Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wasted Worry


My guess is that most of you know Nathaniel Hawthorne’s celebrated novel, The Scarlet Letter. The story is set in the early days of New England life, and a young woman, Heather Prynne, has become pregnant out of wedlock. When her baby is born, the townspeople are righteously indignant; they demand to know who the father is since her husband has experienced delays and has not yet been able to make it to New England. She refuses to reveal the identity of her lover so the people of the town require her, from then on, to attach to her clothing any time she is in public a piece of red cloth cut into the shape of a capital A. The A stands for “adulteress.”

I haven’t changed my sermon subject for today. I’m still preaching on the subject of “wasted worry,” but I must confess that I do not preach this sermon as someone who has conquered worry; truth be told, I may have perfected the practice, if practice makes perfect! Therefore, I stand before you today as someone who should have affixed to his garment any time he is in public a piece of cloth cut into the shape of a W, which would expose me as the worrier I am. In the world of color symbolism, dark orange expresses worry, and it’s interesting that the painter Edward Munch, who painted emotions as compositions, used dark orange in his painting titled “Anxiety.” If anxiety and worry aren’t the same things, then they are either best friends or lovers. So, my W should be dark orange in color.

Anyway, today before I could attempt to preach on this subject, I had to be honest with you about where I stood with worry. Some would ask, why would a preacher who hadn’t overcome her or his struggles with any behavior that is disruptive to spiritual wholeness and health bother to or dare to preach about it? One of the preaching professors at Princeton in the generation gone by, George Sweazey, told his students and his preacher-readers in one of the highly regarded preaching textbooks of its time that if they only preached sermons on the struggles in life they’d overcome, their possibilities for sermon subjects would be staggeringly small. With that said, the load off my chest that only confession can bring, I now continue with today’s sermon. Don’t worry about my longer than usual introduction! We’ll still get out on time, more or less!

I was all worried this week about the possibility that the government was going to close down at midnight on Friday. Jon Heggan is a real live political scientist, and I’m going to have to get Jon to tell me if there has ever been a time in American history when we’ve had more clowns and morons in the House and the Senate than right now. Anyway, it occurred to me on Friday afternoon that maybe a government shutdown of this particular government would be a pretty good thing in reminding voters and potential voters how worthless much of the present government really is.

I realize that’s much too simplistic a scenario because there are those, mostly the poor, who’d have to take it on the chin yet again if the whole federal government did shut down. I did find it interesting that those in the House pressing for a government shut down would continue to draw their salaries if successful in shutting it down. Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who already returned from one hell to a different kind of hell at home would lose their benefits while the Tea Party darlings who are willing to do anything, seriously, to take away every woman’s right to choose abortion if she feels she must make that decision would still be well taken care of.

There’s a website called “The Worry Depository.” At the top of its home page, there’s hook that will keep worriers reading everything else they can find on the site:

What if there’s no more oil? What if my spouse leaves me? Will there be more terrorist attacks? My cholesterol is too high. How am I going to pay the mortgage this month? Have I wasted my life? What if I have to declare bankruptcy?

For worry warts, this is the soundtrack to our lives. But given the current state of economic and political affairs, worry has become a national anthem. Economic and mental health statistics reveal a growing plague of worry and anxiety in the U.S.

I’d say that therapists know more about the profundity of the true impact of the current national financial crisis than do the economists. Even so, at least one person tried to challenge that norm. Have you ever heard of the “Misery Index”? No, it’s not measured by how many people moan about a given Sunday’s sermon at coffee time.

The misery index was devised by an economist, Arthur Okun, who was an economic adviser to President Johnson. Mr. Okun said that you can have a reasonable understanding of how miserable the American people are at any moment in time by adding the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. I would add to that how many hours per week Glenn Beck, Laura Schlessinger, and Rush Limbaugh are on the air, but Okun didn’t know them so that doesn’t count. If you add these two figures, the unemployment rate and the inflation rate, it only makes sense that you will have some idea of the pulse of the nation. If unemployment is high and inflation is worsening, some kind of negative effect is hitting not just business and industry, but the citizens themselves. Okun called the negative impact on the citizens “social costs.” To restate, “A combination of rising inflation and more people out of work implies a deterioration in economic performance and a rise in the misery index.”

The misery index today, not counting your arthritis or the boring friend you couldn’t get out of having lunch with after church, is 11.01. That’s not too bad. Okun or his followers went back as far as 1948 to start keeping track of this monthly figure. Since 1948, the least misery US Americans have experienced was in July of 1953 when it was 2.97. The worst we’ve ever had it, and you have to keep in mind that war or tragedy may have no impact on this index because in some war times the economy improves, is June of 1980 when the misery index registered a whopping 21.98.

