As part of our ongoing series based in part on Adam Hamilton's book, Unafraid, CrossWalker and Chaplain Steve Lewis teaches on the subject of living with the fear of death and dying. Enjoy!?
CrossWalker and Chaplain Stephen Lewis (Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital) offers this teaching to help us deal with the common fears surrounding anxiety, worry, and physical illness. Enjoy!
This is part of an ongoing series based on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid, where I work from the book’s content toward a fuller teaching.
This week I’m looking at two chapters that I think are related – the fear of missing out (FOMO), and the fear of financial peril. Coincidently, I see a connection between these two fears and our American Culture. As we celebrate Independence Day for the 242nd time, we take pause to celebrate our country with parades and fireworks. But I wonder if there is a higher calling for us to consider as we struggle with fears that might just be directed related to the time in which we live and the zip code we enjoy.
“Pete, you live a charmed life.” My friend has mentioned that several times to me. In so many ways, I cannot disagree. My wife and I have a great relationship that has grown with us now for 26 years. My kids doing well in college and their future appears bright. I am fortunate to call CrossWalk Community Church my home, where I am really lucky to serv as pastor. My friend doesn’t live near enough to me to see me daily, so how did he come to his conclusion? Facebook. Most of the personal stuff I post on FB is family related stuff – trips here and there, being together doing really fun stuff. Hamilton notes that this has taken people’s fear of missing out on something better to a whole new level. We see everybody else having a good time while we sit at home binging Netflix (which somebody posted about somewhere, making it look really cool and exciting – not like your loser experience!). Because social media plays such an influential role in our culture, Hamilton makes sure to mention something pretty obvious: FB does not tell the whole story. It tells only the side of the story that the person wants to share. Like me, I choose to post memorable moments that are usually fun. I do this as a means to share my life with a broad network of friends from all periods of my life, and because FB will automatically remind me of the memories every year on the same date, which warms my heart. But I don’t post, generally, about boring days, or stressful days, or days that are not memorable. If you struggle with FOMO, just know we’re all on the same journey of plan days with moments of fun.
In a separate, related chapter, Hamilton addressed the fear of financial peril. Financial stress consistently ranks in the top tier of fears we struggle with. The Great Recession lingers in our memories, when we watched our financial stability get rocked in one way or another. Hamilton offers wise advice for this fear which is akin to weight loss – we already know about both strategies yet struggle to implement them. We need to budget our money well, live within our means, save for the future and generously give to those in need. Not new. Still good. Another, really important tip he offered which applies to FOMO as well is to practice gratitude. Take time during your day to be grateful. Pause at every meal to truly give thanks. Begin and end each day with a review of what we have, giving thanks for it all. This alone will radically reduce FOMO, and will also curb our spending.
These two fears are surely related to human nature. Envy and greed are among the Seven Deadly Sins along with gluttony, wrath, pride, lust, and sloth, which simply affirms the fact that these have been with us a very long time. The United States relies on Capitalism and Consumerism to keep everything moving forward. Together, these two ideologies insure that FOMO and financial fear will play a significant role in our lives. To be a good, contributing citizen in the United States in terms of the bottom line is to be a good consumer. Remember when the US government literally gave every taxpayer money under President Georage W. Bush? Do you remember his counsel as to what to do with the free cash? “Buy something.” Why? Because that’s what our economy is built on. Consumerism funds everything else. So, how do we, as Jesus followers, live with integrity given this cultural mindset?
For help, let’s look at one of the Jewish tradition’s more storied prophets, Daniel. His book in the Bible is twelve chapters long. The first half is remembered historical narrative. The second half is classic apocalyptic prophet writing, complete with seriously weird images which are foreign to our ears but made sense to theirs. The first half of the book is where I think we find help for out time now. After the Babylonian Empire overtook Israel, the best and brightest Jews were taken to Babylon to be trained for service in the Babylonian administration. Daniel and three other young men (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – their more familiar Babylonian names) were among those taken, and their stories are recorded in Daniel’s book. Let me offer some lift outs from the major stories from those first six chapters.
Diet. Shortly after their arrival in Babylon, the culturally diverse class of students were fed from the King’s menu – fine food and wine – no doubt to foster good will and future allegiance. Daniel recognized that it was not very nutritious, and refused it, brokering a deal to feed the Jewish guys only vegetables and water for ten days and see which students looked better. After the ten days, the Jewish guys were in better shape all the way around. To not eat the food provided was an incredibly risky proposition that could have led to his death. Yet he chose to take in what was healthy instead of what was popular. How about you? Do you take in what the consumer machine places before you, or do you choose to take in what is healthy (which is often not the same thing!)? How about beyond food? Knowing that Consumerism rules the day in every sector – including politics and the media – how are you taking in what the culture is trying to feed you? I hope you are keeping your “diet” balanced in that regard, too.
Secret dream. Babylon’s King, Nebuchadnezzar, had a bad dream that wouldn’t go away. He wanted to know what it meant, but he didn’t trust his religious leaders much. To prove their merit, he demanded that they first tell him his dream (without knowing it) before interpreting it. They all balked, which made the king mad, leading him to call for their execution. Daniel heard that he had been sentenced and asked for time to pray and discern. God gave Daniel the dream and its interpretation that very night. How about you? When faced with difficult decisions, do you take time to pray and discern, to be quiet in order to hear God speak?
Idol worship. King Nebuchadnezzar built a massive gold statue – 90 feet high! – and commanded that everyone kneel before it in worship. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused as doing so would violate their Jewish faith in worship God alone. The King was furious, and ordered them to be burn alive in a crematorium. He even had the fire stoked well beyond it’s normal range. The three were bound and thrown inside as the King watched. Mysteriously, the three were joined inside the furnace by a fourth person, and none of them died. The three walked out of the furnace entirely unscathed. God had somehow spared them. How about you? In the face of the demands of consumerism, how do you deal with the pressure to buy, buy, buy when what you have is fine, fine, fine? How do you deal with our political culture that demands binary allegiance when granting it surely results in contradicting the Way of Jesus?
Chopped-Down Tree Dream. The King had another weird dream involving a beautiful tree being chopped down, leaving only a stump behind. Daniel was the only one in the Kingdom who could interpret, and very carefully let the King know it was about the king’s future. He would basically lose his mind for seven years, living wild with the animals. Daniel offered the King an out – if he would turn from his selfish ways and look after others (especially the down-and-out), he may be spared. The King didn’t take the option, and instead spent the next seven years struggling with some sort of mental illness that kept him living in the wild. How about you? When faced with news that if you stay on your current course it will mean a very difficult future, do you stay on it (even if supported by the surrounding culture)? For example, our culture encourages takin on great debt instead of saving. Do you pull the trigger on living beyond your means in order to be a “good consumer”?
