At the Mockingbird Conference I attended in New York last week, one of the plenaries was an address by Oliver Burkeman called “Sisyphus’s Inbox.” Burkeman writes for the Guardian, and his work researches things like fitness apps, mindfulness seminars, productivity techniques – in other words, all the many self-improvement, life-management schemes that are on offer in Western culture these days. Mockingbird every year includes speakers who are not Christians, as Burkeman is not, but whose work provides evidence for one or more of the basic claims of Christianity about how the world works.
Mockingbird’s strong suit, in their words, is “cataloging the myriad ways in which the Christian understanding of reality – what people are like, what God is like and how the two intersect – is borne out all around us. Behind our entire project,” they write, “lies the conviction that none of us ever moves beyond our need to hear the basic good news of God’s Grace. In particular, none of us ever fully escapes the gravitational pull of personal control (and anxiety) when it comes to life and how we live it. Hence the name Mockingbird, which refers to the curious characteristic of the bird itself: to repeat the message it has heard, over and over again.”
Incessant repetition like that is something I know I need in order to live day to day as if I believe in grace, because grace just cuts so completely against everything human beings want to be true. It frees us radically from our daily treadmill of deserving, but it’s such a unique idea that even those of us who are all in for the Jesus thing lose the truth of grace regularly, just the way people lose the liberating insights we’ve had in therapy as soon as we step into the family reunion.
Oliver Burkeman doesn’t know what grace is, but he knows its opposite, thanks to being a writer who tracks week by week the barrage of techniques the world offers us to bolster our illusions of control. All of which, as he said, have one thing in common: they put the burden for making our life work squarely on our shoulders. For example, he points out that “the allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control.” You could manage it all, if you were only good enough. Or the allure of every productivity system is that your output could be limitless, if you could only refine your methods enough. “All of our efforts to be more productive,” he has found, “backfire and only make us feel even busier and more stressed.”
Burkeman’s Guardian column has a great title. It’s called This Column Will Change Your Life! Which is funny because it won’t, and we all know it. But things that subtly claim they will keep coming down the pike, pitched right at our aspiration to do life without needing grace – not that they call it that, but Christians would. And we keep succumbing to the lie that this time, in this innovative way, through this new technique, doing life and managing time and measuring up will actually work. And that’s why, over and over again, like listening to a mockingbird, we need to hear what God is like and what people are like and how the two intersect.
Reading as much Scripture in church as Episcopalians do is meant to help remind us of what God is like and what people are like and how the two intersect, but that’s easy to dodge if, like most of us, you’d kind of rather not hear it. Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, gives us a good example. We call this Good Shepherd Sunday, and on this day the readings always draw from some of the many passages in scripture that depict God as a shepherd to a flock of sheep. That metaphor starts as early as the first book in the Bible, the book of Genesis, and occurs over a hundred times, across the various genres of Biblical literature, running all the way up to the last book in the Bible, the book of Revelation. So calling God a shepherd is a recurrent way the various Biblical authors try to help us grasp what God is like and what people are like in relation to him.
But you can escape having to hear it, especially if you don’t pay much attention to what the texts actually say. I could even help us all escape by encouraging you to skim over the surface of the idea, painting a picture of green hills in rural England, or Jesus cradling a fluffy little lamb, so that we could give ourselves a moment of bucolic, idealized stress-reduction. And in the long run, of course, we would end up appropriating that stress-reduction moment as a way to ease the pain of bearing our own burden of making life work. As if the Christian message were: this brief comforting vacation from reality was brought to you by Jesus; now get out there and keep measuring up.
But no. What the Bible says is that the Lord is my shepherd. And if I’m paying attention, I probably don’t like that. I have to learn that I need a shepherd, because I don’t naturally want one. I might want a consultant. I might want a therapeutic encourager who will make it easier to engineer my own productivity. But God loves me enough not to be that, not to give me what I want. He loves me enough not merely to stand over against all the ways I fall for the lie of controlling my world, but as today’s Psalm puts it, to follow me out into that lie, every day, incessantly offering his grace and mercy -- which I usually don’t really want either, because accepting them entails facing up to who I am and to my inability to control my life.
And by the way: Do you like being followed by someone who claims to own you? Don’t you prefer picturing the way this works as us having ownership of whether we come to Mass or take a moment out of what most of us think of as “our” day for prayer, rather than God having prior ownership of us and acting like it all the days of our life, which is what it says? And there’s no opt-out box to check here. I am God’s property and his mercy is going to track me, whether I like it or not, until the day I die. After, even. I’m loved that much, in spite of myself.
Another piece of news: this shepherd God who is tracking my every step, until I can accept his mercy intervention du jour, loves me enough that he brings along a rod and a staff. He understands about me what shepherds understand about their sheep: that they do not know what’s best for them. They desperately need protection from hazards and correction of mistakes, which is what the shepherd’s rod is for, and they desperately need someone who has authority over them and responsibility for them, which is what the shepherd’s staff symbolizes. The Psalm goes so far as to advance the idea that when you see the world the right way round, you will actually find admitting your desperate need, and seeing God deal with it, a comfort. Most of us would just rather not notice the need itself and call it a day.
And another. This shepherd God whose property I am and who takes responsibility for me doesn’t just follow me with mercy, he also loves me enough to lead me beside still waters. What happens to people these days who are forced into stillness? Picture it. I like sitting and doing nothing by the lake for about 5 minutes until I want to pull out my phone or start mixing the cocktails. How many of us really want to be ushered into stillness and solitude, the kind of stillness where we are alone with our thoughts and have to listen to them and maybe even to God? Where what faces us is reality and ourselves, with nothing to distract us? Forget wanting it, how many human beings these days can stand it for even half an hour? That’s God’s idea of restoring our soul? Could I not try having a nice chai latte instead?
Burkeman mentioned a research project which found that people are so frantic to avoid silence that when they are put in a sealed room with no distraction other than the chance to deliver electric shocks to themselves, they will deliver electric shocks to themselves rather than sit in peace. Still waters? Give us the electrodes or the vodka, stat. But God knows what we really need to restore our souls is to face reality, seeing who we are and who he is. So it’s no wonder that as he tracks us out into the world, his mercy stalking us like medicine, he forces these still water moments on us where we are alone with the truth of what is actually going on, the truth that we have an owner, that we need help, that our illusions of responsibility and control are just that. Illusions.
And at some point, as the Psalm suggests, perhaps it just barely begins to be conceivable – after grace has intervened in our minor or major catastrophes over and over and over, and mercy has flooded us with the blessed relief of admitting our own failure to manage our lives over and over and over, and our owner has signed for us once again and reclaimed us – that this could be what comfort looks like. This, not what we would have naturally scripted for ourselves, could be what comfort looks like. Grace, not deserving.
For Christians, needing mercy, not avoiding needing it, is where the good news lies. For Christians, admitting limitation, not concealing it, is where the good news lies. We will never master life and selfhood by trying a little harder, but there is blessed deliverance from the illusion we can -- which comes with surrender to the God who made life and selfhood in the first place, and who in Jesus followed us with his goodness and mercy all the way into our absolute worst. And when we inevitably forget that good news, which most of us will have by this afternoon if not earlier, God will not forget it, or us. He will speak the very same good news over us again, and again, and again, repeating the identical message of strange-but-true grace over and over, like a mockingbird.