If you insist on worrying, then do this…
TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST NOVEMBER 10th, 2019 PSALM 145:1-5, 18-22
When I was a child growing up outside London, I’d dream of exotic lands. And music was a high-octane fuel in the firing of my imagination. I stole my sister’s copy of the 1972 album Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. I still have it. It’s a bit worse for wear but now that vinyl is back in fashion I’m feeling cool again. I would study the album sleeve. Where was that exotic looking river on the back, did Art Garfunkel have a perm or was that curl natural, and most importantly, where can get a hat like Paul Simon’s? There was one song in particular that peaked my curiosity and birthed within me a lust to explore. It was the song ‘America’. I lay on my bed listening to the lyrics and dreaming. “It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.” Saginaw. How exotic, I thought. Just the strangeness of the name to a 9-year old who’d never journeyed outside England, compelled me to wonder. I pictured a utopian city, where all needs were met, and where violence and want were unknown. Then there was “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.” How exciting did that sound to my childish ears? Actually, I didn’t know what a turnpike was and had to consult a dictionary. But when I did I imagined a seven-lane highway, with American cars twenty-foot long, like I’d seen on TV, filled with smiling New Jersey families making their annual stress-free road trip to camp in the mountains. And so I decided there and then, that I had to go and find these places. I, too, must look for America.
So, nearly thirty years later I emigrated to Michigan, because I had to experience exotic Saginaw. And then two years ago compulsive curiosity forced me to move here and count the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. There are lots. And there aren’t seven lanes. The cars are more environmentally woke than they were in my boyish imagination, but they are not filled with smiling families enjoying road trips.
“Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” Those lines stayed with me. They were unnerving. They hinted that beneath the glamor, the wealth, the friendliness, the sheer unimaginable beauty and excess of this breathtaking land, not all was well with the human condition. Maybe, in looking for America I’d encounter challenges, dangers, yes even the hollowness the dwells within me. Perhaps, I thought, it is easier to look for America than it is to discover yourself – your real self – the one that is left when your possessions and false identities are stripped away.
A much older song addresses that aching emptiness. We read it just now. “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; there is no end to his greatness. One generation shall praise your works to another and shall declare your power. I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty and all your marvelous works. The Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving in all his works. He fulfills the desire of those who respect him.”
Psalm 145 speaks to our emptiness not by making us feel guilty, because, who needs guilt when they already have despair? No, this poet calls us to take our eyes off ourselves completely – don’t dwell on how empty you feel, don’t travel the length of the continent to find the thing that will fill you. The true bread that will satisfy your hunger, the living water that will quench your thirst are closer than you think. When the moon rises over an open field it is a sign that you are loved, this world and all its beauty and abundance is a sacrament of the passion that beats for you in the heart of God.
145 is a song of abundance. “I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty and all your marvelous works. The Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving in all his works. He fulfills the desire of those who respect him.” When the abundance of God meets the emptiness of the human soul, miracles happen.
When the abundance of God meets the emptiness of the human soul, peace happens. Take it from a world-class worrier, if you want to lose sleep, raise blood pressure, and stifle joy, I recommend that you believe in a small God, with few resources. If you see God as a bank manager, cautiously guarding his fortune in case it runs out, and needing to have his arm twisted before he’ll release any of it, then we would be right to fret. We’d be wise to worry about what will happen to us in this complex world. If our hearts are focused on what we lack instead of what we have, then we will most certainly be anxious. There’s only so much money to go around, only so much happiness, only so much love, only so much God. If other people are enjoying these, then there’s less available for me.
If there’s not enough of God’s blessing to go around then we would be right to compete for God’s love, to fight for material things, to horde what we have, to be defensive, to be suspicious of other people, to reject the outsider, to close ranks and close borders, to shun risk, to settle for what we have and dedicate our energy to making sure no one else shares in it. What small minds, miniscule hearts, deformed and suffering spirits we endure when we focus on what we lack instead of celebrating what we have.
The mindset of scarcity or the attitude of abundance. Those who look at their own resources and fear, and those who gaze on God’s abundance and risk. The small thinker, the person focused on safety, the one content with scarcity, digs a hole in the ground and hides God’s resources. Not just material possessions, but they hide their hearts, their emotions, their words, their wisdom, their friendship, their joy, the truly beautiful gifts that God has lavished on them; and the world suffers for it. They sense their fear rising and they withhold the gift of encouragement because they suspect they will be rejected. They keep to themselves the wise or comforting word, scared of saying the wrong thing. They hold their personalities under lock and key, buried under the ground, anxious that they are unsightly. But when the abundance of God meets the emptiness of the human soul, peace happens.
The Christian author, Annie Dillard, puts it like this: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for later; give it, give it all, give it now. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” This is the lavish God, the passionate God, the wasteful God, the God who lacks caution and shuns restraint, the God who will replenish our resources as we give of them – the God we see in the father of the Prodigal Son, the God who prepares for us a heavenly banquet, a God who died to get our names on the guest list, and who empowers us to live now with faith-filled abandon.
When the abundance of God meets the emptiness of the human soul, simplicity happens. Marie Kondo knows. Marie Kondo is a professional organizer. Who knew there was a such a thing? And she has a wildly popular reality show on Netflix, in which she goes into people’s homes and helps them de-clutter. Apparently de-cluttering is becoming a science. And as in all sciences, there are different theories about how to achieve a simpler, more ordered life. Some professional organizers say you should go through all your stuff and ask yourself two questions – ‘when was the last time I used this?’ and ‘can I see a time when I will use it again?’ And the answer to those questions will guide you to either put it back in the closet or take it to Goodwill. But that’s not how Marie Kondo does it. No, for her it’s not a matter of your brain asking rational questions, but your heart feeling radical emotions. The only question she asks is this – Does this item bring you joy?
I love that question. If believing in God’s abundance is the key to a peaceful, contented life, then dumping things that don’t give you joy is surely the way to a simple life. Is it just me, or do you, too, hunger for simplicity? Life on the edge of the big city is complicated. The digital revolution has made it more so. Things are fragmented, we’ve lost quality for quantity and depth for breadth. There’s too much to do and not enough time. So much of what happens to me appears out of my control. The Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes says, “God made mankind simple; mankind’s complex problems are of their own devising.”
But when I dwell on Marie Kondo’s question I don’t want to stop with just material things. I feel God’s challenge to go through every area of my life and ask it – Does this thing bring me joy? I ask it of my mind – does that thought give me joy – that resentful thought, that envious thought, that critical thought, that self-condemning thought? I ask it of my heart – Does this urge or passion or emotion bring me joy? Of my work life, my relational life, my spiritual life. What brings me joy? And I do mean joy – not merely pleasant feelings, but the deep flame of contentment that is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Quaker writer, Richard Foster has Ten Commandments of Simple Living
- Buy things for their usefulness, not status
- Reject anything that is forming an addiction in you
- Develop a habit of giving things away
- Resist the propaganda of those who are out to get your money
- Learn to enjoy things without owning them
- Develop a deeper appreciation for creation
- Avoid debt
- Reject anything that oppresses others or harms creation
- Talk plainly and honestly
- Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the Kingdom of God
We’re left with a mystery. 145 celebrates a lavish God, rich in generosity. Yet, Christian wisdom insists that simplicity is the way to a contented life. God’s abundance, our simplicity. Put those things together and we find the Holy Grail, the end of our hunger. ‘I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why’ will no more be our song. We will find ourselves and our purpose.