Overwhelmed – it’s a word we use a lot to describe how we feel. You might use it when someone close to you dies – or when you have three midterms to study for in 2 days – or when it comes time to actually choose a career or a major – or when you first feel truly in love.
We use that word a lot, so it shouldn’t shock you that I come to you today to tell you that I’m overwhelmed. It may shock you, though, that I’m also here to tell you that if you aren’t overwhelmed, too, you should be.
Now I hope there’s a question forming in your mind – is there? I’m hoping you want to ask, “eric, why are you overwhelmed, and moreover, why the heck do you want me to feel overwhelmed?”
I’ll get to why I’m overwhelmed in a second, but first let me say that I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed any more than I want to feel overwhelmed. It’s just that I wonder how anyone isn’t. Being overwhelmed isn’t any fun. It can be an all consuming feeling. Anxiety and panic attacks are examples of being so overwhelmed that it becomes physically distressing. No one likes to be overwhelmed. But I still am.
Why? Well, where should I start? How about the over 47 million people in the U.S. who don’t have health insurance? Or, depending on who you believe, the 100 to 700 thousand Iraqis who have been killed in the past 5 years? How about the over 850 thousand Americans who, in any given week, have no home to return to, or the total of 3 million who have experienced homelessness at some point in the past 12 months? Add to that the fact that 1 in every 3 women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in their lifetime, or that 31% of American women have experienced domestic abuse? And what of the over 9 million American children living in poverty? Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? Or do I need to speak about inadequacies in things like education, immigration rights, workers’ wages, a clean environment, and the availability of food? And I haven’t even mentioned the horrors of racism yet! I’m not trying to depress you here, it’s just that if you actually let yourself think about all these things instead of living oblivious to all the injustices out there, you should be overwhelmed.
So maybe you seek out some answers – maybe you look at Scripture to help you out. Maybe it’s easiest just to downplay the problems as just worldly issues that don’t matter in an eternal outlook. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “The last will be first, and the first will be last?” (He did, actually, right there in Matthew 20.) So if those who face oppression and difficulties now will be rewarded later on, do we really need to care? I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.
For me, the Biblical story that has been on my mind most lately when I think about facing injustice and dealing with the world’s problems is the story of the multiplication of the loaves or the feeding of the 5000. Here you have a predicament where this huge group of people are hanging out with Jesus at lunch time, with the dilemma of what everyone will eat. There are a few options: first, why not just send them away and let them fend for themselves? It’s not really the disciples’ problem, is it? So let’s send them home and forget all about it. Sound like anyone you know?
The second option is to pay for their food – basically throw some money at the problem. While that might be nice, and it might feel good, if one could actually afford to fix everyone’s problems with money, the disciples are like, “Dude, Jesus, we could spend a lot of money here and still people would hardly have a bite to eat, if that!” It’s easy to throw money at a problem and think it will magically go away, but really, we all know that’s not true. Give a man a fish, he’ll only eat for a day, right?
So Jesus does what he knows is the only way that everyone can be fed – he creates partnerships and builds community. He asks, “Who has food?” and when a boy (according to the gospel of John) steps forward to share some fish and bread, what happens?
Well, the version you may envision in your mind or the one you learned in Sunday School probably is something akin to the food magically multiplying so that there’s enough for everyone. But another method I heard this summer – one that I think in no way lessens this act as a miracle – looks at things a bit differently. Another possibility is that the boy’s generosity and sacrifice prompted others to take what they had brought with them, however small or large it might have been, and share it with the larger group. Through a collective action and a belief in the betterment of all people, there ends up being more than enough to go around.
I think this is a powerful story about how collective power can make what seems a helpless situation become bearable and even beautiful. It’s seems like a good idea, right? So maybe now that we have a bit of an example, you’re ready to ask yourself, “What am I going to do about all that overwhelms me?”
This isn’t a test, and there is no “right” answer – in fact, there are many great options out there. You may already be doing things to make a difference on your own or with a group here on campus. There are many opportunities to fight injustice at all stages in life. For me, one step I took to deal with all that overwhelmed me was becoming a volunteer with Lutheran Volunteer Corps. As an individual, none of us has the time, energy, or resources to deal with all those issues I mentioned. But as a part of LVC, I was able to join a group of people that were working against all those injustices and more, because the first idea, or tenet, as we affectionately call them, in LVC, is fighting for social justice. This year alone there are over 100 volunteers committed to working for social justice.
