Lyrical Living: Words to Live By
“Cumbered With a Load of Care” Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
Galatians 6:1-5, Matthew 6:25-34
To be sure it is a burden sometimes, but all in all it is a good thing, the fact that we have the capacity to care. It means that we have a heart, and just imagine the alternative. I collect tee shirt wisdom, and I once saw someone wearing a tee shirt that read, “Oh you must have mistaken me for someone who cares.” Imagine living in a world like that, a world where everyone just could not care less.
So all in all it is a good thing that we care. But there is no doubt that it is a burden sometimes. I mean life is so full of cares, as we all know, and not only are there the cares themselves, there is also how we choose to see them, and how we choose to carry them, and how we choose to share them.
With our summer worship theme Lyrical Living: Words to Live By we are looking at favorite hymns and hymn phrases, and the phrase I chose for this morning comes from the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus. And I chose it because it captures some of the blessing and burden that is a part of our experience of caring. Just a moment ago we sang, “Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?”
It is a curious word, cumbered, but a fitting one for our experience of care. As I said before, there are the cares themselves, and then there is what we choose to do with them, and often what we choose only makes things worse. We get all caught up in them, and entangled by them, and overwhelmed by them. We get encumbered by them, and from my own personal experience and from my experience as a pastor I would say that one of the biggest, if not the biggest, encumbrance to our care is worry.
Some years ago I was on a retreat, and in the retreat center there was a book of Chinese wisdom sayings, so of course I picked it up. And when I opened it, this is what I read, “That the birds of worry fly above your head, this you cannot change. But that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” In a similar spirit there is an old Swedish saying, “Worry gives a small thing a big shadow.”
Now I do not in any way want to make light of our cares, they are real, and they are many. But worry does add another whole layer of encumbrance. Someone once calculated that 90% of what he worried about in his life never ended up happening. 90%! Now the percentages may vary some from person to person, but most of us do quite a lot of unnecessary worrying, and by that I mean worrying about things that never really come to pass, or when they do, they are not nearly as serious as our worrying lead us to believe. So we can have real cares in life, and then we can be cumbered with a load of care made heavier by all of our added worrying.
The truth is that there is no crossing a bridge before we come to it, no matter how much we may worry about it, so it is not very helpful to worry about imagined bridges. Better at least to worry about the bridges that we do need to cross, the ones right in front of us. Or, as Jesus said, in Eugene Peterson’s translation of our gospel reading, “Don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help us deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” In other words, there are enough real worries and cares for us to have to deal with in life, ones that we can actually do something about, without our adding to them all sorts of imagined ones.
A bassoon player once came up to his conductor, the famous Arturo Toscanini, and he nervously said that he could not reach the high E flat. Toscanini just smiled and replied, “Don’t worry. There is no E flat in your music tonight.”
Now there may be one in the music tomorrow night, or maybe not. But that is another bridge, for another day, and today it is only an imagined one, so focus on the real bridges that we need to cross, and the actual notes that we need to play. Or, as Jesus said, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now . . . “ Today. Now I know that this is really hard to do, and I struggle with it like all the rest of us, to stay focused on the real worries and cares that we face in life, but Jesus is right. All our other worries are just an encumbrance that tangles us up and weighs us down.
And once we are able to separate out the real from the imagined worries and cares, as best we can anyway, getting ourselves down to our real worries and cares, then we need to make another important distinction. We need to distinguish between what we can do about them, and what we cannot do, and what we need to ask God to do or to help us to do. Now I know that this too is really hard for us, especially for those of us who feel the need to be in control all the time. But at the same time I do believe that most of us see the wisdom in it, and I believe this accounts for why a simple prayer has come to be one of the most prayed of all prayers, recognizable to most all of us. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference . . .”
This prayer was written by the ethicist and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in a time not unlike ours. Its origins are a little obscure, but it seems that he first wrote a version of it in the 1930s in a world filled with economic uncertainty and rumors of wars. That too was a very worrisome time, and this simple prayer spoke to people then. Later it was printed on cards for soldiers to use during the Second World War, and most of us have come to know it because of its widespread use in AA with people struggling with addiction. And what Niebuhr offers in this prayer is an antidote to our worrying, and it is really the same antidote that Jesus offers us.
Both of them begin by accepting as a fact of life what we are often hesitant to acknowledge, that there is a lot in life that is beyond our control. Now we can try to fight this, and many of us try to do just that, but the fact remains. Sometimes things just happen, and there is nothing that we can do about it.
