(“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”) Does anyone else find that song annoying? A life-long worrier, I’m annoyed when people tell me not to worry. Any worriers out there? Does telling you not to worry help you not to worry? If you’re like me, when I’m worried and someone tells me not to worry, then I just start worrying about being a worrier.
And please don’t order me to be happy. I’ll be happy when I’m good and well ready to be happy! Tell you what. You worry about your happiness and I’ll worry about mine…. because, apparently, I’m very good at worrying!
A quick look at the news and you’ll see PLENTY to worry about–Paris, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Mali, hunger, thirst, poverty, ecological devastation, ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, racial tensions, discrimination…not to mention trying to make ends meet, trying to stay healthy, trying to raise thoughtful, caring children in a world gone mad.
I’m going to write a new song. “Be worried! Be terrified! The world is a scary place!”
What was Jesus thinking telling those folks 2,000 years ago not to worry? The world must have been a safer, less frightening place back then.
Except that it wasn’t. The people Jesus taught were oppressed by a ruthless, militaristic regime, they were exploited by their own religious leaders, and they lived every day with the threat of arbitrary imprisonment or execution. I suspect people—especially Jewish people—in 1st century Palestine had even more to worry about than we do.
So, why does Jesus tell them NOT to worry?
This might sound strange, but maybe Jesus tells his followers not to worry because they were oppressed, exploited, and living under the threat of arbitrary punishment and execution. Jesus’ whole thing was showing people how to establish God’s kindom “here on earth as it is in heaven”—a place where the hungry are fed and the thirsty are given drink, where strangers are welcomed and the naked are clothed, where the sick are cared-for and the imprisoned are visited. How were Jesus’ followers going to do any of that if they were off in a corner somewhere wringing their hands?
The Greek word for “worry” is merimna, literally– “a part, as opposed to the whole,” or “divided into parts.” You might even say to worry is to “go to pieces”–because you feel pulled apart in different directions. A worried person is a distracted person, a person who can’t see the whole picture. (http://biblehub.com/greek/3309.htm)
…Like me this past Thursday night. Eight hundred people of many faiths gathered for a Thanksgiving Celebration at Temple Kol Emeth. Our theme for the night was “Teach Your Children Well about Other Religions.” As part of the planning committee, I enlisted our interfaith success story for the evening. Pamela Perkins Carn, Coordinator for Interfaith Children’s Movement, had agreed to speak. She was supposed to arrive between 5:00 and 5:15. By 6:25, she still wasn’t there. The program started at 7:00 p.m.
I confess, I was worried. Here I’d talked the planning committee into inviting Pamela and she wasn’t there! Completely panicked, I found Hal, chair of the planning committee, and told him Pamela was a no-show. Hal looked me in the eyes and said, “I appreciate the worry. Really, I do. But what are we going to do? Can you talk about the organization?” Can I talk about Interfaith Children’s Movement to 800 people with only 30 minutes to prepare? Yeah. That didn’t help my anxiety at all.
Still worried, I found a quiet corner, pulled out my phone, and read everything I could on the ICM website. Happily, Pamela arrived about 6:40, a victim of terrible Atlanta traffic. (There’s a redundancy if I’ve ever heard one.) As soon as she arrived, my anxiety dissipated.
In truth, before Hal’s “I appreciate the worry, but what are we going to do?” comment, I wasn’t aware of how anxious I was. When Hal—ever so gently—pointed it out to me, I saw how much my anxiety was causing me to miss: greeting several friends, enjoying the drumming and other music, deciding what to do if Pamela didn’t show up….I was missing it all because I was worried. Because I was able to focus only on one thing, I wasn’t able to see the whole picture of this beautiful gathering with our neighbors of other faiths. Thank goodness Hal did see the whole picture and that he helped me see it, too.
That’s what worry does. It distracts us. It divides us. It pulls us apart into pieces. Worried people are fragmented people; they’re so focused on one thing (or a million tiny things), they can’t see the whole picture. Jesus knew that fulfilling God’s hopes for the world was going to take undistracted, 100% committed followers who could see the whole picture…so he told them not to worry. He said it, not to annoy them, but to empower them, to help them pull themselves back together so they could commit themselves fully to the vital work of establishing God’s kindom here on earth.
But how do you do that? How do you stop worrying? Anxiety is a powerful force. It feeds on itself. It grows exponentially and really fast. How do you interrupt the worry process? How do you get refocused on the larger picture?
Medication can help. J Jesus offers another way. “Look at the birds of the air,” he says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them…. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” How do we stop worrying? One way is by paying attention to the natural world.
Allen and I live with two inhabitants of the natural world (that we know of). Here’s what I’ve observed: Gracie and Dayo are 100% cats. It’s true that Gracie likes to play catch and Dayo has been known to bark or chirp on occasion, but they are cats through and through. When they sleep, they sleep. When they eat, they eat. When you throw an object, they run for it. When you dangle a string, they bat at it. Gracie will bat at a dangling string even when I can tell she doesn’t want to. She never wins that fight with herself. As a cat, she’s born to bat at dangling strings. So she does.
I wonder if that’s why immersing ourselves in nature is so calming—because every other created thing besides human beings is simply itself. Every animal, every bug, every sparrow, every lily…every created thing does what it was created to do, is what it was created to be. It doesn’t worry about what it has or hasn’t accomplished. It doesn’t try to keep up with purebreds or the show dogs. It doesn’t worry about whether guest speakers are going to show up or not. And, despite all those cute “I was a bad puppy” photos on Facebook, non-human creatures don’t worry about their reputations. They are simply themselves.
Could it be that what makes us most anxious is trying to be something or someone we are not created to be? Is that why Jesus invites worriers to contemplate the natural world? To remind us that the most anxiety-reducing, the holiest thing we ever can do is simply to be ourselves?
When talking about what gets her through difficult days, a speaker at Friday’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event said this: “When I get anxious, the only thing that helps is to remember who I am.” Perhaps that’s what Jesus is saying, too. Don’t be anxious about your life, don’t try to be someone you’re not. Simply be who you are.
Do you know the source of the words “Don’t worry, be happy?” They come from 20th century Indian mystic Meher Baba. “He often used the expression “Don’t worry, be happy” when cabling his followers in the West.” (Wikipedia) Sometimes he’d use this longer version: “Do your best. Then, don’t worry; be happy in My love. I will help you.”
Meher Baba was, of course, referring to himself. When I imagine the words to be spoken by Jesus, I find that I’m no longer annoyed by Bobby McFerrin’s song, but actually find great comfort in it. “Do your best. Be your best self. Be who I created you to be. THEN don’t worry. Be happy in my love. I will help you.”
What better words to take with us as we gather with extended family this Thanksgiving week? (What? Your anxiety doesn’t go up when you’re with extended family? When you’re traveling long distances in the car with grumpy children? When you’re sitting still on the interstate hours on end because of all the traffic?) When things get worrisome for you this coming week, remember those words as if they were spoken by Jesus: “Do your best. Be yourself. Then don’t worry. Be happy in my love. I will help you.”
In the name of our God, who creates us redeems us sustains us and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24“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.
25“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? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But 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? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.