This past weekend I preached at Plymouth Presbyterian Church in St. Helens. It’s a little too late to use my sermon as a stand in for your services since I preached on the lectionary and that week has passed. But one of the stories that I told in the sermon seemed timely to share with the presbytery right now (You can hear the sermon here–Audio “The Daily Show”.).
I was preaching from John 6: 24-35 and focusing mostly on Jesus’ chiding of the crowd for running after him for the purposes of getting more bread. He used the occasion to remind them that the material things of life rot and perish, but that the spiritual things of life are eternal. Essentially, he said, “Don’t be chasing after literal bread; seek me, the ‘bread of life.’”
Anyone who knows Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will know that Maslow’s theory posits that one cannot seek spiritual things until one’s physical needs are met. In his theory, psychological development is like a five-layer cake with our most basic needs at the bottom and our higher, more spiritual needs at the top. The hierarchy appears in the accompanying picture.
When I first read the scripture lesson I thought that, if Maslow and Jesus had met, they would have had a healthy argument. Maslow would have advocated for not pushing spiritual development on the crowd until they actually got the bread they were seeking. Jesus would have countered, “Isn’t life more than bread? Why should a person put off spiritual maturity just because they don’t have bread?”
Or, at least, so I thought.
Then I looked at the story more carefully. Jesus was not talking to people who didn’t know where their next meal would come from. He was talking to a group of people who had gathered on a hillside to hear him teach, and then, because the lecture went on so long, found themselves getting hungry. When they followed him to the other side of the seas that’s when Jesus chided them. “You came to hear me teach, but you followed me because you wanted more snacks.”
This is when I realized the text was not about bread itself; it was about trust.
That’s when a personal story shot to the forefront of my brain. I realized that I had an experience that reconciled Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Jesus’ spiritual admonishments. The two were probably more in agreement than I had first surmised.
Ten years ago, I took off on a cycling pilgrimage that is captured in my book “Alone: A 4,000 Mile Search for Belonging.” If Maslow had been along for the ride he would have said that the purpose of my ride was to create enough space in my life to reflect on stages 3, 4 and 5 of his hierarchy—love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. I had experienced a spate of losses and I desperately needed an experience where I could reflect on where I had been and where I was supposed to go next. My needs were not about food, but about my deepest purpose in life.
One thing I remember very clearly about the ride is this. As I took off my greatest worry and source of anxiety was wondering where I would sleep each night. The thing about cycling pilgrimages is that you don’t know day to day how far you will be able to ride. One day you expect to ride 80 miles but you wake up feeling heavy and out-of-sorts and the miles just aren’t in your legs. Another day you are riding along well when a massive thunderstorm cuts your day short. And then there are the days when a tailwind pushes you through one town and into another far exceeding your morning expectations.
In order to quell my initial anxiety I had made arrangements for the first two nights of this nine to ten-week trip. I stayed with fellow cyclists in Silverton on my first night and then reserved a campsite at Detroit Lake for my second night. After that I had to hope and keep my fingers crossed that I would have a place to sleep as my days ended.
Quite honestly, despite the fact that I was supposed to be reflecting on the higher stages of Maslow’s scale my thoughts were consumed by worries over the lowest stage—food, shelter and warmth.
But this is what actually happened as I crossed the state of Oregon by bike.
- Night 3: After leaving Detroit Lake, I got caught in a rare summer Cascades rainstorm and needed to find a hotel in Sisters where I could dry out my clothing and gear.
- Night 4: I camped at Ochoco Lake east of Prineville where my tent poles snapped and I had a barely functional tent.
- Night 5: A Presbyterian Church in Dayville let me sleep in their pews and use the kitchen for cooking.
- Night 6: I set up my sagging tent behind a restaurant/store at Austin Junction, but during dinner I struck up a conversation with a local couple. The next thing I knew they had invited me to sleep at their place and save me from sleeping in my drooping tent.
- Night 7: The next night I found a cheap motel in Unity.
- Night 8: I called some relatives of church members late in the afternoon and joined them for a family BBQ and a nice warm bed in the town of Ontario
None of this was planned. In fact, all of it only came into focus late into the afternoon.
The point is this. At the start of the trip I was like those people in the crowd whom Jesus was admonishing. My thoughts were consumed with shelter, safety and security. What I discovered was that it wasn’t having all ten weeks of my lodging scheduled and secured that allowed me to finally relax and do the real work of the pilgrimage. It was trusting that God or the Universe or the hands of Life would provide a safe and secure place to sleep every night.
I write this because we all know that the church, at its best, focuses on our essential mission to provide gospel hope, to be a healing presence in a broken world, and to advocate for divine justice and true peace. But we sometimes get caught up in thinking that we can’t focus on our higher calling as faith communities until all of our fears about the heating of our buildings, the paying of our staff, the watering of our lawns, and the taking care of our members have been quelled.
Jesus says, “Don’t worry so much about food, but spend your energy on your higher purpose.” Jesus is not advocating that we starve or sleep next to the highway in favor of being spiritual. He is not telling the homeless person to quit obsessing about food and shelter. He is saying to those of us Presbyterians who already have those things, “Move on. You have what you need. You will be fine. Now think about eternal things. Think about your mission in life.”
I think Maslow would approve.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades