Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Job 38:1-18, Mark 4:35-41 ~
When Meg told me LaTia would sing “Motherless Child,” I thought: “Well, it’s a good thing I know in advance, so I can prepare myself. Otherwise, I might not be able to preach…”
So, if you need time to recover, I get it. And if you haven’t before the end of the sermon, I understand that as well. Because we probably shouldn’t— shouldn’t recover. We shouldn’t feel “okay” when children are intentionally separated from their parents. We shouldn’t feel okay as the present administration systematically dismantles environmental protection, seeks to end much of the social safety net, and treats the rest of the world with disdain. We shouldn’t feel okay when certain classes of people are vilified, the “haves” increasingly distant from the “have nots,” and the “other” treated as an enemy rather than a neighbor. We shouldn’t feel okay about powers that be who lie or people who use Jesus as a mouthpiece of discrimination. We shouldn’t feel okay about a culture of meanness and alienation. We shouldn’t feel okay.
And most of us don’t. Which is good. It shows we have a heart, a soul, and an independent mind. It shows we have compassion and take seriously Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves and the words of the Hebrew Bible to welcome the stranger, care for the poor, feed the hungry and free the oppressed. It shows we care.
Many of us have been working on various issues in the present national and global context: upcoming elections, specific policy concerns, political advocacy, rallies and marches. Just yesterday, ten of us and two dogs were down on the mall rallying for the Poor People’s Campaign, and next Saturday we’ll go again in support of immigrant rights. There’s no dearth of things to do, and many of us are doing them.
The problem is, in a context such as this, at such a time as this, caring can become exhausting. Compassion can be fatiguing. We all risk becoming very tired, even beginning to despair.
So, here’s my question this morning: how do we avoid despair?
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is in a boat with his disciples, and they’re afraid. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a small boat in a windstorm, but it’s terrifying. Therefore, it isn’t surprising the disciples were scared—despite the fact many of them were fishermen. Or perhaps because of it: they knew things didn’t look good.
But Jesus? He was asleep! As the wind howled and the storm raged, he was asleep “on a cushion” in the back. And when the disciples awoke him, his response wasn’t exactly what you’d expect from someone in a boat in danger of capsizing: “Geez, I was sleeping! Okay, wind and rain— stop. The rest of you, why are you so anxious? Have you no faith?’
And, then there’s Job. Mind you, by this time he’s had pretty much everything taken from him: livelihood, home, family, health, reputation… everything. And he’s not too happy about it, because he thought he was a pretty good person. I mean, why should all this happen to him? But God’s response? Well, the Holy One lets Job know he has no idea what he’s talking about. He/we have no clue about the magnitude of the universe! Or who God is or what sort of process resulted in the known world. No clue.
So… Mark and Job together? I see fear— and despair. Fear that bad things are going to happen. And despair that bad things have already happened and will continue to happen. What’s the connection? Well, my somewhat provocative contention is that great fear and deep despair are both rooted in pride. Which might sound weird. Perhaps even judgmental. But bear with me.
Great fear and deep despair occur when we’re pretty darn certain we know what’s going to happen—and it’s not something good. Great fear and deep despair emerge when we’ve decided (consciously or unconsciously) we have the power to predict the future and/or when we believe we have the magnitude of perspective to know how it’s going to turn out. In short, when we grant ourselves the power of God.
Now, before I continue, I want to clarify: I’m not referring to diagnosed anxiety or clinical depression—though I do think there’s a cultural component to both these mental health conditions. Our culture leads us to believe we should be in control— of ourselves, others and the world around us. And given this is not actually possible, it’s an unhealthy mind game. So, please, if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression (or for that matter, fear or despair), please contact me. I’m happy to meet with you.
This morning I’m focusing on the spiritual dimensions of fear and despair, though the psychological aspects deserve attention as well. And my point is: indulging great fear or deep despair is understandable but not helpful. For both paralyze us, holding us back from joy (yes, joy!) and the work we are called to do.
I recently saw the movie, First Reformed, and, while I’m loath to recommend movies containing violence, I do so because this one provoked so much reflection (plus, Rotten Tomatoes gave it 96%!). It’s not violent overall (trigger warnings are suicide and self-harm), but it is a very dark movie. The main character, a pastor of a tiny Reformed congregation in upstate New York, lives a life of smoldering desperation that’s ignited by the husband of one of his parishioners. This young man, a radical environmentalist, despairs over climate change, believing we’ve already gone past the point of no return. And this belief provides the already despondent pastor with a fresh focus for his own despair.
Now, I must note: both men are sane and their despair understandable. They rightly fear for our planet, one has lost a wife and son, both are loners, and one is an alcoholic. But the spiritual dimension of their despair, linked to pride, means they’ve succumbed to it out of certainty— they’re certain their view of the world is correct. They’ve determined the planet is doomed or they’re bad or life is not worth living, and there’s no room for anyone else’s point of view, much less acknowledgement that God might have a wider, longer and more accurate vision than theirs. Or that the unlimited creativity of the Divine might just be greater than the rigid certainty of their despair. I mean, who knows what’s possible? God and the Universe contain infinite possibility. Meaning, human despair is highly correlated with human arrogance.
So, how do we counter this? How do we counter the sort of pride that can lead to great fear and deep despair? Well, humility… which comes from the Latin root, humilatas, or “from the earth.” Just as the name of the mythical first man, Adam, comes from the Hebrew, adamah, “from the earth.” We are earth creatures! Not gods. Despite our well-developed frontal lobes (and computers and skyscrapers and space craft), our cognition is limited to our physiology, and our physiology comes from the earth. Our perspective is not universal. It’s earthbound. Thus, humility is a description of who we actually are, if only we’re willing to admit it (which is, of course, the spiritual virtue).
In any case, pride does not make us happy. And it most certainly doesn’t bring joy! Rather, it isolates us, leads us to believe we’re better than, rather than connected to, our neighbor, and makes us feel we alone are responsible for solving the world’s problems. Though, in reality, when we think this way, we’re less likely to solve them.
So, in this moment of cultural, political and spiritual overwhelm I say to you (and me), as the bible says over and over again: do not be afraid. Do not despair. Both our understanding and our power are limited. We do not have a God’s eye view.
Instead, let’s do what we can— with joy! Every day and every way. I asked the group who marched yesterday to think about what brought them there, and how they keep on keeping on, and to look for moments of inspiration during the rally. And so, now I ask (I told them I’d put them on the spot!): What brought you out yesterday, despite predictions of heat and rain? How do you keep on keeping on? And/or what inspired you during the rally?
Friends, there are only means. No ends. Or, at least, we don’t know what the end will be. That’s why “the next right thing” is all we really need to determine. What, let’s ask, is the “next right thing” to do? We know what Jesus taught: love our neighbor as ourselves, care for the least of these, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, do not judge, forgive extravagantly, welcome the “other…” and so much more! We know what he called us to do. We also know we can’t do it all. We can’t right each wrong, heal all wounds, bind every broken heart. But we can do something. And that “something” is our call. As the Unitarian clergyman, Edward Everett Hale, wrote over a hundred years ago:
I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.
“By the grace of God.” It’s a key phrase. Because it means we need not rely on our own power; we can rely on a higher power. We need neither fear nor despair: it’s not on us! We’re not the be all and end all. We’re just a small part of the process, and our small part, surely, we can do.
So, here we are—at an uncertain time in an unsavory place. But God is with us, and we are with each other. All we need decide is the next right thing. As Glennon Doyle writes in Love Warrior: “Just do the next right thing, one thing at a time. That will bring you all the way home.”