Recently I read an account of how at King’s Cross Station in London, which had a quarter of a million people passing through it every day, a small fire in November 1987 was able to grow so fierce that it killed 31 people and injured many more. Five days after the fire Desmond Fennell was appointed as a special investigator to study what had happened. In order to find the truth, he held public hearings over a period of 91 days where he interviewed and cross-examined many witnesses. After a year he published a 250 page report on his findings.
What Desmond Fennell had discovered was an institution, the London Underground, which had systems that were sure to lead to disaster at some point. Over the years a culture had grown up which meant that no one dared to stray out of their area of responsibility in any way. Each department had clear boundaries on what it did and would not accept advice or interference from anyone outside the department.
When the fire first began, a passenger noticed a burning tissue at the bottom of an escalator. The employee to whom it was reported put that fire out but did nothing else as fire safety was looked after by another department. He was not allowed to contact another department unless his boss gave him permission. He was not allowed to mention the word ‘fire’ in case it caused panic. As the fire, which was actually under one of the old wooden escalators, grew bigger, a safety inspector was alerted. He could have put the fire out by operating the sprinkler system in the station but that was controlled by another department so no one in the station knew how to set the system going. It was half an hour from the time of the first reported small fire until the arrival of the fire brigade. By that time the fire was out of control, being fed by blasts of oxygen as underground trains continued to arrive, and finally there was a huge explosion which claimed many lives and injured dozens of people.
That incident is an extreme example of people keeping very much to their own business and not getting involved in anything to do with anyone else or with other departments. In contrast, there are other people who tend to get involved with everything, even if it really doesn’t concern them. Unlike the London Underground employees who thought there was nothing they could or should do to change things, these people believe they can and should change everything. They want to ‘fix’ other people, sort out their lives for them. They feel responsible for others and believe that they can actually make everything work as it should do. They experience an illusion of control by being busy and interfering, but in truth there is very little that they can control. Most things and most people will continue to be just the same, whatever these people do.
When it comes to dealing with our own lives, most people would consider a person’s life to be their own responsibility. Rather like in the London Underground institution, each looks after his or her own bit of human society. We are usually not keen on interference from others who might want to tell us how to do better or to fix us in some way. We don’t choose to delegate control of our lives to some other person or department. We are the ones who should concern ourselves about our own needs for food and shelter and clothing, or so you would think. Jesus, as usual, tells his listeners to adjust their thinking.
If you read the Gospel passage carefully Jesus is not telling us to make no provision for ourselves, I don’t think. What he says is don’t worry about the necessities of life in the sense of looking forward into tomorrow or the day after and imagining how bad things will be. Worrying keeps people awake at night, going over and over a problem in their minds, asking questions like “What if this happens?”, “What if that doesn’t work out?” There can be few of us who have not lost sleep over something as we tried to find a way forward. Of course, in those circumstances we are not concerning ourselves with our present situation. Jesus tells his listeners that each day has quite enough trouble of its own; we don’t need to use our imagination to bring tomorrow’s trouble into today as well. Most of what we worry about never happens anyway, though Jesus does not promise immunity from trouble. He does promise to be with us no matter what happens to us.
Usually, if we find ourselves facing a challenge, we simply get on with dealing with it. If there is an accident or emergency, most people slip into a coping mode and just do what needs to be done. It’s only afterwards that they begin to think about what happened. It’s unusual to be worrying while something is actually happening. I think this is the attitude Jesus wants us to adopt. This is very much in line with the current emphasis on mindfulness.
It’s possible to consider that this might be quite an irresponsible attitude to take – just live today and don’t concern yourself with tomorrow. However, concerning ourselves with tomorrow by worrying about it, doesn’t actually change anything (except perhaps the amount of sleep we get). The reason we don’t need to worry and strive for things we need in life is that God already knows what we need. God is the creator of the whole universe as that wonderful passage from Genesis tells us. Everything that has come into being owes its existence to God. He understands what every part of his creation needs to survive and he makes provision for that. Therefore we can leave the future in God’s capable hands.
It would be unusual for Jesus to say something that does not have some challenge in it, and this passage is no exception. Jesus is not advocating irresponsible living but living in a way that has the right emphasis. Just as the employees of the London Underground had their own jobs and did not concern themselves with the jobs of other people (though to a very dangerous extreme), we too are given an area of responsibility by Jesus. We are not to strive after the necessities of life. They are strictly in God the Creator’s department. However, we are to strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. As Christians, this is our job description.
If we were to imagine going to work for Christian People Corporation and were on our induction day or week, what would we be told that our job description means in practice? To strive after God’s kingdom is to make the effort needed to keep God as king in our lives. He is the one who is to have our first allegiance if we are to live as citizens in his kingdom. It’s not our own wishes or the demands of others which are to have priority, but God’s ways. As a result of getting our priorities right, righteousness will describe the way of life we adopt.
God, whom the psalmist tells us remembers us in our troubles and gives food to all, can be relied on to keep his department running well while we concentrate on ours.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor