Do you ever get nervous about what is to come? Do you ever find yourself fearful of the next moment? Do you watch the news at all? It’s crazy to think that our culture has become dependent on fear and worry. It’s almost as if we as people of faith have to struggle more than ever not to give into “the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world”. The crazy thing is that this isn’t a new struggle. We as humans have been quick to cling to fear or dread or worry…even in the good times. I’m reminded of the story in scripture recorded in the book of Nehemiah. The people of Israel had come home from exile, had begun to rebuild, and had even rediscovered the law. They gathered as one to hear the law read and explained to them and their response is recorded here, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” – Nehemiah 8:9 What should have been this beautiful moment of reclaimed identity became a moment of weeping. Why? Because we’re not very good at joy.
In her book Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown addresses this a bit when she speaks to fear, dread and joy. “We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen–and they do happen–we are stronger.”* The people of Israel wept in the face of the law because they worried once again that the other shoe was about to fall. They had experienced loss and exile and in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy, they wept…they were still fearful. As Brown puts it, joy is scary because it’s vulnerable. It opens us up to the possibility that we could be hurt or let down. But if we never fully experience joy we actually become more hollow, more shallow, more fearful and even weaker in the face of tragedy.
The great thing about that passage in Nehemiah is that it doesn’t stop at verse nine. “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’.” – Nehemiah 8:10 Did you see that? The joy of the Lord is our strength. Being able to be grateful and joyous in the good things that God gives us actually becomes that which makes us stronger. I often hear Christians quote or paraphrase German philosopher Nietzsche when it comes to tragedy and pain; “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” (Sometimes they just sing Kelly Clarkson) But this isn’t entirely true. Our go-to after facing tragedy and hurt and pain, can be worry or dread over whatever is coming next…and this is not strength. True strength can be found in the gratitude and joy for those surreal life moments when we experience God in a new way and truly come to realize that the joy of God becomes our strength.
* Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.
Last night I arrived to our Wednesday night Discipleship class and we were taking prayer requests before we began. Someone then mentioned UCLA and I was completely clueless for a moment. Then someone mentioned a murder/suicide shooting that had taken place and I was frustrated once again by violence happening in a place that is supposed to be safe…a place of higher learning. And this isn’t the first time something like this has happened in the national spotlight in the past year. Umpqua, San Bernardino, and Chattanooga have become familiar names in the news headlines because of similar incidents.
Truthfully it’s no surprise that I didn’t know about the shooting last night as most of the time I try to refrain from being too involved in the news. I usually will read one news email a day and then tune out a lot of the other stuff that is going on. But when I do tune in, I am always shocked and saddened by the amount of violence going on in the world. Bombs, shootings, drones, murders, etc. flood the headlines of any news outlet. I like to think and hope that we can do better. As stewards of God’s creation (which includes each other) I know we are called to do better. I find myself resonating with the prophetic hope that is so strong it is found in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” I love the imagination behind this hope. The weapons that are used for attacking/defending what is mine or what I want to be mine are turned into tools of provision for my neighbor.
I recently saw a post online that referenced a conversation that took place on the show Louis between Louis C.K.’s character and his daughter. I’m not sure this is a show one would usually reference for wisdom, but this quote on fairness was powerful. “The only time you should look into your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look into your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have…as much as them.” Mahatma Gandhi said something similar many years before. “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” I believe the problem with much of the violence in our world today goes back to the original violence done right outside the Garden of Eden. We have forgotten that we are our brother’s (sister’s) keeper. We are called to ensure the well-being of all of creation as we are stewards of creation. I’m not sure that this is the answer to all of the violence in the world, but maybe if we start to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks we just might start to see some of this violence redeemed.
The dynamic of the Arp family is usually best described as unpredictable. And for the most part we are cool with that…until we realized we really aren’t. Not so much me, or even my wife or daughter, but rather our son. It kind of took us as surprise as our lives have always been marked by spontaneity. But our son Jonas has always had issues with fits and meltdowns and for a season he seemed to be getting over them. But then we had a family tragedy take place and the wheels came off again. And try as we may we really couldn’t understand how to help him until a family friend (who happens to also be a therapist) suggested that perhaps Jonas has Sensory Processing Disorder. Just to give you the shorthand version, whenever Jonas encounters something that might make you or I anxious it sparks in him the Flight or Fight response. And so the unknown, the unpredictable, etc. all of a sudden became an issue for the Arp family.
I tell you this because it has become a unique thing for us (especially in the midst of a pastoral transition at our church). How do we as parents create an environment for our son that relieves him of anxiety and the unknown? This truly has become a daunting question. In the midst of all that is going on anxiety even weighs heavy on me. But in the book of Philippians the writer Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) in every situation? With thanksgiving? How are we supposed to offer up thanks in the midst of the unknown? But I think there might be something to that. The unknown provides the opportunity for faith, for trust. And as we offer thanks and prayer on the midst of that faith moment we are told that peace which transcends human comprehension guards us. This is a reason to offer thanks.
So I come back to my son. I am trying to teach him what it means to trust us in the midst of the unknown. And as I do so I catch a glimpse of what our Heavenly Father longs for for us in the midst of of walking in faith into the unknown.
