Can we all just stop trying to impress one another?
This Sunday’s texts:
1 Kings 17:8-16
I am truly grateful that I did not plan my wedding or my children’s early birthday parties in the age of Pinterest. I am convinced that if I had had the pressure of planning a Pinterest Perfect or Instagram Worthy event for any of these occasions, I might not be married and my children would have felt marginally celebrated by a stressed-out mom who was convinced of her failure as a parent and party planner. This time last year, my niece got married at an outside venue with a rustic pavilion and barn. If you’ve visited Pinterest, you will know that burlap and Mason jars have been all the rage for quite a while now. An October wedding with a barn reception was the perfect opportunity to try out the ideas for table decorations, photo backdrops, popcorn buffets, and guest favors. With every click of the mouse there was a new idea more adorable than the last. After months of planning and cutting and gluing and painting, my niece and her new husband enjoyed a beautiful afternoon in which family and friends celebrated their marriage and wished them a life of happiness and joy. It was gorgeous, and it was for the bride, groom, and their families A LOT of work.
Twenty years ago, when I was planning my wedding and doing my best to exhaust my parent’s bank account in the process, I was frequently reminded that my parents served wedding cake, punch, and butter mints at their 1964 wedding reception – and that Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy served her 1000 guests a simple meal of fruit cup, creamed chicken, and ice cream. We know what happened to the Kennedys, but my parents have worked hard to be married for more than 50 years. In fact, I recently read a study[i] that demonstrated the amount of money spent on weddings is an indicator of the future success of a marriage. The weddings that cost the most are least likely to succeed. On the other hand, couples who spend less than $1000 on their wedding have a lower than average likelihood of getting divorced. The research doesn’t tell us why this is true but we can reasonably speculate that an inexpensive wedding relieves young couples of the financial burden that comes with elaborate celebrations and that simplicity in the beginning sets the stage for simple and modest choices down the road. Those of us who have been at marriage for a while know how financial stress can take a toll on a household, and divorce is quite common even when there are expensive cars, fine boats, and fabulous vacation homes in the couple’s estate.
Whether it’s huge weddings, elaborate toddler birthday parties, designer wardrobes, luxury cars, or grand vacations, as a culture we work hard to impress ourselves and one another with the quality of our stuff, the breadth of our influence, the impact of our work, and the excellence of our lives. We teach our children their success can be measured by their earning potential, their stock portfolios, and their net worth – all the while telling ourselves this robust and balanced equation will yield them financial freedom, peace of mind, and quality of life. The psalmist believes otherwise.
If God doesn’t build the house,
the builders only build shacks….
It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late,
and work your worried fingers to the bone.
Don’t you know he enjoys
giving rest to those he loves?
Our endless striving to produce so we can consume doesn’t lead to freedom, peace, and living well. It makes us slaves to our work, anxious about maintaining our place – and our stuff, and burdened by expectations. We end up cut off from one another and from our Maker who enjoys not seeing us work ourselves to death but apparently watching us sleep.
A gift from my mother-in-law many years ago, this print by the artist Brian Andras, hangs in my bedroom where I see it many times a day. It’s evidence that my mother-in-law knows me – and remembers what it was like to mother two very busy sons.
My kids have cell phones – cell phones that are never far from their bodies and include alarms that can wake them for school every day. However, despite their ages and independence, one thing I haven’t given up and probably won’t in the next five years, is waking my children for school each day. It’s not the task of waking them I enjoy (in fact, I think I mentioned the bear my oldest can be last time – and my youngest is nearly impossible to rouse at all). The gift of waking my children is the moment of standing over their beds and seeing the quiet of their brows, the slight smile of rest, the tender snuggling of a pillow or a dog, and hearing the deep, restorative breath – in and out, in and out. The day that went before has gone. It is finished. It’s in the books. The day ahead – whatever it holds – hasn’t broken for them just yet. The tests, the joking with their friends, the worry about fitting in and performing well, the stretching of their bodies and their minds – none of that – none of the hard and none of the delight has started for them for the day. They are at rest, and the peace of their rest, the honesty of their trust, quiets me for as long as I will let it reign in my soul.
Is this what God is like? Delighting in our sleep? Look, given that some of us are like trying toddlers, I can imagine that God is thrilled when we finally give it up at the end of a difficult day. And like an exhausted parent tiptoeing down the hall after the kids have finally fallen asleep, I can imagine that the Heavenly Father can only get a minute’s peace when we have gone to bed for the night. (Makes me wonder about the wisdom of setting up a 24-hour day and planting people in each time zone, but who am I to question the Creator?) Maybe it’s not so much that we are quiet that delights God, but that we have for a moment abandoned our reliance upon ourselves and what we can do in the world and finally given our bodies and souls over to trust and rest – if only for a few hours.
