May 13, 2018

Matthew 6:34

“I’m taking it one day at a time.” So I hear nearly every time I turn on a sports channel, whether it be for broadcasting baseball, basketball, or hockey. “Well, we may have lost six games in a row, but we have over 130 games left in the season, so we are taking it one day at a time.” “Well, we may be down three games to none in the playoffs, but we are taking it one day at a time.” “Well, I’m not sure if he will be taking the ice this series since he is still recuperating from that torn ligament, but we’re taking it one day at a time.”   

I sometimes become annoyed at hearing athletes and coaches quote that saying so often. It has become a worn out cliché. I wish someone could be more imaginative in offering advice when facing an uphill battle. I wish someone could find a proverb more creative, more original. But then, I stop to consider that maybe the reason so many athletes and coaches quote the saying so often is because it is so true, not only in facing challenges in sports, but in facing all sorts of challenges in life. 

Those battling addictions in 12-step support groups recite the saying endlessly. Whether it be at meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous, Over-eaters Anonymous, or Gamblers Anonymous, members realize that overcoming an addiction is a daunting challenge. The likelihood of putting the rest of one’s entire life back together after years of succumbing to the enormous power of a tenacious addiction sounds insurmountable. The challenge of drastically altering my entire future seems so overwhelming that I might as well give up trying before starting. Managing to stop for the rest of my life seems too hard. 

Therein resides the wisdom in taking it one day at a time. If I admittedly cannot muster the strength to resist that addiction for the entirety of my life ahead, maybe I can manage for just today. Like a wise physical therapist or a seasoned fitness trainer knows, even the most daunting physical rehabilitation can feel manageable when broken down into smaller, more achievable parts. One day is more manageable for us than a lifetime, or a month, or simply a week. 

Somehow we regard the duration of one day, one cycle of dark and light, to be our standard and our limit for making it through hard times. This disposition to measure life as a day at a time may account for why two of the most famous prayers — the Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer — ask God for help specifically for the duration of a day at a time.  

As we recite every Sunday, and as countless Christians recite every day, we begin the Lord’s Prayer by addressing God’s concerns: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Then come the parts that focus on our concerns. And our first concern is for something that we need day by day. We pray to God: “Give us this day our daily bread.” In other words, we ask God to give us enough food to make it through this day. No storing up for tomorrow. A day at a time is the duration we request and the amount we currently need. Making it through today is our focus.

Countless 12-step groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Debtors Anonymous, often recite during their meetings part of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Most groups stop there, but the prayer originally went on in the next line to say: “Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time.” 

In both prayers, the time frame in which people ask God for giving help is spread over a day at a time. The Lord’s Prayer pleads: “Give us this day our daily bread.” The Serenity prayer pleads: “Grant us the serenity … [for] living one day at a time.” When people in need ask God for help we ask most urgently for enough to make it a day at a time. Whether we are hard-wired or simply accustomed to think this way, we look for help parceled out in segments of one day at a time. Somehow we regard the duration of one day, one cycle of dark and light, to be our standard and our limit for making it through life.

Jesus evidently was well aware of our disposition to measure out time, especially hard times, most naturally in segments of days. In fact, he urged us to face our troubles at the frequency of a day at a time. In his famous Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 6:33-34, he urged us first to set our priorities on God’s victory over evil: “But seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 

Then he spelled out one way that priority ought to shape our mindset when encountering troubles.  He advised us: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Jesus had his own distinctive way with words, but in essence he said what we hear quoted so frequently: “Take it one day at a time.” Today will have enough troubles. Try to make it through what you will face today. Don’t take on tomorrow’s problems as well. That will overwhelm you. 

Coping with one day at a time is our psychological limit, and maybe also our physical limit. We live confined within the cycle of darkness and light, within the 24-hour duration of night and day. We use different ways of measuring the beginning of this duration. Our clocks mark the start of day at midnight. 12:00 AM technically begins the morning, long before sunrise marks the start of light. From our everyday experience, however, most people are conscious of the start of a new day whenever they rouse from sleep, whether we get out of bed on weekdays with the alarm clock at 6:00 AM or we stir from beds later on weekend mornings. Many cultures mark the start of day at sunrise, which changes on the dial of the clock from day to day. 

