Unlikely Anti-Anxiety (or Okay Martin Luthur Might have Gotten some of it right)

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Matt 6:25

I’ve been a bit anxious lately about many things and nothing in particular. It’s just one of those moods that happens, but working in a church rarely makes it easier. Today I found some comfort (challenge?) in an unlikely source.

I am far from Martin Luthur’s biggest fan, but today (courtesy of Richard Foster) I found my self reading part of his sermon on Matthew 6:25-7:11. It went like this:

Listen … to what serving Mammon [the god of possession] means. It means being concerned about our life and our body, about what we should eat and drink and put on. It means thinking only about this life, about how to get rich here and how to accumulate and increase our money and property, as though we were going to stay here forever. The sinful worship of Mammon does not consist in eat ing and drinking and wearing clothes, nor in looking for a way to make a living and working at it; for the needs of this life and of the body make food and clothing a requirement. But the sin consists in being concerned about it and making it the reliance and confidence of your heart. Concern does not stick to clothing or to food, but directly to the heart, which cannot let a thing go and has to hang on to it. As the saying goes, “Property makes a person bold.” Thus “being concerned” means clinging to it with your heart. I am not concerned about anything that my heart does not think about, but I must have a heart for anything about which I am concerned…

It goes on from there. But what I found myself reading over and over sounded a little more like this:

Listen … to what serving Success [the god of Numbers] means. It means being concerned about our life and our size, about what is cool and how many people show up and other’s opinions. It means thinking only about this job, about how to stay employed and how to accumulate and increase our power and fame, as though we were going to stay here forever. The sinful worship of Success does not consist in being relevant and inviting and being visible in the community, nor in looking for a way to make a living and working at it; for the needs of this world and of the church body make relevance and visibility a requirement. But the sin consists in being concerned about it and making it the reliance and confidence of your heart. Concern does not stick to invitations or to hugs, but directly to the heart, which cannot let a thing go and has to hang on to it. As the saying goes, “Success makes a person bold.” Thus “being concerned” means clinging to it with your heart. I am not concerned about anything that my heart does not think about, but I must have a heart for anything about which I am concerned

You must not tighten this text too much, however, as if it prohibited any kind of concern at all. Ever ministry and occupation involves taking on certain concerns, especially being in charge of other people. As St. Paul says about spiritual offices in Christendom (Rom. 12:8): “He who rules, let him be careful.” In this sense the head of a household has to be concerned about whether his children are being brought up properly;. . . if he neglects this, he does wrong. . . .

Christ is not talking here about this sort of concern. This is an official concern, which must be sharply distinguished from greed. It is not concerned for its own sake but for the neighbor’s sake; it does not seek its own interests (1 Cor. 13:5), but even neglects them and forgets them in order to serve somebody else. Therefore it may be called a concern of love, something divine and Christian, not a concern devoted to its own advantage or to Success, militating against faith and love, and even interfering with the official concern. The one whose reputation is dear to him and who is on the lookout for his own advantage will not have much regard for his neighbor or for the ministry that involves his neighbor. . . .

Christ has forbidden this greedy concern and worship of Success as an idolatry that makes ministers enemies of God.

There is always the pressure in ministry to judge ourselves solely by the inputs (money in the plate and tails in the seats). While these can be an indication that something has gone awry, we truer, more valuable measures of success if they are our only markers.

A few months ago, the lovable engineers in my congregation conducted this massive study about why our membership was declining and what were the most effective ways to change it. It yielded a lot of useful insights, but the one that stuck with me most was this: a positive change in almost any area of the church (worship, communication, leadership development, clearer vision) was likely to result in more participation. The only sure way to NOT increase membership, was to chase new members. (there is actually a formula, spreadsheet, and graph and rendered this result).

The more you are concerned making members, the less time you have to worry about making disciples, or feeding the hungry, or caring for the sick, or visiting the lonely and imprisoned, or pursing any other mark of the Kingdom Christ laid out for us. It makes a certain amount of sense…but somehow its so hard to remember in the midst of parish life.So I suppose I owe a (only slightly grudging) thank you to Martin. Though I might have to pin this in my office and read it everyday for a long time to make it stick.

Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 4-There will be blood

 And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”  – Revelation 17:15-18

Guernica (Pablo Picasso)

Beginning with the wine press in Chapter 16 going through to the binding of satan in 19, we are met with images of horrific violence. Perhaps more than any others, these passages are difficult for me to honor as scripture. Yet it is important that we wade through them; that we neither turn away, nor give into the temptation to merely skim them. Even though they are bitter we must drink deeply here, or risk missing one of the greatest lessons of Revelation.

When John first sees the woman, the whore Babylon, he is “amazed”. Earlier the same amazement led others to worship effigies of the beast. There is something attractive about this woman. She bears all the markings of wealth and trade, education and culture. She is all that is best in Roman civilization–all the art and accomplishment the security of empire makes possible–and there is something attractive about her.

But she rides upon the beast– upon power and force and corruption and deceit–on all the things that keep an empire going. That beast will inevitably turn on her; it will destroy her. John shows us that, all that is good and attractive in an empire will eventually be stripped and devoured by the violence that sustains it–that is empire at its heart.

Picaso knew this. He painted it. There is a great story about Guernica. When Picasso was living in Nazi occupied Paris, a German officer was inspecting his studio, as they did from time to time. On the table were post cards of what was by then his most famous painting–post cards of Guernica. The officer picked on up and thrust in Picaso’s face. “Did you do this?” he asked. “No,” said Picaso, “you did. Have one. As a souvenir.”

Guernica is Picaso’s remembrance for a Basque town massacred, at the request of Spanish Fascists, by a German air raid. It is not easy to look at, no it is utterly disturbing. But even though it is bitter, we should look on it and take it in deeply. It is Picaso’s echo of John’s warning: This is what violence does. It may sustain an empire for awhile, but all violence eventually destroys.

That is not to say that our only valid option is quitism. I’m sure even Picasso was quite thankful for the tanks that eventually liberated Paris. And One of the most violent figures in Chapter 19 is indeed Christ, but though an army gathers behind Him, only Christ is said to slay. Vengeance is mine saith the Lord. In this life, it is inevitable that there be world powers, we are one now, as Babylon and Rome, and Spain, and Turkey and England were before us. And it is perhaps inevitable that such powers are violent. But we must be careful. Where the empire becomes an object of worship, where violence is as much an end as a mean, where power and corruption run amuck…there is Guernica.