if you don’t earn the dollars to get that home —then you’ve got something to worry about. I don’t think any of us have to have anyone tell us that to live along the lake in the North Shore is to announce that you are in the race, and expected to strive. Races are exciting, but if it’s really important for you to be a winner, you’ll pay for that ambition in anxiety.

Now to be fair, anxiety is not all that negative. Anxiety and productivity are related. There are some people who are laid back who climb the ladder of success, but more often, those who achieve the most, are the people who are inwardly motivated. One part of that motivation, that ambition, is anxiety and worry over the fear of failing. Anxiety can be useful, up to a point. But when worry and anxiety build beyond a certain level, it becomes counter-productive and can consume us and eat away at the quality of our lives.

During the years I was in the advertising business and we were raising our children, I felt that I was being chased by anxiety. Would I measure up to the work for which I was responsible? Could I come up with the right strategy to lead to advertising that would cut through? How could I meet all the demands and expectations of my clients in the limited time available?

That persistent anxiety, I’m afraid, took away from the time I could have enjoyed my children a whole lot more than I did – when I ought to have been more present to them than I allowed myself to be. That anxiety no doubt increased my productivity, but it cost me something, and it cost my kids something. I wish I had known at the time how to calculate the cost better.

When Jesus tells his disciples and us, “Do not worry about your life,” I don’t think he is being Pollyanna, as though we could all blissfully put aside all our cares and concerns. What I believe he is speaking about, is getting our priorities straight, not just worry in general. Cautioning us to remember that we are more, far more, than the things we have and what we achieve according to society’s standards.

In a survey by Psychology Today, a representative sample group was asked how much more money that they thought they would need in order to have “enough.” The result? Almost every group, whether lower or higher income earners, whether younger or nearing retirement, said that if they just had 20% more, that would be enough.

So we worry. Too much. And too often about the wrong things. Failing to put first things first.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,” said Jesus, then he adds, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?” Of course, there’s no question but that he’s absolutely right. Probably many of us have had our mother and father say almost the same thing. My mother would tell my brothers and me not to borrow trouble, and when things weren’t going too good, she would tell us that things were not as bad as it seemed, it would be okay. Does that help, do you think? Sometimes that kind of reassurance can be empty, and you feel that the person who said it doesn’t really understand your problem or concern. But when it comes from someone who clearly cares about us, there can be something fundamentally comforting in those words, “Don’t worry. It will be all right!”

Jesus was speaking to his disciples and sensed their anxiety. They had left their homes and their jobs to follow him who-knows-where. They had no salary, no Social Security, no stock options. He tried to reassure them, using a language, which is more poetry than prose. God takes care of the birds, he said. God clothes the flowers that grow in the fields. To which you and I might skeptically respond, “So?” Because when your mortgage is past due, when the terror warning is elevated, you have more to worry about than those birds or flowers.

But Jesus is not promising immunity from our pain and tears. His promise is that there is absolutely no circumstance where we’ll find ourselves outside of God’s care. When our worries pile up and press in on us, it is then that Jesus says we should strive for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.” He is inviting us to trust in God’s love – to trust in him. He is offering to us the opportunity to live life fully by experiencing each day, taking notice of the gifts that each day brings.

Jesus is telling those of us who are burdened by too much worry and anxiety, that we need to stop and take a few deep breaths and look around at where we are — and put the circumstances of our life in perspective. To realize that our worries should not be the focus of our lives. This does not mean giving up on our responsibilities, but it does mean giving up on our incessant, life-denying anxiety.

We are given but one life to live. None of us know the number of days we will walk on this good earth. And as we walk through our time on earth, if we can walk with appreciation for the blessings that surround us, and at least some of the time, like the Jester, carry rainbows in our hands, then we will find our burdens of worry and anxiety lightened.

With concern for our well-being, Jesus wants us to see things in a clearer and truer light. What we see in the birds and the flowers and all the wonders of creation are manifestations of God’s divine grace. Jesus is calling our attention to what counts, the beauty of life and those persons in our lives who give to us joy and laughter. All these come to us as a gift. This is one of the more important lessons for any of us to learn: namely that our lives offer us so much. And we can miss it — miss the glory and passion of it — if we become too weighed down by our worries and cares.

Worry and wonder. It’s a matter of balance. Because while this world we know can be difficult, it does not have to be impossible. Lightness comes into our lives when we let the wonder in, as Mary Oliver so eloquently captured in this poem entitled, “My Joy Overflows.”

Salt shining behind its glass

cylinder.

Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow

linoleum. The cat stretching her black

body from the pillow.

The way she makes her curvaceous

response to the small, kind

gesture.

Then laps the bowl clean.

Then wants to go out into the world

where she leaps lightly and for

no apparent reason crosses

the lawn,

then sits perfectly still, in the grass.

I watch her a little while, thinking:

What more could I do with

wild words?

I stand in the cold kitchen,

bowing down to her.

I stand in the cold kitchen,

everything wonderful around me.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with worry and seeking the kingdom of God? Everything.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.