A Season of Discontent

Rev. Dr. Loraine McKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, September 29, 2013

Sometimes I get the munchies when I’m really not hungry. Or I get the urge to buy something that I really don’t need. Can anyone relate?

These urges may not have any significance beyond the fact that I like gadgets or dark chocolate. But sometimes they may come from a yearning to fill an emptiness; to still a restlessness.

We would do well to pay attention to these urges. Are they early warning signs of some kind of discontent? In this era of instant gratification, I wonder if there are less people who are truly content. I Timothy 6 tells us that there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment. I’m beginning to wonder if contentment is one of those lost Christian virtues that we desperately need today. What breeds discontent and how can it be eased?

I can think of 3 types of discontent, not all of which are negative. The first is an unease about relationships or things left undone. It is a discontent about our external world. This unease could be a gift of the Spirit—who will not let us rest while relationships need attention. Or it could be a curse of the achiever-type personality that cannot rest until all work is completed, which of course never happens. This type of unease calls for attention. We may need to attend to people or to tasks; we may need to identify what is possible to do and what needs to be left undone. Unease is the first type of discontent.

The second type of discontent is a calling of God to do or be something different. It is a discontent sparked by the Spirit; a niggling tug in a new direction. It calls for endings and beginnings, and requires prayerful discernment. It may be a call to a different kind of ministry in our church, of service in the wider community. It may be a call to develop a different set of spiritual gifts than you have been using. God’s call is the second type of discontent.

The third type of discontent is a dissatisfaction with ourselves. It is an inner discontent that reaches down into our very soul. It may be a God-led twang of conscience about some aspect of ourselves which needs to change—an easily-sparked temper, being overly critical of others, an addiction. Or it may be the result of a poor self-concept; an inability to accept ourselves for who we are, a need to befriend ourselves, to find self-fulfillment.

It is usually this third, inner type of discontent which leads to feelings of emptiness. We seek to fill through money or food or drink or sex or material consumption, but these never seem to fully quench the yearnings. They don’t last.

This third type of discontentment is the most difficult to satisfy because it requires intense soul-searching. Our Christian faith teaches us that the deepest sense of self-fulfillment can only happen when our spirits are one with God; when we are fully assured of God’s love and acceptance; when we find a deep peace with ourselves and with our God. It is then that we can find the contentment described in I Timothy 6. Let’s listen to a modern translation of these verses:

 6-8A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough; we will be content with these.

9-10But if it’s only money we are after, we’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and pierce themselves with many pains.[1]

Last week, I talked about God calling us to make shrewd and ethical investments; to buy fair trade products. Money management is important. But management can easily slide into worry and obsession. When that happens, we lose the ability to find contentment in what we have; in who we are.

Carl Holladay writes, “riches are seductive. Like the brambles in the parable of the sower, riches ensnare through suffocation. What begins as the innocent desire to make a fair profit becomes an obsession to own. Before long, we no longer own but are owned”.[2]

Desire to fill the emptiness with more may lead us further into the season of discontent.

Stan McKay, Cree elder and former moderator of the United Church, encourages us to develop a way of being in the world that is lower, slower and closer. Lower to the grassroots, intentionally focussed on the here and now. Slower in time with patience. Both lower and slower lead to closer—closer relationships based on meaningful, unhurried, thoughtful interactions. I think he is giving us a clue to contentment.

Has anyone ever heard of the Slow Food Movement? It was begun in 1986 in Rome, when Carlo Petrini protested the opening of a fast food restaurant. (I’ll let you guess which one). The Slow Food Movement promotes the use of local, organic food and fosters slow cooking and slow eating—intentionally slowing down our rush to take delight in our food and in the company of our dinner mates.

The Slow Food Movement has sparked other slow initiatives, offering a counter-cultural challenge to our increasingly abbreviated, sound-bite world. As the technological pace increases, I wonder how we’re doing on the contentment continuum? Is it possible to be fully content in one task, one relationship as we multi-task through life?

I went on a centering prayer retreat at St. Benedict’s a few years ago. I was late for lunch one day, but when I came hurrying down, a sister stopped me and said, rather sternly, “Slow down.” I was a bit taken aback by this reprimand, but her words did have an effect. I tried to be more intentional in slowing down after that—at least while I was still at St. Benedict’s. An oft-quoted phrase suggests that “Hurry is a form of violence practised on time.”[3]

Slower walking, slower scheduling, slower thinking helps us better savour the moment; relish the gift of now and here. It might help us better find contentment in the myriad of gifts God has already lavished upon us. It might help ease the yearning for more.

This is why people go on retreats or on pilgrimages. It gives them an opportunity to slow into God-space and God-time; to slow into the heart-space, because the heart takes longer to process than does the head.

A few friends of mine have recently walked the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage in northern Spain. After walking 20-25 km per day for about a month, they reaped the rewards of slow. They finally had the space and courage to do some difficult soul-searching. They also began to comprehend our world differently. Their senses came alive, helped no doubt by their incredible blisters.

As we learn to slow down, we will hear, see, smell and touch in a new way—a way that welcomes contentment of spirit in the gifts of God.

[1]1 Timothy 6:6-10, adapted from The Message.

[2] (Preaching through the Christian Year C) in Kate Huey http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/september-26-2010.html