Don't Worry - Be Faithful

Don’t Worry, Be Faithful
August 18, 2013
Pastor Steve Halsted

Let me begin by sharing a few words from my journal which I kept “religiously” throughout my Sabbatical the past three months.  Page #1 reads “FIRST DAY OF SABBATICAL!  The entry begins,

"Sitting in RDU airport with Marcy, awaiting our flight to Seattle to spend two weeks in the Pacific Northwest.  On our trip we plan to explore the cities of Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, and Portland.  Can’t wait to see the new Art Museum of Chihuli Glass Works and the Rock & Roll Museum featuring the music of Jimi Hendrix – hometown hero of Seattle!  Also very excited to anticipate visiting Olympic National Park (I now have a Senior Citizen free pass) and its claim to being the most northern latitude for any rainforest in the world!  And my mother has highly recommended we see the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, in Canada!  But now we have an hour to kill before our flight is boarded…so I’ll begin to read the first book on my sabbatical list:  The Great Work, by noted cultural historian and eco-theologian Thomas Berry, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, who taught at Fordham University…”

Orion Magazine, one of America’s finest environmental magazines writes:  “Berry is our conscious, our prophet, our guide.  He speaks to what is best within us, in a voice that is inclusive, ecumenical, generous, and wise.”  And Newsweek writes:  “Thomas Berry is the most provocative figure among the new breed of eco-theologians.”   Thomas Berry died in 2009.

Back to my journal entry…

“Now writing on the plane – waiting for take-off – the monitor screens above the seats are showing beautiful images of flowers in nature:  a flower in slow motion opening, orange California poppies blowing in the wind, wonderful tranquil images to relax the passengers and alleviate their worries associated with air travel in a post 9/11 world.”

Matthew’s Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, thunderously speaks, saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…consider the lilies of the field, how they have grown; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  Will God not much more clothe you?  Oh ye of little faith?  Therefore, do not worry, saying, what will we eat?  Or what will we drink?  Or what will we wear?”

Okay, Jesus!  I hear you!  But, we are a worrisome people, living in a worrisome age.  So, let’s all just take a deep breath and relax – just a little bit.  Let’s all try and let go of our worries long enough so they don’t get a stranglehold on us, and choke out the good, the beautiful, and the true elements in life that are all around us – and are free for the taking – free for the experiencing – because as Jesus alludes, they come to us through the “grace” of God…if we live by faith.

Back to my journal…

“In the airport, before our flight to Seattle, we spoke with a young mom with two young children, one three years old and the other eighteen months old.  It was obvious she had her hands full, trying to cope with two tired, unhappy children and cope with all their stuff and all their needs:  feeding them, providing drinks, changing diapers.  And here’s Jesus saying, ‘Don’t worry about what’s to eat, or what’s to drink, or what to wear.”  Here’s the mother telling Marcy and I that ‘this is the absolute worst day of my life!’  And who can blame her – try flying with two little kids!  Many of us have been there! Done that!”

Many of us have tried to be the perfect parent or the Madonna Mother and have failed; we have worried, and we have heaped upon ourselves the guilt of our worries as we face the family challenges of everyday life.  We don’t need Jesus telling us not to worry!  Or do we?

In one sense, we don’t, because worry comes so naturally to us; it’s a natural defense that keeps us on guard for our own safety, and for the safety of others around us, like our children or grandchildren.

Surely Jesus experienced a great deal of worry for his own future and the future of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was so troubled that we are told he sweated blood.  Talk about worry!

And surely God continues to worry, to show concern for the plight of the poor, the plight of the oppressed peoples of this world, and for the fate of the earth itself and all elements within God’s creation.

So what was the point that Jesus was trying to make in this brief message contained in Matthew 6:25-31?  For me, the part I need to hear has to do with obsessive worrying.  When we get stuck on something and worry about it all the time, when we can’t get it out of our mind and it becomes all consuming, and it (the particular worry) begins to eat away at all that is good, and beautiful, and true about life.  For me, Jesus is saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not be obsessed with your worries or they will totally govern your outlook toward life.”  These worries, if you let them, can have the power to turn you into a perpetual pessimist.  So Jesus is simply saying not to let that happen to you – life can offer so much more, if you put your faith in the goodness of God.

