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Faith and Fear

A two part series on giving birthddddxxxxx CDC zf
to redemption in your time and place.

Part Two – Conceiving the Inconceivable

A-annuncia_Fra_Angelico

Mary takes hold of,
seizes
the inconceivable.

The purity and faith of the virgin
penetrate the illusion and falsity
that surround her,
and she offers her whole being –

intellect, imagination, heart, and body-

to deliver redemption into her world.

She claims her power
as the mother of redemption
and joins with God in a dance of saving love.

That same dance has the power to transform Cousin Carl in his fake angel costume and Aunt Edith with her hair in curlers into the heavenly hosts,

and you and me into bearers of Christ.

Do you see the mutuality in this exchange of love
between a mortal and the Holy One?

The prophet Zephaniah calls Israel to rejoice
because God is in her midst;
he further proclaims that this God in her midst is rejoicing over her with gladness (3: 14-18).

Israel rejoices over God.
God rejoices over Israel.
God chooses Mary.
Mary chooses God.
We long for peace and wholeness.
God longs to give us peace and wholeness.

What prevents more of this dancing in our lives and world?
A significant impediment must be our fear.

In the story of Christ’s birth several of the players are exhorted not to fear – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds. The gospel writers over twenty times show Jesus admonishing others not to fear.

Fear may be seen as one of the indicators of the presence of God. Fear of God, which is the human response to God’s overpowering majesty, glory, and power, is an appropriate and desired reaction. In contrast, fear of the world, fear of self and others is seen as counterproductive to God’s action in our lives.

Beatrice Bruteau writes of faith as an attitude of the consciousness that is participating in divine activity, God’s creative work in the world. Faith is “the disposition which Jesus declared to be a condition for the realization of his works. The doer of the work had to have faith, and the receiver of the work had to have faith.”

Brutear considers faith as “not only the consent of the intellect to the reality of something that does not appear immediately to the sense, but it is the consent of the imagination and the affective faculties attached to the imagination.”
– Beatrice Bruteau, Prayer: Insight and Manifestation, in Contemplative Review, Fall 1983

Thus, the new thing God is doing enters this world –

as we agree something better is possible,

as we are able to vividly envision the new thing,

as we feel in our hearts the joy and delight of that yet unborn promise,

as we persevere in that vision in the face of fear and threats,

and as we live expectantly as if the vision is accomplished.

Fear keeps us stuck in the present reality, constricted and paralyzed by the very thing God is setting about to redeem. Fear distracts us from watching and waiting eagerly for the in breaking of God’s promises into the world. Fear turns our eyes away from the coming bridegroom to become mesmerized by the horror of a realm that does not know God.

Fear, then may be seen as faith in your enemy.

The danger, as Ian Matthews writes, “is of folding in on oneself. Pain does that, and the temptation is to look for a both/and:

both staying with the new setting, and feeding on nostalgia for the old one.

Unhappily this both/and tends to backfire. We cannot both indulge self-pity and make the most of a new situation.”
– Ian Matthews, The Impact of God – Soundings from St. John of the Cross

Simply put, our faith, as does Mary’s consent, allows Christ to enter the world.

Think for a moment.
How do you feel when someone expresses faith in you?
When another trusts you and has faith in your gifts, are you not enlarged, empowered, and more willing to offer your gifts?

Perhaps the reason why Jesus urges his followers to have faith, why he shakes his head in dismay at the disciples doubts and fear, is that their faith in Jesus empowered Jesus.

So, as Annie Dillard writes: “Faith, crucially, is not assenting intellectually to a series of doctrinal propositions; it is living in conscious and rededicated relationship with God.” Annie Dillard, For the Time Being.

Further, faith is not a vague and wispy sense that God is out there somewhere looking on us with a benevolent eye, nor is it an exercise of philosophical proofs.

Faith is the means by which God enters and changes our reality.

Faith is an interactive experience, a dance of mutual love between a mortal and God in which both parties are needed, affected, and changed for the benefit of the whole world.

Annunciation, Nvoman Darsane

Annunciation, Nvoman Darsane

Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem.

The Lord has removed your judgment;
he has turned away your enemy.
The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst;
you will no longer fear evil.
On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem:
Don’t fear, Zion.
Don’t let your hands fall.
The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
He will create calm with his love;
he will rejoice over you with singing.
Zephaniah 3:14-18 (CEB)

Adapted from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Chapter 38

Spineless Christians and the Courage to Be

Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.  John Wayne

“Church people are too nice to each other. They need to grow spines,” a friend said to me the other day. My friend was commenting on the surface relationships, which exist in some faith communities, where we all want to get a long at almost any price and work really hard at being nice. A member’s problematic behavior is tolerated, at the expense of developing a healthy community. Neither the deep needs of the member, nor the needs of the community as a whole, are addressed, and both suffer.

