A Dog in the Leaves

Scripture: Matthew 6:25-34, “Behold the lilies of the field”

The scripture that we call “the Sermon on the Mount” appears in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s gospel. Scholars have suggested that Jesus probably didn’t say all of these things on one single occasion or in the order in which we have them. Rather, this text assembles various things that Jesus said at different times and places. That’s helpful to know, because otherwise it could leave you with the impression that Jesus had a hard time staying on topic.

In any event, the Sermon on the Mount undoubtedly qualifies as one of the most important documents within the New Testament. If you were seeking a distillation of Jesus’s central teachings, it would be hard to do better than what you find in this text. And, every time I read it, I find new wonders there.

I’m going to focus here on a famous and often-quoted passage from chapter 6. In this part of the Sermon, Jesus turned to a subject with which we all struggle: worry. In essence, he says: “Don’t worry about such things as what you eat or drink or wear. In fact, don’t worry at all. Worry doesn’t accomplish anything anyway. Instead, just stay focused on the Kingdom of God and don’t fret about tomorrow. Each day’s challenges are sufficient for the day.”

This passage has some magnificent poetry in it, like: “Look at the birds in the air; they don’t sow or reap or gather their harvest into barns, but your heavenly father feeds them. And consider the lilies of the field, how they grow! They don’t toil or spin. And yet even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these.”

Although at first blush the meaning of these statements may seem relatively straightforward, they can be interpreted lots of different ways. We might hear them as a call away from anxiety and toward inner peace; as an injunction to live simply and to reject the luxuries of the world; as a command to remain focused on God and to avoid trivial distractions; or as all of these things or as something else altogether.

I’m going to explore some of the less obvious connections between what Jesus says here and the ideas of mystery and thankfulness.

I remember sitting in a theology class years ago when our professor asked whether we had any questions we believed our faith couldn’t answer. One eager young man shot up his hand and said: “I’ve got lots of them! How about this one: What’s the nature of God?”

Without hesitating, our instructor—an older women who had a brilliant mind and mischievous smile—responded: “Oh, that one’s easy. God is perfect love, and perfect justice, and perfect mystery. Are there any other questions?”

Her answer stuck with me. Over the years I’ve given it a lot of thought. And I’ve come to believe that many of us spend a great deal of time talking about love and justice but very little time talking about mystery. Indeed, we sometimes talk about “Christian mystics” as if they were a subgroup of our faith, a slightly kooky assemblage of relations who we prefer to keep at a distance, like a mad but loveable uncle who embarrasses us when we have friends over.

In a sense, this hesitancy toward mysticism is easily understood. Our view of the world remains heavily influenced by the Enlightenment revolution, with its confidence in evidence and reason. We like to view ourselves as rational people who care about things like facts and empirical data.

Now, to be clear, I’m a fan of thinking rationally and I wish we did more of it. God gave us the gift of logic and, just like all of His other gifts, we tend to squander it. Jonathan Swift observed that it would be more accurate to say that we are capable of reason than that we are rational, and on a regular basis even this cynical assessment seems too optimistic.

But our celebration of intellectual effort comes at a cost. It tends to push our sense of mystery to the margins and, eventually, we may find that it has gone missing in action. We have lost it—and, along with it, the capacity for deep spiritual wonder that characterizes a rich, mature, and fully realized experience of faith.

Occasionally we do talk about the mystery of our faith, even if we don’t do enough of it. And I’ve noticed that when we do so we mostly use one of two voices.

The first is the voice of consolation. This is the voice we use when we encounter things that seem to us horrible and unjust and inexplicable. Storms destroy entire communities; accidents claim the lives of innocent victims; infants come into the world with terminal illnesses. We look at these things and we struggle to reconcile them with our vision of a God who is perfect love and perfect justice, so we quickly find ourselves in that place called perfect mystery.

We take some hard comfort in mystery, in our understanding that we cannot understand, in our knowledge that we cannot know. Paul tells us that here we see only through a glass, darkly. Or, as Robert Frost puts it, “We dance ‘round in a ring and suppose, but the circle sits in the middle and knows.” In short, we invoke mystery to make ourselves feel better and to keep from sinking into despair over the apparent heartlessness of the universe.

The other voice we often use when we talk about mystery is the voice of awe. This voice runs toward the somber and venerating, and appropriately so. After all, we reserve this voice for those instances when we encounter something truly amazing and remarkable—something that touches us to the core and ignites the divine spark that dwells deep in our shadowy humanness.

I have heard this voice many times in my life, but one example stands out. A friend of mine named Jim, running an errand in an unfamiliar rural area, was temporarily blinded by a glare of early morning light and got so disoriented that he drove through a barrier at a train crossing. He slammed on the brakes but skidded along the gravel road onto the tracks. An oncoming train struck the rear of his vehicle, right behind where he was sitting, flipping the car upside down and into a ditch.

The car was totaled. He walked away with a bruised finger, scratches on his neck, and sore muscles.

Jim served in Vietnam as an Army Ranger. He is no stranger to close calls and is not given to dramatic overstatement. But when he told me that this experience had deeply and fundamentally changed him I could hear that voice of awe. “Why me?” he kept asking. “Why, of all people, would I be saved?”

