November 20, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
We are living in complex times. Out of curiosity, I went back and looked at census forms over the years and in 1920, the US census form asked if you were male or female, had a tiny box to list your color, and asked for your place of birth and “mother tongue.” The 2010 census listed 17 check box options for race alone, and even allowed people to check more than one box. For the 2020 census, some people are proposing we increase the number of options for gender … because we live in complex times.
Beyond our borders, global alliances rise and fall, power shifts constantly, and international relationships are so complicated that we can’t always remember who the enemy is supposed to be, because we live in complex times.
And in our day to day lives, the speed of technological change leaves us dizzied. We now can carry the entire world in our pockets thanks to the internet and smart phones, but this unfiltered access has also left us without curators to tell us which information to trust and which to discard. The question, “What’s on TV tonight?” is now answered with, “Anything you want,” which means the simple act of watching TV has to be preceded with research; we have to browse through hundreds of options on cable, Netflix, HBO, Showtime, not to mention the possibility of re-living the entire television experience of your childhood in re-runs.
Even the most basic of human interactions feels complicated by our brave new world. Each friend, colleague, and family member has a preferred mode of communication. Some text, some email, some refuse to go near a computer and will only use a phone — and we have to keep track of it all. We wrestle with uncertain rules of etiquette: is it rude to ignore a text for more than an hour? Can we unfriend someone from Facebook without hurting their feelings? Can I send a sympathy card by email? Can I limit my child’s access to social media or will that leave them socially ostracized among their friends? Will they even have friends if I take away their phones?! We live in complex times.
And if we weren’t feeling overwhelmed enough two weeks ago, the election has piled stress on top of stress to our lives. A recent journal article showed a cartoon of an enraged family around a Thanksgiving table pelting one another with mashed potatoes and beating each other with drumsticks. The accompanying article is entitled “Navigating the Hard Family Conversations After [the] Election.” 1 The simplest holiday of the year — a holiday that asks us only to gather around a dinner table for a moment of thanks — has become as fraught as a mine field in our suddenly extremely complicated world.
We long for a simpler life. We long for a way to put aside the complexity of our times and focus on what it real and meaningful. We envy the Amish and their “plain living,” or we fantasize about following the lead of someone like Henry David Thoreau who spent two years of his life living in the woods at Walden Pond writing about the value of simplicity.
“Our life is frittered away by detail,” he said. “Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”
If only we could go back to simpler times. If only we could rid ourselves of our phones, and live as they did in the old days before Facebook statuses and twitter feeds. How much better life would be, we think! Until we realize that Henry David Thoreau who begged his fellow citizens to pursue a simpler life was living in the 1820s, before the development of any of those things that we blame for complicating our existence. Think about that for a second: we tell ourselves that our lives are so complex because we are living in complex times and what we really need to do is turn off all of our technology for a while so that we can get back to what is real and good, and yet Thoreau looked around at his community — which had no internet, no phones, no shopping malls or cars or even electricity — Thoreau looked around at his community and said that people needed to live more simply instead of being distracted from what was really important in life. So it is fair to blame the complexity of our lives on the times in which we live? And to hammer home that question, there is Jesus talking to people living two thousand years ago telling them that they needed to divest themselves of all of those distractions that were keeping their souls from the the things of heaven. What distractions could first century people have? They didn’t even have watches yet, let alone Law and Order re-runs. Did they really need Jesus telling them to stop and appreciate the lilies of the field?
Apparently, the answer is yes. Apparently human beings are geniuses at finding ways to distract ourselves from what is really most important whether we are living in 2016 or 1820 or 30 AD. Maybe the ways in which we distract ourselves has changed but the impulse to distract ourselves apparently has not. When we listen to the words of Jesus, we are forced to concede that the problem is not “out there” but “in here.” It turns out that it is human to chase after things that are really not important in the end instead of focusing on what is. It is human to fill our lives with meaningless pursuits instead of pursuing the good, healthy, and whole. It is human to flit from one thing to another mistaking busyness with meaning. It is human to seek our salvation in all of the wrong places.
