By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — As we hear this text from Luke (Luke 12:22-32), I wonder how in the world humans can actually stop worrying. Perhaps you remember Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” from the late 1980s. I found a music video online featuring McFerrin and Robin Williams, dancing around in funny costumes, both hilarious and poignant. The lyrics still sounded wonderfully encouraging and naïve: “Every life will have some trouble, if you worry you’ll make it double….don’t worry, be happy.” And I still find the song compelling…and darn near impossible to actually do. Simply not to worry and be happy. Was Jesus asking something ridiculous of his disciples? “Therefore, I tell you,” Jesus said to his disciples, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” Food and clothes…okay…got that. But is it okay then to worry all the other stuff? Such as, people in my congregation, and the future of this church, racial tension, the spread of ISIS and vitriol in politics, and Zika…and don’t get me started on my two adult children in their early thirties….? What do you mean, “Don’t worry!”
In terms of our evolution as humans, worry seems to have a particular helpful function: If you hear a growl behind those trees, be worried! It may be a tiger sneaking up on you. Worried about making it through a long cold winter? A good incentive to storing up supplies and stockpiling that food. But for most of us, given our privilege of income, housing security, possibly the color of our skin, access to a paying job, most of us don’t have to worry about food and clothing too much. But we still wake up in the middle of the night, anxious and overwhelmed. What do you find that your worry about the most? Your health? Is about people you love? Someone you hate? Will my money run out before I do? Is it about a secret you have hidden? Our worries tell us a lot about who we are and our assumptions about the world. Our brain assumes if it is worrying, at least it is getting something done!
But it never really helps to simply tell someone, or ourselves, “Stop worrying.” I suspect Jesus knew this. Notice how he tells people to consider, to look carefully, at the wild lilies of the field, of which there are about 250 species in the Middle East. Closely examine the birds of the air, like this raven here. Is this just about giving our brain something else to do? Why did he pick something living, not an inanimate object, for us to consider? He didn’t say, consider this rock. Nor, consider this person. No…take a close, careful look at flowers and birds. In other places, Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, about silence, about acknowledging their own powerlessness and affirming God’s power. But here, he says to look at flowers and birds. How did he know that contemplating the forces of nature shifts things in our brain?
A recent study by researchers at Stanford University seems to have proven Jesus’ observation. In this study, subjects took a 90-minute walk out in a forested or grassy setting, and others walked through busy city streets. One would expect that this might affect heart rate and general feeling of well-being, from the quiet alone. But researchers noticed something profound also happened in people’s brains when they walked in a natural setting: “Neural activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.” This is the part of the brain region most active during rumination, or repetitive thought focusing on negative emotions. This worry activity apparently decreases when we are out walking in nature. (http://news.standford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015)
In studies that have been replicated around the world, it appears that time spent in nature, considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, actually changes the activity in a region of our brain where we ruminate on ideas that bring up negative emotions—and makes us measurably calmer, happier and even more alert and smarter. Perhaps it is in nature, out in the wild, that we begin to get a sense of what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of “God’s good pleasure.” It may be something else we are absorbing out in the wild, be it our own backyard, a city park, quiet time on a lake or up in the Boundary Waters. Jesus put it this way: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The Kingdom of God: the ancient Hebrew phrase describing the rule of God on earth, characterized by compassion, justice and peace. Humans living out a life of mercy and loving community,
There are other studies that have found that people act more cooperatively, not just in their self-interest, after simply viewing nature videos. A study just out in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, by psychologist John M. Zelenski and several other colleagues from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, tests the idea that there’s a link between actually experiencing the natural world and behaving in a sustainable way. “We hypothesized that participants exposed to nature will make more cooperative, and thus sustainable, choices,” they wrote. And for those participants viewing nature videos, instead of photos of buildings, this was indeed what they found to be true.
“It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus said to his closest followers. Jesus was picking up on the prophets’ call for a return to God’s reign, style of ruling, with equity for all. Jesus was not just talking about some interior moral kingdom in our hearts; and this is were we get distracted in our life together as Christians. Paradoxically, he taught that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” an animating force already inside of us. But he also described a world around us in which fairness and justice for everyone must rule. And this world would come about not with violence, like overthrowing Rome’s military might. Its power would come through nonviolence and mutual compassion.
Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” may give us a flavor of what Jesus was getting at:
THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS (Wendell Berry)
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of 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 for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Our poets, and now modern science, agree: We are made more calm, relaxed and cooperative by our time spent considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. By our time spent simply carefully observing, enjoying, the natural world. By absorbing this incredible reality of a web of connection between us and all that is, growing, dying, being reborn, all around us. Perhaps we are actually better able to imagine, welcome, embrace God’s reign among us as we spend time “considering” nature around us, the greenness, the fluffy clouds against blue sky, the sun sparkling on a lake, plump fruit and ripe vegetables. God’s good pleasure: All gifts of deep summer in Minnesota that, when carefully considered, actually heal our brains and calm our worry; God’s good pleasure—gifts that are now, for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.