Perhaps you have heard someone comment about a member who is overbearing, controlling, or in some other way hard to take, “Oh that’s the way he is. That’s just how he does things. He means well. Don’t take it personally.”

From my vantage point of thirty years of pastoral ministry and thousands of hours spent listening to church members and pastors in spiritual direction sessions, people do take it seriously, when they are run over, ignored, or otherwise misused. They take it very seriously. I have watched new people walk away and never return after a hurtful encounter. I have seen older members pull back and clergy stymied by power struggles. I have observed churches stuck in relational impasses for years.

Why does no one speak up? Why does a church system seem to harbor and implicitly support bad behavior in the body of Christ? Where did we get the notion that following Jesus meant that we were supposed to be nice? The word nice originates in a Latin word meaning ignorant, literally, not + knowing. In its original use in the thirteenth century nice meant foolish, stupid, or senseless. Today nice means agreeable, pleasant, or satisfactory.

Jane Austin captured the tired, feeble sense of the word in this passage from Northanger Abbey:

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?” “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.”

When Christianity is reduced to being nice people, it loses its spine and the energetic power of Christ among us.

Many factors may foster spineless Christians. Maybe I am related to the irritating individual or live with him. Perhaps the person has influential friends, or contributes a lot of money. We keep still, because we are afraid of offending others, or being attacked, or rocking the boat.

 We also may be enmeshed as integral parts of a codependent church system in which we find ourselves manipulated by another. Codependency is a psychological condition, which develops when one’s behavior is controlled or determined by another, who is ill with an addiction to a substance or a behavior.

In such cases we walk on eggshells, work behind the scenes, have parking lot conversations, protect, and placate the person in question, while the system stays stuck. We help perpetuate the dysfunction and become sick ourselves.

Most people do not like confrontation. We shy away from speaking the truth as we see it, because it doesn’t seem safe. Instead we swallow our truth, question our own perceptions, try to make do, and from time to time acquiesce to bullies.

Of course, there are times, when we have good reason to be afraid. And, likewise, there may be occasions, when it is best to not confront someone, who contributes to problems in congregational life. There are times to step back, pray, and wait on the Holy Spirit to resolve impasses. There are times for us to grow in our understanding of ourselves and others. We always will see only part of what is going on, and our particular analysis may be incorrect.

Further, it is important to note that the so-called problem is not with the so-called problem person. The issue is not what we need to do about him or how we can control or manipulate her. The issue is ultimately with us, who are experiencing it. The issue rests with my particular and limited view, and my responsibility and willingness, not to change someone I do not like, but to share my perspective with humility and love in service to the greater community.

My responsibility is to be an expert witness to my reality and experience. Such witness might sound like this: when Susan does this or says that, I feel like this – angry, controlled, sad, hurt, left out, etc.

Such responsible truth-telling with love and humility may open doors of deeper understanding and freedom for everyone.  Fear can grip an individual, a family, or a community in such a way that the fear becomes a lie, which obscures or distorts a larger truth. Such a lie may seriously compromise the mission of a church. Whenever fear and its expression in “being nice,” become a bigger motivator, than love and honesty, something is seriously amiss.

Jesus offered a different answer to a religious establishment and an empire, which used fear, threat of ostracism, and power to control its members. Instead of becoming terrorized, or becoming a terrorist, Jesus “set his face like flint,” as he turned to Jerusalem to look fear in the eye, calmly grounded in a sense of something larger, more loving, more powerful, and stronger than fear, which would sustain him and the whole world with him.

And then he said to those who watched, “Follow me.”

What would the world look like, if we were motivated by faith and love, instead of fear?  The fear response, lodged in the brain stem, is primal and necessary to survival. Yet what does fear motivate us to do – circle the wagons, huddle together, adopt a world view of scarcity, and become rigid, defensive, offensive, and suspicious?  Such postures hinder generosity and imagination. Faith, which requires trust in the unseen, is blocked by fear. Without faith, the flow of the Spirit through hearts in love with God is obstructed.

