Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Addressing Graduates of W&M

Readings for the Service of Celebration for the Graduates
The College of William & Mary
May 12, 2012

From the Mukunda Mala, verses 10 and 14, by Kulashekhara Alvar (9th century):

O foolish mind, stop your fearful fretting about the many problems of life. How can misfortune even touch you? After all, your Lord is the source of all good fortune! So cast aside all hesitation and concentrate your thoughts on Lord Krishna, whom one can easily attain through devotional service. Lord Krishna dispels the whole world's troubles—so what will he not do for his own servant?

Once we have seen our Savior, the challenges of the whole earth becomes no greater than a speck of dust, all the waters of the ocean become mere droplets, a great fire becomes a minute spark, the winds become just a faint sigh, and the expanse of space becomes a tiny hole. Indeed, even one particle of dust from our Lord's feet conquers all!

Psalm 23 – A Psalm of David.

The Eternal is my shepherd; I shall never be in need.
Amid the choicest grasses does God set me down.
God leads me by the calmest waters, and restores my soul.
God takes me along paths of righteousness,
in keeping with the honor of God's name.
Even should I wander in a valley of the darkest shadows, I will fear no evil.
You are with me, God. Your power and support are there to comfort me.
You set in front of me a table in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup is overflowing.
Surely, good and loving-kindness will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I shall come to dwell inside the house of The Eternal for a length of days.

Luke 12:13-21
Someone from the crowd said to Jesus, “ Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me. ” Jesus said to him, “ Man, who appointed me as judge or referee between you and your brother?”

Then Jesus said to them, “ Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy. ”  Then he told them a parable: “ A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop.  He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’  This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “ Therefore, I say to you, don’t be anxious about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds!  Who among you by being anxious can add a single moment to your life?  If you can’t do such a small thing, why be anxious about the rest?  Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these.  If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith!  Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying.  All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek God's kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.

Holy Qur’an (13:28, 2:152, 10:57-58)

When addressing anxiety, the ultimate advice from God in the Quran is: "Surely in the remembrance of God do hearts find rest."

"So remember Me – I will remember you."

"O mankind, there has come to you a protection from your Lord and a healing for what is in your hearts, and for those who believe, a guidance and a mercy." Say, "In the bounty of God and in His mercy – in that let them rejoice; it is better than what they accumulate."

“Anxiety: Its Gifts and Antidotes”
Luke 12:13-31
A sermon preached by Carla Pratt Keyes
for the College of William & Mary’s Service of Celebration for the Graduates
May 12, 2012

I’d like to start by saying a word of thanks to the Senior Class of 2012 for inviting me to join you today, and to each student who is here just for being here, because it is 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning and, you know, enough said . . . even without the big party last night and the fact that you’re graduating this weekend. You don’t come to something like this unless you care – about God or a Prophet or some power beyond any power you can wield. You may care more about your family or friends or the music – whatever brought you here today, I applaud it. And I thank God for it.

Choosing a text to speak about this morning was really hard. As I was weighing the options, a friend told me not to overthink it, so I went with what felt obvious – a text about anxiety, because of course you’re feeling anxious about something this weekend. In a way (and no offense to Jesus, or Lord Krishna, or anyone else) I sort of hope you’re feeling a little bit anxious. Anxiety is the cosmic hint that something matters. It may feel more like fear . . . or it may lean toward excitement . . . but if you aren’t feeling stirred or unsettled somehow, it may indicate you do not quite comprehend the crossroads where you stand right now. Frame it as a challenge, a crisis, an opportunity – it’s up to you. But things are fixin’ to change . . . and any change that matters brings with it some anxiety.

T.S. Eliot called anxiety “the handmaiden of creativity.” [1] Athletes count on it for that burst of adrenaline that can help them to run faster or hit the ball harder than usual. The actress Sarah Bernhardt once told a young protégé who claimed not to have stage fright, “Don’t worry. It comes with talent.”[2] The right kind of anxiety can have obvious benefits: quick reflexes, clarity in the moment, high performance. You’ve just finished a battery of finals; you know this. In addition, anxiety can serve a mundane and practical purpose; it can spur you to prepare for what’s coming next.

In cartoons sometimes a little angel will hover over one shoulder, dispensing good advice, while a little devil flies over the other shoulder, offering bad advice. I’ve been thinking about anxiety as the parent or mentor at your shoulder offering, well, let’s face it, good and bad advice. Maybe your folks aren’t like this at all. My dad always used to say that if something could go wrong, it probably would; it was smart to be prepared. So as we drove around he would say things like, “If that car in front of us swerved out of control, what would you do?” Or if we were cooking he’d say, “If that pan caught fire, how would you handle it?” Or at the beach, you know: “If a shark attacked, how would you fend it off? If Mom started to choke, what could we use for the tracheotomy?” If the worst thing happened, he wanted me to be ready – know what I mean?

I’m not going to tell you not to worry about getting a job, or paying the rent, or where your next meal is going to come from, or what you’re going to say to your girlfriend or boyfriend or friend-friend or ex-friend when you part ways this week. A little forethought can help you to be prepared – to act in ways that make sense and serve everyone’s good. If anxiety helps you to get there, fine. The problem, of course, is when anxiety takes over. When tension and worry get the best of us, and we start to believe we cannot handle the challenges we face. When anxiety is not only “at hand,” but when it burrows deep within us. When our stomachs churn, and our minds fret. I will tell you to find a doctor then, before anxiety makes you sick.

With that, let’s turn back to a man some people call the Great Physician. What did Jesus mean when he talked to his friends about anxiety?

I think it’s important to note that Jesus was talking to his friends. When he said not to worry about food, he wasn’t talking to someone who was hungry. Jesus encountered hungry people, and when he did, he gave them something to eat. When Jesus said not to worry about clothing, he wasn’t speaking to someone who was naked or cold. Jesus taught that when we encounter someone who’s naked or cold we’re to give them something to wear. Jesus was talking to his friends, according to Luke . . . and they had just heard him tell about a man who was the opposite of naked and hungry – a man who had so much food, in fact, he had nowhere to put it all.

There’s something interesting about the way Jesus tells this rich man’s story: it is how isolated the man appears to be. It’s really just this man and his harvest. No family, no neighbors, no sense of the world around him. As the man decides what to do with his bountiful crops, he does not talk with anyone . . . he does not even post a Facebook status to get input from friends. The man wonders to himself, decides by himself, speaks to himself: What will I do? Where can I store my harvest? Here’s what I’ll do: tear down my barns, store my grain, enjoy myself. He’s at the center of his small but comfortable world. And the way he sees it, he has nothing to be anxious about – not ever again.

He’s a caricature, for sure. I don’t know anybody exactly like this. But I know I can be like this sometimes. When I am waiting for the next generation iPad. (It won’t solve my problems, but it’ll take my mind off them for a while!) When I am wondering about my next job, and whether the salary might fund more travel around the world.[3] When I obsess about my appearance, or my résumé, or whether I can snag any bread ends at the Cheese Shop after this service is over. Whenever my thoughts start to circle around me – my food, my house, my career, my plans, myself – I resemble that foolish rich man more than I care to admit. So do you.

What Jesus recommends in response to that man is a different way of living – more attuned to the world around us, less concerned with self. Jesus points to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. God cherishes them and cares for them, he says. God cherishes you and cares for you, he also says. But the point, really, is to help us move beyond ourselves, so that we are thinking less about the property we cultivate and the crops we claim as our own, and more about the land God made and creatures that exist for God’s pleasure. Less about ourselves at the center of something manageable, more about ourselves as a part of something vast.

The more I thought about this, the more I came to believe: this text from Luke is about reverence more than anxiety. (Perhaps you can think about reverence as an antidote for anxiety.) The philosopher Paul Woodruff says that reverence is the virtue that keeps people from acting like gods[4] (which is how that rich man was acting . . . how you and I act when we imagine ourselves at the center of things). “Reverence must stand in awe of something,” Woodruff says.[5]  What kind of thing? Something that reminds us we are limited. Something people cannot control or change or fully understand. Something humans did not create. Something transcendent. Such things can awaken reverence.

You’ve had several years’ of a liberal arts education. Goodness knows you’ve been exposed to all kinds of things that may have kindled reverence in you: the intricacies of the human brain, maybe; the ideals of democratic government; the effect of Mozart’s Requiem. Like many wise teachers, Jesus taught with materials available to him. Our context is very different than his; still, nature is a good place to start. It’s full of things that are bigger and more powerful than we: starry skies and turbulent oceans, whales and elephants. They remind us of our true size. But size isn’t everything. Properly attended to, even something small can evoke awe.[6] Consider the inchworm; we saw lots of them this spring. Pesky little creatures; I kept picking them off my neck. But they’re so amazing, too: front legs that grip while hind legs draw close . . . hind legs holding while front legs reach. I was driving to work one day and noticed an inchworm clinging to the window of my car. He held on the whole trip with just two of those tiny legs. How did he do that?

Maybe his dad had brought him up asking: If you’re ever on top of a car when it starts to move, how will you anchor yourself?

The thing is, we can’t plan for everything, though it’s tempting to try. And we can’t control every situation. Too often people learn that the hard way. They’re at the top of their game when the cancer strikes, or the car crashes; we cannot control such things. What we can do is to approach this crossroads and every change or challenge of life with reverence for all that is vast and unknowable: for the future unfolding, the people involved, the wonders around us . . . and God, who holds everything somehow in hand.

Perhaps we will begin to feel what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things.” Do you know his poem by that name? Berry says:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things 

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.[7]

Freedom: from worry about the future and despair about the state of the world . . .  from the fear that our lives won’t amount to much (if they amount to anything at all) . . . from striving, achieving, aiming to please. Freedom – for a time, anyway. It’s one of the gifts of reverence. As we come into the presence of things that are bigger and more powerful and more peaceful than we, we recall our true size and our limitations. We remember our place in the family of things. A door opens then – an opportunity for us to entrust ourselves to one whose power is greater, whose vision is broader, who knows what we need and wants to provide it.

Yet, if we are paying attention, I think we will feel a tug of anxiety even as we feel the rush of peace. I hope we will. Return to the text from Luke and you’ll notice: Jesus does not recommend that his friends live without any anxiety – just selfish anxiety. He does not suggest life with an absence of striving. He suggests a particular kind of striving.

Seek God’s kingdom, Jesus says. Now . . . he has something particular in mind, and I won’t pretend to know exactly what it is. None of us should. But as we look where Jesus pointed (to the skies and the fields), I think we begin to see. It’s a world where even the smallest and most seemingly insignificant creatures are cherished . . . a world where each creature is fed and clothed with dignity and care . . . a world where all can live and even thrive. Can you imagine such a world – not only for the ravens and the lilies, but for everything that lives and grows, for everyone who lives and grows?

Seek the kingdom. It’s a way of saying: want enough for everyone. Seek peace and plenty for all the earth. Act with reverence for the vast array of creatures you did not make and cannot fully understand. And if you’re going to feel anxious (as you surely will at times), feel anxious, not so much about your own needs being met, but about a world that falls short of God’s will – the Lord’s desire for everyone’s needs to be met. Be disturbed by a world where forests are razed for timber and mining, where oceans are polluted with human garbage, where too many of us act as if we owned the globe – using and hoarding what we like, without regard for anyone else – while others of God’s beloved children are starving, enslaved, uneducated, warring and afraid. Be anxious about all that! Not so anxious you freeze or faint in the face of it all, but enough that you are moved to act sensibly and passionately for change.

Such efforts will not keep you safe. (I, like your parents, wish they would!) Such efforts may not help to pay the rent, though you’ll find, I bet, they alleviate your anxiety about the rent. Such efforts may not matter on your résumé, but they will matter in ways you can scarcely calculate – smart though you are.

You are a talented group of people. Anxiety comes with talent, according to some. I say: don’t waste either thing. The world needs you to use both wisely and well.

[1] Alice Park, “The Two Faces of Anxiety,” Time Magazine, December 5, 2011.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Note to GPPC – this is for illustrative purposes only! I spend no time wondering about my next job.
[4] Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, Oxford University Press, USA, 2001, 2.
[5] Ibid, 115.
[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, HarperOne, NY, 2009, 22.
[7] Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, NY, 1998, 30.