The Writing on the Wall. King Nebuchadnezzar died and succeeded by his son, Belshazzar. King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for his top 1,000 friends. Deciding to show off a bit, he opened his treasury and brought out gold and silver chalices that were stolen from Jerusalem’s Temple. These chalices were dedicated solely for sacred use. As the king and others drank from the chalices, a disembodied hand appeared and began writing on the wall: MENE, TEQEL, and PERES. Nobody knew what it meant. Everybody was freaked out. Someone told the king that Daniel was famous for handling this kind of stuff and was brought in. Daniel, again, was the only one who could interpret. The writing on the wall meant that Belshazzar’s days were numbered, that he would be found severely wanting, and that his kingdom would fall. That very night the words came true. How about you? How do you treat what is sacred and holy? Where does the divine fit into your life? How do you honor it and keep it set apart?
The Lion’s Den. Darius the Mede succeeded Belshazzar as king. He reorganized his government, placing key leaders in charge of other leaders under them. Daniel was one of those, and he far exceeded the rest. King Darius put him in charge of the entire kingdom. This made the other leaders jealous and angry. Daniel’s character was so good that they couldn’t find any dirt on him. The only thing they had to work with was his strong faith. So, they convinced Darius to send out an edict commanding all people in the kingdom to pray only to him for 30 days. Daniel refused. Darius didn’t want to harm Daniel, but his hands were tied. Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den to die. The next day, however, Daniel emerged unscathed. How about you? Is your allegiance so strong for God that you would rather die than bow the knee for an imposter? How might this play out in your world?
Video Link: https://youtu.be/msm2DEyYCoE
We had just come home from a long trip. It was late evening, maybe 9:00 or so. I was 9 or 10 years old. After we got all of our stuff into the house, I walked into the kitchen looking for some food, which was a long shot since we’d been gone for a couple of weeks. Lo and behold, there was a perfect banana on the counter! We must have packed it along and it was still good! I grabbed it and started enjoying it. As I was finishing it, I ran into my dad who had come to the kitchen in search of food, too. He quickly realized that there was nothing to be found and that I was consuming the only thing edible in the house. He took a look at me and said with a harsh tone, “Do you really think you need that?” In all likelihood I had been snacking the entire trip for two weeks straight at every opportunity. But at that moment I couldn’t appreciate that. All I heard was my father scolding me, and in my ears, with an insult about my weight (I was “husky” in those days). I was crushed, and had no idea what was set in motion that night. Like every son, I looked up to my dad, wanting his approval and praise, assuming that he was the model of what I was to shoot for. Like many boys, he was larger than life, even god-like.
On the inside of the United States Capital’s dome is a painting called The Apotheosis of Washington. It depicts our country’s first president ascending into the heavens, becoming deity, surrounded by angels. I’m not much of an artist, but I painted that picture with my dad in it a thousand ways. I think a lot of kids do that. We can’t think poorly of our dad-heroes. On the other side of the continuum, however, is debasement. Some kids have been so deeply wounded by their fathers (and mothers, too) that they can’t think anything good of them. They are dirt-bags as far as they are concerned. The desire in these kids is to write off the influence of their father completely. The interesting thing is that both extremes – apotheosis and debasement – are onto a reality that is true for us all. A beautiful lift out from the most primitive of the two creation stories in Genesis portrays God creating humanity out of dirt. But the human doesn’t come to life until God breathes into his nostrils. The Jewish tradition was stating that we are a combination of dust and divinity. Divinely dusty. Dusty yet divine. When we only see our dads as divine – apotheosis – we miss the truth of the dust. When we only see dirt – debasement – we miss the power of divinity.
My apotheosis held up pretty good until Bananagate (as it’s known the world over) came into my consciousness ten years later. Due to a range of circumstances in my life, I became acutely aware that my father wasn’t a god after all! I became very aware of the way some dust had made itself known. No longer did I see myself as a little kid who deserved judgment for eating a banana that I should have intuited belonged to my hungry father. Nope. Now I saw my dad’s reaction to me as hurtful. I interpreted it as an act of unlove, which caused me to look at lots of other moments of dusty humanity on his part. I was crushed, feeling unloved and duped at the same time. And yet, seeing reality began a process that, though painful at times, would prove to be incredibly important. As Richard Rohr recently noted in his daily meditation, “As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge. What you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control from within, festering and destroying you and those around you. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus teaches, ‘If you bring forth that which is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring it forth, it will destroy you’ (logion 70).” There is great truth in those words. To leave the dust unacknowledged would invite future suffering. Same goes for divinity.
There is an epic story about the beginnings of the Jewish people in the book of Genesis. It involves the two sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau (Genesis 27 ff). Long story short, Isaac had some serious “Daddy issues” (try getting over your father trying to kill you as a way to honor God), had twins with his wife, Rebekah, and clearly favored Esau (the manly man) over Jacob (the CPA). With the family fortune on the line, Rebecca helped Jacob to secure the President and CEO slot right out from under Esau who was heir apparent. Esau was livid, and was surely ready and willing to kill Jacob for his deceit. Jacob ran away to his trickster Uncle Laban’s homestead where he married his distant cousins (this is where Arkansas got the idea), had a bunch of kids and made a fortune. But he couldn’t stand Laban, and he longed to go home even though Esau would be there waiting for him. So, after 20 years and with dramatic flair, Jacob gathered his family and flock and took off. Assuming Esau would still want to kill him, he did everything he could to butter him up and show that he wanted peace with his brother. The night before they were to finally meet, he wrestled through the night with an angel – a test of his resolve – who did he really want to become? He survived the nght still wanting to reconcile his past. God gave him a new name – Israel – which means struggles with God, which, of course, would be the proper name of the entire nation to come. He awoke and made his way to the meeting only to find that Esau was ready to make peace as well. Could be a Hallmark movie except for the weird marrying your cousins and weird animal husbandry tactics and an off-color trick capitalizing on menstruation cycles. Their reconciliation reminds me of another quote from Richard Rohr:
“Only mutual apology, healing, and forgiveness offer a sustainable future for humanity. Otherwise, we are controlled by the past, individually and corporately. We all need to apologize, and we all need to forgive or this human project will surely self-destruct. No wonder that almost two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching is directly or indirectly about forgiveness. Otherwise, history devolves into taking sides, bitterness, holding grudges, and the violence that inevitably follows. As others have said, ‘Forgiveness is to let go of our hope for a different past.’ Reality is what it is, and such acceptance leads to great freedom, as long as there is also both accountability and healing forgiveness.”
Note the wisdom of our Jewish ancestors in sharing this story from generation to generation. We are a people who struggle, who find ourselves in messes we in part helped create, and we are then faced with a choice to continue in our misery or risk changing course. In this case, both boys-become-men had to face the change offered them related to their father issues. Time alone doesn’t guarantee healing, even though it often softens us as we mature into a wider perspective on life that experience can bring. Both men likely came to a point when the pain of their reality was worse than the future they imagined. They couldn’t live with the pain any longer, and chose to risk change. We usually don’t do important interior work unless we must, simply because we like to be comfortable. We don’t like change, really. We enjoy the comfort of the status quo even if it kills us. Change is a threat. We know little about Esau’s life while Jacob was away. We know plenty about Jacob’s. He was successful and miserable all at the same time. The pressure mounted and Jacob couldn’t take it anymore – the pain of his present reality was worse than his projected future (facing his vengeful brother). Going home meant facing the past honestly and openly, taking a serious look at what was and how it served to create what is.
