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Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Simple Faith

Matthew 6:24-34


‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

‘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. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Annie Dillard, in her wonderful book Teaching a Stone to Talk, tells about encountering a weasel one day in the woods. A weasel, she writes, bites his prey at the neck . . . and does not let go. And once, says Ernest Thompson Seton – once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?

We live, Dillard says, by choice, but a weasel lives by necessity. A weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of a single necessity.[1]

There is abundant evidence that we are overwhelmed by our choices. How many of you have gone to the store to buy cereal, or paper towels, or anything, and stood there in the aisle paralyzed by the hundreds of virtually identical items to choose from? Have you tried lately to decide what kind of car to buy? There is a story that when Bishop William Cannon was dean of Candler School of Theology in the 1960’s, he asked his best friend, Professor and later Bishop Mack Stokes, if Cannon gave him the money, to go downtown in Atlanta and buy him a new car. “Well, Bill,” Stokes replied, “that’s pretty unusual, but I’ll do that if you want. But what kind of car do you want me to buy?” Cannon thought a minute and answered, “Well, I guess a green one would be nice.”

We are overwhelmed by our choices. Michael Shut writes that Americans spend an average of 40 minutes per week playing with their children, but 6 hours a week shopping. The average annual pocket money for American children is more than the total annual income for a half-billion of the world’s poorest people. American couples spend an average of 12 minutes per day talking to each other. 30% of American adults report feeling high stress every day. The majority of Americans get 60 to 90 minutes less sleep per night than recommended for good health. We live in the richest country in the history of the world, but there is a growing sense that something is very, very wrong with the way we live. We are overwhelmed by the choices.

In the Sermon on the Mount, today’s Gospel reading, it seems to me that Jesus calls us, like weasels, to live by necessity rather than be paralyzed by choices. A faithful life doesn’t consist of worrying about the infinite varieties of food and shelter and clothing. Our lives should be centered on the one great necessity – the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. The one necessary thing in life, Jesus tells us, is to love God and love our neighbor. Everything else flows from that. That’s the first priority, and when we make the main thing the main thing, then the other things begin to fall into their proper place.

Right, preacher. More easily said than done. How do I do that in the face of all the choices I have to make every day in my life. I don’t have time to consider the lilies or watch the sparrows. How can I move from my life of complex choices to a life of simple necessity?

Gerald May, on the faculty of Wesley Seminary and the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation, says there is a connection between the complexity of our lives and our lack of solitude. When we make space in our lives, when we spend extended time alone and in silence, we begin to realize what’s important and what’s not. Solitude and space put our consumerist culture in perspective. The consumer culture constantly tells us that more – of anything – will make us happy: more money, more people, more prestige, more food, more, more, more. And, because more doesn’t make us happy, we have to have more. It’s a great system, except that it kills the soul. So, instead of more, what would happen if we tried less: less busy, less frantic; fewer commitments, activities, possessions. What if we turned from lives of choice to lives of necessity, making space for Jesus to come?

May says there are two difficulties in making space in our lives. First, we are addicted – addicted to filling up every space we encounter, whether it be physical space – our homes, our offices; our emotional and spiritual space – with constant noise and music and activity; or our calendars. Like an addict, if it is quiet, we turn on some noise; if there is nothing to do, we do something; if our minds are empty, we find something to fill them. We will have to withdraw from that addiction, and that will take hard work.

The second difficulty in making space in our lives is our fear of what emptiness will reveal to us. We would rather be paralyzed by a thousand choices than face what’s really going on in us, revealed in silence and solitude. Our business, says May, weaves a harsh, desperate barrier against participation in love.[2]

How do we begin to live countercultural, simpler, more faithful lives, freed from the desperate and unhappy consumerism of our culture? How can we begin to live like weasels, living by necessity, and not by choice? First, says Gerald May, we have to look for the natural spaces in our lives. We all have them, if we will just pay attention. Maybe it’s when you have finished a job or a task, and you just relax for a moment. Could you stretch that a little? Maybe it’s a long, hot bath at the end of the day, a walk in the garden in the morning or the end of the day, a few minutes listening to music. Those moments that you usually fill by watching TV, or reading, or eating, that dulls you even though you call them recreation – could they just become empty space?

Second, May writes, set aside some regular time each day for just being, and not doing. Perhaps in the morning, take a few minutes not to read or listen to news or even read the Bible, but just to be still. At the end of the day, just sit quietly and recollect the day, and count your blessings. You will be amazed at how those spaces will begin to transform your sense of what is necessary and what is not.

Finally, May suggests we look for longer spaces. Plan a retreat, a silent day, become part of a prayer or meditation group. Not a talk-filled Bible study or conference filled with agenda, but an extended period to seek stillness and deepening alone or together. I know that if it were not for the annual silent retreat I enjoyed last week and every February with a dozen other clergy, I would not still be in the ministry. I might not even be a Christian. Vicki can tell you that while our spouses first complained about us leaving them for five days, now they look forward to the change in us after we have been quiet, rested, and in prayer for a week. If that sounds like something you’d like to do for a day, or a weekend, or maybe even a week, come and talk to me about that. I’d love to teach you how to experience that kind of space in your life as well. As addicts, we are more likely to break our addiction to choices if we do that together than if we try to do it separately. That’s what it means for us to be church – for us to support each other in breaking our addiction to the self-important busyness of the world.

We live trying to decide between a thousand choices, all of which promise to make us happy and healthy and whole. Jesus calls us to live like weasels, by necessity. Listen to how Annie Dillard phrases that life: I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.[3]

[1] Dillard, Annie, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper Perennial, pp. 29-34

[2] May, Gerald, Simpler Living, Compassionate Life, Morehouse, p. 47

[3] Dillard, Annie, ibid., p.34

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