Central United Methodist Church
Pastor David L. Haley
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
Matthew 6: 25 – 34
February 20, 2011
“Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Matthew 6: 25 – 34, Common English Version
Lately I have been returning to the work of an author I read years ago, who writes eloquently of a practice I have come to believe crucial to living a happy and fulfilling life.
The writer is Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also the founding director of its renowned Stress Reduction Clinic and Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Mr. Kabat-Zinn’s first book in 1994, Wherever You Go, There You Are, was a national bestseller, and his most recent book is Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. (2005)
The practice about which Mr. Kabat-Zinn writes and teaches so well, so important to living a happy and fulfilling life, is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is living in, and paying full attention to, the moment. Kabat-Zinn’s definition is: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” It is a religious concept, most developed in Buddhism, but Mr. Kabat-Zinn, perhaps more than any other, has extracted it from its religious setting to make it useful to people like us, in combating stress, in healing physical, mental, and spiritual anguish, and in living happy and meaningful lives. Personally, it’s another of those things I wish someone would have told me about early in life.
As I said before, mindfulness is paying full attention to the moment. In any given moment, all of our senses are engaged: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and even more refined perceptions (cold, heat, body space, etc.) but our minds are (thankfully) selective in what they register and record.
Even worse, our attention frequently wanders, and we may miss the most important things going on. So often we are rehashing the past, or worrying over the future, that we miss the moment we are in. In fact, Buddhists say that without mindfulness training, our minds are monkey minds: like monkeys flitting around trees. “Squirrelly,” we might say, jumping from limb to limb.
If you’re not convinced of this, go home and try this: pray silently, slowly, and meditatively the Lord’s Prayer, (or one of my favorites, the Prayer of St. Francis) without messing up or your mind wandering. Each time you do mess up or your mind wanders, return to the beginning and start over. You’ll be surprised how hard it is to get through it to the end. It’s because our minds are so untrained, so poor at focus and concentration. And, in fact, it is through such forms of mindfulness meditation, that we train our mind to focus.
What’s particularly sad is that in living without mindfulness, we miss not only some of the most significant moments of our lives, but much of every day, because our minds become a blur of tangled perceptions and twisted allegiances. For example, how many of us find ourselves talking with friends, and suddenly, we’re somewhere else, and not hearing what they’re saying. (Except, of courses, us husbands, who always hear every word!)
Let me say this clearly: multi-tasking is devastating to mindfulness. Just as you cannot drive any better than a drunk while talking on a phone, so you cannot attend to and do several things at once, do them well, or even remember them. You can’t live in mindfulness that way either; human consciousness just isn’t designed that way. Multitasking is antithetical to mindfulness.
Perhaps equally destructive to mindfulness is anxiety and worry, which make our minds like hamsters running on a wheel. When we are worried and anxious over what happened in the past, or what might happen in the future, frankly, we are missing our lives as they unfold in the present, which is really all that we ever have.
I have said all this because it is the ancient and critical practice of mindfulness that Jesus comes closest to today in his words from his Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 6: 25 – 34. For many of us – especially those of us who are incurable worriers – it may even be our favorite passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
As we saw last week, there are parts of the sermon on the Mount that are quite challenging, radical things Jesus asked us to do, like turning the cheek, giving to all who beg, going the second mile, loving the enemy, praying for those who persecute us. Compared to that, this passage may seem comforting, until we realize what Jesus is asking us NOT to do: “Don’t worry!”
“Don’t worry,” says Jesus, “that’s what the Gentiles do.” Wait a minute, we are Gentiles! And that is what we do. Does Jesus not know that a large part of the pharmaceutical industry is premised on our inability to avoid anxiety and stop worrying? And, seriously, aren’t there some things we should be anxious about: providing for one’s family, peace among nations, and the sustainability of the planet, for example?
The problem, says Jesus, is that we have a divided mind and dueling loyalties. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” is how he put it. “No one can serve two masters,” he said. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Only after these things did he go on to say what he said about considering the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, and how God cares for them.
We might say (or have said, if we’d been there), “Well, Jesus, that’s great for you, but I don’t live in first century rural Galilee, I live in a complex and chaotic world. You didn’t have a wife and kids and a job and a house and a mortgage and health insurance to worry about. You didn’t have to worry about wars abroad and budget cuts at home. We do! How am I gonna make it? Especially without worrying?
“Close your mouth, open your eyes and ears and look around,” Jesus might say. You got breath, you got life, you got friends, you got faith!” “You do have faith, don’t you?”
Most of the time we do, but sometimes we wonder. Sometimes the disease can’t be cured, sometimes the good die young, sometimes the night is long, sometimes injustice reigns, sometimes death seems final. And in answer to such deeply disturbing things, you – Jesus – point us to birds and flowers?
Well, yes. We may struggle to remember that Jesus walked the same planet we do, lived the same life we live, had the same five senses that we do, and all of those senses were for him avenues of faith. Jesus kept his eyes and ears open; he paid attention to what he saw and heard around him. Obviously he was able to stop and learn the lessons that life teaches, whether in humanity or nature.
In our best moments, we know it’s true. How many of us can remember some moment in nature when we were made to feel our place in the universe, revealing the insignificance of so much of what we think of as life, and experiencing the awe of life and breath and the universe. How many of us have been present at a birth, or at a death, when time stopped, and nothing else mattered? Surely such experiences are experiences of mindfulness, which correspondingly, we never forget, because in those moments, we are paying attention.
About ten years ago I accompanied a band of Eagle Scouts on a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota. I’m amazing how much of it I can still remember: blue skies, bald eagles, expanses of woods and water. But there was one scene I remember especially vividly: one night a full moon rose over the lake. There was no sound of civilization, only a perfect sky and a perfect moon perfectly reflected in the lake. It was a scene of such stunning beauty that it remains embedded in my mind. For most of us, such experiences – as surely as sitting here in church – become experiences of faith, faith that sustains us when times get tough.
Hear Jesus again:
“If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.
“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion — do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.
“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers — most of which are never even seen — don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. (Matthew 6: 25 – 34, The Message)
In each new day, it is important that we pay attention. As Henry David Thoreau, who took a little trip to the woods of his own, wrote in his account of his experience, Walden (1854): “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
Are we awake?