Part 1: Just How Far Faith Can Span

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? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?
Matthew 6:25-30

The world is full of the heaviest sorrows right now. In China most of the recovered dead have been laid to rest. In Myanmar, things have gone numb; there is callous silence because there are no rules about how death should be handled especially on such a large scale, though as all of us know who have grieved even a little, the sadness is just beginning. And then there are all the other griefs of just being alive and having your heart broken because the world is an immodest place with a misplaced pride in itself.

I was sent a Plato quote by my bald Mennonite friend who is going through chemotherapy:  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It made me wonder about what you’re supposed to do when what you think can’t happen does happen. When loss is on such a personal scale that it utterly weighs down your faith; and you realize that Flannery O’Connor was right when she said faith is what you know to be true, whether you believe it or not. And I also remembered that somewhere I read God prefers honest doubt to false piety, and so I decided that a reasonable amount of worry about life is not such a bad thing.

Too often this text from Matthew, with the admonition not to worry, has been read as a cozy comfort in which to snuggle, given as a sort of folksy wisdom in contemporary culture. It’s a corollary to the poster given to awkward adolescents: “Don’t worry! God isn’t finished with you yet!” But being told not to worry has been found to be a real burden to anyone, like my bald friend going through chemo, whose well-meaning people tell her: “Keep your chin up!” and “It could be worse!” and “It’s good they caught it when they did!” and “Think positive thoughts!” It’s hard to imagine offering this text from Matthew as word of grace to a grieving parent in China. Anything that big is enough to distract anyone’s allegiance from the kingdom of God.

There is something about this text from Matthew that exposes our most desperate anxieties. There is something a little unnerving about it, like a back-handed compliment can be. Like someone telling you that you look good ,or you’re not as shallow as you first seemed, or you don’t have to worry about it, yet. It makes you aware that there is something to worry about. If it hasn’t found you yet, it will and you will have little or no control over it. That tragedy can happen, that you may get a terrible diagnosis, that you may not have enough to eat, that things die — grass and lilies and kings — because there is a span to each life.

Sometimes people think Christ’s words are soft and sentimental and therein lies their comfort. His words wash over us, and they will soothe and refresh. It’s sure nice when they do. But Christ’s words, this grace that is given, is more like getting dragged into a munitions factory. Because the truth of the matter is faith and grace and the Word of God can be devastating to the recipient, even the words of Christ that seem to preach themselves in their pure comfort. But though these things are in no way sentimental, they also are in no way indifferent, nor are they obscene. For even the words of Christ that appear to be of greatest reassurance are words spoken by the One who knows of human sorrow, and this is the greatest promise of all. This is most profound of comforts. This and only this is where our hope lies.