by Robert M. Holmes

Background Scripture: Psalm 23; Matthew 6:25-34

I HAVE A FRIEND who once expressed two fears. One fear was that if he did not slow down, he could have a heart attack. The other fear was that if he didn't hurry up, he would not be able to accomplish enough before he had his heart attack.

I'm told that Americans consume 97 percent of the world's aspirin. Heart attacks and peptic ulcers are hitting more people, and sooner, than ever before. A lot of folks have ulcers already, and many more may be on their way to having them. But as far as we can tell, Jesus never had them. And as followers of His, perhaps we'd better pause long enough to ask why.

I've heard several explanations. Some say He never lived long enough to get them. One person said He didn't have six children and an ailing wife. Another person explains that He didn't have to repay the national debt or keep drug pushers out of the neighborhood. It's true that Jesus lived in a time that was quite different from ours. The pace was not as fast nor the competition as keen, perhaps. People did not strive for more; they settled for less. Without newscasts every hour, they weren't encumbered with the world's problems in addition to their own. Life was relatively simple and the life span relatively short.

In other words, there were not as many ulcer producers in that ancient Palestinian culture as there are today. But do not underestimate the tensions that surrounded Jesus. He didn't retire from carpentering on a pension. He noted that birds have nests and foxes have holes but the Son of Man had no place to lay His head. He often had no guarantees about the next meal or the next night's lodging. Moreover, He was trying to fulfill an impossible assignment—to bring in a kingdom, or at least start a movement, without benefit of clergy or army or political pull. In fact, He was pretty promptly identified as being in quite a separate camp from clergy, army, or government. And underlying all of this was the prospect of an early end to His earthly life.

In spite of the differences between His culture and ours, Jesus of Nazareth knew pressures that you and I have never known. Yet He never seemed to worry. Why? The answer does not lie in anything that was unique about His physiological makeup or any advantage He may have had that we do not have. The answer lies, rather, in resources available to all of us of which Jesus was willing to take advantage.

Secret I

To begin with, Jesus never lost His perspective about himself, His work, where He fit into things, and what did and did not depend on Him. To gain a proper perspective, whether it be of a painting or of your lifework, you must stand back for a time and set yourself apart in order to get a broader, fuller look. Jesus had to retreat time and again, and we must do the same.

The real purpose of a retreat is not just to "get away from it all" but to get a better view. It's not so much like hiding in a cave, where you can see nothing, as it is climbing a mountain, where you can see the entire landscape, where you can ask, How is everything fitting together and where am I fitting into the scheme? This is where a contemplative monk, cloistered in his monastery, may miss the force of Jesus' message. It is not hard to retreat from a world of struggle and conflict. It's a cinch to find peace of mind when you are divorced from the world. The challenge lies in keeping peace of mind when you are in the world.

The purpose of the retreats you and I experience periodically (vacations, "nights out," long weekends, a walk in the park, "spiritual renewal weekends' etc.) is to help us regain perspective, to see ourselves more properly in relation to the world around us and to God, and to recharge our spiritual batteries with power to meet the challenges that lie around us.

It is easy to get obsessed with our indispensability. I've known some busy mothers who have had the liberating experience of having to go to the hospital for a few days and later discovering that the family got along just fine. The family need not foster a dependency but can be a partnership. This can be an important discovery for the entire family. Or your experience may be more like mine. When you come back to your own job after having been gone awhile, you may find you really haven't been missed, and that things have run quite smoothly without you. We all need to learn, occasionally, that we have a valuable contribution to make but that the world does not rest on our shoulders.

Getting away sometimes helps us see problems in their proper perspective. Many years ago a certain newspaper carried at the top of its editorial column these lines:

Some of your hurts you have cured,
And the sharpest you still have survived;
But what torments of grief you've endured
From the evils that never arrived.

Jesus said simply, "Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day" (Matthew 6:34, RSV). This much of Jesus' formula for avoiding ulcers is nothing new to us. But how do you just relax in the midst of deadlines, keen competition, heavy schedules, and frightening world problems?

