An Anxious and Fearful World

With suicide bombings that seem to happen anywhere anytime, and mass murderers who attack even in places and on occasions that we always thought were safe, it is no surprise that people are afraid.  Some people are even being taught to fear physically their own government.  The response in some American environments is to buy and carry guns for security—even in churches.

I don’t want to argue about whether having a gun makes one safer, but rather to point out that for Christians security rests in God alone.  And that security doesn’t mean that we and those we love won’t be killed or taken down at a young age by a terminal illness.  And it doesn’t mean that if we are true believers we will prosper.  The security comes in living as a beloved child of God.

In the Bible a message from God very often begins, “Do not be afraid.”  To the exiled people of Israel living under Babylonian rule God says, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.” When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary with his life-changing news that she is to conceive and give birth to a child she is to name Jesus, he says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

After the tragic racist-motivated shooting of Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and eight members of his congregation, it would be easy to imagine that church succumbing to fear and a desire for vengeance.  But no—on their website, in Ninety Seconds That Changed the World one reads, “Our mission is still hope.”  The AME Church arose out of a social justice protest—against Methodist churches that gave whites priority at the prayer rails.  Racism is nothing new to the people of that denomination.  Emanuel AME’s response to the attack on them:  “We know we live in a violent and sinful world. . . Our faith must be stronger than our fear.”

Queries:

How can your faith be stronger than fear?

There is a lack of fear that is foolishness and a fear that enslaves us.  What does God’s “fear not” mean?

Prayer:

Relax and let go your racing thoughts until you can focus on something that makes you afraid.  Stay with that in your imagination until you can get a felt sense of the fear.  Where is it in your body?  What does it want you to notice or know?  Holding it in the Light of Christ, where is there fresh air?

For further reference:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28).

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (See Psalm 27).

Advertisements

Easter

When I was a child Easter was about getting a new dress, a hat to match, patent leather shoes, and white gloves.  We celebrated the resurrection, had lots of people in church and many people who joined the church that day.  We hid Easter eggs with our cousins in our grandparents’ yard, so we were happiest when the day was sunny and the grass was bright green and growing.  As Protestants it was the empty cross that we lifted up.  We paid little attention to the days that had come before.

Now it’s the whole story of these last days of Jesus that inspires me.  Jesus’ struggle with what is coming, his choice to go to Jerusalem anyway, the betrayal of him and his arrest, the trial, the question of whether he had done anything wrong, the brutality, and the screaming of the people demanding that he be crucified—these events resonate with our times and our stories.  I hear the pain and protests of those who claim black lives matter; and I hear the hidden struggles, suffering, and unfairness that so many people endure.

To live through the story each Easter season is to be reminded that we do not suffer alone, that God understands, cares, and loves us in the midst of our own suffering, no matter how great or how small, no matter how deserved or undeserved it is.  The story of the resurrection offers hope when there seems to be no reason to hope.

The challenge is to be present in this Easter story with eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart that is open.  It is all too easy to be skeptical and dismissive instead.

Queries:

What stumbling blocks or particular joys do you experience with Easter?

When life seems unfair and you can’t fix things, where do you find hope?

Prayer:

Sitting quietly in a comfortable chair with feet on the floor, imagine yourself in one of the scenarios that are part of the passion narrative.  Where are you in relation to Jesus?  What do you see, hear, smell?  How do you feel?  What do you say?  What do you learn?

For further reference:

Read any of the gospel passion narratives—Matthew 26-28; Mark 14:27–16:8; Luke 22:39-24:53; John 18-21.

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (See I Corinthians 1: 18-31.)

Time

With the recent return of Daylight Savings Time, my body is all confused about what time it is and what needs to be done, which makes me think about time. My life often seems driven by the clock and the calendar. I think I am somebody if my days are busy and my calendar is full. But the same conditions just as easily can make me feel anxious and overwhelmed.

While I worked a regular job I used to wish for balance in my life, but I never found a way to have that. My time was full of things I was doing, and there wasn’t time to add what I thought would create balance.

I wonder now how it would have been if I had focused on simply receiving the day, and how it would be if I did that now. Our attitude about the day and how we can live in it changes if we realize and remember that each day is a gift from God, even that having both dark and light in a day is God’s creative gift.

