Faithless Fears

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I’ve watched friends go down dark corridors of fear and suspicion. You likely know people like this as well. I don’t need to talk about the issues and have no interest in the arguments. I’ve seen them all. And weighed them, as likely you have. I wonder, though, why some go down these dark corridors.

I’ve been thinking about the fear and suspicion that seems to run through many narratives. Now, I don’t absolutely dismiss fear and suspicion. Every time I open email or hear the phone ring, I exercise a certain amount of suspicion. When someone asks me to “verify” my account I am suspicious. When someone calls demanding payment for a tax bill via a gift card, I’m suspicious. While I am not afraid to die, I have a healthy respect for COVID, having known friends who died or got very sick from the virus. Insofar as I can avoid it, I don’t want to find out which side of the probabilities I would end up on.

Andy Crouch, in a book called Culture-Making makes a distinction between gestures and postures. Gestures are situationally determined. Postures are hardened, fixed ways of carrying ourselves. In a fallen world, suspicion and fear are warranted gestures in particular situations. Being suspicious of a telemarketer makes sense. Being suspicious of friends and associates, people of a certain descent or political affiliation, just because of that origin or affiliation suggests a gesture becoming a posture.

Some signs of a fearful or suspicious outlook becoming a posture:

  • You spend significant amounts of your time online surfing websites providing information confirming your suspicions. Then you re-post them to your “friends.”
  • You have limited your news sources in the same way, dismissing any differing accounts, no matter the reputability of the news organization as “fake.”
  • Your conversations have increasingly focused on the things about which you are suspicious.
  • You notice that many of your friends, apart from those sharing the same suspicions, are avoiding you or try to get out of conversations with you as soon as they can.

Some of us by disposition or life experience may be more prone to hardening into postures of fear and suspicion. Perhaps the best thing we might do is suspect ourselves more and others less in these cases. And get help!

The truth is we were not made for this. We were made for love and trust, and fear and suspicion are a distortion, a twisting of the good intent of God. In the Genesis account God places the man and woman in a garden that provides for their every need. Amid all this abundance, God has forbidden eating from a single tree. Why would God do this? Most theologians think that this one prohibition made loving and trusting God a choice, and thus meaningful. If there were no other choice but to love and trust God, what would these words mean?

It is this trust that the serpent attacked (by the way, never trust a talking serpent!). The serpent asks, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” What’s going on here? In addition to distorting the truth (it was one tree, not any tree) the serpent’s question is designed to cast doubt on God, to undermine trust, and ultimately their relation of love. It insinuates the suspicion that God is not really good, and not to be trusted. Then the serpent says, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This deepens the suspicion. God is holding them back. Even though they already are in the image of God, the serpent suggests God doesn’t want them to be like him.

What it comes down to is that God made us to love and trust and enjoy God forever–and each other. When the couple give in to their suspicions, it goes wrong all around. Suspicion is not of God. We were made to live in a posture of love and trust. The apostle Paul extends this to our relationships with each other: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). This does not mean in a fallen world that we close our eyes to evil. But our default is a focus on truth rather than one on evil. John the apostle speaks about how “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). For lovers of God and followers of Christ, our default posture is one of love and trust, not fear and suspicion.

This does not mean people will not betray our trust. Even Jesus was betrayed. But his last act with Judas was to offer him food, a mark of honor and affection. Far more often, I find that when we believe the best of others, many try to live up to that belief. Flowing from this, those whose narrative is one of fear and suspicion send up red flags for me, no matter what they are purporting. I’m not going to live that way. That’s not what we’re made for.

The title for this post comes from a phrase in a prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019):

FOR TRUSTFULNESS IN TIMES OF WORRY AND ANXIETY

Most loving Father, you will us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on the One who cares for us. Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested unto us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is where I want to live, as long as I live, in the place of “trustfulness,” “in the light of that love which is immortal.”


Review: Befriending Your Monsters

Befriending Your Monsters, Luke Norsworthy. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.

Summary: Discusses the fears (monsters) we often run from or that shape our lives, advocating befriending them by facing our fears, allowing us to move into healthier lives.

