January 28, 2024
• Rev. Mindie Moore
A Little Help Here, Week 4: Apathy
Nehemiah 2:1-5, 11-12, 17-19
If you were with us on Christmas Eve, I told you how much I love the poet Maggie Smith. Well, the other day, she posted (SLIDE) this beautiful picture of a sunrise with this caption:
“Beauty Emergency!” Rhett just yelled from upstairs.
He came down and we all ran to the back door to see the candy-striped sunrise, banded all blue and pink, when he looked down and spotted another beauty emergency: tiny, delicate bird tracks in the snow leading right to our back door.
Look up! Look down! Pay attention!
Today, as we continue our series “A Little Help Here”, we are looking at the topic of apathy. And honestly, I have a lot of questions about what this word really means...but I knew when I read that post on Monday morning, I thought immediately—no matter what apathy IS, no matter how we want to define it...THAT, a BEAUTY EMERGENCY! Is what it is NOT.
But it IS kind of an abstract idea, and it can mean a lot of diffe rent things to each of us. So earlier this week, I did a Facebook crowd-sourcing question ,where I just asked people what words, phrases, or feelings come to mind when they hear the word “Apathy.” Here are a few things that people shared: (SLIDE)
· The meh emoji
· Not my circus, not my monkeys
· I don’t care
· Not being engaged—my body is present but my mind is somewhere else
So those are some good descriptions about how apathy feels or manifests itself, but I think it’s also helpful if we go back to the root of what this word means. Apathy was borrowed into English in the late 16th century from Greek apatheia, which itself comes from the adjective apathēs, meaning "without feeling."1
So basically, apathy lets us check out. We don’t have to feel too deeply or be overly bothered. We just get to kind of exist. And honestly, as I thought about this topic, I wondered—how often are we even asking for help in this one? In some ways, it feels like it’s a cultural value to be chill or not get too heated about stuff. So why do we care about apathy? Why does it matter that we live WITH feeling, not without?
One of the first reasons we need to tackle this is the fact that I think a lot of us are walking around with a false promise of what apathy can do for us. Because a lot of the time, we believe that apathy is helping us. It’s creating safety from something. But the truth is, (SLIDE) Apathy can provide protection...but it also creates limits.
This shows up really clearly in the story of Nehemiah that we are looking at today. Nehemiah was a Israelite exile, living in the land of Persia, and he had a pretty sweet gig as far as it goes for an exile. He was a high-ranking official serving in the King’s court. In the bit we read today, he says, “I bring the king wine.” So, not a bad job, it’s probably safe to assume that he and the king are all good most of the time.
But while Nehemiah is doing his work, he is also hearing some stories. Stories about his homeland and it is in rough shape. If you go back to chapter one, he starts asking around and basically finds out that the whole thing is in ruins and the people who are still there are not doing great. And Nehemiah is SO troubled by this news. It breaks his heart, he wants to do something about it...and so after several days of fasting and weeping and praying, he decides to go to the King.
And he says something as he talks about this interaction with the King that caught my attention. He says: (SLIDE)
“I had never been sad in his presence before...I was afraid”
See, the issue here is that Nehemiah wasn’t supposed to have feelings. He wasn’t be paid to have an opinion or care about anything that didn’t matter to or impact the king. His whole existence is supposed to be about the king’s agenda, getting this guy his wine and keeping him happy. And so I GET why he’s afraid—because apathy is kind of the name of the game here. And rebuilding a city that was conquered, hearing about the suffering of these people far away...that is NOT on the King’s agenda.
So there was a fear for Nehemiah in bringing this up. Because even though it might mean EVERYTHING to him, if the King isn’t here for it, then at best he’s going to be put in his place and told to get over it and move on and bring some more wine. And at worst, the king could decide he’s done DONE with Nehemiah and have him killed. Because if you’re a king, you don’t want your servants to have a bunch of outside interests. That’s threatening. That’s chaotic. That is not what they are here for.