Two decades after Bananagate, after a lot of time for my brain to slowly process stuff, I came to a new way of seeing that moment. I had interpreted the event as personal attack on my character and a jab at my physical appearance. The face-value reality, however, was much simpler than that, and did not require me to vilify my own father: Dad was hangry. He was simply pissed that I beat him to the punch. We all act a little grumpy when we’re hungry, and even though I wish he would have censored himself, I got the raw reaction. I don’t think I could have come to that realization until I was a father myself, tired and hungry and grumpy and faced with normal everyday stress that parenting brings. I likely reacted similarly to my own kids as my father acted toward me! All of a sudden, I realized that there was a new way of seeing things that simply allowed some room for the dusty-divinity reality some expression in my father. This new insight lead me to a fork in the road. It served as an invitation to come home, in a sense, to leave behind an incomplete paradigm in favor of one that was more humane, more embracing and graceful toward my dad as a person dancing with the tension between our dustiness and divinity. No more perfectionism allowed. He was a real human being (and still is). But that choice to see him that way was a significant change that was years in the making. It was hard even though it was good. Even though it was a step toward healing, it was still difficult. And still a choice.
This reminds me of a healing story involving Jesus and a man who was paralyzed (John 5:1-15). Apparently, there was a pool in Jerusalem that, on occasion, provided miraculous healing (signaled by the water stirring presumably by the Holy Spirit). This man had been sitting there for 38 years, and somehow never got to the pool in time to get healed (which seems fishy). Jesus straight up asked him, “Would you like to get well?” I wonder if God is always asking us this question while we sit in misery for 38 years, always available to help us move forward in our healing. Always nudging us toward becoming more whole, which is change, which is uncomfortable and sometimes terrifying. Always circling us back to moments in our own story to take us deeper than we were before, to help us see in new ways, to give us legs to walk where before we were paralyzed, helping us realize that even the ugliest parts of stories are deeply important, and provide fodder for more healing throughout our lives. In this sense, Richard Rohr is right when we says that everything belongs. To avoid our ugly chapters is to deny the opportunity for healing and growth. When we accept reality as it is, that it’s a part of us and needs to be mined for the gems it holds, we find healing and help from God.
Or we could do what one man did and does. He told his wife to stop thinking about her awful past because it was behind her. He just lived in “today” and was fine. Except he was the only one who thought he was fine. His short temper and anger issues had damaged his relationships and employment for years. Anger that stemmed from unresolved issues that represented the challenge of change, the choice to become well.
On a trip down to Fresno last week I listened to a best-selling book entitled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. Something in his book triggered a recent memory that reminded me that I still have work to do. I still have some stuff to uncover. But it’s no longer a thing to keep bringing up to my dad. It’s my internal work. And Bananagate (what it represents) will likely be fodder for personal growth for the rest of my life. And that’s actually a good thing because the invitation of God which was the invitation Jesus gave the lame guy and the invitation heard by both Jacob and Esau was to become more whole. Change for the good for me and for everyone around me. So, while I may be initially annoyed by the invitation, it represents something beautiful if I’ll choose it. My responsibility. I have my Bananagate, and you have yours. Healing. Change worth pursuing even though terrifying. The invitation is before us everyday: Do you wish to be well?
1. What makes the list of the Top Five Changes you’ve experienced in your life? What role did fear play in each? How were they similar and different from each other? How many of the changes were proactive, intentional, and planned, and how many were thrust upon you? How did that affect the process?
2. What changes do you think Jacob went through in his 20’ish years between leaving and returning to home? How were the challenges and changes similar or different from one another? What do you suppose compelled him to return home?
3. Physical changes are challenging enough (moving, job change, etc.), and loss is also a very difficult change to manage (death, divorce, etc.). Sometimes paradigms are so emotionally charged that they are nearly impossible to change – the way we see the world, the way we view others (especially those who have significantly affected us in some way). What paradigms have you changed? How was that process similar or different than other types of change?
4. What changes are you facing now or will face soon? What steps can you take to manage the change well?
This teaching is part of an ongoing series on approaching our fears with faith based in part on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid.
Fear that the world is going to end soon has been great fodder for the movie industry, late-late night radio hosts, and comedians who make fun of religious leaders who call out a specific date for the world’s demise (shout out for the Bay Area’s own, Harold Camping!). The latest fear is that Planet X (Nibiru) will come out of nowhere and smash our earth.
Many conservative churches look forward to the day of Rapture, when God will take all the good sheep up to heaven and leave behind the rest for an awful period of hell on earth, ending in some surviving and most swimming in a lake of fire, after which all the dead in Christ will rise and find themselves living on a new earth that’s all pleasant and nice. This may sound like a bad screenplay, but it is actually derived from a particularly narrow, literalistic view of the Bible without regard to it’s original context and with little question as to how to apply it today. And, this Second Coming of Christ also happens to be the orthodox view – that’s how a lot of Christians think the end is going to come. Many people watched scary movies like A Thief in the Night that sacred the hell right out of them, directing them into the arms of God where they would find salvation.
Of course, we don’t need religion to be afraid of the end of the world. We’ve got nationalistic, ego driven world leaders to give us plenty of cause for alarm, with fingers on buttons that could trigger the end of the world as we know it. Potentially, hundreds of millions of lives could be lost if everything went south. But the world and humanity would not end. Still, we live on the West Coast, on the North Bay of San Francisco, a lovely target for an evil empire to dial some missiles toward.
Recall our acronym for FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real. And let’s remember Adam Hamilton’s reworking of that acronym: Face your fears with faith. Examine your assumptions in light of the facts. Attack your anxieties with action. Release your cares to God. Let’s work this puppy over.
First, as Christians understanding God through a Jesus lens, we believe God is loving and good, and that since God’s fingerprints are on everything created, the flow of everything – even creation – is essentially good. We have a theological reason to be basically optimistic that the odds are good that our worst fears will not come to pass, as has been the case for most fears we struggle with. We catastrophize, wasting untold energy for nothing but an upset stomach.
As far as facts go, the nuclear arsenal of the United States and Russia has been significantly reduced over the last 30 years. While we still have a lot, we don’t have enough, according to some sources, to completely eliminate life on earth. We don’t have anywhere near enough to blow the earth up – luckily the Death Star was taken out a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away by cool people with British accents. The worst case scenario is that up to 500 million people would die, mostly in specific, strategic urban areas. The remaining seven billion people would carry humanity forward. Specifically for us in Napa, CA, being approximately 50 miles from San Francisco and 86 miles from San Jose, and being that we are North of both, meaning winds are in our favor, we would definitely see the mushroom cloud, but not likely suffer direct loss. More likely, we would be called upon to help provide support for recovery. It is unlikely that Napa Valley would be the target for an attack, unless we’re talking about very, very conservative Baptists from Topeka, KS. But they don’t have much more than picket signs in terms of weaponry. So, the facts should alleviate our fear of nuclear threat. Earthquakes and fires? Well, who knows. But those are surely more likely.
How do we attack our fears with action, then? Let me suggest some specific, practical things, and then one major, sweeping, ideological thing.
First, the practical. Most of us were here for the major earthquake that hit Napa in August 2014. We can’t forget the fires of October 2017. Both could have been much, much worse, of course, but I think both served to wake us up to a range of things we should be ready to face. Because of our location, I seriously doubt we would go very long without being given aid from the government. But for the short run, we should be ready for the next disaster. So, have you done your homework and put together an emergency preparedness kit? Get on it! Have you secured stuff that could tip over? Get on it! You should have supplies to get you through the short term if you lose power, water, a cooking source, etc. What about a trust? Have you put that together yet so as to clarify to your loved ones where you want your property to go in the event of your death? I don’t want to be morbid, but I can tell you from experience that I sleep better at night knowing that I’m fairly well prepared in the event of a natural disaster, and that my trust will make it easier for my kids to manage our estate if, God forbid, the 15 foot marble statue of Bono in our living room were to somehow take Lynne and I out in one fell swoop! Getting your literal and figurative house in order is simply wise, and is an action you can take that will alleviate some of your anxiety of a dystopian future.
The sweeping thing I want to talk to you about has to do with our stance toward life as Jesus followers. In Matthew’s Gospel, he remembers Jesus giving the disciples a charge to “go, make disciples of all nations.” He didn’t give any qualifiers to his commission, as far as I know. He didn’t say, “except if you think the end is near” or “if you think you’re the only chosen ones”. The charge he gave his disciples is the life he chose to live. People who carried Good News (the meaning of Evangelism). That’s who we’re supposed to be, and doing it like Jesus did is that way we’re supposed to do it. Unfortunately, study of the end times has led many to abandon the way of Jesus for something that only pretends to resemble him.
I have two problems with orthodox Christianity’s view of the end times. First, I think there has been a lack of appreciation of the first century context from which the related texts came, which was a time when apocalyptic fever ran especially high. Why wouldn’t it? Rome was in charge, and the only hope the Jews had was that God would swoop in and kick some serious butt! Added to that the bias toward a literalistic view of the scriptures which assumes inerrancy and infallibility, and we’ve got ourselves a lousy hermeneutic. I think Revelation reflects a reality that has largely already taken place, which is not hard to understand when the imagery used is understood in context. So, I don’t think it points toward a sci-fi future. The second issue I have with the position is how it has been used to generate fear to coax non-Christians toward God, and yet perpetuates fear among believers. I have never seen a person deeply devoted to “End Times study” who becomes more compassionate toward especially non-Christians. I have seen these folks get ugly, judgmental, and manipulative in order to win converts. Or, I have seen people huddle down in the security of Christian community awaiting Christ’s return while the world outside suffers on. Neither of these reflect Christ, in my opinion.
Jesus did not use fear to manipulate people into following him. The only fear that may have been at work was the fear that a person had been basing their life on a lesser “good news” than the one Jesus offered. He instead offered his presence, his teaching, his hands, and his healing to those he encountered. Gracious beyond anyone’s expectation, willing to go where religious people wouldn’t be caught dead, welcoming of those who were deemed “unclean”, Jesus was Good News as much as he proclaimed Good News. The Good News Jesus proclaimed was in contrast to Rome’s, which did offer some good news, but always with a looming threat. Jesus’ Good News, however, was delivered with an undercurrent of love and grace.
As Hamilton noted, I would much rather been found dead in rubble trying to help people than huddled in some bomb shelter somewhere looking out only for myself. I would rather die for compassion than self preservation.
The Psalmist, no doubt writing from experience, notes "how precious are your thoughts about me, oh Lord." It's true. Like a wholly loving parent sees their child with eyes of unconditional love, so God sees us similarly. Truly owning this foundation makes an enormous difference in our lives because it means that our value and worth are secure - untouchable - regardless of what others might have to say about it. I hope you are growing in your owning of this truth.
It is really, really important to love and be loved in return (queue Nature Boy by Nat King Cole or Natalie). This morning, I had the congregation do an exercise toward this end. We gathered around tables to share and listen. I encourage you to do this with those you love, to make sure you are staying closely connected. Make it fodder for dinner conversation or coffee. Love the one sharing enough o give them your full attention. Love the ones listening to you enough to share who you really are.
Ten Excellent Questions
1.What are you passionate about?
2.If I really knew you, what would I know about you?
3.What makes you feel the most fulfilled?
4.Who is your personal hero?
5.What is your dream job?
6.What is your biggest accomplishment?
7.What’s on your bucket list this year?
8.How would you want to be remembered?
9.If you could master one new skill, what would it be?
10.What would your perfect day look like?
This teaching is part of an ongoing series on approaching our fears with faith based in part on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid.
Recently, I was having a conversation with my son, Noah, and one of his friends, Paul, who just graduated from college and is about to begin his career in accounting. It was pretty late, and the conversation turned to deeper concerns. “I have a friend who is working in her field and she doesn’t really like it. It’s not at all what she thought the work was going to be like. What if I find out that I hate this work but am stuck for the next 40 years doing something I can’t stand? It seems meaningless! What do we do if that happens?”
Paul certainly isn’t alone. In fact, I would hunch that he speaks for his generation that has been encouraged to pursue a vocation that fits with one’s passion so as to avoid that meaningless existence of mundane drudgery. I remember the youth pastor in my first church clued me in to the difference between our generations. My generation was still pretty focused on a “living to work” paradigm where we were driven to identify ourselves with our work, and success in life was closely tied to success at work. Not him. He worked to live. He wanted to do well, but his identity or sense of success was not tied to his work. I’ve spoken to parents who wonder why their adult kids don’t get a job. The answer they get is that they are waiting for a job that fits their passion, even if it means living really stretched financially in the meantime. They don’t want to fritter away their lives in meaningless hours working at something they don’t have any passion for.
My generation and before do struggle with this hopeless meaninglessness fear, but too often the lightbulb doesn’t come on until late in life, sometimes well into retirement. In their later years they recognize that the pursuits of work and wealth as vehicles for meaning in life are overrated and likely won’t deliver. I’ve officiated a number of funerals where the beloved deceased put all their eggs into their retirement basket, only to have their life cut short well before their dreams were even attempted, let alone realized. It is easy to feel like life is pointless during those seasons.
There is a book in the Bible dedicated to this human struggle for meaningful life: Ecclesiastes. Written by King David’s son from his ill-gotten wife, Bathsheba, Solomon was known for two things: wisdom and wealth. At the dawn of his reign, he had a pivotal spiritual experience:
God appeared to Solomon and said, “What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!”
