Friday, March 4, 2011

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

There are times when we come across passages from the Holy Scriptures that seem to be contrary to human experience; verses that appear to be “running against the grain” of the collective wisdom we had received and would most likely pass on to. 
The Gospel Reading for the 8th Sunday after the Epiphany is a good example of that. Among the sayings attributed to Jesus, we read the following: No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. 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? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap not gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor pin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But 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? Therefore do not worry, saying 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of it own. Today's trouble is enough for today." (NRSV 6:24-34)  
Not to worry? Did he really tell us not to worry about the future?  Is he for real?
For those who tend to be literal when reading biblical passages, the last verse would immediately pose major concerns. After all, who among us isn’t concerned with what the future holds?  What about  my career, my child’s college fund, my aging parents’ living situation, my future retirement, my health, my relationships, my children’s well-being and safety – am I expected not to try to plan for any of that?
Again, viewed with this lens of understanding, this verse would definitely trigger a disbelieving stance. Who among us doesn’t wonder what tomorrow will bring? Who among us doesn’t hope to shape our lives down the road by the choices we make today? 
Of course, we all do. A bright and promising future seems to be the most prominent incentive people have as they come of age.  Many of our responsibilities in life demand that we ought to be future oriented and strive to give surety that the days ahead be without problems. It seems evident that many things in life demand that we be concerned with tomorrow. 
To be told not to worry by the very “source of our well being” doesn’t seem to be consistent with whom we believe God to be.  If anything, it’s almost directly contrary to what our faith teaches us.
So what gives?  What is Jesus trying to tell us? I think the foundational issue here is Divine Providence! It alludes to the spiritual fountain from which “cometh forth” the manifold blessings and comfort we all enjoy. It is a reminder of the munificence and generosity that could only be issued by a mindful and caring God to everyone, undeserving at times.
And Jesus gives us a couple of beautiful examples to think about:  how the birds of the air have enough to eat although they don’t sow or reap, and how the lilies of the field need not work or spin and yet are more beautiful than Solomon in all his splendor. 
Jesus tells us “not to worry” as he reminds us that all of creation is in God’s careNothing is beyond the reach of the loving arms of our heavenly Father.  God is the ultimate provider, the perfect giver, the faithful lover. We are simply the grateful beneficiary of the innumerable blessings of a God who fully knows our need, what’s best for us and who knows how we all fit in the Grand Design.
Therefore, to heed the invitation “not to worry” means to cast all our cares on Him who cares deeply for all of us.  Consequently, to believe in God’s Providence means that we believe in a God who is intimately involved in His creation and not the God whom others believe as Deus ex machina, watching the world from afar. God is not a disinterested party. Rather, God is directly drawn to His creation in an amazing, loving and abiding way. 
Hence, responding positively to this invitation should be very liberating, for when we truly believe in a providential God, we no longer have to do things all by ourselves.  In fact we cannot do it by ourselves.  Every good thing that we experience, every worthwhile encounter, every time we experience love or are loved, they are all made possible because God has loved us first. Believing that truth deeply provides us with an opportunity to be filled with hope, the kind that is not transitory, but rather the kind that lasts. 
And so when we believe in Divine Providence, our plans for the future inevitably change. A remarkable paradigm shift begins to happen as we go from a “worrying mode” – persistently seeking ways of trying to store up and protect what we have, to a “reassuring mode” – care-less and care-free, ever ready to be sent forth in mission as Christ’s hands and feet to the very same world we may have neglected. That paradigm shift includes our plans ceasing from being tools of controlling the future to becoming sincere efforts of cooperating with God’s will.  They become ways of trying to manifest God’s love, mercy and generosity to a world in need of the same.
Not to worry, therefore, means not to literally stop worrying. I think God does not mind if we worry, provided we don’t succumb to the temptation of demanding for a reassured future at the expense of the Kingdom of God.  When we fall into this trap, the focus  becomes directed excessively inward.  Too often when we plan for the future we get so overly concerned with our own well-being, our own situation and our own particular wants. God, instead, calls us to so much more.  He invites us to strive to continually look outward, beyond ourselves, beyond our desire to build up our own little kingdom. 
And so Jesus says: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Believing in Divine Providence, in God’s undying love, care and concern for the world, may have a veiled danger though.  At times, it can be used as an excuse to shirk or evade our responsibilities, as a way of justifying our inactivity and indifference toward each other and the created world. A false argument may run like this. If everything is in God’s care, then why go to great lengths to help the poor, eradicate disease, eliminate famine, or protect the planet?  If we are not to worry and leave everything to God, then God will see to it that it all works out in the end.  And, after all, when people are with God in heaven they won’t care about their lot in this life. 
Should your line of reasoning run parallel to this, then I’m sorry to tell you that you're in a quite dangerous place to be in, spiritually.  We only have to look at the life of Jesus – a life we are called to imitate – to see the foolishness inherent in that kind of attitude. 
Indeed, God may ultimately be responsible for the world, but, whether we like it or not, God has chosen to share that responsibility with us – not as a burden, but as a gift, a way of allowing us to share in his very life and mission. 
So, let us heed the invitation. “Don’t worry” – not in the sense of running contrary to what God expects of us as faithful stewards of the Creation entrusted to us;  rather, “Be happy” – embracing the gift of God’s Providence and taking it upon ourselves to join in caring for and building a better world. 
"Don't Worry, Be Happy"