The real monsters in our lives are not the ones we watched in monster flicks on TV or at movies or read about in horror fiction. In one sense, fictional monsters represent the projection of our fears. The author of this book, Luke Norsworthy maintains this is so in real life as well. We have all sorts of fears: of failure, about the future, concerning money, about health, about our children, about what our lives have meant. And just like in childhood, there are only two ways to deal with monsters–whether they are under the bed, or in the thoughts that wake us in the night– we hide or we confront.

Norsworthy notes that word monster comes from the Latin monere meaning “to warn.” Monsters may be friends, warning us, in order to save us. Unheeded, they may also destroy us, as any addict will tell you. Sin pulls us away from the life of God, exploiting the cracks in our lives, causing us to curve in upon ourselves rather than thriving as we reach up to God. Sometimes, it is only in the darkness that we realize how lost we are and can finally reach out for the help we need.

Norsworthy, in the second part of his book focuses on three universal monsters: comparison, more and success. He looks at four questions concerning how the monsters operate and how we become free:

  1. What’s the prop? The prop is the presenting monster that gets our attention
  2. What’s the pull? How does the monster exercise influence over our lives?
  3. What’s the point? The point has to do with the issues of the heart for which the monster is a warning.
  4. How does the light get in? How do we turn from hiding to facing the monster and loosing its hold on us?

For example, with comparison:

  • The prop is the unsettling awareness that in some respect, another is more or better than me.
  • The pull is an identity crisis, in which the focus on others causes us to forget who and whose we are.
  • The point is that this draws us away from a stable scale or place of resting in God’s love and approval of our lives for the shifting and fickle measures of approval or measuring up with others.
  • The light for comparison, is to keep our focus in our lane, not on those in other lanes, on Christ’s bidding to follow him, not to be like someone else but to be more like ourselves.

After considering these four questions for each of these monsters, he concludes with discussing how to befriend our monsters–how to heed the warnings of the monsters without being driven in fear of them. Using the example of David preparing to meet Goliath, he invites us to learn to shed the armor of our false self for the true self that is neither better nor worse than who we are, just who we are. To recognize our monsters, we have to move beyond our shallow emotions to what they point toward. We move beyond our anger to what has been disturbed arousing our anger–our inadequacies, our fears of impotence. And we learn not to expect our monsters to be immediately vanquished but by facing them daily as disciples allowing them to transform us.

Norsworthy’s writing style is not what one would learn in composition classes. He uses a number of one sentence paragraphs, somewhat like Hebrew parallelism that reinforces or contrasts ideas. It ends up being oddly readable, where one moves through the text, clearly grasping his key ideas. Rather than seeming disconnected, it his highly coherent. Furthermore, Norsworthy presents in insightful and imaginative ways the ideas of facing rather than running from our fears, recognizing our false self, and embracing who we are in Christ.

Running from our fears always cuts us off from life in its fullness and gives fears far greater control over us than if we faced them. Norsworthy helps us name these monsters, these fears, and wisely helps us to see that the aim is not to banish them but to turn them into friends. Only then may we learn to live wisely and well.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Going Deeper: Peace Be With You

“Shalom”, the Hebrew word for “peace”

Our pastor (Rich) made the statement this past Sunday, “that when we show up what we need to do before anything else is bring peace.” He rooted this statement in the observation that three times in Jesus’s resurrection appearances in John 20, he says, “peace be with you.” In two instances it is the first thing Jesus says (John 20: 19, 26).

Rich went on to talk about the fact that Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they had nothing to fear from him. I suspect they weren’t too sure of that. Someone coming back from the dead can be a bit scary. Then there’s the matter of how they acted during his arrest and crucifixion. They were not exactly the poster children for loyalty or courage.

Instead, Jesus said “peace”, or “shalom”, the way Jews greeted each other and expressed their wish for wholeness and health on the life and home of the one they were addressing. It’s what Jesus taught his disciples to say when they came to a town bringing the good news and needed a place to stay. Rich proposed that “we could do worse than simply, everywhere we ever go, say and do whatever lines up with ‘Peace be with you.’ Our reputation in the world would change.”

It is troubling to me that people are fearful of their encounters with church people. But the truth is they are often expecting a judgment, a criticism, or an argument.  It strikes me that it could be a radical thing if instead, what they found in us were people who genuinely wanted them to find peace, wholeness, and health–all the things wrapped up in shalom.

