There was old farmer long ago in China who had worked and lived in a simple way for many, many seasons. He had one son. His wife had died a few years back. One day his horse broke out and ran away. This was his only horse, which he needed for his work. He didn’t have money to buy another one. When his neighbors heard about it – they were also modest farmers – they felt sorry for him, and came by his place, “Oh, this is such bad luck for you.” “Well, maybe” said the old farmer, “I wonder.” The next morning the horse came back, with three wild horses. They went right to the old farmer’s corral. The neighbors saw this and of course they had to come by to talk about it. “Wow! How often does your wealth quadruple over night? That’s great!” “Well, maybe” said the old man, “I wonder.” Then the next day, the son was working on taming those wild horses. And he got thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors rushed on over, and worried over the son and were so sympathetic to the old man, “Oh, how unfortunate!” And the old man said, “Well, maybe. I wonder.” The day after that, a commander in the army tromped through with troops. They were mustering for a war and all able-bodied young men had to drop the plow and pick up the sword. The son with the broken leg, they passed over. But the neighbors, their sons marched off to some unknown fate in battle in some distant land. Those neighbors were in tears. They came to the old man, “Oh look at you, you got so lucky.” “Well,” he said, “maybe. I wonder.”
Come what may that old farmer was calm. He kept a bigger perspective than what was coming up in the moment, so he didn’t get caught up in the idea that something would become a catastrophe or a windfall. “Well, maybe. I wonder.” He had a secret to holy calm, an antidote to anxiety: trust and curiosity.
The teaching from Jesus we’re looking at today is about this bigger perspective and this kind of posture, this trust and curiosity that is the antidote to anxiety (Matthew 5:24-35). In the face of all there is to fret about and fuss about and catastrophize about, Jesus says, “Seek first God and God’s justice” – keep our focus on being in a good way with God and being in a good way with each other, as we can – and we will find that God has provided what we need to be well. And what we actually need may end up being a little different than what we think we need. We can trust. And we can be curious about how it’ll play out.
Easier said than done. Especially when were talking about really desperate circumstances. And Jesus was with a lot of folks in pretty desperate circumstances.
In my role here and when I’ve served in the past as a chaplain in hospitals, I’ve had the privilege being with many different people who know they have a terminal illness that’s progressing, and they know they likely will soon die. A few times someone has shared with me something like, “You know, to be honest I’m kinda curious what’s to come when I reach the end of this life. I wonder about what’s beyond that far horizon. I can’t say I rightly know for sure what God has in store. But it’ll be interesting to find out. I trust it’ll be okay.” They would rather not be in this position, but they’ve come to the place that this is where they are. The time to die comes to everyone, we can’t control it, but when we know we belong to God and we trust in God, we can have a kind of curiosity about this next adventure.
Easier said than done, I know. But this kind of way of being, come what may, is something we practice over the course of our lives. Something to exercise as stuff happens that makes us anxious. Reflecting on scripture like this, ancient wisdom, that’s part of the practice. Prayer, meditation, that’s part of the practice. Doing what you love with the people you love, that’s part of the practice. Learning from the times when we’ve let anxiety really catch us up, that’s part of the practice. The practice is doing the kinds of things that return us to a broader perspective that comes when we remember that we belong to God.
Now, there are plenty of legitimately difficult and overwhelming things we can face in this life in this world. But a whole lot of anxiety is totally out of proportion. We live in an anxious society, and it can be easy to get caught up in some hyperventilating frenzy.
Part of what anxiety does is constrict our view of what is possible. We think we have fewer choices and less time than we actually do – act now, do something, or else it’ll be a disaster! And anxiety also constricts our view of who we are, what we are capable of, and who we are connected to and what we are capable of together. We think we’re not up to the task. (I’m speaking from experience, by the way.) We have a restricted view of ourselves and an overblown view of the problem. This can paralyze us. Or it can drive us to act in a rash way.
Throughout history cunning people have figured out how to benefit from the psychology of anxiety. First, they induce anxiety. And then they direct people to act rashly in the way they want them to act. It’s in the playbook.
One clear example to pick out, which is my favorite thing to pick on: advertising. A lot of advertising is about making us feel insecure, so we think we need something that we don’t have already. We’re not attractive enough or hip enough or happy enough or smart enough or safe enough. So, we buy stuff we don’t need, sometimes with money we don’t even have. But it never satisfies, because it doesn’t feed what we really need. So we think we need yet more. There’s a cycle of insecurity, which can become a crisis if you’re opening up too many lines of credit. Through it call the conjurors of crisis are capitalized on it all. So that’s one case it point.
Wherever it is that anxiety comes from for us, whether it’s just conjured up or whether it’s truly a desperate situation, the practice is to return as often as we can to the broader perspective that we have in God.
From Psalm 31, as rendered by Fr. Daniel Berrigan: “A ward of tongues, a babble, a rout rages, goes nowhere. I would dwell Tongue stilled, mind subdued In your holy temple.”
From Psalm 46, “The nations raged, the kingdoms reel; the Holy One speaks, the earth melts: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”
From Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. If you are anxious, worried, caught on the wheel of endless striving: Slow down, look up, says Jesus. Consider the lilies in the field. Look at how beautiful they are. Look around at the birds, look at how they go about their lives and in their simple direct way go about finding what they need.
Look up and see how beautiful you are, as you are. Look at the amazing things you are capable of when you live in a good way with your people. Consider the good things you have received and remember how they came to you.
God provides us what we need.
Be in a good way with God. Be in a good way with each other, as best we can. And the Way will come clear.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered July 15, 2018, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)