Jim told me that he kept thinking of a scene in a famous movie where an army officer—who, along with many of the men under his command, sacrificed his life to save a single soldier—looked Private Ryan in the eye and said: “Earn it.” Of course, Private Ryan couldn’t really earn so great a gift. He could just live as if he were trying to do so.

That’s all my friend can do as well.

It’s all that any of us, saved through the awesome mystery of the greatest sacrifice imaginable, can do.

That brings me to a third voice of mystery—one that I think we tend to neglect but that’s well worth finding again, hidden, as it may be, somewhere deep inside of us where the child still resides. It’s the voice of mystery that sounds in gleeful gratitude. It’s the voice of mystery that sounds in over-the-top thankfulness. It’s the voice of mystery that sounds in sheer, spontaneous, uncontrollable joy inspired by glad and unexpected graces.

We hear this voice in many passages in the New Testament. Sometimes we hear it in the voice of Jesus himself. I think we hear it in this passage from the sixth chapter of Matthew—the passage about not worrying and about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

I’ve often heard these verses read aloud and, in my experience, they’re frequently conveyed with a tone of unsmiling instructional seriousness. They are made to sound as if Jesus were telling us how to change transmission fluid or separate egg yolks. They come to us heavy with dogma and drained of their pleasures.

But, in this passage, Jesus talks about a mystery that can bring us unimaginable joy.

Don’t worry, he tells us over and over; don’t worry about most things because most things don’t matter. Just set your sights on the Kingdom of God. Just focus on being the beloved child of God that you are. Just believe. Just live as if you were trying to earn it. And, if you do those things, then—mystery of mysteries and delight of delights—you will have everything you need.

In the fourth chapter of his letter to the Colossians, Paul links these ideas even more explicitly. He urges the people to devote themselves to prayers of thanksgiving. And then he asks them to pray for his own release from prison, so that he can “declare the mystery of Christ.” In these words, the notions of gratitude and thanksgiving and witness and mystery come together, right where they belong.

Sometimes joy will come out of mystery when we don’t anticipate it. Years ago, a good friend lost a 48-year-old niece to cancer, leaving behind a grieving family and lots of theological questions. Everyone wondered why this would happen to her, of all people. That is a sad story—but it is not the whole story.

You see, at 48 she had lived thirteen years longer than doctors had originally predicted. She had time to raise her children and to become deeply involved in many aspects of her community. She had a chance to live as if she were trying to earn the life she’d been given—and she wrapped both arms around that opportunity and held on as tightly as she could. Perhaps this explains why, to the amazement and mystification and joy of her family, when they held her memorial service some eight-hundred people showed up to celebrate her life and express their love.

I learned a great deal about the joy we can find in mystery from my theology professor. I’ve learned a great deal about it from friends, and from the friends of friends, and from the family of friends. But I also learned a great deal about it from someone named Jackson P. Niehoff.

Jackson P. Niehoff was one of our dogs. We just called him “Jack” and the “P” stands for “perfect,” an inside joke because few dogs have been as rich in imperfections as our beloved boy, Jack.

So, here’s the story. At our home in rural southeast Michigan, we have a backyard filled with oak trees. When fall comes, the branches empty and a deep litter of leaves blankets the grass. It proves more than we can handle ourselves, with our limited time and aging backs, so we call for help, which arrives in the form of teams of young men with rakes.

One year, the leaves came so suddenly and in such dense quantities that our helpers couldn’t finish their task in one day. So, on their first pass they raked the leaves into giant piles, each many feet deep, which rose from our yard like great brown and orange and yellow pyramids. Then our rakers went home to soak their tired muscles and, presumably, to curse the noble oak and to have bad dreams about the possibility of heavy winds that night.

Fortunately, the winds didn’t come and the next morning we found the pyramids intact. When we let Jack out into the back yard, he discovered them. He thought them unfathomable. He found them deeply mysterious. They had appeared out of nowhere. They defied all his expectations. The inspired awe and wonder and curiosity—and then, it turned out, delight.

Jack barked a few times with that deep gruff voice of his, backed up, and threw himself into the leaves. He ran and got a stick. He threw it into the leaves and then jumped in after it. Then, because he was a big strong mutt who could do such a thing, he ran and got a small log and threw it in, too.

Each dive into the leaves put everything at risk—he had no idea what he was jumping into or what he’d find there. But he held nothing back.

He gave himself over to the indescribable joy of the mystery.

And, as I watched this unfold, it occurred to me that the collected leather-bound editions of the works of the world’s leading theologians, in all their splendor, were not clothed like Jackson P. Niehoff was on that particular day.

The mysteries of our faith can offer us consolation. They can bring us to places of awe and wonder. They can offer us glimpses of the greatness of God. They can provide us with a deeper understanding of how little we understand after all.

Mystery is magnificent. Mystery is sacred. Mystery is serious stuff.

But we miss something critical if we don’t recognize that God’s mysterious ways can also inspire us with a deep sense of thankfulness and gratitude and joy. After all, mystery is God’s principal method of doing business. Nothing else explains a child in a stable, a savior on a cross, or a body missing from a tomb.

We are called to come to these mysteries with awe and wonder and humility and the confessional sense that we cannot earn what is given to us. That is, after all, what makes it a gift.

But we are also called to throw ourselves into the mystery with gleeful, grateful, reckless, joyful abandon.

Like the birds of the air.

Like the lilies of the field.

Like a dog in the leaves.

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