Attentive folk in the helping professions have long known that there is a major connection between financial hardship and emotional distress. Plenty of those who suffer a major loss of income become depressed, and a frightening number of those who become depressed end up taking their own lives. Mental health researchers tell us that it’s very predictable; when economic uncertainty is on the increase, mental health is on the decline. The principle can apply in a home, in a church, in a community, a small town, or in a nation. Few people are at their best when they’re worrying about how to feed their families and keep a roof over the heads of their loved ones. Few people are at their best when their static fixed incomes rarely increase, and they have to decide on whether to buy food or their medicine.

In our current recession, or whatever it is, the home foreclosure crisis is surely one of the leading causes of worry among working class Americans. One of my preaching students last year preached in one of her sermons that God had turned the foreclosure people away from her family’s home only hours before giving them the boot. There were many shout outs and much applause for God in her audience of fellow seminarians; but when time for critique came, and it always comes after all practice sermons, I asked her why she thought God had protected her family’s home from foreclosure while allowing so many others to be on the streets with their kids or living in their automobiles?

During this economic downturn, which in many places is improving--thank goodness!--mental health professionals say that they’ve seen stunning increases in substance abuse, relational instability, and domestic violence. It’s as if after a point, worry forces us to strike out at ourselves or others, and those nearest us are the easiest targets.

With adults having so many problems with the economic crisis, children are often overlooked, but they shouldn’t be. They see their parents worrying, and they hear whispers of parental conversations about what they would do if they lost their jobs and/or their homes. And the children become profoundly worried, but don’t know what to do with their worry; the effects of their worry often eventually show themselves in inappropriate behavior, poor academic performance, and a loss of interest in what they had loved doing such as playing sports or taking dance lessons, which their parents can’t afford to pay for any longer anyway.

And I keep hearing Bobby McFerrin singing in the back of my mind, “Don’t worry. Be happy!”


As far as I can recall, the central figures in the world’s great religions were non-worriers. I mean, how many people would want to join up with a spirituality movement whose leader was a hand-wringing, fretting, worrying bundle of nerves? Most spirituality movements hope to give adherents inner peace in the face of a chaotic, unpredictable, sometimes very cruel world. There are all sorts of ways religious groups have encouraged their members to deal with worry.

Some say that if there’s something causing you worry, the best thing you can do is to jump in and try to change it; when you’ve done all you can do, regardless of the outcome, you know there’s no reason to worry any more. Either you fixed the problem, or it’s not going away--any time soon, at least. Worry has proven to be completely unproductive in responding to the problem so it should be removed from the picture.

Some groups have said the world is a whole set of hopeless problems that can never be solved; the only intelligent response, therefore, is to focus on the world to come where all problems have been removed. Many Christian groups have opted for this alternative, and they teach those who practice with them to discount the troubles of the world because by and by these troubles will be nothing more than a blip in experience when they look back on them from the perfect next world where pain, sorrow, and suffering are no more. “Soon I will be done-a-with the troubles of the world, going home to be with God,” the slaves on those old southern plantations sang when their masters weren’t within earshot.

In the film version of Alice Walker’s “Color Purple,” Celie is the victim of physical and emotional abuse heaped upon her by her husband whom she calls Mister. Celie is talking to another woman, Sophia, also a victim of domestic abuse about the best way to handle it. Celie says it’s best to endure it because this life doesn’t last long while, in comparison, heaven, where there is no domestic abuse, is forever.

Sophia says, “Oh no. The best thing you can do is bash Mister’s head in when he tries to hurt you and think on heaven later!”

One long-practicing Buddhist was trying to teach a novice about how Buddhists approach worry. This is what he said:

We are not called upon as Buddhists to deny the world, and certainly not to escape from it. We are called to live with it, and to make our peace with all that is. In Buddhist terms, that peace is called Tathagata. The Thus Come One is enlightened as he is, not as he would wish himself to be. There is no escaping this. The world of worries we wish to escape from in the beginning of Buddhist practice is found to be enlightenment itself in the end.

Some Buddhists use a strand of worry beads to help them deal with or overcome their worry. It is, in a way, parallel to the Roman Catholic rosary. Buddhist prayer beads, traditionally called malas, first developed as religious tools in Hinduism, Buddhism having developed as a sect growing out of Hinduism. A strand of these worry beads typically has 108 beads--though in some branches of Buddhism, this varies. The earliest Buddhists kept the Hindu prayer bead practice, and it continues in many Buddhist circles to this day.

