For the Grads: Be Here Now

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Matthew 6:25-34

This month our sermon series is “For the Grads.”  I might as well say “By the Grads,” because they really helped me write them – by telling me what topics or questions would be most helpful around the time of graduation.  What they suggested were topics that are good for all of us to reflect on, like this: 

For some reason the very first thing that came to mind was anticipation… we are always waiting for the next thing, I wish I could have learned to enjoy the moment that I am in now. And that I would have been more content and fully known that I am right where God wants me to be today. That’s something that I personally still struggle with everyday.

– Carlee Jenkinson, a 2013 graduate of SMHS

I remember struggling with this same thing when I was in school – although not totally recognizing it as a struggle at the time.  When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to graduate and get to college.  As I neared the end of college, I was so excited to graduate and go to seminary.  When I was in seminary, I looked forward to being done with school and getting a real job.  Here I am, standing proudly with my mom after finally graduating from seminary in Denver, CO…

…but my mind is probably in Troutdale, VA, where I’ll head right after this to start working for Wilderness Trail.  It was as though I always had one foot in the future. 

That didn’t stop when I finished graduating from things.  I still spend a lot of time mentally transported into the future, sometimes anticipating a good event, other times worrying over a potential challenge.  I’ve done it more than usual during quarantine.  While my body performs some repetitive physical activity – folding laundry, picking weeds, shooting baskets – my mind vacates the premises and relocates somewhere down the road, brainstorming ways we could reopen our church or daydreaming about hanging out with my brothers again.  Thinking about the future can be a way to prepare for our problems… or escape from them.  What’s wrong with that?

But there is something wrong with spending too much time in the future.  We sense it.  Remember how Carlee put it:

…we are always waiting for the next thing, I wish I could have learned to enjoy the moment that I am in now. And that I would have been more content and fully known that I am right where God wants me to be today.

If we spend all our time anticipating, we’ll miss the moment – both the goodness of it, and the calling to it.

In today’s Scripture, Jesus names our tendency to think too much about the future by worrying.  He gives some pretty universal examples of stuff we worry over:  our basic necessities (what to eat or drink); our health (our bodies); even the clothes we wear (frankly, that one hits home).  The God who clothes the wildflowers and feeds the birds will surely take care of us – so don’t worry about tomorrow! 

What Jesus isn’t saying is that should never think about the future, that we should just depend on God to drop everything we need in our laps each day.  God has given us the means to care for ourselves.  If we don’t budget and save we’ll wind up hungry and naked.  If we don’t study like our classes matter and apply for jobs or the next degree, we’re more likely to wind up with no plans at all.  Instead of giving up on thinking about the future altogether, what we really need is a balance:  to look to the future while staying present to the moment.  And here’s what that looks like:

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Matthew 6:33

The kingdom of God is the perfect realization of loving God and loving neighbor.  In that sense, it’s obviously something we’re still waiting for.  This world is still plagued by things that are contrary to love of God and neighbor, like racism and violence, inequity and selfishness.  We’re waiting for Jesus to come again and usher in God’s kingdom in a complete and perfect way.  It’s something we’re anticipating for the future.

But:  the kingdom of God is also “now.”  When Jesus starts his ministry, he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  It’s near – it’s not something that will only come with Jesus’ future return, but something that Jesus has already started.  When we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves now, we are building God’s kingdom, now.

The kingdom of God is something we look forward to and something we experience in the present moment, all at the same time.

What this means is, if our focus is on God’s kingdom, we just might find the perfect balance between being mentally present but also looking toward and preparing for the future.

Here’s a taste of how that can work.

Before I graduated seminary and went to work for Wilderness Trail full time, as its director, I spent a lot of summers on staff as a hike leader.  I’m having fund sharing pictures in quarantine, so here’s one from the first summer Alan and I were on staff together:

I’d guide groups of teenagers on week-long backpacking trips along the Appalachian Trail – a job that is just about as hard as it sounds.  Oh, it was amazing – I worked with an awesome group of people, surrounded by incredible views, and got to see lives changed in powerful ways every week (my own one of them).  But it was also hard.  It was hiking 10+ miles a day with 40+ pounds on my back.  It was setting up camp in a downpour and making fires with wet wood.  It was motivating teenagers to get up early, to keep putting one foot in front of another until we go to camp, to set up tents and gather wood and help pump water once we got there.

Sometimes, as we were walking along the trail in that slug after lunch, my mind would wander from the present moment all the way down the trail ahead of me to where we’d be camping for the night.  I’d start to run down a mental to-do list of all the practical stuff that needs to be done when you’re backpacking.  “When we get to camp, I need to make sure the kids set up their tents first thing,” I’d think, “because it looks like rain might roll in.  And I’ll need to set up my tarp so I have someplace to cook dinner.  Right after tents, I’ll need to gather firewood so we can cover some with a garbage bag – maybe it’ll stay dry through the rainstorm for later.  And we’ll need water, but the water source at this camp is like a half mile down a side trail, so I’ll need to gather all the water bottles and get some kids to go with me and pump water.  And then, dinner – we’re camping kind of high up tonight, and with the elevation the pot will take forever to boil.  And then I’ll need to make that campfire (hopefully it won’t be raining), and at some point I’ll need to figure out what kind of devotion I’m going to say to the kids…

By the end of that mental monologue, I’d be overwhelmed and exhausted.  How was I ever going to have the energy to get all that done before falling down dead in my sleeping bag?

But then, I’d remind myself:  all I have to do right now is walk.

That’s it.  That’s all hiking is – a little walk in the woods. 

Just enjoy this walk right now.  Enjoy the feeling of your legs moving under you.  Look around and take in the view.  Feel the little breeze.  Ask the teenagers the kind of deep questions that only camp counselors get to ask.  The stuff you’ll have to do at camp is important – but no need to think any more about it right now.  Trust that you’ve got all the equipment and knowledge to take care of that other stuff when you get there.  And then, just walk, and give yourself fully to this moment, right now.

I think about that experience a lot in everyday life, because it’s a lesson I have to relearn constantly.  I anticipate the future a lot.  Which can be helpful.  It gets me to do adult things like saving for retirement and fun things like planning our next vacation.  But there’s that same tipping point that can happen:  if I have become consumed by feelings related to the future – good or bad – to such an extent that they’re preventing me from being fully present to this moment, now, I need to stop and remind myself:

All I have to do right now is walk.

Or:  All I have to do right now is play with my kids.

All I have to do right now is participate in this Zoom call.

All I have to do right now is cook dinner.

All I have to do right now is love God and love whatever neighbors are with me as best I can.

Because that’s what we miss out on when we vacate the premises to live in the future.  Right now – whatever we’re doing – there’s an opportunity to work for God’s kingdom, and we don’t want to miss it.

Or, as Jesus put it:

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Matthew 6:33

3 comments

  1. You are such a blessing and present such thought provoking ideas! My friend Madge Stillwell loves you and my daughter, Sally Wooten Queen has such encouraging things to say about your ministry! So very blessed to have you as a United Methodist Minister !
    Kathy Wooten

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