This whole idea of our need to defend the faith or more precisely defending our preferred doctrinal orthodoxy strikes me as a lack of trust in God….
Last Sunday, on Facebook, a Boston Terrier informed me that for dogs all the noise associated with fourth of July fireworks is particularly scary. As the video went on the pup made suggestions for keeping one’s pooches safe and secure. The ASPCA sent out a reminder that more dogs are lost on the Fourth of July than at any other time.
Some of you are acquainted with our Australian Shepherd, Kuma. He is a very affectionate dog but skittish isn’t a big enough word to cover the extent of his anxiety. We put his harness on him and wrapped him in an Ace bandage to provide a bit of security. He was beside himself with the illegal actions of a few scufflaw neighbors despite our trying to comfort him. The hard part for me was to have to tell him that what was ahead would be much much worse. Excessive worry can actually make matters worse.
Two people who Facebook tells me are ‘friends’ of mine recently posted lists of all the horrible things things that they feel are guaranteed to happen should the Presidential candidate which they fear the most gets elected. Pollsters tell me that the negative emotions for the presumptive candidates of both large parties are higher than 50 percent. The Washington Times recently reported that experts are predicting the 2016 presidential race won’t be a contest of which candidate Americans vote for in November but which candidate they vote against — the fear of an unwanted occupant in the White House will drive record numbers to the polls, as voters respond to the ingrained impulse for self-preservation. Jon A. Krosnick, a professor of political science, communication and psychology at Stanford University is quoted as saying: “In general, we as humans are more motivated by threats than we are by opportunities.”
My own analysis is that the battle for the White House simply highlights the anxiety level throughout our society. This element of belligerence and the willingness to go to the mat was evident in an email a member of the Yearly Meeting Elders recently posted to yearly Meeting pastors. It was a devotional article based on 1st Timothy 6:12 “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses”. The article read: “No idea is more politically incorrect among today’s new-style evangelicals than the old fundamentalist notion that the truth is worth fighting for including the essential proposition of Christian doctrine. … where God’s Word speaks clearly, we have a duty to obey, defend, and proclaim the truth He has given us, and we should do that with an authority that reflects our conviction that God has spoken with clarity and finality. This is particularly crucial in contexts where cardinal doctrines of biblical Christianity are under attack.”
There were several replies to the email most of which supported the idea of ‘defending’ the faith. One built a long treatise on how Nehemiah encouraged the people of his day. “So what do I see as a lesson on how we should respond? Again from Nehemiah, “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” Neh. 4:14b And further, “Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon.” Neh. 4:17
One faithful friend brought an end to the discussion with his comment “In my experience, as people defend what they’re sure is the truth, what goes missing early on is love and, with it, humility. That often does great damage to the community of faith.”
This whole idea of our need to defend the faith or more precisely defending our preferred doctrinal orthodoxy strikes me as a lack of trust in God. In Acts 5 we read about how the orthodox Temple police were ordered to arrest the Apostles and bring them before the counsel. It was Gamaliel whose wisdom won out. After pointing out other similar evangelistic efforts he concluded that “… in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
It seems difficult for us to let God be God in any number of ways.
I read a blog that told of how this person’s friend told him that he had received a chilling email from the new manager of the medical facility where he balanced a practice between direct care and research. It went something like this: “Budgetary concerns. Productivity being reevaluated. We need to talk. I’ll set up meeting.” It was to be three weeks after the original email before the meeting was to be held. As you can imagine his friend was “catastrophizing” his situation. We’ve all gotten these sorts of messages and know they can be a real source of distraction. Each and every day between the email and the meeting he was assuming the worst, imagining all kinds of negative scenarios. Would the funding for his research lab be jeopardized? What would happen to the people who worked for him? Would he be expected to see more patients under increasingly difficult circumstances?
The day after the meeting was to be held his friend called to report on what had happened. The meeting was scheduled for 4:00 p.m. By 4:20 p.m., the manager had not appeared. Then at 4:30 p.m., his friend received a call from the delinquent manager who said that the meeting was canceled, explaining that the issue was not that important after all. There were no concerns with productivity or budget. His friend was relieved but also angry and dismayed that he had wasted so much emotional energy over a situation that was absolutely insignificant. Worrying obsessively about things you can’t change has a huge cost, it drains your energy and takes a toll on your emotional and physical health. The blogger thought that the lesson was clear: Try to live in the present moment. Be anchored in the present.
Jesus had quite a different answer. He ends the sixth chapter of Matthew this way:
25“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? 26Look 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? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But 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? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Jesus doesn’t propose that we compartmentalize the various aspects of our lives to isolate those items that may be problematic. He doesn’t suggest that we simply live in the present moment or any other approaches to staving off anxiety. The central line of Jesus’ statement about worry is this: your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
How hard it is to hear Jesus say, “Do not worry about your life.” Don’t worry? You’ve got to be kidding. Open the paper. Watch the news. Commercials invite us to worry about our health or our body odor or whether our teeth are adequately white or those horrid wrinkles that tell our age. Houses display security signs. At some airports you’re are liable to see a 19 year old with an assault weapon slung over his shoulder. It’s not just me. I think we live in an incredibly anxious culture. How in the world, then, can Jesus possibly ask us — really, command us! — not to worry?
The text doesn’t start with the injunction about worry. No, it begins with an assertion that we cannot serve two masters, both God and money. If we try, Jesus says, we’ll end up loving one and hating the other. So what’s the connection? Well, notice that Jesus doesn’t say money is evil, just that it makes a poor master.
The alternative Jesus invites us to consider is entering into relationship with God, the God who is infinite and whose love for us and all creation is infinite as well. Love operates from a different “economy” than physical security. When you live in this kind of relationship of love and trust, you’ve entered into the realm of abundance, a world of possibility, a world of contentment. Suddenly, in this world — Jesus calls it the “kingdom of God” — not worrying actually becomes an option.
I know, I know, it’s hard to believe in this world of abundance that Jesus proclaims, this world that invites us to trust God’s faithfulness: like a flower does spring or to sail upon the currents of God’s love like a bird does the air. This is why, in the end, Jesus dies — not to somehow pay for our sins (there we go tracking and counting again), but because those in power were so invested in the world of insecurity that abundance was down right frightening, even threatening. Scarcity, after all, creates fear, and fear creates devotion to those who will protect you. Abundance, on the other hand, generates freedom.
This is the world Jesus invites us into: a world of abundance, generosity, and new life. But it is also a world of fragility, trust, and vulnerability. Lilies and birds, after all, can’t defend themselves but must trust God’s providence and love.
Again, I know this is hard. We are, after all, surrounded by countless images of scarcity and fear that seek to cause us to worry. But maybe this is exactly where we start. If we are surrounded by images of scarcity, worry, and fear, then perhaps our task this week and in the weeks to come is to capture thousands of pictures of their opposites: abundance, courage, and trust that help us to relax, breathe, count our blessings, and trust in God’s providence.