Working With Worry

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Jesus (Matthew 6:34)

Recently I was talking to a mother in the cardiac intensive care unit and I stumbled across a new insight about worry in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: Don’t forget to have today’s trouble!

Worry gets us stuck in what might happen and saps our energy away from what is actually happening right here and now. When Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow, it’s because today needs our attention. We cannot do anything tomorrow today. We cannot do anything about the future, but there might be something about right now that can be done.

The ICU is a good place to wonder about worry. It seemed like all this mom could do in her situation was worry. It seemed like that was her job. When her newborn baby was intubated, sedated and awaiting emergency surgery what could she do but worry? Sometimes love looks a lot like worry. The incredibly disempowering experience of being a mother who can do nothing to comfort her child is hard to even imagine unless you have been there. It’s so hard! Sometimes nurses even ask parents not to touch their children because the stimulation of being touched might dangerously increase their heart rates.

As a chaplain, it’s my job mostly to just sit with them and affirm the impossible nature of such a moment, but sometimes I offer this tiny encouragement: “your love matters.” I believe that the baby can feel their parents presence. I believe that there is something deep in every human that communicates to those around us that is beyond the five senses. Call it the spirit, call it energy, call it what you will — there’s another level to our togetherness that we can feel on a deeper level. I believe whatever spiritual organs receive these signals are the same with which God communicates with us best. A “still, small voice” emanates from all of us, always; and this emanation is perhaps nowhere more powerfully sent and received than between a mother and her child. I really believe just sitting there matters. I sometimes remind the parents I serve, “You are filling up this room with love. And that matters! Don’t give up! It’s very hard work sitting there with so many worries and almost no way to act upon them.” I am amazed at the parents who do this!

My little insight from Jesus recently was that it is much more bearable if you focus on that important work of having today’s troubles today. This applies to all difficulties, even the comparatively less extreme circumstances you face today (but comparisons are not very helpful). Each day has enough trouble of its own! Or, if you like as I do, the poetic version from the old King James version: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

What Jesus is really doing in the Sermon on the Mount

Too often, Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount get reduced to the shoulds and the shouldn’ts. Jesus and his people got put in the sin management department a long time ago, and he/we haven’t shaken off that bad reputation since. Sometimes we listen to Jesus (Lord help us) and can only hear him telling us we are bad.

You’re worrying? That’s bad.
You have a forethought of grief like I told you not to? Bad!
Anxiety? Sin!
You’re still worrying? You’re bad!

–NOT Jesus

This IS NOT Jesus. But so many have receive him this way that we need to recover him from the misunderstanding. First, don’t let me not be another voice saying you’re bad if you think like this sometimes. Let me instead offer an alternative I hope can replace that idea of Jesus and a thought about what Jesus is really trying to say.

Should I worry? That’s too hard of a question. I am worried, what should I do? That’s where Jesus is coming to us.

Jesus knows we are worried, otherwise he would not be talking about it in his most famous sermon. His response to worry is a promise of love and care, no matter what. Of course, the antidote to worry is trust, but “Just trust God more” is not really that helpful. Jesus sees us in our worry and is offering us some encouragement. Thoughts are habits. We practice them, usually unconsciously. But we can think differently on purpose. We can develop habits of noticing our thoughts and deciding to think something else. Sometimes only for a moment, but each of those moments are victories. Tiny victories like that pile up into new habits of thought, and new habits of thoughts change a human life completely.

In his section on worry in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is giving us at least two things we can do every day that will stop the flow of our energy into the wastes of the future and allow us to be more present to our lives and the difficult challenges that each day offers.

Have your trouble today (on purpose)

The mother in the ICU was naturally overwhelmed by all the things that were happening to her baby and all the things that would happen next. The complexity of her child’s medical situation brought Jesus’ saying about each day having enough trouble into incredible focus. It would be impossible to consider all the facts in her situation. How could she even consider worrying about tomorrow? And yet she was tempted by that habit of thought. She latched on to my suggestion to have today’s trouble today.

How is this idea any different than a “one day at a time” cliché? It isn’t that different. The difference is the “on purpose” part. Having your trouble on purpose is so simple it might be silly I am writing this many words about it. Using the example of my friend in the ICU, it goes like this: “My baby is sick. I am scared. I am sad. Today the doctors hope to keep his blood pressure steady. That’s the whole plan. God, help keep his blood pressure steady, and help me endure these intense feelings. I am here now with my baby.” Whenever she started thinking, what am I going to do if the surgery is unsuccessful or some other tomorrow problem, she could gently turn back to the specifics of now and what she was feeling. If she were anything like me she might realize she was spiraling into tomorrow thoughts a couple of times throughout the day and have a moment of clear presence which just might be enough to help her make it to tomorrow. She would be having her trouble today, on purpose — really having it a few bright minute at a time.

Have a forethought of joy (also on purpose)

When I arrived at this point in my outline I went looking for the phrase “forethought of grief” in the Sermon on the Mount but discovered that it came into my mind not from Jesu but from Wendell Berry. Honest mistake, because Wendell is channeling Jesus rather directly in his famous poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life” (Matthew 6:26-27) Wendell Berry said “I come into the peace of wild things/who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” The birds we are called to consider do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. Watch them do it! But they do have trouble. The early bird does get the worm, and the constant industry of a robin picking at the grass in my yard every morning, or the dizzying sweep of the insect-skimming swallows that feast for hours at dusk over the lake on whose shore I live are sights to behold! Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof!

But if you can’t help but think about the future, and none of us can; you might as well insert some of the beautiful possibilities along with the worst case scenarios. Back to the child in the ICU bed and her mother wondering if she will ever be well; she might interrupt her doom-thought for a brief moment of wonder about what it might be like to hold the grandchild that this child might one day bear. She could ask: What will she be like in High School? When will she learn to ride a bike? Which will her first word be? If you are going to worry about the future, which you will, you have the choice to wonder about it too. Zooming out beyond the practicality of this current chapter fo your story can offer a bigger space in which God’s peace might rest in your worn out heart.

Jesus said it best

I can think of no better conclusion that an invitation to meditate on these words from Jesus again. Take a few deep breaths and read this handful of verses from Matthew 6. Their application might look like my tomorrow-thought/doom-thought interrupting exercises, or you could receive fresh insight of your own.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. — Jesus (Matthew 6:25-34)

Blessings, friends.

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