Several years ago I did a three-day retreat at Baltimore Carmel - a Carmelite Monastery (the first in the US!) here in Baltimore. The Carmelite Order is grounded in prayer - that is their vocation as a community and individually. Silence is woven into the daily life.
Rather easily, it seemed, I focused my activity not on silence and prayer, but on perfection. Cleanliness to be exact. I determined that I would prove myself to be the best retreatant this monastery had ever seen! Leaving behind an immaculate room and praise for what a "good job" I'd done on retreat.
My last night there I heated up a frozen fish dinner in my little kitchenette. Afterwards realizing that a fish smell has permeated the room, ruining my vision of perfection for the next morning. But I remembered seeing air freshner in the bathroom. So, I grabbed it and stood in the center of the room assuming I could do a 360 while spraying and rid the room of the foul stench. Pressed the button and instead of a concentrated stream of clean mist shooting out in front, it shot straight up overhead. And unbeknownst to me, I was standing directly under a smoke detector!
I let go of the button, there was a silent and pause, and then the loudest fire alarm you have ever heard reverberated throughout the monastery. After three days of silence it was jarring to say the least.
Well, there was nothing I could do but stand there and wait for one of the sisters to come and turn it off - their area was cloistered so I couldn't find them. Sure enough three nuns came a-running, iPhones in hand. Mother Superior did not look pleased, but Sr. Barbara Jean, my spiritual director already had a smile on her face. After apologizing profusely, I told her what had happened and she could not stop laughing, "Oh, what a grace God showed you on this retreat!" Yes, indeed. The anxiety that fueled my need for perfection, my need to prove myself - I got a very loud reminder of the foolishness of wanting an "A+" for my spiritual practices.
We all want to be great. We have a lot of anxiety about our greatness. Our worth – we prayed in our opening collect however, not to be anxious. But we worry about it all the time. Are we measuring up to the judge in our head, the rule book we write? Are we measuring up in our perception of what other people think about us? Are we measuring up to the people we compare ourselves with? It's exhausting.
I think this is what fuels the arguments James' writes about in his letter - the "internal wars" that cause us to strive for "selfish ambition" and fill us with envy. It also fuels the disciples argument this morning. And I get it. They had just failed – in front of the crowd. In front of Jesus. A father had brought his son for healing and the disciples couldn't do it. Disappointed he turned to Jesus - who shares his disappointment, "You faithless generation," he yells. Ouch. I guess even Jesus is getting anxious because his disciples still don't get it. They ask him why, and he tells them - its because you didn't pray.
Those poor disciples. Maybe they couldn't pray because they were so anxious! Its hard to open our hearts and minds for God's will for us when we are stressed, isn't it? Jesus has told them three times that he is going to be killed and rise again. That doesn't make any sense and it is anything but a comforting thought. At this point it reads they are too scared to even ask him about it. Anxiety permeates this whole situation.
So its not surprising that they lash out at each other and start arguing. We don't want to feel anxious - we want to expel it - so we tend to blame others. Finger-point at all the reasons we are "better than." And get into petty arguments about who is teacher's pet (well, at least Jesus liked me enough to take me up the mountain! Three just got to go see that Transfiguration thing!)
One of the most important learnings for me in that alarm situation - was how Sr. Barbara Jean gave me permission to laugh. She could've belittled me, reprimanded me, scolded me or done any number of things to excerbate the shame and embarrassment I was already feeling. How many times have you heard a story - or maybe experienced yourself - someone in authority, a religious authority even, making you feel bad about a mistake you made or even a question you had? Permission to make mistakes goes a long way in helping us through future anxiety-provoking situations.
Jesus doesn't laugh, but, he does change the tone of the situation. Maybe he even realizes he needs a time-out. He sits down, stops reprimanding, and asks his disciples to gather around him. He takes a child in his arms - and we all know how much better that made the mood - and reorients everyone to what "walking the way" is all about.
What do children represent? Vulnerability, dependence, trust, they ask for help, they share their feelings, they know they need others, wonder, curiosity. This child represents all those qualities within us - and the qualities of those in our communities who don't have power, but who deserve to be heard.
I think we often look at the journey of our life as always being on an upward or downward track - we're always ascending and getting better and better - or descending, failing at something or not being good enough. But that is not "the way" Jesus offers. It is the way of welcome - "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes not only me, but the one who sent me." The life of a follower of Jesus welcomes all that the child represents - and that reorientation doesn't need to be "great."
St. Augustine prayed – Grant Lord, that I may know myself so that I may know thee – our anxiety and our arguments are ways for us to learn. How is anxiety manifesting in your life right now in a way that you need to pay attention to, get curious about? In what ways are you striving for greatness, when perhaps, you could be welcoming a new path, person, or possibility? The good news is that God welcomes all of us as the children we are - and is there to encourage and challenge us to continuously grow into that child we are created to be. That work takes great courage and offers great reward. Amen.