So for Nehemiah, and for us in a lot of situations that we find ourselves in, (SLIDE) Caring comes with risk. And if you don’t believe me, I want you to just for a second take this totally outside of a spiritual conversation and think about sports. It is, Taylor Swift tells me, the NFL playoffs right now. And look, there aren’t many things in my life that I am apathetic about, like you’re looking at a person with ZERO chill most of the time...but sports?! That is one of them! I am disengaged, aloof, unaware, I do not generally care.
But the other night, we were watching the KC—Buffalo game. And like...I was feeling stressed. It was confusing. I only know that Kansas City is a team that has Travis Kelce and the Dan Hubbard who goes here at Midtown loves Buffalo. My daughter when she walked in called The Bills “The Buffalos” just to drive this point RIGHT home.
But watching this game, all of a sudden I was caring. And I was feeling frustrated for Kansas City and I thought, caring about this game is costing me something. It is disturbing my peace! It’s amping me up before bed...WHY am I doing this to myself?!
It’s funny, if you’re me and it’s sports. But it’s challenging for so many other areas of our lives. Saying no to apathy and caring deeply is going to cost us something. Having an opinion on the state of our world, not turning away when we see poverty and suffering in our own backyard, making space for people’s honest experiences and letting ourselves FEEL those alongside them...that is risky business. We don’t have to be a Nehemiah standing in front of a king wondering how this is going to go to feel that. We just have to be people with hearts that break and know that if we’re honestly going to engage in this world that we’re not going to be able to protect ourselves from that risk.
And here’s the thing with Nehemiah—he gets the green light. We’re telling his story because he goes back to Jerusalem, he rebuilds the city walls, by all accounts he is a success. But the whole time he does that, his lack of apathy gets challenged. On one hand, he’s able to mobilize a whole fleet of people to do
the rebuilding with him. Verse 18 says, “Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good.”
So it seems like, ok, now we’ve got a whole group that has moved beyond apathy. They care, they’re engaged, they are doing the thing.
But if you've ever cared deeply about something, whatever it is, then you KNOW there will always be a naysayer. And apathy is tricky because it can be like a magnet trying to draw us back to it. And for Nehemiah, even once he gets started, he’s confronted with this criticism. People are like, “WHY would you do this? This isn’t worth your time.” And the critics just keep coming.
And so in the face of getting mocked, of being criticized, Nehemiah has to confront the false peace that apathy tries to gives us. [(SLIDE) Apathy promises us false peace.] It’s false because, sure, if he decides to care less then on the surface that will be a whole lot less work. He won’t have to deal with this building project, he won’t have to manage all these people, he won’t have to hear from this group of folks who have a lot of dissenting opinions. It sounds GREAT!
But when we’re tempted by apathy like that, when it gives us this really appealing way out...we’ve got to ask ourselves the hard question of what we’ll miss if we take apathy up on it’s false peace. You know, there’s this verse in the book of
Revelation about this kind of neutral space that we can be drawn into, and I love the Message translation of it: (SLIDE)
You’re not cold, you’re not hot—far better to be either cold or hot! You’re stale. You’re stagnant. (Revelation 3:15-16, MSG)
And the thing that’s so tragic about choosing apathy, of being ok with being stale, stagnant, disengaged...the thing that is so heartbreaking about that to me is simply the fact that we end up missing so much that God has for us. It doesn’t feel great to have your heart broken, it doesn’t feel great to get worked up and then run into a brick wall, I get that. But think about the times you have let yourself care deeply and then have been moved to action because of how you’ve cared. I’m not saying it always works out perfectly, but I can tell you story after story of times that I have watched God show up in those spaces in a major way. I have watched God do things that only God could do, in ways that have stretched and grown my faith. And there was some pain along the way sometimes, but I KNOW if I had chosen apathy, if I had said no to risks and messiness and faith...there is so much I would have missed.
It makes me think of the Lumineers song where they say (SLIDE): It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all. The opposite of love’s indifference. I think I’ve always loved those lyrics because it just reminds me of what I want out of this life. I want to live in a way where I can say, “God--help me care. Let my heart be tender and let my feet be on the move. Keep me
from getting stuck and cynical and numb. Let me care about the world and the people in it the way that I know you care about them.”