Secret 2

The second secret for avoiding ulcers is not as obvious as the first. Jesus was not afraid to fail. And you know, I think most of us are. Success has become a byword in our culture. Everyone must succeed. Graduating classes even try to predict who is most likely to do so. Recent tests among college students indicate that more than half of them put financial success as their number one goal in life.

Jesus, on the other hand, seemed not at all concerned about being a "success." During the 40-day interval in the wilderness after His baptism, He tried to get a careful understanding of His mission in life, and He rejected three specific forms of success—fame, wealth, and power. From that time on He refused to be dismayed by people's disappointment in Him. First the hierarchy scoffed, then John the Baptist became disillusioned; His own family questioned His choices; and finally even His disciples grew skeptical.

Jesus was considered a failure by nearly everyone on earth whose opinion meant a lot to Him.

Apparently Jesus never lost any sleep over this, though many of us would have. There is practically nothing we would rather avoid than to be considered a failure in the eyes of our fellow human beings—professionally, financially, or socially. I suspect more ulcers are generated by the single human drive for success than by any other cause. This drive can fool us. We are a good deal more concerned about keeping up with the Joneses than we think we are. We want to provide for our families—for their sakes, of course, and we don't want to do a less adequate job of it than the Joneses do. What the economist Thorstein Veblen long ago called "conspicuous consumption" is a means of showing the world— particularly the Joneses—just how successful we really are.

Parental problems, more often than not, involve the fear of what others will think. Concern about my teenager and the places he goes, or concern about my four-year-old who hasn't stopped sucking his thumb, or my toddler who expresses his anger in public, is complicated by my more unconscious concern for what people will think of me as a parent.

Well, Jones never bothered Jesus. At no time did Jesus ever define His course of action on the basis of what people expected of Him, and He tried to free us from this worry as well. It is God's expectation that counts.

Jesus said that if you labor in trust, God will see to your basic needs; but don't be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, what you shall put on. Life is a whole lot more than that! We may not get rich, we may not become famous, we may not gain power; but life is more than that, and if we live in trust, God will provide us with all that is required for a full and meaningful life.

There is an art to failing successfully, it seems to me.

A homemaker may have to choose between being a meticulous housekeeper, or even an award-winning church worker, and being a good parent. A provider may have to choose between earning extra money outside the home and being present more often with the family. I have known some people who, looking back, wished they had settled for a cheaper house in order to have a more joyous home. A minister, a teacher, a person in public service, and many others whose work, like an iceberg, is largely unseen, constantly face the choice between doing what needs to be done and doing what will look good to onlookers. They also must make choices among many good projects that cannot all be completed in the time available. One cannot save the entire world before the children get home from school.

Jesus was the most conscientious person who ever lived, but He was not, thank God, a perfectionist. In fact, it's remarkable how disorganized His efforts appear to have been. As far as establishing a movement was concerned, or starting a revolution, He didn't organize anything. He just went on from day to day, loving and serving, and listening. The perfection of His life was in His love, and nothing else. This is the perfection toward which we are called to strive, with the assurance that repentance for failure to love well enough brings, with forgiveness, a power to love better. We have every reason to seek this kind of perfection (or, as Jesus put it, to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness," Matthew 6:33). But if, in anything else, you are a perfectionist, you may be on your way to an ulcer—something Jesus never had.

Secret 3

One more reason Jesus never had an ulcer: He never forgot who was in charge. He refused to shoulder more responsibility than was properly His. This is one of our most common mistakes. It has been well said that one of the finest arts of the religious life is "letting go and letting God." At this art Jesus was indeed a master. He seemed to know the meaning of Reinhold Niebuhr's famous "Prayer for Serenity'

O God, grant us the serenity to accept
What cannot be changed;
The courage to change what can be changed,
And the wisdom to know the one from the other.

Jesus never forgot who was in charge. He bore unmeasured burdens, He faced extreme temptations, He confronted insurmountable obstacles, He was mercilessly treated, but He never forgot who was in charge.

Peace of mind is more than just relaxing. Jesus didn't say, "Forget it, it will all turn out." But He did teach that God will order the future as God has done the past, and that God is on the side of the values that count the most.

Whoever knows this God of supreme power and perfect love and ultimate victory is not just likely to avoid ulcers but is certain to find abundant life.

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