The other scripture passages for today are two stories of widows who are on their very last dimes and are offered to us as models of faith and faithfulness. Mark doesn’t tell us much about the widow Jesus points out to the disciples, but the author of the story in Kings paints a clear enough picture that I’m pretty sure the widow Elijah meets in Zerephath isn’t sleeping so well. Not only is she down to her last cup of flour and drop of oil, but the whole land is in the midst of a drought. It sounds to me like there may not even be a neighbor to help her out, and here comes a stranger asking for water and a meal. What the heck is wrong here? Why doesn’t God send Elijah to the home of someone with food to spare?
And then there is the widow in the Gospel. Jesus has just pointed out the abuses of the religious leaders of the day – preening about the Temple, praying long prayers, and enjoying seats of honor at lavish meals. When he sits down across from the collection box, why does he choose to make an example out of her? Why doesn’t he go over and pull her hand back and say, “See this Temple? See those fat priests? They don’t need your last two cents. You do! Go home. Feed your family.” Why do we need stories of poor women giving their very last to help us see the anointing of a prophet or the corruption of the religious system of the day? Didn’t Jesus know that these women would be exploited for all time by preachers whose real concern is lining their pockets by fleecing the poor and calling it faithfulness?
Those are questions I just can’t answer. I don’t know. And sometimes they keep me up at night. I hope I couldn’t swallow a biscuit made with someone’s last cup of flour. I don’t want any body’s last dollar to end up in my paycheck. And I have some pretty unholy thoughts about preachers who fly in private jets and live in gilded castles while their congregants shop on food stamps and get their health care at volunteer clinics. Jesus is clear. The reward for eeking ahead of the Joneses is short-lived, and doing so at the expense of the poor and vulnerable comes with damning consequence.
If the priorities of the Pharisees are all wrong, the women and the psalmist are here to help us turn things around. I don’t think any of them are advocating a welfare mentality of sitting on the sofa and waiting for a prophet to show up and turn your last bit of flour into an endless feast. Like a parent who loves seeing your child work hard at something that has grabbed her attention and apply her best capabilities to an important task, I think God delights in watching us use the gifts and abilities God has given us. Hard work is a virtue. But if our work is about our getting more – at any cost to ourselves or the rest of the creation – we have distorted God’s design for the universe and for our lives. God set in motion a world order that is sustainable. There are seasons of planting, seasons of tending, seasons of waiting, and seasons of harvest. And in the cycle of it all, there are times where the ground of our lives needs to lay fallow and rest. The Hebrews were told not to take everything that their fields produced but to leave to something for the ones who have no fields. The people who want to be faithful to God are instructed to take time out one day out of seven – and to give that time off to the people who work for them. If God can do it, so can we. These are habits that cultivate trust in us – a trust not in our own abilities but in God’s goodness and care for all of God’s creation. It’s the trust that grew deeply enough in the heart of a widow that she could offer the final meal in her jar or the last coins in her purse believing that with it she was giving her best and could sleep with pure heart.
And the stuff? It’s just stuff. You have to dust it, put gas in it, insure it, fix it, or pay someone to take care of it. Now I’m not saying an afternoon on the lake isn’t great come Memorial Day – or that when I hear about snowfalls out West, I’m not going to be dreaming of a ski trip – or when Christmas comes, I won’t be looking for a deal on the right brand pullover for each of the three boys I love to see dressed well. I will. And I might even spend a night thinking about what work I can do to afford more stuff – or just pay for what we have. And I will be wrong. And I will be tired. And the God who made me will be shaking the Divine Head wondering when I’ll ever get it.
But morning will come. The sun will begin to chase away the night. And quietly I’ll slip into my boys’ room. I’ll let their soft breathing still my soul yet again. And I’ll remember: money can’t buy this. They are what is truly beautiful in this world. And I’ll carry that peace with me for as long as I can, trying to make sure that what I do I will not regret.
May it ever be so.
For you and for me.
This week, an Ikea commercial from 2014 came through my Facebook feed. I’m going to have folks break out their phones and pass around my iPad in church so they can see it. You can watch it here.
Does the children’s response surprise you?
What do you imagine the parents are thinking and feeling as they read their children’s letters?
What if you got a letter like this from someone on your Christmas shopping list?
[i] Francis, Andrew and Hugo M. Mialon, ‘A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship Between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration. (September 15, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2501480 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2501480 .