But, according to the Bible’s timetable, measuring the start of a new day begins at sunset. Six times in the first chapter of Genesis, we read the refrain: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day… there was evening and there was morning the second day”…and so on. We customarily think that day begins with sunrise, when we roll out of bed, heat up the coffee, dress, and head out to work, but, according to the Bible’s timetable, day begins at sunset. As the account said, “There was evening and morning, one day.”

From the Biblical perspective, darkness, not light, signals the start of day. Following that perspective, falling asleep, not waking up, follows closely on the start of each day. Therefore, each day begins pretty much as each human life begins. In the womb we begin in the dark, vulnerable, relying upon someone else to take care of us. 

One of the first lessons I learned about God I learned from my mother who taught me to pray at bedtime: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Some people object to the prayer because it sounds too macabre, too absorbed on death for young children to hear. But, in its defense, this prayer was big enough to cover all the frightful things that can go bump in the dark. Going to sleep was an act of faith, believing that God would take care of me when I was least alert to take care of myself. That all-encompassing prayer covered me from the nightly sleep to my final big sleep, and everything in between. Praying in the dark meant each day I was under God’s care, from start to finish, for, as the Bible says, day starts in the dark. 

Sleeping, which is something we do one day at a time, is a reminder that we are not in control. The sun sets and rises, actually the earth revolves around the sun, on its own timetable with no help or interference from us. Our bodies have needs that we cannot ignore. Our brains have needs that we cannot ignore. To sleep is to admit that we have limits, which in itself is a valuable lesson about life at any age. Hard as many college students try to stay up all night studying for final exams, our bodies cannot keep going. Humans need to rest. Sleeping is inescapable, part of admitting we are everyday creatures living within the rhythm of night and day, a rhythm that is outside of our control. 

According to the Psalm 121:4, God “neither slumbers nor sleeps.” Therefore, it must have been a newfound experience for Jesus to fall asleep, after neither slumbering nor sleeping since before time began. Being like us, he needed to sleep. But, being unlike us, he could sleep on a boat in the midst of a storm, as we heard in Mark 4, because whenever he laid down to sleep, he trusted the Lord his soul to keep. 

During the bombing of London in World War II, a woman was heard asking others to excuse her for having stayed asleep in bed during the bombardment. She said, “Well, I reflect that God does not sleep and there seemed no reason why both of us should stay awake.” 

Nowadays Christians take our bearings about sleeping more from the schedule for night time television than from the Bible. In our way of thinking, sleep is what we do at the end of a tiring day so we have enough energy to make it through the next tiresome day of work. However, within the first chapter of the Bible, we encounter a different outlook on the cycle of night and day. 

In his poem, God Speaks,the French poet Charles Peguy dared to speak God’s mind on our daily routine of sleeping. As he imagined God explaining the reasons for sleep, Peguy wrote:

Sleep is the friend of man.

Sleep is the friend of God.

Sleep is perhaps the most beautiful thing I have created.

And I myself rested on the seventh day…

But they tell me that there are men

Who work well and sleep badly.

Who don’t sleep. What a lack of confidence in me…

They have courage to work. They lack the courage to be idle.

They have enough virtue to work.

They haven’t enough virtue to be idle.

To stretch out. To rest. To sleep.

Poor people, they don’t know what is good.

They look after their business very well during the day.

But they haven’t enough confidence in me

To look after it during the night.

If, according to the Bible, day starts at nightfall, then sleeping is an act of faith. Not as overtly an act of faith as telling others about Jesus or promoting justice or gathering for worship. But we are following Jesus in that he slept. We are admitting our limits, our God given limits, when we sleep. We are trusting God when we fall asleep. We are handing over to God the concerns that occupied our time and thoughts during the day. For sleep is not simply God’s afterthought to compensate for our overworked brains or to forestall fatigue. Sleep, as much as prayer, is part of taking it one day at a time.