There is a story about a man who is enjoying himself on a quiet river at dusk, when he sees another boat coming down the river towards him. At first he is delighted that someone else is on the river with him enjoying the beautiful evening. But then he realizes that the boat is coming straight towards him, and that if neither of them gets out of the other’s way, they are going to crash into each other. So he starts shouting and waving his hands, trying to get the other boat to change course. But the boat keeps coming towards him, closer and closer and closer, and by this time the man is standing up and screaming and shaking his fist, but the boat keeps coming until it crashes right into his, and only then does he see that there is no one in the other boat.
Despite all of his efforts, there was nothing that this man could have done to change the course of that other boat. All of his resistance, all of his shouting and arm waving and fist shaking, changed nothing. Sometimes things just happen in life, and there is nothing that we can do about it. It is just not in our control, though we can control how we respond to what happens. We can always do that, or at least we can ask God to help us to do that. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change . . . not the indifference or the anger or the cynicism . . . but the serenity.
Now there was not anything that the man could have done to change the course of the other boat, but that is not to say that there was not anything that he could have done. He could have changed the course of his boat. God, grant me the courage to change the things I can. That is where we need to put our energies, on the things that we have some control over, on the things that we can change.
But that does take some courage because change does not always come easily to us. We usually prefer the status quo. Still Jesus talked a lot about our need to change things, both in our lives and in the world. Of course there are always things in life that we do need to turn over to God. But there are others things, many things in fact, which we need to do something about. Often we want just one answer from God to our prayers. “Sure, I will take care of that for you.” But God has a lot of ways to answer our prayers. “Yes.” “No.” “You are kidding, right.” “Not now.” “Give it some time.” “Good idea. How about you make it happen.”
Discipleship is a covenant partnership between us and God, with each of us doing our part. “Without God, we cannot,” Augustine once wrote, “without us, God will not.” Or, to stay with the boating image, there is an old Danish saying that goes, “Pray to God in the storm, but keep on rowing.” God never calls us to do what we cannot do, only what we can do, though often that is more than what we believe we can do, or more than what we may want to do.
And sometimes we can do it, but not all by ourselves. Sometimes our prayer needs to be not, grant me the courage, God, but grant us the courage. As Paul reminds the faithful in Galatia, and us, we need to share one another’s burdens. We need to be there for each other, to lean on each other sometimes, to walk beside each other for a time, to pick each other up when we fall.
It matters the company we keep. At any time, but especially when we are going through a worrisome time, it is good for us to be in the company of those who are like minded and hearted, those who will help us to discern what we cannot do, and what we can do, and should do, and if need be, who will help us to do it, by helping to share our burden.
Many years ago I did a funeral for a 13 year-old boy in our congregation who died in a farming accident. It is still the most difficult funeral that I have ever had to do, and as only such a tragic death can do, it weighed on me, on our congregation, and on our small community of Redwood Falls. Now the morning before the funeral, as I was working on my meditation, wondering what I could say that would be any comfort and assurance to those who would be there, and especially to the family, the doorbell rang. It was Mary Jo, one of the faithful in our congregation. She was standing at the door holding a hotdish, and as she handed it to me, she said, “I know this is going to be a difficult funeral for you, so I thought this might help a little.”
Of all the funerals that I have ever done, and there have been many, hundreds, this is the only time that someone brought me a hotdish. But you know, this was the one time that I needed it most.
And of course this hotdish was more than just a hotdish. It was Mary Jo’s way of saying that she cared, and it was her way of helping me to bear the burden, bless her heart. In this sense it was what someone has called a sacrament of care. The sacraments are an outward sign of an inward grace, and this hotdish was a similar sign. It was care made visible. So even though it was just a hotdish, it was more that that, and we should never underestimate the significance of such signs. Whether it be a hotdish, a note, a call, a visit, an offer to help, these all can help us to bear one another’s cares.
There is an old Irish saying, “Two shorten the journey.” And this is true, whatever the journey, a journey of joy, of struggle, of achievement, of sorrow, of grief. Another part of what can make us feel cumbered with a load of care is feeling that we are bearing the whole load ourselves, and what a difference it can make when we help each other to bear it. It can be the difference between feeling weighed down by worry upon worry upon worry, or feeling that there are others who are surrounding us, helping us to bear some of the weight, and of course feeling that the grace of God is surrounding us as well, upholding the birds of the air, as Jesus says, the flowers in the fields, and you and I and all of us. So instead of feeling cumbered by a load of care, we feel supported by others and by God in the midst of all of our cares, and sustained by the prayed for virtues of serenity, and courage, and wisdom. Amen