Each of the 108 beads reminds the devout Buddhist of something she or he should overcome and, thus, no longer worry about. The number of beads, 108, is not an arbitrary number. There are six senses as they envision human experience: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. There are three realms in which these have been or will be operative: past, present, future. There are two possible conditions of the human heart: pure or impure. Then, there are three broad possible emotional responses to what is experienced: like, dislike, or indifference. So, 6 senses multiplied by 3 realms multiplied by 2 possible conditions of the heart multiplied by 3 possible emotional responses. 6 x 3 x 2 x3 = 108.

The propensity to worry or not to worry is culturally and socially based. If you have been brought up to believe, for example, everything that happens in this world is mere illusion, as some groups through the centuries have taught, then pain or tragedy aren’t real, and if you can talk yourself into believing that, good for you. You can probably get elected to public office in this country.

I don’t know how accurate these statistics are, but I’ve heard comparable analyses for years. Something like 43% of all US American adults suffer poor health as the result of worry and stress. Of all the visits to primary care physicians, up to 90% of the patients have worry-related complaints or disorders. In medical research, worry has been linked to all the leading causes of death in this country including heart disease, cancer, lung disfunction, accidents, and suicide. Human resource specialists estimate that on a typical work day in our country, about one million workers are absent because of issues related to worry. Someone has said, “Consider the mental fatigue of nights without sleep and days without peace, and we get a glimpse of the havoc worry plays in destroying the quality and quantity of life.”

Worry weakens our immune system. Further, as Dr. Charles Mayo, for whom the Mayo Clinic is named, pointed out in the early part of last century, “Worry affects the circulation, the heart, the glands, the whole nervous system. I have never known a person who died from over work, but many who died from worry.” Speaking of the Mayo Clinic, some recent research out of that stellar health care institution reminds us that at the beginning of the twentieth century, physicians in this country were almost unanimous in their belief that most disease was caused by bacteria. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a substantial number of physicians are asking each other if things have changed so that most disease has worry as its root. Dr. Hans Seyle has said, “Unrelieved stress is the cause of all disease.”

I ran across a gruesome little story a while back; now I’m worried about whether I can tell you the story with clarity! Death was walking toward a city one morning, and some man recognized Death on the move; many don’t. The man dared to ask Death, “What are you doing here? What are you up to?”

Death answered, “I’m going to take 100 people from your town.”
“That’s horrible!” the man protested. “You can’t do that. These are good people here; there’s no reason you should bother them at all.”
“Well, that’s the way it is,” Death said. “That’s what I do. You know that. Everybody knows that.”

Thinking he could thwart Death’s plan for the day, he ran back into the center of town and told everybody he possibly could what had happened. Death was on his way into their town intending to take 100 of them out with him. At the end of the day, the man was pleased with himself for having made an effort to spread the word. He was sure he had saved at least a few lives, but that, tragically, was not the case; all total, ten times as many as he’d anticipated died that day.

At dusk, the man ran into Death again. “You told me you were going to take 100 of us, but you took 1000 of us! What in the world is wrong with you?”

Death said, “I did what I said I was going to do. I took 100 people from your town today. The other 900 died from worry, and they have you to thank for that!”

I believe the following anonymous admonition can be traced to Ireland, and that’s as much as we know about its origin. It goes like this:

You have only two things to worry about--either you are sick or you are healthy. If you’re healthy, you have nothing to worry about, but if you’re sick you have two things to worry about. Either you’ll get well, or you’ll die. If you get well, you have nothing to worry about, but if you die you have two things to worry about. You’ll either go to heaven or hell. If you go to heaven, you’ll have nothing to worry about. If you go to hell, you also will have nothing to worry about because you’ll be so busy shaking hands with your friends you’ll have no time for worry.


What does all this talk of worry have to do with flowers, in this sermon series on flowers? Well, I’m not talking about sending flowers to the sick, though that is a lovely gesture for those sick folk who have no allergies to flowers. If you send flowers to someone with allergies to flowers, you’ve got something to worry about!

You heard in our reflective reading for today Jesus talking about flowers, lilies; and he talked about them in order to teach a lesson on worry. An ancient story with very contemporary relevance.

So, one thing we learn from this scriptural snippet is that people in Jesus’ day, Jesus’ followers among them, worried. If you’re in favor of worry, you’d have to say most of them legitimately had a great deal to worry about. Most of them were poor, and some of them were so poor they literally didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. All were under Roman domination and had limited freedoms. Then, there was hardly unity among the Jews themselves about how to be or what to do.

Jesus had some sermons on worry, and they were likely summarized and included as a part of the so called Sermon on the Mount, which was really a compendium of many sermons Jesus preached.