The Feminine Voice of Wisdom found in Proverbs, Chapter 8, seems to be a good remedy for our obsessive worries.  Here it counsels, "Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? ...To you, O People, I call, and my cry is to all that live.  O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it."

My religions dictionary defines “prudence” as follows:  “A cardinal virtue of wise self-regulation, avoiding all excess and folly.”

So we are counseled to cultivate prudence in our lives and it will become a healing presence to remedy our obsessive worries.  In other words, don’t worry to excess because to do so is sheer folly.  Remember once again how Jesus counsels with a question, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  And we all know the answer to His question – It’s NO, of course, but excessive worry causes great stress to the body, the mind, and to the spirit; and excess stress leads to all sorts of illness that can in fact reduce the span of our lives, and make the quality of our lives rather bleak.

Our passage in Proverbs also declares a further remedy for our worries as Wisdom speaks, saying, “When God marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the Lord’s inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.”

For me, after my sabbatical experiences, the words that jump off the written page and resound in my ear are “rejoicing” and “delighting.”  These two words can hold so much power for our lives…”rejoicing” and “delighting.”  Perhaps the opposite or antidote of excessive worrying is to be delighting and rejoicing.  Rejoicing in the Lord’s inhabited world, a world of beautiful rock mountains, and sandy beaches, of flowering plants, and towering trees, of birds and bees, of sunsets and sunrises, of animals in the world and pets in our homes, and the “animals” we are most familiar with – ourselves, and our families – as we are biblically called to delight in the “human animal” race.

To delight and to rejoice is to be faithful before God – not fearful, as Jesus so often warns against, and not obsessive with worry which he addresses in Matthew, saying, “Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

In the book of Job (of all places), we find these pastoral words of guidance in Chapter 12:7-8, “But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall teach thee; or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee; and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.”  The message here is that we all have a great need to sometimes put aside our human perspectives for a while, and retreat from the human world of words, to communicate on a different level, to learn what the earth and all its other beings have to teach us.

Walt Whitman, mystic and poet extraordinaire, wrote in his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, “Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons.  It is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth.”  And Henry David Thoreau proclaimed, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

So what did I do on my sabbatical?  Here is just a sampling…

  1. I climbed a mountain!  Mt. Stowe in Vermont that proved to be a good challenge for a 64-year-old with gimpy knees!  
  2. I swam in the ocean daily at Oregon Beach on Cape Cod during the six weeks I spent with my 88-year-old mother, in her cottage in Cotuit.
  3. I watched a spectacular sunset at Rock Harbor in Eastham on Cape Cod (holy ground to me from my childhood vacations).
  4. I saw a spectacular double rainbow from the town of Port Townsend, in Washington State, near Olympic National Park.
  5. I slept on the ground in a tent for a week at the Abode of the Message – a retreat center in New Lebanon, New York; and visited Hancock Shaker Village.
  6. I smelled the roses and delighted in the beauty of fragrant flowers in Victoria, Canada, at the Butchart Gardens.  
  7. “The earth laughs in flowers” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).  I saw it laughing in the waves along Oregon Beach and wrote this Haiku poem: Waves smile, revealing sparkling dimples, laughing upon the shore
  8. I was awed by the richness of the Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, so well-known for its incredible biological diversity and every shade of green you can imagine.
  9. I snow-shoed on Mt. Rainier in a thick fog that revealed new mysteries of delight every ten feet or so when something else came into sight.
  10. I worshiped each morning using a prayer for guidance, a prayer for healing, and a prayer of thanksgiving directed toward the four directions:  East, South, West, and North (using the wisdom of the Native American tradition).
  11. I read and reflected upon the writings of Thomas Berry and others, mostly environmental writers.
  12. I watched and listened to the birds:  turkeys gobbling and ospreys soaring.

So, what did I do on my sabbatical?  There are many answers to that question.  In my mind, one of the most important things I did was to cultivate “prudence” and to set aside the obsessive worries that seem to come with the role of being a pastor to so many people.

It is one thing to take on the cares and worries of one’s own family.  Then multiply that in the church family and it is only a matter of time before it becomes overwhelming and “burn-out” may ensue.  I was very much ready and in need of a sabbatical for rest and renewal of body, mind, and spirit, and I thank you all for supporting my time away.  I know we will all benefit by it.

Thanks be to God.  Amen