Sunday, February 26, 2017

Worry — Can We Help It?

Today’s lectionary gospel passage touches on several themes (Matt. 6: 24-34). Perhaps the most dominant theme is worry. It contains phrases like “do not worry about your life, what you will eat and what you will drink” (25).

It continues with the advice that God can provide all these things if one seeks after God, with lovely images of birds and flowers. Yet, I find it a profoundly disturbing passage.

As I am writing this I am sat in a comfortable chair, I have just eaten my breakfast, I will shortly shower and then have the luxury of the choice of what clothes to wear. So, I can read this passage about not worrying about these things lightly.

But that is not the case for many, many people. I work with a population who often struggle with hunger and barely adequate clothing.

Here are some figures from 2015 from the Talk Poverty organisation. These figures are for the USA:

Overall Poverty Rate 13.5% (43.1 million people)

This is further broken down,

Children 19.7% (14.5 million children)
African American 24.1% (10 million people)
Hispanic 21.4% (12.1 million people)
Native American 26.6% (700,000 people)
White 9.1% (17.8 million people)
People with disabilities 28.5% (4.4 million people)

The figures present a dismal picture. Not only about the number of people living in poverty but about the racial biases seen therein. If poverty figures are viewed on a global level they are even higher.

A 2014 Pew Research Centre survey showed that 70.6% of the population of the U.S. identified themselves as Christian. I am sure that some of that percentage are also living in poverty.

How must it feel to read, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat and what you will drink” (25) if one does not have enough food to give children their breakfast, knowing they are already hungry. How easy would it be to not worry? I can’t imagine.

Of course, there are many commendable organisations, often faith-based, which try to alleviate poverty, feed and clothe hungry and cold people. Many individuals support these out of their own income. Together, all do a marvelous job ensuring basic needs are met. But it does not change the stark facts of how many people are in this position. I’m sure many of them constantly worry about it. I have added all these figures to raise the awareness of this huge problem in society. I don’t want to simply resort to trust God and all will be solved. I don’t think that is either realistic or helpful.

So, what is worry? I read an article in Pyschology Today to see the good and bad side of worry,

Worrying is obviously not a pleasant emotion, but it is actually an essential, normal, and instinctive emotion that has been hard-wired into humans to help us survive since we rose out of the primordial muck. We worry about something because we perceive it as a threat to our existence and worry causes us to focus on it and protect ourselves from that threat. 
The article goes on to say that unhealthy worry is harmful. One can become obsessed with worry and become absorbed by it rather than it being an emotion that helps one survive.

I think examples of healthy worry are all around us. I see it in a colleague whose baby is sick so she takes it to the hospital, a trip which possibly saves the baby’s life. I see it when people are worried about the ice on the road so drive cautiously to arrive home safely.

So back to the gospel passage. It leaves me with a number of uncomfortable questions.

Is it healthy to worry about what one eats and drinks?
Is that a normal part of living, loving and caring?
Is it really showing a lack of faith and trust if one doesn’t have enough to eat or no coat or shoes?
Is the gospel only for the middle classes?

I leave the questions as some food for thought for this week.

(Photo: Ithaca Falls, February 2016)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Right or Wrong?

What a difficult gospel passage to read today! (Matthew 5:21-37)

It is a small part of the teaching of Jesus commonly known as the sermon on the mount. It is another of those passages where the standard being taught is humanly impossible to achieve.

In the text the audience are being told that the old testament commands are superseded. There is a new standard. This is an impossibly high standard where anyone who feels anger or lust is judged to be guilty.

With passages like these, my concern is always that they will cause guilt. Reactions like “I can’t do it” or “I’m not good enough” or even “I need to punish myself”.  I don’t think those kinds of guilt responses are helpful. Often they just leave the reader in despair and unable to do anything.

So, the best thing I can do with the passage is follow Phyllis Trible’s advice and shake it until it yields a blessing.

I’m going to look, not at the story nor at the details of the standards, but at the punchline in each section. I hope, in doing that, I will find the heart of the story. Ao positive that will have some relevance for me today.

But before I do that I can’t resist commenting on the section about divorce. In contemporary times the Bible is used a lot to try and cause harm; to women, to those of other religions, to gay and transgender friends. Here is a perfect example of how this sort of selective reading is unhelpful, or should I say, simply wrong. In this passage, it states quite clearly that divorce is unacceptable. It is very plain, “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (32)

At this point I could say a lot about the inherent sexism in the passage. It is clearly only written addressing men and how their property, women, are to be dealt with. However, I’ll leave that for another time and continue to ponder the instruction on divorce.

In contemporary times, we do not, as a society, abide by this biblical statement. Clearly we do not accept it (after all many Bible-believing Christians voted for a twice-divorced president). The history of divorce is long and complex. However, in the UK it was only in 1969 that there was a big change in the law allowing people to divorce more easily. It happened at the same time in USA with California leading the way with “no-fault” divorces.

I know lots of divorced people and have some divorced friends. The divorce may have caused unrest and sadness or, in some cases, relief, but no-one ever talks about being a “sinner” or going against biblical teaching and rightly so. In the case of divorce the Bible is no longer used to cause harm. I am glad it is so.

I can’t imagine society any other way and it is only 48 years since the inception of those laws making divorce more available and acceptable.
I hope that in fifty years as a society we will look back in the same way on the issues today and wonder what all the fuss was about.

I make this point only to show that it is unhelpful to use the Bible in a way designed to cause harm. Times change and our understanding of society broadens. It is important to focus not on odd phrases or on little details but to look for the core; the thread of love and justice running through the scriptures.

So, for me the core in these verses are the two positive statements:

Be reconciled with each other (24)
Let you word be truthful (37)

These are words I can live by. They are commands that will keep harmony and trust amongst people. I don’t think that they are easy commands, I don’t know that they can ever be fully achieved but they are worth aspiring to. These are practices to build into my daily living as I try to live the best life I can.

(Photo: Broadkill Beach, November 2017)