I don’t know if that’s the kind of life you are craving, but if it is, then I think it brings up some important questions like...HOW? How do we stay engaged? How do we let ourselves care and know where God is calling us to act?
For a long time, I thought that this kind of action only came from these big mountaintop holy spirit moments. That’s the challenge I even have with sharing Nehemiah’s story with you—because it’s big. Like he is going to rebuild a whole city! This takes HUGE trust in God, a very concrete risk, and his entire life has to orient itself around this thing.
And I love those moments, I love when God steps in and shakes us up and those big things happen for our faith...but I’ve got to tell you, as I've grown, as I’ve seen more things, as I deconstructed and reconstructed my faith, there were a lot less of these huge mountaintop moments and the way I related to God started to change. And when that happens, it can be easy to get apathetic about our faith and just feel stuck. When we don’t FEEL a deep connection to God, when we don’t FEEL the Spirit working, we can wonder if we are really capable of having a faith that’s alive and engaged...maybe this is just where it is now...maybe we’re just stuck.
But we don’t have to BE stuck. We don’t have to miss what God is doing. Because overcoming apathy is a practice. It’s a long
game. It’s something that each and every one of us is invited to make space for and create rhythms around. It doesn’t have to be big or explosive or happen overnight.
Rev. Dr. Renita Weems (SLIDE) is a scholar and author and brilliant writer who talks about how she had to do her own work around creating rituals and rhythms that kept her connected to her faith even when apathy started to creep in and she didn’t feel that spark that she had felt in the past. Here’s what she writes (SLIDE):
I learned to let go of my naive belief that breaking out into goosebumps at talk of the sacred was a signal of intimacy with God. I learned to trust the winter months of faith, when it's difficult to remember why one ever bothered to believe. I stopped being so hard on myself and demanding that, as a wife, scholar, and writer, I should always feel excited about what I was doing, or that I should, as a mother and a minister, always sparkle with alertness and insight. This was hard to accept in a culture where at the first sign of dullness or tedium or monotony, it’s all right to give up, walk away, or try something new in hopes of finding new meaning, new thrills, new satisfaction. I stopped complaining about “going through the motions.” I decided it was all right to pray (in new or old ways) and not feel anything. The point was to pray, whatever way I could bear at the moment. Rituals are routines that force us to live faithfully even when we no longer feel like being faithful. Until our heart has the time to arouse itself and
find its way back to those we love, rituals make us show up for duty.
(Rev. Dr. Renita Weems— Listening for God: A Minister's Journey Through Silence and Doubt)
Rituals help us show up. And here’s why this matters: because, remember, apathy at its core tries to protect us from something. And so when we have seasons where we don’t feel God, where we can’t see that God is working or present, where we might feel angry or isolated from God...we need these anchors in our faith to keep us from drifting into a place of being disengaged and of losing ourselves. We need these rituals to remember who we are and whose we are and what keeps us going in what can be a really hard world.
And so this probably isn’t something that you’re going to figure out in an hour-long worship service and it doesn’t need to be. But I want to invite you to take some questions with you this week to open the door to exploring what role apathy might be playing in your life and what it could look like to create rituals to counteract it.
Be honest about where apathy is showing up in your life. (Faith, relationships, empathy, etc)
Be brave enough to figure out why (what is this apathy trying to protect you from?)
Be intentional about creating faith habits to stay connected to God. (whether you feel it or not, practicing engag
Bonus: wonder about what makes you come alive. (there is SOMETHING that gets you fired up...what is it? That matters)
We’re going to close today by singing this song, “Give Me Faith”. And so I’m going to invite you as we sing the first verse “I need you to soften my heart...I need you to open my eyes...I need to see how you’re shaping my life God” let’s make that our collective prayer today. That even when apathy tempts us that we could know that God is at work and that God has something for each and every one us to engage in.