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Considering Birds and Flowers

Considering Birds and Flowers

In an important essay in debates around the nature of consciousness, the philosopher Thomas Nagel raises this question: “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel argues that we cannot answer the question; bat consciousness differs so fundamentally from human consciousness as to defy analogy. The novelist J.M. Coetzee takes issue with Nagel, arguing that bats, like other animals, experience a “fullness of being.” They simply live as they were intended. They are free from worry.

It is not that bats face no threats—there are owls hovering about and pesticides poisoning food sources—it is just that they don’t worry about them. As it hangs from some dark rafter or tracks a mosquito, a bat does not fret over the possibility that owls or pesticides or misanthropic adolescents may be lurking about. If a real threat should confront a bat, it will take the necessary evasive action. But until then it will not preoccupy itself with potential threats. Bats live in the moment, simply doing the necessary bat thing at any given bat time.

In this, bats resemble Jesus’ “birds of the air” or “lilies of the field.” Like bats, birds simply do the necessary bird thing at any given bird moment. Lilies simply do the necessary lily thing at any given lily moment. They don’t worry; they simply live as they were created to.

There are times in which we are capable of this. For short stretches we manage to live with “fullness of being.” The Billy Collins poem “Shoveling Snow with Buddha” captures such an experience. The poem describes Collins shoveling snow with Buddha (thus its title). The two of them find great pleasure in losing themselves in the rhythm and exertion of shoveling. Collins writes that “this is true religion, the religion of snow / and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky.” They take such satisfaction in their work that it is “as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway / you could back the car down easily.”

This is the joy of throwing oneself completely into the task at hand. The poem captures the pleasure of knowing one is doing the necessary human thing at a given human moment. It is the pleasure of “true religion,” living as one was created to live.

Much of the time we can blame “worry” for robbing us of this pleasure. For one thing, we find it hard to throw ourselves into a given task at a given moment because we worry that it might not be the right task at the right moment. We worry that there is something else we should be or could be doing. To have choices is a blessing, but having too many choices can leave us feeling paralyzed. We choose to do option A but continue to agonize over whether we should have done options B through F. (Oh, and option G, that had things going for it too.)

We also worry because we do what we do under a good deal of pressure. We impose high demands on ourselves, as does the rest of the world. We fail to experience “true religion” because we worry whether what we do will measure up. A third reason for worry is the fact that we find ourselves in a world in which, at any given moment, things can go horribly wrong. No matter what precautions we take, we are never safe. Take Billy Collins and Buddha shoveling their snow. Despite how much they are enjoying themselves, neither Collins nor Buddha are immune to patches of ice. Either one could slip, loose their feet and wind up in the ER.

There is a lot to worry about. There are reasons that we experience “true religion,” at best, infrequently and momentarily.

But Jesus seems to believe it does not have to be this way.

After having us consider lilies and birds, Jesus instructs us to “strive first for the kingdom.” If you do that, everything else will take care of itself. In other words, if the kingdom of God and that which characterizes the kingdom of God (i.e. righteousness, justice, mercy, love, etc.) take top priority in your life, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

For an illustration of what this looks like, look no further than Jesus. Jesus was no worrier but not because he was free of responsibilities or because he had no troubles to face. People did want him dead, after all. His lack of worry was rooted in the fact that he was completely invested in the kingdom of God. No matter what his circumstances, what the religious leaders schemed or the mobs chanted, he knew that the kingdom deserved his ultimate allegiance. Not even a humiliating death could sway him.

And now he lives and reigns in the kingdom for eternity. The kingdom proved a worthy investment.

Too often for Christians, the quest to discern God’s will for their lives becomes yet one more cause for worry. Discerning God’s will amounts to an attempt to make decisions which align with some “divine plan.” One wrong move could throw the whole thing off. It is as if God is up there wringing his hands, pleading, “No, no, don’t take that job! The other one! The other one! Now how will you ever have that chance meeting with your soul mate, get married, and birth the kid that will grow up and make renewable energy sources a commercially viable alternative to foreign oil?”

It’s not like this. God’s will for your life is simple: Strive first for the kingdom. Everything else, don’t worry about it.

In other words, take each moment in your life as an opportunity to work for kingdom stuff. Assume that is why God put you in any given situation. Assume that it’s God’s will for your life in that moment. And, then, don’t worry. Enjoy it.

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