Solomon replied to God, “You showed faithful love to David, my father, and now you have made me king in his place. O Lord God, please continue to keep your promise to David my father, for you have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth! Give me the wisdom and knowledge to lead them properly, for who could possibly govern this great people of yours?”
God said to Solomon, “Because your greatest desire is to help your people, and you did not ask for wealth, riches, fame, or even the death of your enemies or a long life, but rather you asked for wisdom and knowledge to properly govern my people— I will certainly give you the wisdom and knowledge you requested. But I will also give you wealth, riches, and fame such as no other king has had before you or will ever have in the future!” – 2 Chronicles 1:7-12 (NLT)
God was faithful to deliver. No king of Israel before or after commanded anywhere near the same level of power and wealth as Solomon. And for wisdom? Rulers from other parts of the world came to sit and learn from him. One source estimates that he was the 5th richest human being of all time. His estimated net worth was $2.2 Trillion, which is roughly 1.5 times the net worth of Bill Gates, John Astor, Henry Ford, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Norman Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie combined. Pretty successful guy. And yet, deep into his life, he lamented in his reflections:
“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”
What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content.
History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now. – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 (NLT)
For twelve chapters Solomon considers human existence and determines that it is all meaningless. Wealth. Work. Meaningless. He surprises (especially) Baptist teetotalers with his words of advice which he states a number of times throughout his little book: in light of our meaninglessness, you might as well eat, drink, and be merry. Cheers!
In his book, Unafraid, Adam Hamilton tackles the commonly held fear of meaninglessness head on. He cites Victor Frankl a number of times, who survived the torment of being held in a holocaust prison camp. Frankl noticed that some prisoners despaired while others seemed to prevail through the same experience. He came to believe that “life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose” (Unafraid, 99). Especially when things are not good – even evil – there is an opportunity for us to find and create meaning from them.
Meaning is something we have the capacity to find and create, apparently regardless of the circumstance. This is an important insight to consider for all people of every age who find themselves in this existential struggle. It means that there is hope even if we’re stuck in a job that might not be as awesome as we’d hoped, or a situation we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. Apparently, according to Frankl, to stay stuck in the despair of meaninglessness is a choice, as is the freedom to live with meaning no matter what. I find that very hopeful.
So, how do we pull it off? How do we find meaning and even happiness in every situation? Frankl noted in the preface to the 1992 edition of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “for success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” Meaning, satisfaction, and happiness ultimately stem from serving a cause greater than ourselves.
Jesus taught this (Matthew 16:24-28). He noted that the surest way to lose your life was to serve yourself, and the greatest way to insure that you keep it is to lose it in the Way Jesus taught. That Way was what living in deep relationship with God looked like, which invariably included loving and serving those around us, standing up for those who are being robbed of true shalom (oppression). Hamilton notes (103), “According to Jesus, our daily lives are meant to be lived in the rhythm of accepting and reciprocating God’s love, loving our neighbors, and pursuing God’s will in tangible ways. Loving our neighbors does not mean having warm, fuzzy feelings for them. It means… ‘to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God’ (Micah 6:8).”
Hamilton incorporates a daily ritual into his life to remind him of this critical secret to experience meaning and lasting joy in life. He begins his day with a prayer: “Thank you, God, for today. Thank you for your love and grace. I offer myself once more to you today. Please help me to be mindful of those around me. Use me to bless, encourage, and show kindness to all that I meet today. Send me on your mission today” (104). He does this so that he doesn’t miss out on what is before him all the time. “Meaningful and significant lives are lived moment by moment – as we pay attention to the world around us, as we give thanks to God from whom all of life is a gift, as we look for the simple and selfless ways that we can love and serve others while positively impacting our world. It is both an attitude of the heart and a rhythm of daily actions that affect us as much as we affect others” (Hamilton, 105).
Paul and Noah had this figured out already. Now it’s up to them to put it into practice and realize the power of this secret. What about Solomon, though? Did the wisest man that ever lived miss the memo that his Jewish tradition conveyed? What’s with the eat, drink, and be merry bit that he commended to his readers so many times in his brief tome?
Perhaps the conclusion to his writing was an editorial addition long after he died. Or, perhaps there is a connection between the Way of Jesus, “eat, drink, and be merry”, and “fearing God, obeying God’s commands”. I think there is. To fear is to revere, to respect, to follow much more than cower. It means to deeply value with your life, as if it is the most important thing to give your attention. In that sense, to savor every moment is deeply honoring to God. Given the broader context of Solomon’s writing in Ecclesiastes, and the even broader context of his Proverbs, we must assume that this is no selfish pursuit, but communal. One where there can be no merriment if someone is left outside while we eat and drink. Just as there is no justice for any unless there is justice for all, perhaps the same is true for merriment.
Feeling like your life is meaningless? Love someone. Serve a cause bigger than you. Help someone’s shalom come to fruition. Break bread. Raise a glass. Pursue merriment with all. You’ll find yourself surrounded by meaning that connects you deeply to the One Who connects us all.
Questions to think about…
1. When do you first remember wondering if life was pointless? How did you resolve it?
2. When has life felt most meaningful to you? When has life felt most meaningless to you?
3. Have you ever experienced meaningfulness during awful seasons of life?
4. How has Jesus’ approach to saving your life worked for you? How have you experienced losing your life by trying to save it? How have you experienced keeping your life by losing yourself in the Way of Jesus?
5. What practices do you use to keep your perspective, which promotes meaningfulness?
This teaching is part of an ongoing series on approaching our fears with faith based in part on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid.
Most people struggle with the fear of disappointing others. We are born to parents who we look to for love and comfort. We naturally want to please them – we can’t help it. Sometimes, however, this natural desire gets off track in one way or another. For some, disappointing others is of no concern whatsoever, to the point that they believe, say, and do whatever they want, however they want. In some cases this leads to a lot of carnage in the wake of social media rants, poor conversations, and blatant hurtful acts. For others, the fear of disappointing others pushes them in the other direction, and they become people pleasers. Take two minutes and enjoy this video by Riley Armstrong and see if it reminds you of someone you know (hint: that someone may be you!). A recent post from Psychology Today offers ten signs that identify people pleasers:
1. You pretend to agree with everyone.
2. You feel responsible for how other people feel.
3. You apologize often.
4. You feel burdened by the things you have to do.
5. You can’t say no.
6. You feel uncomfortable if someone is angry at you.
7. You act like the people around you.
8. You need praise to feel good.
9. You go to great lengths to avoid conflict.
10. You don’t admit when your feelings are hurt.
So, where do you and in all of this? Are you more on the sociopath end of the spectrum or the people-pleasing doormat side? Sometimes our behavior is rooted in childhood experiences, as Adam Hamilton notes (Unafraid, 94):
When the disappointment is not false… In a bit, we’ll get to some helpful stuff to help alleviate your fear of disappointing others. Right now, though, let’s be completely honest. There are times we’ve disappointed others because we have messed up. We have been perfectly imperfectly human and have disturbed the peace. We do this. We blow it. Sometimes with intent, often unwittingly. When we are guilty of disturbing shalom, this is what the Bible refers to as sin. Sometimes we sin against others. When we do, we need to address it. We need to own our behavior, sincerely apologize as quickly as possible, ask forgiveness, and do our best to move forward with that relationship restored to its appropriate place. Note: this applies to most relationships we find ourselves in. In some really awful situations, seek counsel before entering this process, because engaging the person and seeking peace in the way described might actually be unhealthy and unsafe. Most of the time, however, we need to humble ourselves as seek restoration. This is the Jesus Way to go (see Matthew 5:21-26).
Sometimes, the greatest person we have disappointed is ourselves. Most of the time, the perfect ideal we hold ourselves to (which we can never meet) results in us being disappointed with ourselves. Sometimes, however, we do things we can’t believe ourselves capable of doing. We may be able to get our brain around all of the contributing factors that led to our behavior, but we still did what we did, and we struggle to get over it. We need to forgive ourselves. God is an immediate forgiver – granting grace before we ask for forgiveness (see John 8:1-11). If God forgives you, don’t you think it’s time you forgive yourself? Grace is what you need. Perhaps you need to read philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich’s words slowly and meditate on them for a while (Unafraid, 97):
You are accepted. You may feel awful about your behavior. Grace means it need not define you. It is part of your story – no call for living in denial here – but let it teach you and propel you forward rather than simply act as weight to sink you to the depths of despair. Build your identity on these words offered by the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 2:4-5): “God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things we did wrong. He did this because of the great love he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!” Saved literally means to be healed, to be made well and whole. By the way, this is a process that takes time and repetition.
Okay, so, what can we do to disturb shalom less? What can we learn from Jesus about disappointing others?
First, realize that Jesus seriously disappointed people. Yep. By the droves. If he was the anointed one so full of the Spirit of God and he disappointed others, just take a reality pill and realize that we will, too. It is unavoidable. But you can embrace the way of Jesus which will help you feel more okay about it.
Especially in our present context that is so heavily impacted by social media usage, we are able to offend faster than ever! Sometimes anonymously, which is even more dangerous than not. Yelp reviews, product reviews, Tweets and Facebook posts give us a platform to vomit our opinion effortlessly. As we consider how we are engaging others, however, we may need to seriously consider Hamilton’s question that he posits to seminary students learning to preach (Unafraid, 92): is our goal merely to irritate people, or is it to influence people? If we want the latter, there is some intentionality required. Hamilton offers some key texts that offer insight and advice as to how to proceed (Unafraid, 92):
Taken together, these scriptures provide some great, golden goals for how to live with the comfort of knowing we’ve been true to the Way of Jesus, which is also being true to our True Selves – who we are really created to be as individuals and in community. It’s our best hope. Adopting these behaviors and integrating them into practice might be challenging. If we’re on the sociopathic end of the spectrum, speaking truth with love will feel like a real burden: “I have to be nice?” (see Ephesians 4:14-16). If we are on the doormat end, this way may require serious courage: “I can say ‘no’ or disagree?”
Life is challenging. Not paying any attention to the Way of Jesus will result in challenges. Following the Way of Jesus will bring you face to face with challenges as well. One is tied to the source of Life itself, while the other – as it perpetuates isolation from others, our True Self, and God – will lead to greater despair. This challenging Way of Jesus is worth it, even if it does – and it does – require courage. Criticism will come, as it surely did for Jesus. As Hamilton notes, “Courage… is not the elimination of fear. Courage is doing what we know we should do in the face of rejection – choosing not to give up in the face of criticism. And grace is the truth that when others are disappointed, even when [we’ve] truly blown it, there is One whose love and acceptance remains steadfast (Unafraid, 98).”
Building on grace as our foundation – that we are inherently and unconditionally loved by God – we can live and grow as real human beings. This means we can let go of our need to be perfect, because we never will be. This does mean we strive toward Christ-likeness, where we find the greatest expression of life. It means we really, deeply own our dust-divine dance, our experience of being fully human yet infused by the Spirit of God. With this, we have the humble freedom to truly, increasingly live, sleeping well at night even as we don’t please everyone all the time, disappointing as that might be to some. That’s reality. We learn. We grow. We become. We live in grace and promote it. Real life.
FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real
Changing the position of one character can make all the difference. Hold onto that for later.
In this chapter, Adam Hamilton tackles the fear of failure. Some people are so afraid to fail that it limits their lives in ways they may not appreciate. He notes that “if you always choose the risk-free, completely safe, and convenient path in life, you find the failure you experience is the failure to truly live” (84). J.K. Rowling agrees with him: “It is impossible to live without failing something” (84). Hamilton cites Moses as an example of one who lived decades playing it safe, and when called upon to change, gave God a long list of reasons why he shouldn’t go – send my brother Aaron instead!
To help calm our fears of failing, Hamilton offered three words of advice that may provide some comfort as we face into this fear. First, he notes that most things are never as hard as you fear they will be. Even if we fail, the pain almost never ends of being as painful as we imagine is might be. The second word is from a leadership course he took: successful people are willing to do the things that unsuccessful people are unwilling to do. This undoubtedly means facing down fears and just doing what needs to be done. Finally, the third word encourages us to consider “discernment by nausea” – the decision that we likely should take is the one that may be causing us the most angst.
I can speak from experience that his words bring some wisdom to the table. When the recession hit in 2008 and our home’s property value tanked, we were a bit worked up about the future. What if we lose our house? What will we do? As we processed this out, however, we realized that we were being extremely creative in our exaggerated worst-case-scenario imagination. We catastrophized. We gained a lot of peace realizing that the worst thing that would potentially happen to us would be entirely survivable. Not pleasant, but not a horror film in the making, either. When I was in college (and again in seminary), I found myself at a crossroads where I needed to face my fears and do some work I really didn’t want to do. Doing the work, however, was the only thing that would alleviate my fear of being absolutely broke! Finally, some of the best decisions of my life were riddled with anxiety. Big decisions with big consequences bring up a lot of anxiety, even if we know it’s a good decision. I knew I was in love with my fiancé, and that we were a great match with a strong likelihood of success. The day before and the day of the wedding, I was nervous. Did that mean I was making the wrong decision? No! It means I was making a decision that would affect everyday for the rest of my life. There should be butterflies even if intellectually we are confident. The first car we bought, the first house we bought, the first (and second) baby we learned would be joining us, the moves we’ve made – all brought butterflies. I think there is this false idea that if it’s a really good decision we will be “at peace.” Sometimes. But our lives reflect the experiences of life seen in the Bible, where big invitations to follow God were met with vomit. For sure. Feeling at peace or comfortable is not necessarily the measure of a good or right decision.
