A good friend and fellow pastor was telling me a few days ago about how he pointed out to his congregation that we, as Americans, are the wealthiest people in human history. Not only do we have more material luxuries than anyone else on the globe today, but we also possess more things and opportunities than all previous generations. There are exceptions: comparing the Caesar of ancient Rome to a homeless person is an obvious exception. But on average, our population is extraordinarily better off than most of the world for most of history. This really isn’t debatable. And then my minister friend and I talked about a curious phenomenon, which is the resistance most people have to agree with such a statement. We have a hard time believing it. Let me tell you why I think that is.
While the evidence is clear that 21st century Americans (and those in a handful of European nations) are the wealthiest in history, we are extremely stressed out and anxiety-ridden. Living in the modern, materialist culture, permeated with the constant message to compete, achieve and accumulate possessions is exhausting! Notice how effective advertising creates a belief in your deficiencies (you’re not good enough, attractive enough, successful enough) and then presents a solution to the invented problem: some soon-to-be-obsolete product or service. When we buy these things, we feel better for about a minute; and then we’re back to feeling that great, big hole inside us. We push our kids into the anxiety of hyper-achievement. And we are told that if they don’t get a scholarship into Harvard and graduate first in their class, then there must be something wrong with us as parents. For us pastors, if our churches don’t grow, then obviously we must be failures. And we perpetuate this culture in our congregations, giving our flock homework assignments, starting new projects, implying that if we don’t “Do, do, do! Work, work, work!” then we will fall behind in the race to heaven. And don’t get me started on how these anxieties are played out in our dysfunctional political system. By November of election year, half the nation is convinced that all our anxieties and problems are the fault of the other half.
The reason most people don’t believe that we are the wealthiest and most advantaged in history, in my opinion, is that we don’t feel the comfort, peace and joy wealth is supposed to bring. We feel stressed out. Constantly. We are miserable, and miserable to be around. If you don’t believe me now, think about all of what I have said as we go into the consumerist idolatry of shopping this holiday season. Let me know if the promises of the advertisers came true when the credit card bill comes next January.
So this is what I pray for our materially abundant and spiritually bankrupt nation: Slow down. Seriously, slow down. The rat race of achievement, the constant drive to succeed and acquire stuff is not the solution; it’s the problem. When our eyes are transfixed on worldly things, we take our eyes off the one thing in the cosmos that has the power to fill that ever-deepening hole inside of you: God’s love and delight in you. Jesus knows how exhausting living in a nonstop cycle of self-improvement and self-salvation is:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”
(Matt 11:28-30, NRSV).
He knows how weary and tired we become, beaten up by the cruelty and uncertainty of life. He knows how hard it can be to be a human being, just trying to do the best we can. After all, Jesus lived the human life, so that we would know that God understands what it is like to be a human being.
For those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, for those of you who are stressed out and filled to the brim with worry and anxiety, slow down. Stop the cycle. I know it will feel really strange and even uncomfortable, but the growth of our souls depend upon it. Begin the process of letting go of all those feelings of worry, fear, resentment, and inadequacy, so that you can feel the hand of God holding you up. Let go of all of that anxiety and shame that keeps the modern economy going so that you can feel the constant presence of Christ who will carry and sustain you.
Some of you all have the burning question, “How? What must I do?” The truth is that it is more about undoing than doing. But if you need some practical suggestions, try spending 15 minutes every day, preferably in the morning, in silent prayer and meditation. Buy a devotional, read an entry, and sit quietly in a place you won’t be disturbed. For those of you with a relentless inner critic that overpowers you when you get quiet, do something with your hands while you pray, such as writing the names of people you love, or listing the things you need God to help you let go of. If you are so inclined, prayer beads or a rosary are beneficial. Start with no expectations for this quiet time. This isn’t about achieving, but rather letting go and letting God. And may you sense deeply the presence of the risen Christ who loves you.
With peace and grace,