Matthew 13:24-30 Anxiety & Playfulness

Reflection by Mart the Rev

We’re taking a look at the parables of Jesus as a way of thinking about how to do and be church. This week, and next week, we are reflecting on the parable of the weeds among the wheat – you might have known it years ago as the one about the wheat and the tares.  It is often framed as a parable of judgement because of how it finishes with the weeds being burned in the fire, but actually, I wonder if it is a parable of grace – I wonder if it is more about God making room, giving things time, and even more than that, an instruction to humanity, and the church in particular, to loosen up and calm down.

I’ve been wondering for a while about the anxiety levels in our society. Is heightened anxiety a by-product of our fast-paced instant communication world?  I wonder if the instant-access information and communication is training us to worry about everything and anything.  Last weekend I had the situation of having my phone network not working for three days.  Mostly it was fine.  But I noticed underneath a feeling of anxiety…what if someone really needed to contact me?  What if the car broke down and I couldn’t contact anyone.  Anne and I were travelling in different cars for a couple of hours last weekend – what if she or I needed to communicate?  Actually, it wasn’t many years ago that if someone was away from home they simply were not contactable, and guess what, the world still managed to keep turning on its axis!  Why the anxiety?

I was out walking early the other day and at the Ilam Rd/Memorial Rd intersection a car raced on the inside lane to overtake the car in front of it. The manoeuvre involved the overtaking car cutting the other car off as the inside lane was merged into the main lane.  In the distance I could see the Clyde Rd intersection and there was a long line-up of cars waiting for the traffic lights.  The car that had overtaken soon ended up stopping at those lights.  All that risk in order to just be one car ahead.  What was all the drama about?  Why the risk, why the haste, why the anxiety?  More and more we see cars running the red lights at intersections – all to gain a few extra seconds which are usually lost because all you do is get to the next slow traffic faster!  I was reading about the development of Four Peaks Station and how Charles Tripp and John Peel walked from Christchurch to South Canterbury – several times!  And how, Tripp travelled back to England by ship – several times.  We do not have to negotiate swollen rivers and raging southern oceans, and it takes us only an hour and a half to drive to Geraldine, and we can check what the weather and road conditions are like on Google, and we can, if we have smart home, phone up and get the lights and heaters on for our arrival, but which is the generation that suffers anxiety-related illnesses?  Life is so much easier for us in so many ways and we should be calmer, but we aren’t calmer. This growth in anxiety shows up in increasingly higher expectations of our children’s performance and the need to brag about it, it shows up in the expectations we have that our homes should be perfectly in order, that our bodies should be in perfect shape, that unless we have the latest device our lives are somehow impoverished.

In June last year the NZ Herald reported that some 299,958 people were prescribed and collected antidepressant drugs last year – an increase of 64.9 per cent over the last 10 years, and that some 15,000 children and young people are on Prozac-style anti-depressants.  Now I’m not commenting on the need for medical intervention when people are struggling.  But the trend is concerning.  The signs are there that our mental health is deteriorating, even though, in so many ways, we have much less to worry about than generations before us.

I also detect a growing anxiety in a lot of Christian expression. I bump into people on a regular basis who are so intense about everything – especially the need to save the lost (their words) because if we don’t then God is going to condemn them.  This drive to intense anxiety-based faith-expression is promulgated by some pretty full-on preacher types mostly coming out of an American revivalist tradition.  I tell you, I remain unconvinced that God is out to get us!

This movement of anxiety took a twisted turn during the charismatic movement of the 70’s and 80’s when instead of simply aiming their anxiety at non-believers, Christians began taking pot-shots at people involved in the churches around them – you’re not a real Christian they began to say… but if you express things in the way I do, then you are a real one.

Here’s what I think: if we put more energy into simply loving people rather than pressuring them into some sort of cheapened insurance-policy-faith-expression then the faith-life would be much more attractive!

I wonder to what degree this trend in religious expression and the heightened anxiety levels in modern society have both ridden the same wave. What I want to say to both the church and society is ‘lighten up!’ It doesn’t need to be like this – pause, slow down, smell the roses, take a few deep breaths, sit down and do nothing for at least an hour a day, relax and have a conversation with someone, go for a walk, turn off the television, read a book, avoid the news hour as much as you can each day, watch a five day cricket test match(!), stop praying for something all the time and just be thankful in God’s presence, get to know your neighbours – invite them over for a cuppa, practice the unforced rhythms of grace [Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message], smile more often, do something a bit naughty, counter the culture of complaint with positivity…We have this one precious life – why not enjoy it and be enjoyable!  I hope you understand that I am coaching myself as much as I am coaching you!

In the parable, the servants, all anxious and afraid, want to rip up the weeds that have been sown among the wheat. They are obviously a group of people with perfectionist tendencies.

The farmer replied that it is not as easy as that, the good crop might be uprooted as well as the offending weeds. No, they will have to put up with them both in the field until the harvest time.

The weeds referred to in the story are described in the original Greek language as darnel.  Beaded darnel is a weed that looks remarkably like the wheat the farmer had planted.  It is only when the seed head appears on it and its darker colour contrasts with the lighter colour of wheat that the differences can be noted.  The good and the bad crops are not easily distinguishable.  ‘You’ve got to be careful with your judgement,’ says the farmer, ‘lest the harvest is ruined by the premature efforts to remove the weeds.’  ‘The kingdom of heaven is like that,’ says Jesus.

I read the parable as a note of caution and an invitation to ease up and trust the process. Not everything can be understood in the moment.  The grand picture of what God is up to is not often crystal clear to us mere mortals.  Most of us have grown wise but only through the benefit of hindsight.  How often have we, looking back, regretted barging in with our well-intentioned interventions, only to discover later that we had missed the kind of things that would have eventually revealed themselves if only we had waited?

How many times have we been clear about what God is saying, and then, over time, realised that the world is not as black and white as we once thought? Oh if only we had known that the pause button was actually there to be used before we made our grand pronouncements!  So many times people get all het up about little things, as if the way to exist in this life is by micromanagement.  But all around us are signs of God’s playfulness and carelessness.  Like, giraffes.  Not only the design, but also the name – giraffe! A giraffe drinking at the river is surely one of the most hilarious things.  And Babies.  All you have to really do is feed them and change them and hold them and put them down and they do rather well.  All the books and all the well-intentioned focuses on what can go wrong make for anxious parents and anxious children.  Now I know that there are some situations where there is a lot to worry about but actually, mostly, there isn’t.  Second time parents know this!  And Thistledown.  My brothers and sisters and I called them ‘fairies’ when we were little, and their flight stopped us in our tracks.  I stop now to cheer on plastic bags floating in the air as I once stopped for thistledown.  I know the bags mess up the land and the sea, and I wholeheartedly support the moves to get rid of them, but when those bags fly they are magnificent.  The bags are designed to carry things and not escape in order to blow in the breeze. I delight in their flight as an act of rebellion.

I reckon I have the antidote for the prevention of anxiety for most people – playfulness. Most things are rather comical when you look at them – especially humans, most-especially humans trying to take everything seriously!  Lighten up!

What if the church led the way in lightening things up? What if the church was the leader in demonstrating to the communities around them that we need to pause and make more room for people, and be less judgemental, less hot and bothered about everything, less complaining, less anxious – more open, more patient, more loving, more grateful, more playful.  I wonder if the parable is teaching us about a way of being church that we have been too afraid to really try.