The Next Right Thing

Matthew 6:33-34

My dog Dexter is asleep under my pulpit and when he came in the church this morning, unlike the rest of us, he didn’t have to put on a mask or worry about social distancing.  He greeted people in the sanctuary without fear that he might catch a life-threatening disease.  Nor was he unsettled by the news that our President has coronavirus, or that there are still fires burning in California.  He has never heard of the Democrats or the Republicans or watched a debate or wondered whether it is better to vote by mail or in person.  He isn’t bothered by the disappearing ice pack in the Arctic and doesn’t mentally tally the number of song birds that show up each summer worrying about whether their populations are decreasing.  Dexter, like all dogs, is unaware of anything happening beyond what he can see, hear, or smell directly around him.

Of course, we know that there are some human beings who also manage to remain blithely oblivious to anything that does not directly impact their own lives but Dexter also remains just as calm in the face of personal calamity.  As you all know, last Sunday, Dexter wasn’t able to come to church because we had spent all night at the emergency vet due to an infected tooth that had thrown his body into chaos.  He was pretty sick last Saturday night, but within 24 hours of the antibiotic treatment, he was back to running around the yard chasing moths as if nothing had ever happened.  I, on the other hand, am concerned about what the vet will find at Dexter’s follow-up appointment this Friday wondering whether an infected molar at the tender age of three suggests that Dexter will have a life long problem with dental health, and I do worry about the songbirds and the disappearing icepack and the state of the nation and the spread of Covid-19 and the upcoming election and what could happen if my son John who is Black were to be stopped by one of the “bad cops,” and all of those other things that keep us awake at 2 am because unlike Dexter, I am human, and the thing that separates the human race from possibly every other creature on earth is that we can worry about tomorrow.  We can worry and we will worry and we do worry about tomorrow.

What a gift it would be to be able to turn off our brains and think of nothing more important than whether a moth needs to be chased across the yard.  Maybe that is why our pets are so dear to us: when our fears begin to get the best of us, we can rest ourselves in the natural serenity of our dogs, our cats, or a cuddly guinea pig.  Even the most hyper Golden Retriever can pull us away from our worries about the future with a look that says, “I don’t know anything about the problems you are facing on the job or the state of the union but I do know that it’s a great time to play frisbee, don’t you think?”  An animal’s ability to exist entirely in the present with no worry for tomorrow is a state of mind that has been pursued by the spiritual for eons, and so throughout human history countless numbers of people have stared into candles trying to master meditation or chanted daily psalms hoping to pull themselves out of their fixation on tomorrow into a total immersion in the present day.  It’s not that our power to conceptualize the future is all bad – it is, after all, what makes us plant gardens in the spring that won’t yield food until the fall or to build homes that will shelter us from the snow that will not come for another two months (or maybe two weeks for us in Alfred) – but there is no denying that our power to visualize a future that hasn’t happened yet can also overwhelm us as we spin out hundreds of imagined terrifying scenarios.  The news of 2020 has been bad enough but what has overwhelmed most of us is not just today’s news but the concern about where all of this will leave us in 2021.  Pundits and Facebook friends warn of long term recession, of increasing cycles of fires and storms, of colleges closing, of the collapse of democracy, of Civil War.  I’m not saying that these things are impossible; I’m just saying that our ability even to conceive of them, to spin out a thousand possible tomorrows, can leave us paralyzed by despair.  

Jesus was aware of the paralyzing danger of our worry and he said that we should look to nature and try to live as the rest of creation lives, grounded in today’s reality and taking on only the burden of the present moment.  When taken out of context, Jesus’ words sound simplistic and selfish.  In a pandemic world, the refusal to worry about tomorrow can lead to increased outbreaks and deaths from a virus that requires we consider the possibility that our actions may affect our future.  Moreover, just telling someone who is trapped in anxiety to stop worrying about tomorrow isn’t helpful.  When you are lying awake spinning out those thousand scenarios about the end of the world as we know it, you aren’t going to feel better by someone saying to you “Hey, don’t worry about tomorrow.  Whatever will be, will be.”  No matter how much I may appreciate my dog Dexter’s ability to be fully grounded in the moment, I can’t really deny my human nature and focus only on moths flying across the back yard. So what help are these words of Jesus to us? 

Jesus did say, “Don’t worry about tomorrow,” but he prefaced that command with words that give us a way to make it possible to live those words out.  He said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness,” and only then he added, “don’t worry about tomorrow.”  Jesus gave us a focus that enables us to move out of our paralyzing fear of a thousand possibilities and concentrate on what we is possible today.  My dog Dexter doesn’t worry about tomorrow because he is focused on his job today: chasing the moths in our back yard.  The lilies of the field don’t worry about tomorrow because they are focused on soaking up nutrients and pushing their leaves toward the sun today.  The bluebirds in my backyard didn’t worry about all of the things that might happen to them on their migration to the south this fall because they were focused on feeding their new hatchlings and doing the job of that day.  The bluebirds know what their job is and they focus their day on doing that job.  The deer, the eagle, the fish in the sea, the plants in your garden, the oak trees, and the spider spinning its web know what their jobs are and they focus on doing the job of the day.  Dexter knows what his job is and he focuses his day, every day on doing it to the best of his ability, even if to us chasing moths may be a strange resume.  So too, Jesus gave us a way to quell the anxieties of a thousand possible tomorrows by providing us with a focus — a job — for this day.  

“Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.”  That’s your job for today.  And you don’t have to worry about tomorrow because no matter what tomorrow brings, your job will not change.  “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.”

In an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, the journalist Alix Spiegel interviews people who have learned to cope with anxiety over uncertain futures, and she concludes that those who are able to avoid paralysis from their fears engage in a common strategy.

“The question [they] ask,” Spiegel says, “[is] not, where will this end, but what is the next right thing to do?…. [And so lately,]” she adds, “whenever I felt overwhelmed, distressed that a terrible end is looming, I pull out my new little mantra and worry it like a rosary.  Focus on the next right thing, I say to myself.  Focus on the next right thing.  Focus on the [next] right thing.” (1)

This is the same advice Jesus gave to us over 2000 years ago, long before Covid-19, or Black Lives Matter protests, or climate change, or the possible collapse of democracy, even long before democracy itself.  

“Don’t worry about tomorrow but seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.”  Focus on the next right thing.  

When you find your heart heavy with despair over tomorrow and worry over whether there is anything you can do to save the world from disaster, stop trying to save the world from all the possible tomorrows and focus instead on the next right thing you can do today.  Dexter’s job is to chase moths and that is his focus for every single day.  A lily’s job is to bloom in beauty, and that is its focus for its day.  Our job is to seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, to ensure that our relationships with others are right and just and peaceful in this present moment, to every day look around is and ask, “What love can I share today?  Who can I help today?  What word of kindness, what act of justice can I do today?  What is the next right thing I can do in this moment?”