It would be interesting to experiment with that for a week. I can think of some interesting ways to go about that:

  • What about closing our emails with “peace” or “peace be with you” (or “PBWY” on our texts!)?
  • What about writing “peace be with you” on our check at a restaurant along with a generous tip?
  • What about greeting each other at the beginning of our days with these words spoken gently, perhaps bearing a cup of coffee?
  • What about offering to pray for or even with (if they are comfortable) a friend who is stressed that they might experience God’s peace?

You get the idea. I would love to hear other ideas you come up with to say and do “peace be with you”.

Rich also made the point that for us to be that in the world, we need to start by practicing this with each other:

But I think in some ways it has to be our self-talk, too. When we come together, for whatever reason, our first stance, our first words, our basic orientation toward each other needs to be “Peace be with you.” Don’t be afraid, don’t be worried. Be at peace. Be at rest. Be yourself, and let me be myself, and let’s not be anxious about anything, for God is with us.

Churches aren’t always peaceful places. People coming from harried, busy lives may encounter messages that basically say, “you need to do more, give more, pray more” when maybe the first invitation we might give each other is to rest, to enjoy peace, to revel in silence, or the beauty of a song of praise. What a beautiful thing it can be for someone to ask, “where do you need the peace of God in your life right now?” What if board meetings began this way with prayer for one another to know the shalom of Jesus? And might it be the case that when people are at peace, then they can hear the empowering word of Jesus that infuses doing with joy!

On a personal note, I want to extend a “peace be with you” to our pastor as he begins a three month sabbatical. Rich, you labored hard these past seven years bringing peace and a new sense of hope to a troubled church through your week in, week out teaching and presence among us. Often it has meant bearing the burdens of others. May you know the peace of the Lord in rest, in quietness, in the simple richness of shared life with your family, in times of reflection, in all the warp and woof of your lives these next months. May the peace of the Lord be with you!

The Month in Reviews — December 2014

One last look back to 2014! I finished and reviewed a number of books in December, heavy on the religious side because the books tended to be shorter than the third volume of Teddy Roosevelt’s biography or the Jeff Shaara account of the fall of Vicksburg which took longer to read. This month’s books included both a theology of racial conflict and reconciliation from an Asian American perspective and a novel set in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. I reviewed a new book on the life of C.S. Lewis looking at it from the light of life crises Christians might face. In the thought-provoking category was a new apologetic approach by Universe Next Door author James Sire, and Ken Bailey’s take on the nativity story in the form of a play. Maybe one of my “last reads” from 2014 will make your “to be read” pile in 2015. So here’s the list with links to my reviews:

1. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, by Scott Bader-Saye. This is a thoughtful book on the ways fear can hinder us, how various entities exploit our fear, and how we might live with courage and faith in a fear-filled culture.

Culture of FearCrisis of a ChristianChain of ThunderEastern Orthodox2. C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, by Gregory S. Cootsona. This book takes the unusual approach of considering what we might learn from the life of Lewis as we confront life crises related to coming to faith, confronting challenges to faith, and facing the ultimate crises of suffering and death.

3. A Chain of Thunder, by Jeff Shaara. The fall of Vicksburg is the subject of this historical fiction account of this turning point of the Civil War. Shaara helps us understand what seige warfare was like for both armies and for the civilians of Vicksburg.

4. Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, by Andrew Louth. This book gives us an outline of Eastern Orthodox theology as it shapes the practice of Eastern Orthodox worship and life.

5. The Cross of Christ, by John R. W. Stott. John Stott considered this his most significant work and it is indeed a model of rich theological reflection that explores the nature and significance of Christ’s atoning work.

Open HeartsGospel MarketplaceCross of Christ

6. The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas, by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak. The authors explore the relevance of Paul’s Mars Hill message in Athens to communicating the Christian message with faithfulness and relevance in our own day.

7. Open Hearts in Bethlehem, by Kenneth E. Bailey. This play will revise your ideas of what happened in Bethlehem and our “no room in the inn” narrative.

8. The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul, by Therese de Lisieux. The “story” here is one of Therese’s intense love for Christ from childhood to pleading with bishop and pope to enter the cloister to her death at 24.