Jesus admonished his hearers not to worry about life’s basics--food, water, and protective clothing. That’s shocking, but most of what has been recorded in the Sermon on the Mount is shocking at some level. It seems if there were any justifiable worry at all, it would be worry about these very items. Worrying about the basics seems justified. Who would approach a hungry person and say, “Don’t worry about food.” That’s cruel, isn’t it?

Jesus makes a very good point about life being about more than food and the human body being of greater value than anything with which we might cover it. True enough, as long as the person to whom we’re speaking has had enough to eat and has warm clothing on to fight bitter, brutal temperatures. Who in the would in her or his right mind would stand at the door of Emmanuel Dining Room after the lunch period had ended and the building had been locked up and say to someone who stopped by, begging for food not knowing the schedule on which lunch was served, “Now, don’t you worry about food. Isn’t there more to your life than eating?”

In the world as it was intended, with food enough for all, and, by the way, there’s still enough food produced in our world to feed every person every day; no one is supposed to be hungry. But if you are hungry; and especially if you carry a hungry child on your hip, there’s no more pressing need than getting nourishment. If someone is hungry, telling her or him not to worry is silly. Even if worry won’t produce any food, it is, I think, beyond human capabilities to avoid worrying about finding food for someone is hungry. A starving person may be encouraged not to worry because she or he no longer feels a sense of hunger and will shortly die.

Similarly, there is plenty of clothing in the world so that no one needs to be cold. Like food, the problem is not availability, but distribution. Stupid, selfish people are responsible for hunger and someone getting cold enough in the dead of winter to become ill and die due to lack of sufficient warm clothing.

Jesus uses birds and flowers to help him illustrate his very important points. Jesus is not preaching to hungry people; if someone were hungry he’d see to getting them fed before he started his sermon. He’s making a generalized point about how ineffective worry is in solving any of life’s real problems.

So, he says, look at the birds. Do they seem as if they’re worried to you? Does any one of them seem to be preoccupied with planning a menu for the day or the week? No. They’re flying around doing what birds do. When it’s time to eat, they go and find what God the Creator, or you could say what nature, has provided for them. They didn’t grow it; they didn’t reap it; they didn’t preserve it for later consumption. They eat what is here for them to eat, and as long as we don’t mess with their habitat, they have no trouble eating well day by day.

This is how it was intended for humans too. There was to have been no worry about adequate food for everyone. The earth is capable, if we don’t botch it up, of producing ample food for all the inhabitants of the planet, and this remains true even though the planet has vastly more people on it in more places than Jesus could have imagined.

So, Jesus got it. If your kid is hungry, you’re going to be worried about her or his wellbeing, and you’re going to do what you can do to make sure that hunger is alleviated. The point well taken, though, is that worry doesn’t produce the food. Worry doesn’t cause the hunger pangs to go away.

Jesus asks as he preaches along, “Can you add a single hour to your life by worrying about it?” Of course not, he expects us to answer, and he had no idea what medical science knows today. In fact, worry will steal life from us.

Birds generally eat well if people will just leave them be, and flowers will typically blossom radiantly if we don’t botch the soil or over water them or under water them or bring them anywhere near me. As Jesus preached this sermon on various occasions with adaptations, always as far as we know in outdoor settings, he must have glanced, now and then, around where his hearers gathered and seen the gorgeous wild flowers that grew beautifully, year in and year out. Even a monarch with the most gifted designers and seamstresses and tailors in the world working for her or him could not have any garment made with beauty enough to exceed the natural beauty of the lilies of the field.

We’re not talking about a fashion show here, though. We’re talking about clothing necessities, and Jesus preaches again, very simply, very honestly, if you lack the clothing you need to keep the elements from harming you, worry won’t get you those clothes. You may not be able to keep from worrying about a warm coat if you don’t have one for winter, but the worry will not create or provide a coat for you. So worry is wasted.

When people live according to God’s standards, no one needs to worry about winter warmth. No one should have such concerns. Building societies with compassionate programs for the hungry and the homeless is a much better pass time than worry. Habitat for Humanity for one example teaches us that while we may only be able to build one house at a time, that’s a whole lot more productive than sitting around worrying about homelessness.

Jesus was evidently known to close many of his sermons on wasted worry by reminding his hearers that if there are concerns on your mind, let them be today’s concerns. Tomorrow is apt to hit us with a whole different set of concerns. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Amen to that.

There’s an old gospel song with this chorus:

One day at a time, sweet Jesus,

That's all I'm asking from you.

Just give me the strength

To do everyday what I have to do.

Yesterday’s gone, sweet Jesus,

And tomorrow may never be mine.

Lord, help me today, show me the way

One day at a time.

A word from Walter Hagen in conclusion: “Don’t hurry, don’t worry. You’re only here for a short visit. So be sure to stop and smell the flowers.” Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment