If only...if only...if only. “If only” always gets us into a bad place.
Think of what occurs in your own life when you start feeling unhappy with the way things are and begin wishing how wonderful your life would be if only… such and such would happen. You begin to feel less and less full, less and less grateful, less and less peaceful, less and less human.
The more you think of the “if only,” the less able you are to find grace in the present. Your eyes become closed to the possibility of “now,” as you begin to live in what you desire but which has no tangible reality to it. The more you live in that hazy dreamworld, the more clenched your heart becomes and the more inner disquiet you feel. It is as if the thing you want, the thing that seems so ideal, actually steals away the joy of God’s gifts that are all around you. As your dissatisfaction grows, so does your complaining spirit.
The word complain actually comes from the word plague. We all know what happens in a plague. It spreads randomly and unremittingly, killing and destroying everything in its path. The Sufi mystic Rabia used to say to her disciples, “stop complaining.” Just stop complaining. Stop being a plague in your world, and stop plaguing yourself with unhappiness that spreads like a worm through the channels of your soul.
What happens when you stop complaining is that you begin to dance around the floor of contentment. The word contentment comes from the French word tenir, meaning to hold. When we choose contentment over complaint, we are choosing to hold on to the graces and gifts we have already been given. As we settle our souls in contentment, we feel able to gather others in. Our soul becomes more still and serene. Surprisingly, when we are content, everything is seen as a gift and our hearts fill with gratitude. The more content we become the less fearful we are of giving to others.
I was the recipient of such giving when I was a child. I had gone with my mother to Phoenix because of a health problem. We were staying near the necessary medical professionals in the downtown area of Phoenix, when I became acquainted with a young boy of 7. He was an Hispanic boy, dressed in tattered clothes and shoes too big for his feet. He obviously came from a very poor family. He approached me and asked if I knew anyone who needed their shoes shined. I spent some time talking to him and found that he spent the day gaining customers, and then took the money home to his family each evening.
I, at nine years old, felt very sorry for him. He had every right to dwell in an "if only" world—if only my family were wealthy, if only I were white, if only I didn’t have to work at my age. He had every right to complain rather than be content. Yet, he seemed to have no anger or resentment at all. In fact, he had a gentle joy about him.
I saw him the next day, and the next, and the next. In fact, for the ten days I was there, I saw him asking people if he could shine their shoes. And every day we would talk some.
On the evening before my last day there, the little boy showed up again and handed me a box. He was very excited and said that he wanted to give me a present. He had taken all the money he had earned that day and gone to a store to get me a gift. I can still see his face beaming, and he could hardly contain himself until I opened the box. Inside was a little silver roadrunner pin with a red garnet eye. At 9 years old, I could not articulate all that this gift meant to each of us.
I kept that pin. I treasured that pin. I had learned important lessons about giving. I had learned that the poor often find it the easiest to give. I had learned that a full day’s work and its subsequent pay could joyfully be given away. I had learned that the greatest joy of all is not in keeping one’s money, but in sharing it with others. I had learned that contentment was better for the spirit than complaining.
And, there was a domino effect of gratitude and giving that came as a result of that boy’s giving. One of the doctors, a family friend, after hearing the story felt gratitude once-removed, so to speak. He went and bought a beautiful and expensive shoeshine kit with all the best polishes and brushes and dyes, and made a gift of it to the boy. You can’t imagine the face of that boy when he opened that present. It was beyond his wildest dreams. The boy had given all that he had made in one day to buy a pin for me, and he received a lavish shoe shine kit that he could never have expected or afforded. If that young boy had spent his time in an "if only" world, complaining rather than exercising a kind of hope-filled contentment, how different his life, my life, and the doctor’s life would have been.
It may seem easier to complain than be content with what is. It may seem seductive to let our imaginations run wild in the "if only" world of smoky images. By so doing, we inch away from the goodness of God, and allow ourselves to live in a place bereft of belief and trust in God’s care, provision and love. This is the ultimate tragedy of "if only" thinking. Our souls shrink, and we find ourselves on the fringes of our life with God. So turn it around! Do as Rabia suggests: Stop complaining. Just stop complaining.
Trust what Ruby Wilson at B.B. Kings on Beale St. says at every one of her performances:
God is good all the time.
All the time God is good.
God is good all the time, God is good.
God is good all the time. All the time God is good.
Be content, stop complaining, God is good.
—Sung to the tune of "Hymn #213" from The Hymnal 1982
Copyright ©1985 by the Church Pension Fund
Copyright ©2003 Calvary Episcopal Church
From the sermon If Only, delivered November 28, 2003 at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee.