‘Don’t worry – be happy’

by Stephen Wigley.

A couple of months ago I was attending a funeral for a much loved colleague. Right at the end of the committal service and just as we were preparing to leave, the music came on – and to our surprise it was Bobby McFerrin singing ‘Don’t worry – be happy’, a song guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone’s face.

I was reminded of this when a couple of weeks ago, I attended a service at our local Anglican church. The Gospel reading was Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount recounting Jesus’ invitation to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. We were being encouraged to take seriously concerns about God’s creation and our environment and then, right at the end of the reading, heard Jesus’ surprising summary; ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.’

It certainly made me think – because worrying about the future, especially the future of our planet in the context of carbon emissions and climate change, is precisely what we are being challenged to do. And not just to worry, but to do something about it; whether it’s to re-examine our lifestyles, what we consume and how we travel, or where, as individuals or institutions, we place our money and investments. Worrying about tomorrow so that we can make critical choices today is just what we are being challenged to do.

So what is it that Jesus means when he says, ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow’? He speaks about the pressures people face in terms of what to eat, to drink or to wear. Are these more about wider societal pressures and expectations rather than concerns about the basic matters of subsistence? Yet Jesus also asks whether any of us can by worrying add an hour to our span of life; and we know that very basic decisions about diet and exercise can make a big difference in terms of life quality and expectancy.

The 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was an advocate of ‘Christian realism’, an approach wary of abstract, aspirational claims which sought to emphasise instead what was practical and achievable, as in his famous prayer; ‘God give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish one from the other.’

Is that what is going on here? Is Jesus suggesting simply that we should stop fretting about the things we cannot change and make the most of what we have and can do something about? Or is he reminding us of those things which should have stronger claims on our time and attention, in terms of striving first ‘for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’.

This can give the impression of our wanting both to have our cake and eat it. But in the meantime, climate scientists remind us that we can’t;  that the difficult choices needed are not just ones required of other people, whether governments, multinationals and financial institutions; that they equally involve us in the decisions we make about our lifestyles and consumption, food, clothes, cars – and yes, holidays too.

Not worrying, it seems to me, is not seeking to be let off the hook or absolved from the need to make challenging choices, but it is about being clear-sighted and realistic. It’s not just a matter of symbolic gestures to focus attention, however significant these can appear; it’s also about building a consensus for making those practical decisions which involve the most people and can make the biggest difference.

It’s also about that fundamental optimism which Jesus shares in the Sermon on the Mount and which goes to the heart of our faith; that in the end it’s the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness which counts. That’s why I remain encouraged by the tone and title of the Methodist Conference statement on climate change, ‘Hope in God’s Future’. It’s not that we shouldn’t be actively concerned – but it’s more than our worrying which will make the difference. It’s ‘Don’t worry, be happy – and share in God’s care for creation’.

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