By Amy Carr
Who has learned to live by Jesus’ teaching, “Do not worry?”
Jesus had listened deeply to fellow human beings to be drawn to say this — alongside the familiar Jewish commandments about loving neighbor, practicing justice, forgiving and showing mercy.
Likewise, the thorns and thistles that block out the growth of the Word of God in the Sower and the Seed parable — these echo the worries about which Jesus warns.
You know a worry by the way it grips the surface of emotion — twisting up into a knot of anxiety we do not know how to undo.
You know a thorn by the way it snags your heart and keeps it caught up in the thicket you want to move through.
“I understand why you cannot begin to imagine what else you might like to do, or where to move, unless you first imagine being able to face bankruptcy,” my friend Eric said to me last week on a visit in his Iowa town.
We were sitting outside a microbrewery with his German Shepherd, in a spring night falling warmly.
He too cannot imagine the details of one day retiring or relocating to his beloved hometown of Portland without realizing that the economy of his current town is such that his house might not sell, or would sell for perhaps half its current value.
We both live in small Midwestern college towns in which the institutions for which we work are shrinking, or in danger of closing in the future, because of declining enrollments and/or a manufactured state budget crisis.
Eric has invested in solar panels on his house; I have just emptied 1/3 of my savings to replace the original plumbing on my 1920/30’s home, even as the rental house next to me has been vacant over 10 years and has had unrepaired broken windows since Christmas — while the house next to it has a condemned notice on it.
In a town with many people moving away and more houses for sale than buyers, would my house ever sell if I lose my job, or choose to relocate for a new job or career elsewhere?
And was it wisdom or foolishness that I have bought a new car (with a family loan) with a 10 year extended warranty? Past experiences suggest this will likely save me money down the road, but the thorn of worry keeps me awake, anxious about having spent yet more of my savings.
Eric, an eminently practical man who plans ahead with more zeal and focus than I, also finds that the path of peace must pass through the worst case scenario and imagine how to handle it.
My husband of several years, by contrast, has the practical wisdom borne of thinking from the immediacy of the moment’s needs. He lived in his truck for two years while working as a day laborer in Austin. He knew how to get a shower at the YMCA, how to tell police that the pastor of his church really did let him park his truck by the church: “You can call her to confirm this.”
He says he was the pratyeka-buddha (the Theravadan buddha who seeks salvation separate from others) among the homeless who slept across the street right in front of the church. He did not interact with them — sensing that many were drug-addicted or had mental illness challenges such that he was likely safer keeping to himself.
“Remember storage units,” he points out by way of an effort at comforting advice. They are how he kept his stuff in his two years of homelessness.
I think of the family in the Upper Michigan trailer park we shared who, to my five year old astonishment, had only government cheese in the fridge when I visited one day. “I can bring you some food!” I declared. “We have lots in our fridge!”
“No,” said the mother, who had two children younger than I. “It’s all right. My husband will be home soon.” He had seasonal work in a mine in the next county and could be away for weeks at a time.
I was glad to hear later that one of her children went to Michigan Tech University on full scholarship. And then I think: Illinois’ created budget crisis is already preventing many low income young people from getting state grants they need to afford college.
I have made life choices through a mix of following my heart and being responsible about meeting my expenses. Until the past few years, I took for granted my own ability to maintain a middle class lifestyle. And even though I know I have the resources and wherewithal to very likely survive the thorn of any bumpy transition, economic anxiety has snagged me up and distracts me in a background way — like an atmospheric condition.
In the first sermon I preached, at 16, I said that any faith worth its salt has to be able to look at reality fully in the face.
And now as a Lutheran Benedictine oblate (of St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island), made aware of the catholicism of monastic practices of prayer, I would call this old spiritual habit of mine a form of lectio: holding in awareness before God the realities of our thorny worries, especially those that take root in the declines that cut across communities and regions.
We often think of the parable of the Sower and the Seed in individualistic terms: Is your particular heart like the rich soil that hears the Word of God and yields a hundredfold?
Or is your heart more like the hardened soil in which God’s Word cannot take root at all?
Or are your like shallow soil that is initially receptive, but dries up quickly?
And is there anyone who by middle age does not know how the thorns and cares of this world can prevent the seeds of open-hearted God-responsiveness from growing to maturity?
Of course we listen, respond, and act as individuals. The gospel is never less than a profound personal call upon each of our lives.
But those thorns — they all too often arise in thickets that bind us together.
Lectio on the thorn of economic worry involves attention to the shared conditions that enable those thorns to grow.
My worry is your worry, and yours is mine — with thorns like these that share a common field.
And awareness of this is a starting point that, unlike a hardened heart, fosters empathy and a spirit of shared responsibility.
A lectio on what is happening in Midwestern lives I know has led me to see what I had not noticed before about this parable: that rich soil is already present precisely where the thickets of thistles grow and choke out the growth of God’s Word.
The Word and the worry are sprouting on that same soil.
Clearing shared fields is a matter of collective and political will. How much harder that is to do — and harder still when some among us can escape to a richer, more job-plentiful part of the country and perhaps find our way to individual material security.
I am beginning to welcome worry almost as much as I welcome the Word of God — at least where asking about the source of those worries illuminates what needs re-orienting in our common life together.