Thursday, May 10, 2012

What, me worry?

Matthew 6:25-34 (NIV)

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Of the two of us, my wife is by far the bigger worrier. This is not to say she worries constantly, but going back to our college days it seems she has always operated under more stress than me. This is not to be critical — it could easily be said, about certain things, she worries more because she cares more. (This is especially true of our college years; it won’t take long to guess who had the better GPA.) While sometimes I like to think of myself as an optimist who simply trusts things will work out, I must admit in some cases my “optimism” is little more than an avoidance strategy.

Further, I don’t always mean it. Case in point: Last fall we were stumped by Charlie’s inability to gain weight. He was hitting nearly every developmental benchmark, eating regularly (and adding people food to the mix) and generally happy, he just was not gaining weight. We’re talking about a nine-month-old kid here, to the doctors were looking for ounces, not just pounds. We changed diets, saw specialists and got ourselves set up for a trip to Children’s Memorial Hospital a few days after Christmas for a sweat test. One of the things they were considering as a root cause was the possibility of cystic fibrosis.

As is the pattern in our relationship, Kristie worried. A lot. I tried to be the yang (or the yin, whichever is the opposite of worrying) by telling her either Charlie was fine (which he was, though I didn’t know for sure) or that, if he wasn’t fine, worrying wouldn’t do anything to make him better. The stress can weave its way through every aspect of your life, including how you deal with your spouse and children, and it can be unhealthy. I give Kristie all the credit in the world that her worrying does not so manifest itself. I also will say she is more honest than I am about this stuff, because obviously I was worried, but I figured I had to play my part as the guy who sees the bright side and holds it together for the good of the order. She does not worry without need, I probably could stand to worry more.

I get what Jesus is saying in this passage, and it’s one of my absolute favorites. In fact, it takes me back to high school. I remember being in the locker room right at the end of gym class and watching as one of the popular guys gave intense attention to his hair, the alignment of his shirt and the placement of his jeans in relation to his shoes. I was struck then with an epiphany: the stuff the cool kids care about is not the stuff I care about. So why do I care what those cool kids think of me? The only people I need to measure myself against are those who understand me and share my values. From that day forward, I felt fully comfortable in my own skin.

This is not to say I was always seeking first the kingdom of God. Nor am I painting the others as pagans. I’m sure my insecurities, hang-ups and failings were a lot more similar to those of the cool kids than either of us presumed at the time. But I reaped the rewards of shifting my focus from outward to inward — worrying less about how the world viewed me and more about living up to my own standard.

This is a lesson I desperately want to teach my kids. However, they’re far too young to learn it now, and when they’re old enough for it to be effective I doubt they’ll want to hear it from me. I wonder if it isn’t the kind of understanding they must come to on their own terms, as I’m sure many people tried to reach me with the same information before my own little awakening.

A theologian would read the last three paragraphs and determine no, I don’t get what Jesus is saying in this passage. This blog is not quite graduate-level exegesis, and I’m OK with that. I also think we’re allowed, as parents, to worry about our children — so long as that worry is more about their growth, health and safety and less about if we are buying them the cutest clothes and making sure they have all the latest toys. If our worry is whether we’re doing our best job seeking the kingdom, we’re in the ballpark.

So much in life is beyond individual control, and I have long found it healthy to release myself from being obligated to fret over that which I cannot change. I think Jesus, in this teaching, is endorsing that approach. I will make sure my kids grow up watching me reflect that belief.

A prayer for May 10:

As I wrote this post, my mind could not escape the so-called Serenity Prayer of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The English translation of the original version attributed to Neibuhr is as follows, and I think it provides a fitting conclusion to this entry.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

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