Chapel Talk

April 30, 2009
Matthew 6: 25-34

I spent spring break this year in Greece, a place I hadn’t visited since I was a junior at St. Olaf. The weather was beautiful, the food was both delicious and good for you, and the people were warm and gracious. The purpose of this trip was two-fold: to spend time with our daughter, who is studying abroad this year, and to relax. I’m happy to report that we achieved both goals. Imagine a beautiful spring day on the island of Hydra, a taverna with a rooftop dining area overlooking the Aegean, a slow lunch that took hours to serve and eat, and good conversation with people you love. Every day should be like that.

I wanted to bring back with me to St. Olaf a memento of this wonderful trip, so I bought some Komboloi, or worry beads. They’re called “worry beads,” though a better name would be “anti-worry beads.” Here they are. I’ve done a little research into this subject. Though they look like prayer beads, komboloi are meant simply to promote relaxation. There are 21 beads on mine, and Wikipedia says that’s typical: a string of worry beads usually consists of a multiple of four plus one beads. At the top of the string is a bead that doesn’t move. Some sources say that it’s called the “priest.” Then there’s a larger fixed piece called the “shield.”  There’s often a tassel on worry beads as well, but since I bought the economy model, no tassel for me.

You can handle worry beads any way you want. Obviously, if you have to worry about whether you’re employing them properly, you’ve added to the sum of your worries, which defeats the purpose of having them in the first place. But here are three of the approved methods. The simplest is just so hold them in your hand and sort of squish them together. It’s like having a rubber stress-relieving ball to squeeze, except that instead of squeezing you are really rubbing them together, and they make a nice clicking sound, like this. Alternatively, you put your hand in the middle of the loop and, using your thumb and index finger, slide the beads, one by one, down the loop, as though you were counting them, or praying the rosary. The advantage of these first two methods is that you can do them subtly in your pocket or under the table at a meeting and most people won’t notice. But my favorite method is to fold the loop over your hand, with the priest and the shield and a couple of beads on one side of your hand and the rest of the beads on the other side, and toss them back and forth on the loop, like this. In an ideal world you would do this on a warm spring afternoon walking slowly along the Aegean after a big meal, but it’s also pretty satisfying to employ this method while walking across the campus green on a spring day at St. Olaf.

It’s not entirely clear how komboloi relieve worrying, but I suppose it’s some combination of the sounds they make, the physical activity that’s required to manipulate them, and the psychological benefits associated with believing that you are proactively doing something comforting that combats worry. Perhaps the beads on the komboloi represent your worries. Our worries are our constant companions, part of our inner life. In fact, I’m not sure how you could live any kind of interesting life without generating some worries. Perhaps what this string of beads does is to collect your worries all in one place, put them in your hands and thus, in some way, in your control, and enable you to work with them. It’s calming.

We all have worries, and today’s scripture reading acknowledges that reality. Those of us here today are fortunate enough not to have to worry about the fundamental needs named in Matthew’s Gospel: food, drink, clothing. But we have worries of our own. If you’re a student, you might be worrying about all those chickens that come home to roost near the end of a semester, the ones that seemed so distant down there at the bottom of the syllabus on the first day of class: research papers, big projects and presentations, final exams. If you’re a senior, you might be overlaying on top of the ordinary end-of-semester worrying another whole layer of “What’s my post-commencement plan?” worrying. “Will I find a job? Will it be the right one in the right place?” If you are worrying, you are not alone. If you look over here to my right in the front part of the chapel today, you will see the members of the Board of Regents, who are on campus today for their spring meeting. In case you can’t tell, they’re the distinguished-looking men and women in the suits. They’re worried about how best to guide St. Olaf through the current economic downturn, how to stay focused upon and true to our mission, how to provide you with the best education possible that nourishes not only your minds but also your spiritual lives, how to recognize opportunities the College should embrace. I worry too. I share all those Regent worries I just enumerated. I also worry about the welfare of every member of this community, the students in our care, the faculty and staff and their families who depend upon the College, about how to sustain our ability to be St. Olaf. I worry about my two children, both living abroad this year, and what kind of world they will inherit and how they will fare in it. And now I’m also worried about the swine flu.

That’s a fairly daunting list of things I just enumerated that weigh upon our minds. There are many others I could have listed as well. Each of you could generate your own list. So why aren’t we sitting here in a blue funk, freighted with these concerns?  Efficacious as they are, it’s not because we all have worry beads. Rather, it’s because of the good news in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel today. One of the most fundamental and most reassuring tenets of the Christian faith is a settled conviction that God is both powerful and beneficent and that He has ordered the universe for the good of His creation. We are creatures of a fallen humanity, limited in our knowledge and understanding, and thus we are not always able to understand how some of the things that happen in this world could possibly be ordered for our good, but that is why we have faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. Our statements about faith, like the verse from Hebrews that I just quoted, are always somewhat elliptical, because we are trying to express the ineffable in human language, but today’s reading helps us to think in concrete terms about our worries, our world, and our God.

Though today’s reading appears at first to offer instruction on what not to do — don’t be anxious about your life, don’t be anxious about feeding, or clothing, or housing yourself — in fact, its main thrust is to direct us toward what we should do: namely, seek God, seek to know His will, seek to live according to it. Today’s reading is fundamentally about big-picture thinking as opposed to small-picture thinking. It discourages us from dispersing our energies and wearying our souls fretting about contingencies and directs us instead toward the framework within which all of our acts occur and from which they derive their meaning. You can worry all you want about your calculus test, or your plan for next year, or your kids, or even about what the right strategy is for dealing with the old Science Center, but if you are seeing these things as discreet problems, unconnected to your own spiritual journey, your relationship to God, and God’s plan for the world, you are wasting time and energy. Jesus isn’t saying that we should fail to exercise prudent care for ourselves and others, that we should evade our responsibilities or adopt a supine posture that leaves us at the mercy of events; rather, he reminds us that we live our lives as the creation of a living God whose love for His creation gives meaning to all we do.

Today’s reading offers words of comfort to a worried world. It positions us and our cares in the correct context, offering concrete advice on how to understand ourselves and our cares, big and small. I don’t plan to put away the komboloi any time soon. These worry beads offer a distraction, a novelty, a certain kind of reassurance. My worries are real, as are my responsibilities. So are yours. But while I may continue to worry, I’m not going to fret. Instead, I am going to do my best, given my limited human capabilities, to remember the teaching of today’s reading: that our worries need to be seen in the long expanse of time and understood in terms of God’s eternal plan for the world. Seen in that context they do not disappear, but they recede into their proper place in our lives where they can be managed as part of the daily work of a Christian life.


David R. Anderson ’74