The Rev. Dr. Jon Parker is Assistant Professor of Religion at Berry College, where he teaches interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, and is an ordained priest in the ACNA and Anglican Diocese of the South.
“Oh Lord, I don’t know what to do. I’m so overwhelmed! Please help me!”
Have you ever prayed this prayer? I have. Often. This morning, as a matter of fact! Worried about how I am supposed to get done all that needs to be done, worried about how much I disappoint others, it’s hard to see how the day can go and end up a good day.
Within the pattern of our modern life, we often have several circles of responsibilities intersecting over us, running through the middle of our lives, and sometimes they can hit us simultaneously: maybe sitting at home looking at an email from our boss asking us if we have finished the work assigned to us, while getting a text from our spouse (or friend) asking if we could do something for them and having our sleeve pulled by a child (or pet) standing next to us asking us to come play with them… all at the same time! Not to mention whatever might be on the TV or radio reminding us of our broader responsibilities to our city, nation, or world!
The conveniences of modern technology mean that many different voices can reach our ears, asking us to become the answer to their needs. It’s enough to make us feel like we have to be multiple people at the same time! Have you ever prayed for a clone of yourself?
But instead of cloning ourselves, Jesus tell us to focus on him, to take our worries to the Lord, daily.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Jesus (Matt 6:34, ESV)
If we google for advice about what to do in the face of this information-aged, pressurized life, a somewhat surprising array of alternatives appears, but generally two themes emerge:
(1) “Do less. Focused people are ones who succeed in life.”
(2) “Don’t worry about it. Diffuse interests are the point of life.”
In favor of the first, we might cite this anonymous internet meme: “Focus: Otherwise you will find life is a blur.” In favor of the second, we might think of that decontextualized, misquotation of J.R.R. Tolkein found on bumper stickers around America: “Not all those who wander are lost.”
Of course, as usual, there is truth in both: Without some focus, we will find our efforts going in multiple directions never resulting in any particular fruit; whereas, 2 Thess 2:16-17 (among others) suggests God wants our hearts and strength to result in “good work[s] and word[s]” (NRSV). Likewise, without some freedom to “wander,” we can find our God-given creativity stifled or any interruption into our own plans for our lives resented. Remember Jesus’ willingness to have people stop him and his encouragement to us to be willing to do the same (e.g. Mark 5:30; Luke 10:33)?
So how do we find that blessed, wise, “middle ground”? What traditions did our ancestors in the faith figure out that they passed down to us but which we are in danger of forgetting? What example do we have for us in the life of Christ in the Gospels or from the Holy Word in the Old Testament?
Here are a few thoughts.
Keep calm and… know you are loved.
One of my favorite Scriptures is Psalm 131. It’s so short that almost anyone can memorize it (especially when it’s put to great music, like here). Here’s the whole thing (NIV):
A song of ascents. Of David.
1 My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
3 Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
There are several aspects of this precious psalm that become richer with longer contemplation, prayer, and study — for example, how does a “not proud” heart live in response to that annual report I have to have with my boss? What do “not haughty” eyes see when they look through social media? But I think the overwhelming mode of this Psalm is a reminder of our simple, precious belovedness.
A quiet, weaned child has begun on a relational journey with its mother. They have begun to learn that mom is not just somewhere to turn when hungry, but someone to be with. We begin to know we are loved by God when we are able to push through just bringing him our needs and are able to begin to sit (Luke 10:39), to rest (Isa 30:15), to just be with him (Mark 3:14).
Begin with Love.
No matter how old we get or how young and fragile we feel — in every stage of life — we always have a longing to be loved. And, while, yes, there is much, much more that grows from God’s love in us and then into the world, we really can’t start from any other point. Every day (and even multiple times a day!), the spirit of the Lord beckons us to find assurance in him that no action, no achievement, no response or notice from any other creature on earth can offer. It’s something we can only get from only the One who created us, redeemed us, and called us by name, who still says, “you are mine” (Isa 43:1).
Even Jesus began his public ministry not with a plan and a schedule of events, but with an affirmation from the Father. Before he’d even done any miracles — before he had accomplished anything — he heard the Father say, “You are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11 NIV; also, Matt 3:17; Luke 3:22; 2 Pet 1:17). And even, it seems, every day, Jesus went to the Father to listen and to learn who he was and where he was to go that day (Mark 1:35-38). This wasn’t a duty for Jesus; this was life! This was ministry. Ministry and work aren’t duties we add to our religious duty of prayer; prayer is our daily “beginning again” in love that is the work and ministry of God in the world. As Henri Nouwen puts it in his wonderful little book, In the Name of Jesus:
“The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.”
Use the Gift of Morning Prayer
Classically, this moment of meeting with the Lord is our time of Morning Prayer. Archbishop Cranmer did the church a wonderful service by designing the Book of Common Prayer so that it wasn’t just for clergy, but so that every person in the church could have somewhere to turn every morning (and evening!), where they could offer their daily concerns and burdens to God and in return be reminded of his love. For me that means using the Daily Prayer app (from the Church of England) on my phone.
In that moment of prayer (whenever I can squeeze it in during the first few hours of the day), I find the reassurance of God’s love, not just in the Absolution, but also in the Psalms and Daily Readings (Lectionary). Something beautiful and life-giving can happen when we spiritually exhale the worries, cares, and riches of this world (Mark 4:19; Matt 13:22) and inhale the story of his redemption and grace: The story I’m still living out now in my family and in the world! In that story, in those ancient hymns, I get some distance from the digital-age speed and demands being perpetually thrown at me. I get some perspective on the truth: that I’m loved, that I’m created, that I’m not forgotten, that I’m not without hope, even death can’t steal from me the good that is coming to me from a Lord who loves me much, much, more than this world ever could.
Having heard these words of love and perspective, then, and for me often only then, my soul can be “quieted,” and there, the Lord brings his “loud whisper” to the thoughts of my heart and I begin to know… one thing at a time, now no longer alone, but with him.
Like a weaned child with its mother is my soul within me.