For me specifically, that meant becoming a co-teacher at an “alternative” high school in Milwaukee, WI, teaching math to students the city calls “at risk” (though we don’t really care for those labels). For each of my housemates, that meant something different. It meant working in a job placement program for men and women, many with criminal records; it meant helping women and men file restraining orders in cases of domestic and other abuse. It meant helping women who had been raped years ago deal with the continuing affects of that traumatic experience. It meant working at a clinic for the un- and under-insured. And it even meant providing environmental education to student in urban schools.
At places across the country it meant other things, like monitoring and sharing information about human rights abuses in Central America, working for permanent social change and economic improvement for Americans of Hispanic descent, coordinating after-school programs for elementary students,
helping homeless men find the resources and means to become self-sufficient again, and that’s still only the tip of the iceberg. You can pretty much find someone in LVC working against almost any injustice you can think of.
And you did hear me right before when I said housemates. I had five, if you lost count. And if you’re in LVC, you’ll have housemates, too, because our second tenet is intentional community. Intentional community is more than just having someone to help pay the rent and share chores with or to let you in the house if you forget your key. Intentional community is about committing to support and care for one another during your time together. It’s very counter-cultural to live with others in our world of individualism, but seeing others work for justice every day helps it all be much less overwhelming.
It’s definitely a challenge to be thrown in with 3-6 random people you’ve probably never met before, but it’s also a chance for amazing personal growth. Personally, I learned a lot about what motivates others and myself during my LVC year. I was able to gain insight into my flaws, which are plenty, don’t you worry, but it was also a chance for everyone to work at overcoming our flaws and differences for the good of the community. Intentional community also gave me the chance to have meaningful conversations about things like recycling and dish soap, verbal and physical harassment, sexuality and gender identity, and even why someone believes what they believe. In intentional community, one finds others who will support and challenge you as you seek to make a difference.
The third ingredient in the LVC puzzle is sustainable living. What does that mean? Well, if you break it down, it just means living in a way that is sustainable for all people and for the earth long term. And if you think about it, that’s an act of fighting for social justice itself. It might mean giving up your car to take a bus or train to work – or in my case, letting my bike be my transportation to work and everywhere else. It might mean committing to eating little or no meat. For you now, it might mean finding people in your area to carpool with when you go home for breaks instead of you each driving your own car. Or it might even be something as simple as hanging clothes on a clothesline instead of using the dryer. I’m not sure exactly why – maybe it’s something about the beauty of using the sun’s awesome power to dry the clothes and getting in touch with the earth while handling clothespins – but hanging up clothes is one of my favorite memories of LVC and something I hope to be doing again next summer. There are both community and individual decisions that go into living sustainably, and it is an ongoing conversation that everyone should take part in. It’s something I still think about now as I drive my rental car from college to college to college, using more gas in a week than I probably used my whole 12 months of LVC. How do things like that fit in to sustainable living? There are no easy answers.
Now before I move on, I must quickly dispel two myths regarding the name Lutheran Volunteer Corps. First, we call ourselves “volunteers,” but that doesn’t mean we’re racking up debt for 12 months. In fact, one receives a stipend that covers all the basics – food, housing, transportation, health insurance – and you even get $100 every month to go wild with! Most volunteers even get a $4700 education grant to boot. And secondly, though our name says Lutheran, we’re so much more than that. LVC is really a place where people of all faiths and spiritual backgrounds can explore their spirituality with others committed to such exploration.
Now as you might expect, I and my fellow volunteers weren’t able to change the world in one year, so I still feel overwhelmed sometimes, especially when I think about all those things I named earlier. But in LVC I found the amazing gift of the experience of becoming a part of the solution. It helps to do something.
Even if you’re not in LVC, I encourage you to work for justice. No matter your job or vocation, it can be one that seeks to make the world’s problems a little less overwhelming. I recommend you live or participate in a community that will challenge and edify and strengthen you. A community can help one grow in ways you could never imagine. And I implore you to live in a way that is sustainable for our earth, making any possible changes that might mean for your life, now and in the future. For some of you, that might mean becoming a volunteer with LVC, and I would encourage all of you to talk with me more about that opportunity after chapel/worship.
For me, knowing of the 100+ LVC volunteers this year, the over 1600 former volunteers, and the countless others across the country and around the world who share our values – knowing there are so many people out there working for a better world helps me feel a little less overwhelmed.
And it does one more thing for me, too – it gives me hope. And for that, I am truly thankful.