Riding out the Storms

stormyseas

Today’s readings:
Psalms 88; 148, Isaiah 50:1-11, Galatians 3:15-22, Mark 6:47-56


The Gospels contain a few different versions of stories about Jesus walking on water. In today’s reading from Mark, he begins striding across the Sea of Galilee when he notices the disciples in their boat are struggling against the waves. He came towards them to reassure them, but the shortest sentence in this story may be the most revealing: “He intended to pass them by.”

Jesus climbed into their boat only after they grew afraid because they thought he was a ghost. Until that point, it seemed he expected they would be capable of fending  for themselves. Only a few minutes away from his presence, and they lost courage and – it seems – the ability to recognize him. When we are struggling and afraid, it’s easy to lose our clear line of sight toward Christ and imagine all manner of horrors are approaching.

In those times, we need to remind ourselves and each other God has not abandoned us. What if – like Jesus walking past the disciples in the boat – God has more faith in our ability to weather the storms than we do? Our strength derives from the knowledge (if not necessarily the feeling) God is always with us, but he does not literally need to be in the same boat. Could it be possible that when God is moving in a direction we don’t expect, particularly one that is diverging from us, we might fail to recognize the movement as His?

Jesus was teaching his disciples more than how to follow him: he was teaching them to lead others to him. He left them (and us) the Holy Spirit, but he also left them with the reassurance he believed they were capable of feeding his sheep (John 21:15-17). It took a lot of stormy moments – culminating in the crucifixion – for the disciples to understand this lesson. If we are to be witnesses for the good news, we must not despair every time the boat rocks. During the worst storms, even if we are to drown, God walks the waters to lift us out.

Comfort: God is with us. Always.

Challenge: Try to live into the spirit of Courage which God has given us.

Prayer: God, I trust that even when you see far away, you are closer than I can imagine. Amen.

Discussion: Are you a worrier? If so, what about?

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Don’t Worry, Be Lily

tiger lilies

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Leviticus 19:26-37, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12, Matthew 6:25-34


The United States is a nation of worriers. Advertisers prey on our insecurities about health, appearance, and status. The stock market can fluctuate wildly based on minuscule setbacks. Our twenty-four hour news cycle brings the most lurid concerns of the entire world directly into our homes. The difficult thing about worry is that it’s always got one toe in reality. Maybe our jobs really are in danger. Maybe the fruit we eat does contain unsafe pesticides. Maybe we did leave the curling iron plugged in.

Not many of us are like field lilies, neither toiling nor spinning yet relying on God to clothe us in splendor. Then again, few lilies have to plan for retirement. Given the nature of human life, is it really possible to be as care-free as the lilies? Or would that attitude be plain irresponsible? It all depends on what we value.

We may say “blessed are the poor,” but only the rare monastic aspires to poverty. More “Poor Richard” than “poor in spirit,” we cite “God helps those who help themselves” like scripture, then wonder why the world is full of people who do nothing but help themselves. Most things we do aspire to – big homes, nice cars, high-paying jobs, prestige education – may make life more pleasant, and are not wrong in and of themselves, but they do not serve (and may even hamper) our highest priority: relationship with God. When we put them in proper perspective, we realize our inner peace does not depend on external circumstances.

Of course we should take care of our bodies, be good stewards of our finances, and be responsible people, but not because these good habits are our primary sense of security. They guarantee nothing. The difference between responsibility and worry is the first addresses things we can control (our actions) and the second addresses things beyond our control (namely, everything else). If our health fails, our fortune fades, or our world somehow falls apart, our peace remains in the Lord. Worry changes nothing, but it can be a barometer of what sort of splendor we seek.

Comfort: The peace of God passes all understanding (Philipians 4:7).

Challenge: Make a list of the things that worry you, then burn it.

Prayer: Holy God, I will cling to your peace in good times and bad. Amen.

Discussion: What might be a more constructive response than worrying?

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Enough for today

lilies

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, 2 Kings 17:24-41, 1 Corinthians 7:25-31, Matthew 6:25-34


Has anyone ever stopped worrying because someone said, “Stop worrying?”

When Jesus told his disciples not to worry about having enough food (God takes care of the birds!) or clothing (God dresses the grass itself in lilies!), or about life in general (can you add an hour to your life that way?) he knew this.  He had a bigger point to make.

No matter how well off we might be, we are still prone to worry. The impulse to get food on our table and have a roof to keep that table under, as well as the fear we could lose it all, drives our behavior in instinctual, inescapable ways. On some level we doubt that faith alone will provide for all our material needs; the history of humankind does more to confirm than to dispel that doubt.

But that’s not all Jesus was saying.

After the birds and the lilies, he says, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We can read this at least a couple ways. The first is the simpler: have faith and live righteously, and God will provide. The second is broader. In telling us to strive for the kingdom, it asks us to be the instruments of justice as described by citizenship in the kingdom. In the service of kingdom justice, we feed the hungry, tend to the sick, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. By being the last and by tending to the troubles of today – not just our troubles, but the troubles of our neighbor – we expand the kingdom in a way that begins to soothe that primal, hungry fear.

The end of worry is a long term endeavor. We still work toward it. Yes we are assured we can let go of individual worry for this particular day, but that process is inseparable from how we participate in the life of our greater community. When we sacrifice our lives to a kingdom free from worry, we will be freed in turn. We will not stop worrying because we are told to, but because we are told how.

Comfort: There is relief from worry.

Challenge: When you worry, ask yourself what you should be doing instead.

Prayer: Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. (Psalm 73:25)

Discussion: What is the difference between worrying and preparing?

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Worry: about that hour you’ll never get back…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Nahum 2:13-3:7, Revelation 13:1-10, Luke 12:13-31


Worry-mongering is a profitable business strategy – more profitable even than fear. Where fear is a reaction to something real and bad, worry anticipates something that might be bad. If the bad thing goes away, or turns out not to be so bad after all, fear ends. Worry is sustainable, a cash cow that never runs short of milk, and always ready for exploitation by media and marketers. Plant a seed of worry about national security or the inevitability of aging, and reap a harvest in sales of body scanners or anti-wrinkle serums.

Jesus asked his disciples: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Ironically, not only does the stress of worry not add to our life, it decreases the quality, health, and length of that life. Jesus taught not to worry about food or clothing; if God provided for birds and the lilies of the field, how could he not do that and more for His children? Instead, he said, we should “strive for the kingdom” and everything else will fall into place.

We’d like to believe that, but modern life saps our confidence in those ideas.

Or not. Two thousand years ago Jesus was reminding people: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” … and back then there was far less for the average person to possess. Could it be that life is not more stressful, but that we’ve always needed to hear the same message? We have access to more products than we could need in ten lifetimes, so as the forces of consumerism grow ever more sophisticated, they market less to our needs and more to a generalized sense of anxiety that demands to be fed but is never satisfied.

In many traditions, including the Christian one, enlightenment involves simplification and detachment. The biggest thing we have to give up, and what the world tries hardest to sell us, is the fear that God alone is not enough. It’s also the only thing, because once we’re rid of it the rest really does fall into place.

Comfort: You are not your stuff.

Challenge: Get rid of unnecessary stuff.

Prayer: Loving and merciful God, I will trust in you alone. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been relieved to let go of something you held onto for a long time?

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