I think that that is what we are trying to do with all of the things that distract us: we are trying to find salvation. We are trying to find salvation from the burdens that we are afraid we do not have the strength or wisdom to bear and so in our fear and anxiety, we fill our lives with things to distract us from our pain, with things we hope will keep our mind off of our doubts and worries, and with activities that will give us the sense that we are doing something to fix what is broken, even if the brokenness stubbornly persists.
I see this all of the time in my dog, Cody. I know you were probably hoping for a dog-free sermon this week but the fact is that Cody is a high maintenance dog and it makes it easier to cope with him if I can at least get a sermon or two out of him. Even as I was writing this, he was pushing himself against my legs under the desk pleading with me to put my sermon writing aside to play with him. And that was after having let him in and out of the house several times, given him a bone to chew on, hidden the bone so that he could have the fun of hunting for it, and taken a fifteen minute break to play catch with him. Cody’s desire for distractions is insatiable and that desire increases in direct correlation to the intensity of his emotional or physical distress. He deflects his hunger by tearing up paper, plastic, or couch pillows; he deflects his anxiety by barking at every little noise, and running from window to window; and when I sit at my desk to work, he is afraid that my inattention means I don’t really love him, and so he pesters me with his need: “Pet me, play with me, pay attention to me because I am afraid that you don’t care.”
Cody is a busy busy dog because he is a dog who has difficulty bearing life’s burdens. He looks for distractions to take his restless mind off of his anxiety and as a result, he drives the people he loves to distraction.
Cody is just a dog and doesn’t have the capacity to understand that he is seeking salvation in all of the wrong places, but we are human beings who have been given a Savior to show us the right path and Jesus said, “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 God than birds.”
And you count far more to God than birds.
Your salvation is not to be found in all of the noise and busyness of life; it is found in the promise that you are loved by God who will remain with you no matter where you find yourself, and who asks only that you return that love with thanksgiving, and share it with others no matter where they find themselves. God says, “Stop running around trying to fix everything and everyone, trying to push away your pain and bury your fears, and take a moment to breathe in my love in the place where you are right now. Let my love bring you the assurance that even in the world’s brokenness I am still present and my love remains. Breathe in the peace of that; breathe in the beauty of that, and trust that with me you can bear even the unbearable.” It is that simple.
During World War II, Victor Frankl was working in Austria as a psychiatrist and had spent years working on a book about the importance to our mental health of having a sense of meaning about life. Frankl was Jewish, and in 1944, the Nazis arrested him and his family, and sent them to the concentration camps. Separated from his wife and parents, Frankl made a desperate attempt to save at least his life’s work, hiding the manuscript to his book in the lining of his coat, but when he arrived in Auschwitz, the guards took his coat away from him leaving him with nothing.
“I had to undergo and overcome the loss of my spiritual child,” Frankl wrote. “Now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a spiritual child of my own! I found myself confronted with the question of whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning.”
The procedures at the concentration camps were designed to dehumanize the prisoners as much as possible and so a few days later, the Nazis forced the prisoners to turn over the last vestiges of their old lives.
“I had to surrender my clothes,” Frankl remembered, “and in turn [I] inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had been sent to the gas chamber. Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in the pocket of the newly acquired coat a single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, which contained the [foundational] Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.)
“How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence,’” Frankl said, “other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?”
From that day on, Frankl attempted to find meaning in his interactions with the other prisoners, grounding his life entirely in that one prayer. Later, as Frankl reflected on his ordeal, he wrote, “There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life… ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’”
Jesus said that we should seek our meaning not in the many distractions that lead us farther from salvation but in the one enduring reality — you are loved by God, and the totality of your life is to be found simply in Christ’s call to return that love in devotion and thanksgiving and to share it with one another, so that we may find our rest in its beauty.
Let that be the heart that we all bring to our Thanksgiving tables this week.