Fear

When I was a chaplain in an oncology practice patients who took their faith seriously were sometimes upset at themselves for being afraid. “If I really had faith, I wouldn’t be afraid,” they would say. I comforted them by pointing to the gift of fear. It was fear of something being physically wrong with them that got them to the doctor and subsequently into treatment of the disease. True fear motivates action, whereas anxiety steals energy and focus.

Anxiety is the generalized state of being distressed or worried. It impacts one’s ability to deal with life. Fear is an uncomfortable emotion caused by the threat of pain, harm, or trouble. Anxiety is different from fear in that anxiety has no direct object while fear does. When I am anxious, if I can look under the anxiety to find what it is that I am afraid of, then I can do something about it. To name what one is afraid of, to face the fear and wrestle with it, can bring strength. God does meet us in our fear.

Queries:

About what are you afraid?

What helps you face what you fear?

Prayer:

“May I be strengthened in my inner being through the power of the Holy Spirit, and may Christ dwell in my heart through faith as I am being rooted and grounded in love.” (See Ephesians 3: 14-19.) You may want to develop body motions such as yoga postures to accompany these prayer words.

For further reflection:

“When I am afraid, I will trust in You . . .” (See Psalm 56, especially verses 3-4a).

“My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me . . .” (See Matthew 24: 36-46).

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Spiritual Gifts of Aging

We recently celebrated what would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. During the time she lived in a retirement community a short walk from my house, she taught me about true strength and graceful aging, none of which she told me in words.

In 1967, I married and left home, my sister went to college, and my father died—all within about a month. My mother found her way through all of that loss. She just kept going. At the time I was too tied up in myself to notice. Only after I saw her move here—clearing out on her own a large home and letting go a lifetime of possessions, quietly adjusting to a new community, and flourishing—did I begin to realize what strength she had.

Years later her Parkinson’s disease progressed until she was too unstable to care for herself. Blessed then with a wonderful part-time caregiver, she turned that relationship into a source of joy and flourished still. Before too long she had to renew her driver’s license. When she was unable to pass the test, she simply asked for a government identification card and graciously let the driving go.

Eventually congestive heart failure sent her to the health care wing. Again she recognized and cooperated with the reality of her condition. She let go more possessions and accepted living in only one room, especially once it had a collection of family photos she could see.

During her last months when I visited her she no longer had energy to watch television or follow her beloved March Madness basketball. She simply glowed at having me present. It began to dawn on me how much she did love me, how much she had always loved me even when I hadn’t felt it, how she had given me gift after gift while I was busy with my own life.

Now it’s my turn to be getting older. How will I cope with the diminishments? Can I let go what I have worked hard to develop and collect? Will I choose bitterness and fear or wisdom and grace? Will I live in regret and disappointment, or can it be with joy and love? As my outward body declines will my inward life grow stronger? These are spiritual questions.

Queries:

What story can you tell about loss or diminishment, yours or another’s, and what have you learned?

What are your spiritual resources for coping and flourishing when you are getting older?

Prayer:

Prayerfully review your life, noticing the ups and the downs, and claim the gifts that accompanied both.

For further reflection:

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty. . . In God alone it can rejoice. . .(James Nayler’s last words, 1660).

Jesus Christ—What’s in a Name?

Who is Jesus and why does that matter? I both know and don’t know. The name Jesus Christ stirs all kinds of feelings and responses. Sometimes I hear people saying Jesus Christ, as if Christ were Jesus’ last name. Sometimes I hear people drawn to the name Jesus–the historical human being, the teacher. Sometimes, like early Friends, people express more openness to Christ, the cosmic and universal divine being. What can the name Jesus Christ tell us?

At a certain point Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is (Mark 8: 27; Matthew 16: 13). It seems as if it was common in those days for a person to be understood in relation to another person or quality. The people say Jesus is Elijah or John the Baptist, not because they are confusing him with them but because they are fitting Jesus into a story and understanding him in that context. Knowing him as the Messiah (or the Christ, the Greek word for the same concept)—the anointed one, the one who makes all things new—is catching the big picture.   The disciples begin to see what others who didn’t see that picture couldn’t see. To know Jesus as the Christ can do that for us too.

Jesus Christ also conveys the truth that the only Jesus we have is the one remembered, talked about, and understood after the fact of his death and the experience of his resurrection. When we look back and tell stories from the past they are always colored by the eyes we have in the present. It is a gift that we can see the connections and meaning in ways we couldn’t at the time. (For example, the Martin Luther King I know now is way more significant than the man I read about in the 1950’s.)

The name Jesus Christ affirms the paradox that this one is both human and divine, that God dwells with us on earth in human flesh, that the divine and human are forever one. It reminds us that we also are human and divine, even if the divine seems well hidden. It can encourage us to listen inwardly.

I am glad that we have this two-part name. It gives us room to make some kind of connection regardless of how we feel or what we know at any given time. And it also carries an invitation or challenge to know more.

Queries:

What do you know and how do you feel about Jesus Christ?

How do you become open to seeing things in new ways?

Prayer:

Imagine yourself with Jesus and hear him ask you, “Who do you say I am?” Allow yourself to be present, to listen and respond.

For further reflection:

“Wonderful Counselor . . . Prince of Peace . . .” (See Isaiah 9:6).

“You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. . .” (See Matthew 1:18-25). Note: The Hebrew and Aramaic forms of Jesus and he will save are similar.

Freedom to Change

I have certain religious and political/social justice ideas that I value. I can be caught trying to change other people to get them to agree with my point of view. I don’t think those efforts ever work.

Recently I had two experiences that resulted in openings. After the Charleston shootings I was talking with a white friend about racism. I caught myself trying to change him.   What I got was resistance and defensiveness. I was frustrated because if white people can’t talk about racism, how can blacks and whites make any progress in racial equality. So I backed off the arguing and somehow I invited his story. What he shared opened my eyes and changed me. No longer was I the one with superior ideas. We became equals. At that point, unexpectedly and freely, he suggested he could change.

On another occasion I was working on a committee trying to develop a statement about how a person becomes a member of the Religious Society of Friends. Friends in the yearly meeting had different ideas. One point of view was that a person becomes a member at birth if one’s parents are members. That understanding was very important to a number of Friends because it gave them such a deep feeling of long-term belonging and being valued. One such person helped us express the idea correctly. Although her “birthright” membership is in a meeting in another yearly meeting where she hasn’t lived for many years, our effort to include what mattered to her left her feeling very affirmed and valued by a yearly meeting to which she didn’t belong officially. Suddenly and unexpectedly she found herself re-thinking her feelings about her membership. A new decision became a possibility.

From these examples I see that we are not changed by arguments but rather by having our persons respected and our hearts touched. The power of God joins us soul to soul as one.

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Queries:

What is your experience of being in the midst of strongly-held different points of view?

What helps you be open to change? To feel free to change? To know that you are God’s beloved?

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Prayer:

Pray with Psalm 131, put it in your own words, until you can feel what it would feel like to be “calmed and quieted like a weaned child with its mother . . .”

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For further reflection:

“Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came I to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by the Life.”   –Robert Barclay, Apology, Proposition 11, section 7

“Beloved, let us love one another . . .” (See I John 4:7, 12-13).