Hamilton’s counsel is helpful, practical advice for managing inevitable fears that come with life. As I reflected on this chapter and its relevance to my life, I found a deeper current that needed to be addressed and expressed. Of all the chapters in the book, this is the one that messes with me most. I don’t want to fail on a number of different measures. As I think about how often I face the fear of failure along one facet or another, I can honestly say that this is a daily struggle. The failure I fear most bothers me a lot because it is not the most important thing I value. It is at best a distant fifth behind my relationships with God, my wife, my children, and my extended family and close friends. Way distant. This fifth concern is related to my work.
Cognitively, I can tell you that who I am is not what I do for a living. I can swear to you that I know that I do not control all the variables that result in whether or not I am successful. I have used a good amount of energy encouraging colleagues in pastoral ministry to recognize that the way success is defined in our culture cannot be the sole measure for how we define success in ministry. And yet I am plagued with it just the same. And so are most men in our country. Perhaps the underlying fear is being incompetent – a failure – which we might evaluate as inadequate work performance, weak financial position, a smaller home than someone else’s, a lesser car than someone else is driving. For me, I am constantly reminded from our culture that bigger is better in every respect, that growth is everything, regardless of how it happens. For churches, that means growing attendance and financial contributions. Every time I hear about a mega church – our cultural model of complete success – I am reminded that by such standards, I suck. In fact, I have managed to be so controversial at times that it has resulted in a reduction of attendance – I don’t just suck, I lead the pack in suckiness! Think of it: I have all the gifts, the look, the skillset to be the picture of all that mega church leadership requires, and yet I have found myself doing the opposite of the mega church playbook. Don’t let the doctorate fool you – maybe I’m actually really, really stupid! I’m the guy that when things are looking good, I do a teaching questioning the doctrine of hell, or declare equality for the LGBTQ community, which most Christians don’t agree with. Instead of growing the church, I have used my wonderful skills to do the opposite! By so many cultural measures, I am a failure. I am acutely aware of this reality, and it kills me. The unfortunate thing is that this expectation and connection between identity and career success is a culturally-derived phenomenon. And it is false. It is easy for men to feel like a failure when the culture itself has rigged the game so that feeling like a failure is inevitable.
Women have suffered similarly but along different lines the culture has created. In the United States, 70% of men, when they see themselves naked, feel pretty good about what they see. For women, the number drops to 40%. I think that’s high. How the culture has shaped how women are “supposed” to look has created untold levels of stress and shame without any recognition that the standard changes from generation to generation. According to Brene Brown, an additional and equally severe fear revolves around the issue of motherhood. There is cultural pressure on women to have kids that men do not share. There is shaming women face regarding fertility that men simply do not. Once a woman has a kid, a no-win double bind scenario unfolds. If the woman chooses to stay home to be more present with their children, they are looked down upon for not being better examples for girls of the world who are trying to be equals in the marketplace and science labs around the world – they are letting their gender down. If they choose to work after their kids are born, what kind of mother are they, then? Heartless? Why did you have kids in the first place? You’re a monster! It is easy for women to fear failure when the culture itself has rigged it so that feeling like a failure is inevitable.
Hamilton’s advice helps us manage along to some degree, but I think there is also a deeper issue that, once resolved and continually supported leads to an alleviation of fear at a core level, which leads to greater peace and less fear.
Scared or sacred? I caught a typo too late last week that my spellcheck could not catch. The question was supposed to read, “Are you scared?” Instead, it said, “are you sacred?” I think how we answer the latter question makes a massive difference on the former. When we identify ourselves by our God-createdness – as sacred, truly special, one-of-a-kind, magnificent, one-measure-does-not-fit-all orientation, things change. When God’s voice is bigger and more frequently listened to than the culture’s, we increasingly hear affirmation, not judgment. Instead of an ever-shifting foundation which insures failure worth fearing, we find our feet planted on rock, secure enough to build a life upon.
It is this identification with “sacred” that I believe led Paul to be able to say with such experience-born confidence: I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13, NLT). This decision to center our lives on who we are in Christ is embracing the sacred and defying the scared. It is challenging, however, as Jesus noted: Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14, NRSV). It’s hard simply because it is not common, not comfy. Listening to the voice of God requires great intentionality (at least initially) and focus, especially since there are so many voices shouting in our ear encouraging allegiance to the cultural paradigm.
Are you scared or sacred? When we choose to focus on our sacred identity, we also find an abiding hope that even our most difficult challenges can be transformed into something good, as Paul notes: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28, NRSV). As we seek to live fully, found in the Way Jesus lived and believed, we grow in faith that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, something beautiful worth pursuing. It is a choice to see differently, trust differently, living with an abiding faith that sees us through. May you discover this as you choose to build your life from a sacred identity.
FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real
Henny Penny Politics. The Chicken Little story about how fear has been told in various forms in cultures all over the world since people started telling stories! The basic (false) idea that we need to be very afraid of impending doom is one that our political system has capitalized on increasingly for especially the last 25-30 years. The strategic decision to focus on why we should be afraid of voting for the other candidate instead of proclaiming all the good reasons to consider the one paying for the ad is simple. As Rick Wilson, Republican political strategist and media consultant points out, “Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty” (Unafraid, 75). When deciding how to get the most bang you’re your campaign bucks, fear is the most cost-effective – and the most effective, period – approach.
A very odd thing happens when we are directed toward fear. I would have thought that when faced with a startling statement that sounds “off” in some way yet triggers our fears, we would be inclined to dig into the issue to discover what is really happening beneath the surface. Not the case. “When people are anxious, they tend to seek out information from sources that actually reinforce their anxiety. We can see footage from the latest terrorist act over and over and over again on twenty-four-hour news. We don’t tend to look for the sources that say ‘they chances of this happening in your community are one in 3.6 billion’” (Adam Hamilton referencing Dr. Shana Gadarian, Anxious Politics: Democaratic Citizenship in a Threatening World). Note to self: realize that this is, apparently, our built-in system. When triggered, we will need to force ourselves into another mode that takes us toward greater understanding.
Additionally, knowing that we are inclined to pay most attention to sources that affirm our beliefs, we need to become fully aware of the biases our sources themselves hold. Take a moment to look at this chart which seeks to identify where various news sources come down in terms of their leanings:
What is your reaction to the chart? Hogwash? Insightful? A mixture of both? At minimum, I hope it reminds you that wherever your favorite source is, there are other voices speaking into issues. Hearing multiple perspectives leads to greater understanding. I hope you will adopt Adam Hamitlon’s goal of listening to a wide range of voices so that you do not find yourself in an echo chamber ringing out your own opinion with no regard or knoweldge of those held by others.
