March 15, 2015
When I was a young mom, I relied on a book called The Mother’s Almanac. It described a phenomenon the authors called “arsenic hour,” that time around 4:00 in the afternoon when children melt down. Their blood sugar is low, they’re tired, and they are cranky! The cure for arsenic hour was a high protein snack, like peanut butter on celery, and a quiet activity like reading or an art project. If only it were that easy for adults.
We’ve all had the kind of crankiness that a protein snack and a quiet activity will cure. But there is a kind of chronic crankiness and dissatisfaction that poisons our political discourse and even damages our personal relationships. We see it in Congress and in the streets of our cities and, if we’re honest, we see it in ourselves. We could blame it on the constant change that we live with or technology. As a society, we used to blame it on the Cold War, and now we blame terrorism, immigrants, or people of other faiths for “whatever is wrong.” Except that Jesus addressed it 2,000 years ago in the Sermon on the Mount, so this is not a new problem. Jesus says that we make ourselves miserable by being anxious about meeting our basic needs. Whether we actually have enough resources to meet our basic needs or not, research indicates that the more we have, the more worried we are that either we don’t have enough or that we will lose what we have in some way. Jesus is talking to all of us. If we are not worried about where our next meal is coming from, we are worried about how to store our excess. We worry about our clothing, how we’ll look, where we will live, and the value of our property. Can you lose sleep over what might happen to your spouse or children, or you children’s children, or your own health? Did your worrying help, or did you wake up the next morning a little more tired, and a whole lot crankier?
I wish that more of you could have heard Walter Brueggemann speak Friday night at The Well. There is not enough time to give you more than a brief taste of his lecture on predatory economics: how a fear of scarcity leads to accumulation, which leads to monopoly, which leads to financial and/or real slavery, which in turn leads to violence, as detailed in the book of Exodus. In the account in Exodus, once the Israelites left slavery Egypt, they immediately missed Egypt and oppressive economy that had made them slaves. They missed the food and they were afraid they wouldn’t have enough. But after a few days, they turned their backs on Egypt and faced the wilderness. That’s when, the Bible says, they beheld the glory of God. God fed them in the wilderness with manna and quail and gave them water from a rock. They had enough. They were no longer bound to an economy that demanded constant production: more bricks, more bricks, and even when they ran out of straw to make bricks, they had to make more bricks more quickly. Jesus’ advice to those of us who are anxious is to consider the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air who “neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns and yet God feeds them.” So you may think, “Yeah, yeah, consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, but that doesn’t even make sense in my world.” And it is counter-intuitive in any anxiety-driven system. Brian McLaren writes:
[Anxiety] makes whole communities tense and toxic. Anxiety-driven systems produce a pecking order as anxious people compete and use each other in their pursuit of more stuff to stave off their anxiety. Soon, participants in such a system feel they can’t trust anybody, because everyone’s out for himself or herself, driven by fear. Eventually, anxiety driven people find a vulnerable person or group to vent their anxiety upon. The result? Bullying scapegoating, oppression, injustice. And still they will be anxious.
But Jesus says that we can exit the predatory economy and enter the Kingdom of God now. We can stop worrying about meeting our own needs and begin to care for each other. Jesus “makes this staggering promise: if we seek God’s kingdom and justice first, everything that we truly need—financially, physically, or socially—will be given to us.”
It’s difficult to care for each other when, in our anxiety, we judge and criticize one another because we fear that we are ourselves will be the target of judgment. I love how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging.” Isn’t that the truth?! I really don’t like to hang around critical people and yet I’m one of the most critical people I know. How dare I call someone else critical?! What right to I have to criticize someone who is God’s beloved? But that doesn’t seem to stop me. It certainly doesn’t make me any happier. Besides the possibility of hurting someone deeply, I become more aware of the possibility that other people are criticizing me—it becomes more and more a probability in my mind the more critical I am. If I see the world through a critical lens, all I see is criticism. If I perceive the world through a lens of fear, the world is a frightening place. If I see through a lens of scarcity, there will never be enough for me. It’s a vicious cycle. Distrust breeds distrust; criticism breeds criticism; fear breeds more fear.
Phillip Owens calls this kind of thinking “being in the wrong lane.” But remember, Jesus tells us that we can get off the highway all together. We can change the way we perceive others by understanding that we are loved. We can ask for what we need. Someone pointed out in Bible study this week that Matthew’s gospel doesn’t say that we’re supposed to ask God for what we need. It simply says to ask for what we need, to search for what we’re looking for, and to knock and doors will open. That’s how community works. God gives us good gifts and we take care of each other. That’s how the Kingdom of God works. As a demonstration of the power of community, at the Walter Brueggemann lecture, a woman in the audience shared her particular struggle with injustice in the prison system. At the end of the lecture, as we were leaving, we witnessed a lawyer from the audience introducing herself to the woman and offering to help. In the Kingdom of God, in the Community of the Beloved, we share each other’s burdens and treat each other the way we want to be treated. We treat each other as we would like to be treated. Did you know that this teaching appears in every major religion?
The way out of being afraid that we won’t get our fair share and judging and being judged, is to claim God’s unconditional love for ourselves and each other. At the end of this chapter in Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking, he offers this cure for anger, and crankiness, and misery based on Jesus’ teaching. We start with the anxiety and judgment in our own hearts. We have to get “this mess” in order before we can engage other anxiety-filled people. Otherwise the distrust, shouting, and blaming continues. Tell yourself:
My own anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about.
My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn
My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved.
Try repeating this every day until your head believes it, then keep repeating it until the wisdom makes its way to your heart. Let me get you started.
Your own anxiety is more dangerous to you than whatever you are anxious
Your own habit of condemning is more dangerous to you than what you
condemn in others.
Your misery is unnecessary because you are truly, truly, truly loved.