I recently was asked to attend a party which I was regrettably unable to attend. But this wasn’t your usual run of the mill party either. A student who had been a part of my ministry when I worked with Middle School students was turning thirteen and his dad had planned something special. He had invited pastors, teachers, coaches, small group leaders, male family members and others who he knew had an influence on his son’s life. It was designed as a rite of passage for his son in order to validate him stepping into manhood. And although I wasn’t able to attend I was able to share a bit through the wonders of technology and made a video for this student. The verse I chose to share with him came from 2 Timothy 1:7, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” I look back on that verse and wonder why it stuck out to me to be the one verse out of the vast patchwork of scripture that I would choose to share with a “boy” stepping into “manhood”. Why would timidity or fear be something that I felt the need so strongly to warn against?
Maybe it is because of what I see…
I see men in our day and age who are scared. I don’t think that they are necessarily scared of enemies or boogey men or anything else you want to conjure up out of the darkness. I think they are scared of letting God call them into something greater. It’s almost as if we feel like we are assigned certain roles in life and we are called to fulfill those and to step out of those roles would end in tragedy. And so we become paralyzed…shells of who would should be. It’s almost as if we are scared to be all that God has called us to; one might even say scared to death. But look at what the verse says. We are given a Spirit of power, love and self-discipline. These are, or at least should be, very masculine traits. I think where we error is that we feel like they have to come from within ourselves when clearly these are from the Spirit God gives us. It is this very same Spirit that raised Christ to life and can even bring us back from the dead.
So why are we scared? Or should I say, what are we scared of? If death cannot harm us and the grave cannot hold us back then why aren’t we setting the world on fire for Christ through Power, Love and Self-Discipline? Why aren’t the men of the kingdom of God becoming the shining example of what it means to live life to the fullest? I believe a new day is dawning. A day when the men of the church truly embrace the Spirit God has given them in order to become men of Power (in a way that sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, and pleads the case of the oppressed), Love (in a way that seeks truth and honors others above itself) and self-discipline (a trait given from God to be able to stand above reproach). And if this becomes our defining marks…then what do we have to fear…
About a month or so ago I came home from some church related activity one evening to find my wife had started a movie on Netflix; this is not an altogether uncommon activity in our house. However, her choice had me cringing a bit. She, not knowing who Bill Maher was at the time, had chosen to watch the movie Religulous. For those of you unfamiliar with Bill Maher or this work, it is basically ninety minutes of Mr. Maher attempting to make fun of the world’s three largest religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. However, he does so by picking out the crazy fundamentalists in each of the three. In the South we call this “shootin’ fish in a barrel”. Of course you can make fun of all the crazies that belong to a certain group…it’s easy. It actually makes Maher look a little less effective because he goes toe to toe with people my seven year old could out-wit. And we all know that these people are rarely the norm and have never represented the majority even if Bill Maher doesn’t.
I guess the real problem is the fact that the people who scream the loudest and sound the most ignorant get the most attention. I mean let’s face it, everyone loves to watch a train wreck. I guess the hard part for me is that in the Church we allow these people to become the dominant voices. I think about Westboro Baptist Church or the “pastor” from North Carolina* who recently proposed concentration camps for the Gay and Lesbian community and my stomach turns. Do these people not read the same Bible I do? Think about this passage from 1 Peter 4:8-11, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.” Love deeply…I don’t think either of these representations of our crazies could be accused of love. And what about that last phrase? Speak as if your words are “the very words of God”? Shouldn’t there be great care and thought put into every word we say as the church if our words are construed as the very words of God?
So here is my heartfelt plea; PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE MIC! (I may have been type shouting). You are making yourself look like fools. You are making the Church look ignorant and hateful. And most importantly…you are misrepresenting Christ! When members of a certain group go out and speak with hatred and ignorance that entire group becomes characterized by those extremes. So I beg of you…please step away from the mic. It would do us all a great deal of good and who knows…maybe Bill Maher will go broke because he won’t have anything to talk about.
* If you haven’t seen this, here is the link. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2839yEazcs It may be the saddest thing you watch today.
A few days ago I was excited about my morning cup of coffee because I knew my wife had bought me some new French Vanilla creamer. A simple thing to get excited about, but all the same. However, before I could enjoy this healthy additive I had to wrestle with the safety seal. Ah the safety seal…that lovely layer of plastic-like foam that keeps the terrorists out of my non-dairy creamer. This of course got me thinking, which is dangerous, about life before safety seals. There was life before 9th graders had to ride in child protective seats. And there was life before you had to provide 5 forms of ID and 3 DNA samples in order to board an aircraft. I know I am perhaps exaggerating a little bit, but look at the society that we live in today. We are scared of our own shadows.
Romans 8:15 says, ‘For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons…”. So why do we leave in fear? You may say to yourself, “But I don’t live in fear”. Think about it. We engineer our own safety out of a sense of paranoia which has no founding in the gospel. We attempt to control our own fate through safety devices and security systems and health-care plans and have forgot what it means to trust God for provision and protection. Don’t misread me. None of these things are inherently wrong. The problem is when our sense of fear drives us to put our faith in these things, rather than in Abba Father. And what is scary is that when these things fail we immediately cry out to God without having any foundation of a relationship with which to trust Him. Maybe we need a simpler faith in a God who is greater than any scheme we can devise for our own protection and well-being. Sometimes I think it would be easier just to go back to the time before safety seals. At least I would get to my non-dairy additive a little faster.