I have mentioned many times before that we live in a time when our rhetoric leads us toward binary thinking where everything is either/or, black/white, true/false, liberal/conservative regardless of the complexity of the issue being addressed. In the church world, I am generally referred to as “liberal” because of my stance on issues related to equality regardless of gender, race, legal status, and sexual orientation. I’m used to it. It came as a great surprise when my wife and I were with good friends who are not part of the church world at all and they referred to us as conservative (even though they know and appreciate our stance on social issues). What?! Nobody’s ever called me that! This served as a reminder to me that where we place ourselves on whatever spectrum is heavily impacted by the context in which we are viewed. Adam Hamilton offers a helpful insight regarding how limiting binary thinking is related to the use of the liberal/conservative label: “To be liberal means, in the best sense, to be open to new ideas, open to reform, respectful of individual rights, and generous. To be conservative, in the best sense, means to hold to traditional values and ideas, exercising appropriate caution when faced with change. If we are liberal without any conserving impulse, we become unmoored, jettisoning important truths and values simply because they are old. (I’m reminded of something a professor once said to me: ‘All that is old may not be gold, but all that is new may not be true.’) If we are conservative without a liberal impulse, we become intransigent, unwilling to reform or embrace change” (Adam Hamilton, Unafraid, 76).
We need to be constantly aware that we are hardwired to differentiate ourselves from others – it’s baked into our cake. What we do with it is our responsibility. Our faith tradition offers many stories of what some people did with this reality – some blew it while others moved salvation/peace/health-for-all forward. There are also many passages of scripture from both the Christian and Jewish tradition from whence it came that offer counsel regarding how we speak to others. Let’s take a look…
In the second chapter of Acts we find the story of a particular Feast of Pentecost that went beyond what Jesus’ followers could have anticipated. This was the most-attended Jewish Feast in Jerusalem at that time in history, when throngs of the Jewish faithful would converge on their beloved city to recount the giving of the Law which informed their faith and ethic. God had more to give, apparently, as the Holy Spirit came onto the scene and into many people with grand sci-fi fanfare. This was unprecedented and entirely unexpected. The popular belief was that the Holy Spirit was reserved for a very select few, not broadcast to many. Jews and converts to Judaism were there from all over the known world, and the Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in other languages (or at least heard in other languages). This dawning of a new age of understanding was predicted by Jesus. When it happened, it further validated Jesus and his message, which empowered the disciples to move forward with tremendous, surprising courage. Peter preached mightily to the gathered audience and thousands came to believe in Jesus and his message. A new day dawned, indeed! At the end of the chapter, we get a picture of a healthy community of faith:
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
43-45 Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
46-47 They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
The way the disciples handled strange new unfamiliar things did not lead toward divisiveness – even though some were provoking it. Instead, the end result at this point of their journey was inclusivity in seemingly every way, and respect by the surrounding community. We need more of that.
Reflecting on this chapter of early church history and others, I can confidently say that most of the big breakthroughs that happened in the development of the early church did not come as a result of proactive, thoughtful decision-making (to include Samaritans and all other races and eventually let go of nearly all Jewish legalism in favor of the Way of Jesus which served to embody them all). Nope. These issues were thrust upon them. Once they realized that had to deal with these issues, the early church leaders passionately deliberated and fervently prayed even as they vehemently disagreed with each other. This has been the pattern ever since the end of the first century where the biblical text ends. God continues to breathe into us, stretching us, inviting us to passionately deliberate and fervently pray through issues around which we vehemently disagree. The invitation is not to bury our heads in the sand and hope all the issues go away. The invitation is to be part of what God is doing to bring healing and hope to the world. To pull this off requires a different approach to issues than the prevailing cultural system around us (especially regarding politics). We are invited into a higher standard which impacts how we choose to behave even as we may be struggling with fear and anxiety about a number of issues. Civility is unfortunately rare in public discourse. We are invited to bring it back. As Brene Brown notes in her book, Braving the Wilderness:
What Brown is encouraging is uncomfortable. We may be much more comfy sitting on the sidelines and just let bullies rant until they run out of steam. We will silently pray for them – what’s the harm in that? As Elie Weisel, survivor of a Nazi prison camp notes, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Especially for those of us who are privileged (even if we don’t believe it), we are invited and compelled and commanded to act for those who do not enjoy our privilege. I am a highly educated, tall, blue-eyed, white man of Dutch/German descent. In our culture, I am nearly at the top of the food chain. The only things that would put me even higher would be lots more money and more Twitter followers… Coming to grips with what God is trying to do in the world – which is what Jesus did do in the world – begs the question: what am I invited to do as a Jesus follower? How can I speak into this world with love and grace all with the hopes of bringing healing and hope for all?
I end this teaching with Adam Hamilton, again, who ended his chapter with the following:
“We must speak up, stand up, and work for what is right and just. But when we’ve done all we can in pursuit of what is right, we have to release our concerns to God. I don’t believe God dictates the outcome of elections, or is pushing buttons and pulling strings in our national politics. God allows individuals and nations to do foolish and sometimes evil things that are the opposite of his will. But God has a way of working through the evil around us and those who participate in it or advocate for it. God specializes in forcing good from evil, of bending the foolishness of humans to accomplish a higher purpose. Trusting this helps me to feel hopeful about the future of our nation” (Unafraid, 80).
Check out these helpful resources…
Bible verses that speak into how we speak…
What the Bible says about communicating with each other. Here a just a few:
Romans 12:18-21 The Message (MSG)
17-19 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
20-21 Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
Proverbs 31:8-9 The Message (MSG)
8-9 “Speak up for the people who have no voice,
for the rights of all the down-and-outers.
Speak out for justice!
Stand up for the poor and destitute!”
Philippians 4:5 The Message (MSG)
4-5 Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.
Ephesians 4:29 The Message (MSG)
29 Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.
Colossians 3:8-11 The Message (MSG)
But you know better now, so make sure it’s all gone for good: bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk.
9-11 Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.
In general, we stink at listening. Just admit it. All too often we are formulating what we are going to say while they are talking, which means we miss much of what they are saying. Active listening is really, really needed for healthy relationships, and desperately needed in our culture that seems to settle for binary, simplistic responses to complex issues. If we could learn to really understand another’s perspective and even choose to go in with the hope to learn something, we might enjoy actual dialogue instead of a Tweet-off. Ask someone you know who might think differently than you and ask some of these questions. Choose to listen so carefully that you could accurately express their opinion back to them if asked. Listening with respectful engagement is perhaps our first and biggest step toward progress on this front.
• "What do you think of the building the wall and why?"
• "What do you think about immigration and why?"
• "What do you think about Russian involvement in our election and why?"
• "What do you think about our justice system and why?"
• "What is you opinion on on racism in the USA and why?"
• "What do you think about gun control and why?"
• "What do you think about the women’s march after the election? Why?"
• "What do you think about the young people marching on Washington?"
Process the following questions on your own, paying attention to how you feel when others have opinions that differ from yours.
• Are you able to stay in a loving space?
• Are you able to be open to possible influence?
• Are you sacred?
• Do you want to argue? Leave? Judge the other as stupid or naive or…?
Becoming aware of your feelings in these situations helps us come to grips with underlying bias and fear that we hold which may get in the way.