I am not sure that we know how to speak our truth and disagree without resorting to anger, blame, and attack. I am not sure we really believe there is a common ground beyond our dissent. Deeper truth is revealed as smaller truths are shared with courage and love. Discovering God’s will for our communities requires all parties to surrender to something greater than their individual points of view. We need, both to hear individual perspectives, and to bow to a larger more encompassing vision, which asks something heroic of each one of us; namely, to give up our way, even our lives, for the larger good of the whole.

I believe there are Christians with spines and with the courage to be Christian, who create spaces where the bullied and the bullies, the controlling and those who feel controlled, the powerful and those without power come together in mutual appreciation and surrender to the One beyond fear who offers abundance and sanctuary to all her children.

We all need to hear and be heard, to listen and to speak. The Holy Spirit with her bright wings dwells in the naked soul of each member of the body of Christ. We dare not silence any voice. It only takes a few divinely inspired souls to change the course of history or the climate of a local church.

May we all find the courage to set our faces like flint against the ghostly shroud of fear, which diminishes us and turns our spines to Jell-O.  Then let’s saddle up and head out toward the Reign of God with possibility, love, freedom, and justice for all.

The Stranger

At first glance he wasn’t all that attractive, a little too rough and edgy for me. He wore a nice pair of pants, but his shoes were beat up and had a hole in one toe. He had a scruffy beard, neatly trimmed nails, and a smart fedora tilted over one eye. He staggered slightly and stumbled once, as he approached. Tall, lean, all angles and contradiction, he gave off a raw, muscular energy that seemed both sinister and alluring.

He looked in some ways like the type of kid, who back in the 50’s would wear his hair slicked back in a ducktail and carry his cigarettes rolled up in his tee shirt sleeve. The fact that he had been eyeing me for some time made me nervous in a kind of silly, excited, middle school way.

He was definitely not my type. Besides I have long passed the era of swaggering boys and dangerous glances. Yet he was coming straight toward me, with a lazy, loping walk, totally at ease with himself and his own incongruity.

His eyes seemed older than his body. Compassionate and understanding, his gaze invited me in like some grandma holding out a cup of tea and plate of cookies. I better get out of here, I thought.

But before I could slip away he was suddenly before me, leaning over, and asking, “Would you like to dance?”

I glanced around, “Me? You want to dance with me?”

“Of course,” he said, smiling now.

“Why?”

“Isn’t it time we became friends?”

_____________

At a recent gathering in Kansas City, I was struck by a quotation from German philosopher Rudolf Bahro shared by Margaret Wheatley, well known management consultant, who studies organizational behavior, change, and chaos theory:

When an old culture is dying,
the new culture is born from a few people
who are not afraid to be insecure.

O yikes, I thought. I spend a lot of time and energy figuring out how not to be insecure. Now I am supposed to get comfortable with it?


Who has not had a terrifying encounter with fear, which kicks all reason out of your mind and fills you with the powerful instinct to run, to hide, to attack, or to kill?  

Fear is an emotional response to a perceived or suspected threat to our security and safety. It both helps to insure our survival, and may also hold us back from moving forward. Because of its primal power expressed through our biochemistry, we may be manipulated by fear into silence, passivity, numbness, or reckless action.

 

The reality of fear runs through the Biblical narrative, like a long steel ice pick between the shoulders of the people of God. The gift of fear as warning, and as impetus to take some saving action, is often distorted and misapplied. Fear becomes the excuse for lack of faith, and for failure of nerve. We find ourselves unwilling to trust in a power and reality greater than the lying, sniveling fear, which makes us feel we are nothing, but grasshoppers in a world full of overpowering giants with very large feet.

(But the others said, “We can’t attack those people; they’re way stronger than we are.” They spread scary rumors among the People of Israel. They said, “We scouted out the land from one end to the other—it’s a land that swallows people whole. Everybody we saw was huge. Why, we even saw the Nephilim giants (the Anak giants come from the Nephilim). Alongside them we felt like grasshoppers. And they looked down on us as if we were grasshoppers.” Numbers 13: 31-32  Message)

Not counting the frequent admonitions to fear God, that is, to offer God respect and reverence (which is not the kind of fear I am speaking of here), the Biblical admonitions to not fear pile up, filling up several columns in my concordance. God tells us not to fear. Jesus tells us not to fear. Psalmists, prophets, and angels tell us not to fear. Peter and Paul tell us not to fear.

Like most good advice. This is easier said than done.

Though love is not the opposite of fear, it does seem to be the antidote. In I John we find the familiar verses, “Perfect love casts out fear. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (I John 4: 18)

At our core, perhaps, what we fear is the separation from the love which promises us protection, care, and life itself. When the gifts of love in our lives are threatened in some way, we fear the loss of the source of these gifts, as well. Love, itself, shall surely be extinguished. We often confuse the gift with the Source. The gifts are  fragmentary, finite, always shifting, changing, and inevitably imperfect. The Source, however, is unchanging, eternal, and utterly worthy of our trust. Losing that which is the core and center of all our desire is, of course, a lie, an illusion. For nothing can separate us from the Love of God as Paul assures us:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39  New International Version)

Margaret Wheatley suggests that during this time of tumultuous change and insecurity that what is needed in every organization are patience, forgiveness, compassion, generosity, and an acknowledgement that we will fail sometimes and that is okay. These virtues sound like love to me, perfect love, which casts out the fear that stifles creativity, freedom, and innovation. Perfect love breaks the chains, which bind us to a past we cannot change. Perfect love exposes the dark fiction we write about a future we cannot control. Perfect love empowers us to respond to the present, ripe with possibility and brimming over with life.

_____________

We make an odd couple, this older woman and her shape shifter of a partner. “I don’t know the steps,” I protest.

“Trust me,” he whispers, as he guides me onto the dance floor. “We will make the steps up as we go along.”

“Your name?” I ask gazing into those eyes.

He hesitates for a moment. “People call me Uncertainty,” he says, pulling me closer.

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The Miracle of Gratitude

woman praying 002Feeling discouraged? Despair breathing down your neck? Are you trapped in a painful situation with no way out?

Count your blessings. I know. It sounds lame. You need a whole life makeover. You need to win the lottery, find a new job, or discover the cure for cancer. Humor me. Do it anyway. Hold up your ten fingers, or however many you have. Count out loud one blessing for each finger.

Now that you are warmed up, take out a piece of paper and get to work filling it up with things you are grateful for. Just put down whatever pops in your head. Keep at it. Include the most specific details – water actually flowed from my faucet at the flick of my wrist when I was thirsty this morning; I can see the mourning dove pecking corn outside my window; my cup of coffee tastes delicious – dark, aromatic, and hot.

A sure way to find hope in a dark time is to count one’s blessings. This simple spiritual practice focuses our attention not on what has happened or what might happen, but on what we can discover to be thankful for in this moment. Gratitude awakens mindfulness, which calms and focuses us on simple pleasures and the miracle of life itself.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.  Melodie Beattie

I can recall some pretty anguished nights in my life. I flailed about rehearsing imagined scenarios, practicing speeches to give to various people, and writing scary science fiction. To what end? Nothing productive. I only became more and more entangled in my own hysterical drama. Some of us come to a point where we are being eaten up by worry and fear. This can be the key to a wonderful discovery. Right about when we say, I can’t live like this anymore, we discover we do not have to. Peace is a choice. We have the freedom through an act of our wills to choose peace of mind.

So much about the spiritual life and happiness in general depends upon where we put our focus. We get to choose what thoughts we entertain and which ones we sweep out the door. At the same time there is tremendous competition among multiple influences to occupy the center stage of our minds. Consider for a moment who or what influences are in charge of your mind? The mantras of our consumer culture? Some nasty critical, negative inner voice? A whiny, fearful, abandoned child? A tangled root of bitterness?

The psalmist puts it succinctly, “Do not fret – it only leads to evil.” Psalm 37: 8. Spiritual teachers of many traditions teach the practice of gratitude. Jesuit priest Jeanne Pierre de Caussade, who died in 1751, advises: The great principle of the interior life lies in peace of the heart: it must be preserved with such care that the moment it is in danger everything else should be abandoned for its re-establishment, just as when a house is on fire, one leaves everything to extinguish it.. . .  And the reason of this is that great peace and tranquility of spirit alone give the soul great strength to achieve all that God wills while trouble and disquiet turn the soul into a languishing invalid. 

De Caussade’s image of the languishing invalid cracks me up. That is exactly what I become as I succumb to fear and anxiety:  infected with negativity, unable to make clear decisions, confined to a bed of worry.

If the only prayer you ever pray is thank you, that would suffice, wrote Meister Eckhart. It seemed to work for Jesus. Remember that embarrassing moment when there were only two fish and five loaves and a huge hungry crowd to feed? The disciples quickly turned into languishing invalids. Jesus takes what he has, lifts his eyes to heaven, and gives thanks. After everyone had enough, they filled twelve baskets with leftovers.

That was Jesus’ miracle. Why don’t you go work a few of your own today?

 Praying hands

 

 

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