Particular spiritual practices can reinforce one’s awareness and gratitude for God’s presence in the day. A traditional morning prayer is, “O Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Another possibility is the psalmist’s words, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” What would happen if we began the day with a prayer of praise, maybe even shared that experience with someone else? And during the day, before going on to the next thing, we could simply stop and breathe, until we have returned to calm or remembering.

New Testament Greek has different words for time–chronos, which is governed by clocks and calendars, and Kairos, which is set, arranged, ordered by God. Any time of our chronos day may be a Kairos time. At the close of the day, before falling asleep, we can remember and receive the gifts of the day.

Queries:

How would you talk about time as it is experienced in your life? What does being busy mean to you?

How can you be open to receiving the Kairos times in your life?

Prayer:

To start your day, use either of the prayers mentioned above (or your own words) and then name the ordinary, everyday things for which you are grateful.

For further reflection:

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

“I keep the Lord always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Psalm 16:8).

Who Do You Say Jesus Is?

On the front of a church in Manley Beach, Australia, we saw a banner titled “Jesus Is ___.” Below the title were blocks containing many different responses to this question. Some answers were obviously from people who know and cherish Jesus; others were from people who don’t know much about him or who find him irrelevant.

Who Jesus is has been a question for a long time. John, the Jew who baptized persons for repentance before Jesus began his ministry, was in prison and heard about Jesus. The gospels of Matthew and Luke report that he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It seems to me all four of the gospels are trying to help us grasp who Jesus is. Early church councils wrestled with who Jesus was and/or is. Today there are scholars engaged in the “quest for the historical Jesus.”

When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth to teach and to heal, the people were astounded by his teaching. Yet they didn’t ask who he was because they assumed they already knew. He fit in a certain box—a carpenter, son of Mary, brother of James and others, a local boy. Instead they questioned the wisdom and power they heard and saw with him; they were offended and could not receive what he gave others.

A Russian man I met, who read the gospels when reading the Bible was illegal, found new life and a Christianity he chose even in the face of life-threatening risk. I know others who have found in Jesus meaning and purpose in life and hope in the face of death, when previously life had seemed like nothing more than a thin candle melting into nothingness, just waiting to be blown out.

What seems important is to ask the question—without a shallow formula or boxed-up assumptions.

Queries:

Who do you say Jesus is?

What assumptions might you have (or have had) about who he is that block his power in your life?

Prayer:

By continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer at the edge of your awareness over a prolonged period, who Jesus is may settle in you in a nonverbal way—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The shorter version is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

For further reflection:

[Jesus asked his disciples,] “who do you say that I am?” (See Mark 8: 27-33).

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (See John 1: 1-18).

Simply Receiving

About every other year I get to spend a week at Sanibel, an island off Ft. Myers, Florida. My favorite activity is observing the birds of the area, found particularly at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, as well as elsewhere. By 2014 I had been to the bird sanctuary so often that I began the week with a checklist of the birds I expected to see. I soon found myself frustrated that I wasn’t seeing certain ones, and also surprisingly bored at the whole enterprise.

This year I went to Sanibel without expectations but rather wondering what I would see. I gave up trying to be in control of the experience, and I opened to receive the gifts God provided. I was curious about what would show up, confident that there would be treats. I just didn’t know what, where, or when they would be. This attitude left me much lighter and more joyful. And the week was full of gifts.

If we come to the spiritual life with expectations of how things are to be and what is supposed to happen, we will find frustration and disappointment, and too much focus on ourselves. The spiritual life is about God, God’s work in us, and gratitude for the gifts we are given often in the midst of ordinary living, even without asking or imagining such is possible. A much more abundant life comes when we let go of expectations and notions, simply be real, and open up to where God/Love/Grace may be.

Queries:

Reflecting on your day or your week or your month, what gifts do you notice that you weren’t expecting?

What blocks you from a relationship with God (or Jesus or the Spirit)? Are your intellectual expectations or ways of thinking involved in the blockage?

Prayer:

Imagining yourself in the presence of the holy, hold your hands out in front of you with palms facing down, fingers straight out. Now squeeze your hands into a tight fist, grasping and holding on. Next, turn your fists over so that the closed fingers are facing up. Slowly let your fingers open and release all that you are holding so tightly. Feel yourself relax.

For further reference:

(Remembering that wait means to let time elapse and also to attend or be attentive to) “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. . . . (Isaiah 40:31)

“God’s mercies are new every morning” (See Lamentations 3: 22-24).

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).