There’s the theology you discuss late at night over coffee or beers and then there’s the theology that gets lived out. The challenge, for me, is for the two to be quite similar.
In coming to terms with my job situation, I turned to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. 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 which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious 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 arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Mt. 6:25-34)
When it comes to dealing with adversity, it’s easy to become self-focused. In some sense, that’s exactly what we have to do: put on our thickest skin. In another sense it’s reflex: we turn inward to keep from getting hurt even more. One of the earliest definitions of depression I learned was it was “anger turned inward.” Since the anger couldn’t get out, it cannibalized whoever was trying to hold it in.
Trust me – that’s a good definition.
It’s easy to do the same thing with adversity or despair. Much of the power in Jesus’ challenge to consider the lilies comes from knowing that most of the folks who heard those words that day and the rest of us that have read them over the centuries all have moments when we think, “No one knows how I feel.” I’m not the first person to suffer the anxiety of losing a job, or the humiliation of going to the Unemployment Office, or the tension of wondering how to pay the bills or what to do next for money. I am unemployed, sitting in my house, typing on my MacBook, drinking a cup of coffee, while my wife who loves me works downstairs.
I’m a fortunate person going through a difficult time who wonders what to expect from God.
Every five seconds a child dies from hunger related causes in our world – about 16,000 children a day. Here’s a way I can grasp that number. A Boeing 747 used for domestic flights holds 568 people. Imagine one of those planes packed with children crashing and killing all the passengers every fifty minutes of every day. That’s how many children are dying of hunger in our world. I couldn’t find a number for the adults. Of that number, I have no doubt many are from Christian families who have read the Sermon on the Mount and have prayed for God to provide food. They prayed all the way to the grave.
What do I do with that?
Yesterday, Massachusetts inaugurated Deval Patrick as our seventy-first governor and our first African-American governor. As a part of his inaugural address he said:
On this very day 165 years ago, a young man named Kinna, who had been part of that [Amistad] rebellion, sent a letter from prison to our own John Quincy Adams, who had retired from public life at home in Massachusetts.
Kinna pleaded with Adams to help the 36 captives from his ship to earn their freedom. Adams took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court and won. As a gesture of thanks and respect, the Africans gave Adams a Bible, called the Mendi Bible, after their tribal homeland.
I took the oath this morning with my hand resting on that same Bible — and with my resolve strengthened by that same legacy. I am descended from people once forbidden their most basic and fundamental freedoms, a people desperate for a reason to hope and willing to fight for it. And so are you. So are you. Because the Amistad was not just a black man’s journey; it was an American journey. This commonwealth and the nation modeled on it is at its best when we show we understand a faith in what’s possible, and the willingness to work for it.
Ginger and I had a chance to be a part of the interfaith worship service that preceded the inauguration. It was an amazing collection of people from all over Massachusetts. I sat with two Sikhs and a Muslim, the four of us standing shoulder to shoulder singing,
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us
thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might
led us into the light;
keep us for ever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places,
our God, where we met thee;
lest, our hearts drunk with the wine
of the world, we forget thee;
shadowed beneath thy hand
may we for ever stand,
true to our God, true to our native land.
The tenor of the day called us outside of ourselves — beyond our parochialism and our cynicism – to see new possibilities. When Patrick said he was descended from “a people desperate for a reason to hope and willing to fight for it,” I felt he was calling us to claim the same heritage. The story of being human is one of both considering the lilies and working hard to change our circumstances in the midst of adversity.
Face it: the lilies never had to pay a mortgage.
When I lived in Texas, my favorite time of year was early spring, when the bluebonnets bloomed. The beautiful little wildflowers cover every highway median and any number of fields with a purple-blue blanket – for about two weeks. Then they’re gone. They brought Jesus’ words alive to me in a new light. My paraphrase goes something like:
Consider the bluebonnets. They don’t work or punch a clock, but they’re beautiful. They also don’t worry that they last such a short time. They simply revel in being bluebonnets and leave it at that.
If perennial wildflowers are the working metaphor, there is much to learn beyond a bluebonnet spring. After the flowers fade, the Texas Highway Department doesn’t mow the medians until the bluebonnets have gone to seed. Then there is nothing to see beyond the grass and weeds that cover the space between the opposing lanes of traffic. The life of a lily or a bluebonnet involves rest, growth, and some work, along with a little luck and time to bloom. Spring doesn’t come everyday.
Jesus’ last comment on this topic is the clincher for me (again, my paraphrase):
Don’t start worrying about tomorrow – there’s plenty of time for that. You have enough on your plate just dealing with today.
A little over a month ago, I was working hard to put together a plan for running the Bakery at the Inn. Today I don’t work there anymore. If I had worried then, I would not have let myself dream about the bakery and would not have learned all I did about putting together a business plan. If I had gone to work everyday for the past year stressing about the tenuous nature of my job, I would not have been able to let myself get to know my colleagues, or learn as much as I did about cooking. Now my blooming time is over there and I am called to trust God on a day that is not a bluebonnet spring. Whatever I know of time and circumstance, God was here before it and will be here long after it is over. Whatever shape there is to this life we live, I can only live today.
Now I know why I like to discuss theology with a beer in hand.
One of the readings at the service yesterday was “A Prayer” by Maya Angelou. In the midst of change, they came as helpful and hopeful words for me:
Father, Mother, God
Thank you for your presence
during the hard and mean days.
For then we have you to lean upon.
Thank you for your presence
during the bright and sunny days,
for then we can share that which we have
with those who have less.
And thank you for your presence
during the Holy Days, for then we are able
to celebrate you and our families
and our friends.
For those who have no voice,
we ask you to speak.
For those who feel unworthy,
we ask you to pour your love out
in waterfalls of tenderness.
For those who live in pain,
we ask you to bathe them
in the river of your healing.
For those who are lonely,
we ask you to keep them company.
For those who are depressed,
we ask you to shower upon them
the light of hope.
Dear Creator, You, the borderless
sea of substance, we ask you to give to all the
world that which we need most–Peace.