July 30, 2013

Prayer Book Parallels: The “Keep Calm” Part


Text: Luke 10:40: "...Tell her to help me!"

Like a lot of other anglophiles, I have my own little copy of that marvelous wartime motivational poster, the five words in all caps under the crown: Keep Calm and Carry On. You see it on mugs and iPhone cases and writing tablets and tea tins. You see it on t-shirts and cufflinks and well, pretty much anything you can put a logo on.

There’s a fairly interesting story behind the poster itself. It was one of three motivational posters designed by the British Ministry of Information (and yes, there really was a Ministry of Information, not just in Orwell novels) in 1939. The British government had seen what had happened in the Spanish Civil War, with the bombing of cities from the air; and they were fairly convinced that the German military would bomb cities in England. The leaders of the government were worried that public morale would collapse under the terror of those attacks. So the idea was to print up hundreds of thousands of these posters and pre-position them in cities across the country, ready to be put up quickly when the worst came.

The part of the story that’s not so well known is that this poster and the other two that went with it were a complete failure, at least so far as accomplishing their objective. The British people hardly even noticed them in the shops and hoardings where they were put up, and when they did notice them they found them condescending and just plain silly.

It was only about thirteen years ago, when an antiques dealer in England found one of the old posters stuck in a box of books he had bought at auction. He put it up by the cash register in his shop, it attracted a great deal of attention, and you can figure out the rest.

We think of this phrase as somehow capturing something not just about the ethos of Britain during the hard days of the war, but something about our condition, our need to be collected and focused and steady. The poster itself may have managed to accurately describe the character of the British people, even if it didn’t really have anything to do with causing that character to emerge. And it is a character we see with some admiration from our own perspective, in the midst of what feels like our own assaulted state.

The Collect of the Day this morning has about it the theme of carrying on, of keeping perspective in order to sift the stuff that doesn’t matter from the substance of what does. The contrast between temporal and eternal seems simple, even if it isn’t. The fact is we worry a lot about things that are temporal, because those are the things that we build our hopes on, measure our worth by, and make the greatest sacrifices for.

Jesus, in his teaching, doesn’t actually seem to be quite as pious as the collect wants us to be. He speaks in terms we can understand, about things people need and ask for: Bread, fish, eggs. Basic stuff. Necessary stuff. And temporal stuff. Stuff that fits into the category of necessary, and yet ephemeral. Here today, and needed now, but gone tomorrow.

So let’s face it: we can do the thing that the collect is asking us to do only after we get the necessary things of this life addressed. We’re a lot better at thinking about the things eternal when we have enough bread and fish and eggs. And that is not only true of us; it’s true of anyone.

In fact it’s the basic idea that underlies the reason the church does things like support food pantries and soup kitchens and nutrition programs. Yes, we feed people because they are hungry, and hungry people need food to survive.

But more to the point, we feed people so that they can lift their gaze up above the horizon of the necessary in order to imagine the possible; we deal with the demands of the body so that the needs of the spirit have a chance to be taken seriously.

That’s the Keep Calm part of the bargain. In a strange way, both the gospel teaching this morning about prayer—Saint Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer—and the story Jesus tells about the persistent neighbor are both teachings about a basic idea: Panic is a waste of time and energy. Worry, doubt, fear—all of it is understandable, of course, but in the end it’s better to just keep pushing forward.

So the Keep Calm part is a pretty good piece of advice for disciples. Some of us know the gnawing worry that comes from living on the thin edge of our resources. It’s stressful, and stress shapes our choices, and our choices often don’t work out that well. We lose such hope that we stop asking for what we truly need from God.

Or, if it isn’t fear that gets us bogged down, it’s anger—it’s our righteous indignation, it’s our desire to be seen as prophetic, it’s our secret longing to be the next great leader of a movement. We don’t so much lose hope as place our hope in ourselves, rather than in God. And that’s a distraction of a different sort.

All of that, the fear or the anger that so often shapes our vision, Jesus is saying makes for a lot of wasted effort, at least against the measure of the gospel; better to just keep moving forward, just keep asking for what is necessary, keep posing the plainest of questions to get what is most essential.

That means to keep asking God for help, or at least for a better understanding of what God wants us to do, even when it seems like we get no answer. That means keeping at it in our lives of prayer,even when it seems as though no answer is coming from inside the house.

It means keeping our focus on the task and not on the trouble, on our goals and not on our grievances—and, by the way, of not making the mistake of confusing one for the other. It means having the humility to remember our dependence on God—and having the persistence to keep calm long enough to keep knocking at the door, keep searching, keep asking, in faith that we will be heard.