Saint ThereseApologetics beyond SeeingColonel Roosevelt9. Apologetics Beyond Reason, by James W. Sire. This book maps a different apologetic approach from most rational apologetics, arguing for “signals of transcendence” throughout creation and in literature that point us to God, if we will see this.

10. Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. The third and final installment of Morris’s biography covering the last decade of Roosevelt’s life, how difficult it was for him not to be president, and his harrowing journey down the River of Doubt.

11. Freshwater Road, by Denise Nicholas. Set in small town Mississippi in Freedom Summer, this novel narrates the journey of a young black woman from Detroit and the choices she must make to face both her own family story and the vicious, entrenched racism of the South in the 1960s as she runs a Freedom School and seeks to prepare local residents to register to vote.

Peace CatalystsRacial ConflictFreshwater Road

12. Racial Conflict and Healing: An Asian-American Theological Perspective, by Andrew Sung Park. The author explores the reality of painful experiences of racism using the Korean concept of han and develops a theology of seeing rooted in the Korean concepts of hahn, jung, and mut that envisions a new reconciled community.

13. Peace Catalysts, by Rick Love. The author, who leads an organization committed to “just peacemaking” between Muslims and Christians maps the biblical principles and practices that an individual, organization or community can take to pursue peace.

The Christmas holidays afforded some extra time to curl up with a good book, a warm drink, and some good music. I hope you have opportunities like that in the winter months ahead. If you read one of these let me know what you think. And if you find something else good, I’d love to hear about it!

Review: Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear: Christian Practice of Everyday Life

Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear: Christian Practice of Everyday Life
Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear: Christian Practice of Everyday Life by Scott Bader-Saye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Be afraid, be very afraid.”

Scott Bader-Saye would observe that this is perhaps a warning we may take too seriously, and this absorption with fear has profound consequences for the ways we live our lives, and for those who are Christ-followers, for how we pursue, or rather fail to pursue the life of the kingdom.

The book begins by looking at how fear sells, particularly in the media. Much of the draw that new media uses to attract continued viewership is to play on our fears–of getting cancer, of child abductions, of gun violence, of terrorism and more. He notes research that indicates that the more we absorb of this media, the more dangerous we perceive the world and the more anxious we are. The church plays on this as well–fear is good as a rallying place (and also to raise money!).

All this has a profound impact on our moral lives. Fear leads to insecurity and all the things we do when safety becomes our ultimate concern. We engage in unwarranted suspicion of others, we personally, and sometimes nationally act pre-emptively against perceived danger, and we accumulate everything from money to bottled water against perceived dangers.

The author is not urging “fearlessness” however. Appropriate fear is good, particularly an appropriate fear of God that recognizes the greatness of his holy love. The issue, rather, is one of putting fear in its place by maintaining a proper perspective on the imminence of the things we are encouraged to fear, as well as being grounded in the security of God’s providence. While God doesn’t protect against all evil, He is able to work through it in our lives and circumstances as we continue to trust in Him, as the example of the cross demonstrates.

One of his most beautiful chapters is the one on “Community and Courage” in which he chronicles the response of the Taize Community to the tragic murder of Brother Roger, one of the community’s founders during a worship celebration. Their decision to continue to be a community of welcome meant no additional security measures, no metal detectors. This would mean to live in fear and suspicion rather than generous hospitality as a community.

The book concludes with three chapters that unpack what it means to live out of security in the providence of God rather than fear. This means hospitality that welcomes the stranger. It means peacemaking that risks misunderstanding and being caught in the midst of deadly conflict to bring reconciliation. It means generosity that trusts God’s provision and gives rather than hoards.

There is also an appendix which has a profound exploration of the use of fear in the political arena, particularly because of the breakdown of any positive metanarrative to unite us. It helped me understand much of what drives the political narrative in my country and to see how contrary these appeals are to the narrative of Christian faith, no matter which party they come from. It suggests to me how vital the role of the Christian community is, not in adding political heft to the arguments on one side or another, but providing a “third way” that transcends the politics of fear that polarize us.

This is an older (2007) book that I hope enjoys continued circulation. Each chapter has searching questions that make it useful for church leadership boards and small groups. I’ll leave you with one of these that challenged me:

Try this test. First think about how much you fear losing your house, your car, your savings account, or your job. Then, think about how much you fear being unloving, inhospitable, selfish, or impatient. Which do you fear more? Why?

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Be Not Afraid — Seriously?

Our pastor explored something in his sermon on Sunday that I think many of us struggle with and that is the clash between statements like “be anxious for nothing” or “be not afraid” and the worries, anxieties, and fear that dog our steps and often feel hard to shake off. Sometimes the words “be not afraid” sound a bit to us like “don’t think of pink elephants”. Once there, it is just not easy either to shake those visions of pink elephants dancing in our heads or those worries nipping at our heels.

One of the most striking things about most of the “be not afraids” of scripture is that they are spoken by God, or those speaking for God. And this gives me a clue to this thing of dealing with fear that has been of great help to me. “Be not afraid” is not an order to “think positively” or to “make a positive confession” but rather they are God’s invitation to a relationship of trust. God’s invitation is not to try to suppress our worries by our own efforts but to trust them to his care.

I think I first understood this deeply when I was worrying about money a number of years ago. Things were often tight when I was growing up and there was at least once instance where dad was between jobs. I actually think my parents handled this pretty well, but the fear of not having enough carried into my adulthood. Strange then that my chosen profession involved depending on donations of others to pay the salary for the work I do. We were going through a patch where those donations were down and I was facing possible salary reductions, and perhaps worse, not being able to meet our obligations. At least that was what I was afraid of

My strategy for dealing with fear was a combination of worrisome talk that had to be tiring for my wife (who was far more hopeful about things) and “doubling down”, particular in efforts to raise the requisite funds. I even asked God to help me as I met donors and to supply my needs. I did everything except to go to my heavenly Father and say, “Daddy, I’m really scared of not being able to provide for my family and to meet my debts.” I continued coping with these pressures like this until I was doing a Bible study written by Dave Ivaska, a colleague, titled Be Not Afraid. There was a question at one point that asked very simply, “what are you afraid of?” For the first time, I named this fear to God instead of trying to deal with it or even asking God to deal with the stuff that caused me to be afraid.

I can’t say that my fear magically disappeared. But in naming my fear to God and allowing God into that fearful space, the fear began shrinking and lost its hold in my life as I became aware that God didn’t just love me in an abstract sense–God loved me at the place of my fear. Rich talked about this idea that there is no fear in love because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).

I’m still on this journey. Other fears about loss are becoming real for the first time. There are the fears of significant loss of physical or mental abilities that come as I notice bodily changes or take longer to remember a name or grope for the right word. There is the kind of loss of recognizing you are far from indispensable and wondering as you hand off to rising leaders whether there is anything left that you can contribute, or what all you did meant when much of it is changed!

Rich talked about how we often experience the love of God that drives out these fears through people in community. I need that! It is still tempting for me to just put on my game face and double down. That strategy never worked very well and I have less energy or time for it now. Perhaps it is in becoming a safe place to name and shed our fears that we become “the beloved community.” That’s the safe place we have with the God who says, “be not afraid.”

This post also appears at my church’s Going Deeper blog.

Stand Firm in the Faith

Ben posted yesterday on one of the other phrases in 1 Corinthians 16:13, “be strong.” As I listened to Rich on Sunday, my attention was caught by the phrase “stand firm in the faith.”

One of the things I most appreciated about what Rich said had to do with not confusing faith and certainty. I find this is a real problem with many. Unless they can be certain about God, or something God has promised, they don’t think they can have faith. Truth is, there is very little in life that I can say that is certain when I think carefully about this. Am I certain my wife loves me? I’m pretty sure of that and I trust her enough to fall asleep in her presence and let her prepare my food. But I can’t prove to a certainty that she loves me. I have faith in her love and after 35+ years of marriage, it seems pretty reasonable to trust her!

On the other hand, there are some who think that faith is simply irrationality–believing what we know isn’t true. Faith may be that for some, but what I propose is that Christian faith is reasonable faith–that God has given us sufficient reasons to believe that he is good and that we can trust Him. The resurrection of Jesus, which Paul argues for in 1 Corinthians 15 is perhaps the most compelling of these reasons.

At the same time, Rich focused on something else that is very important. Sometimes we know all the reasons to believe God and it is still hard to act on what we believe to be true. Rich spoke about the idea that sometimes faith is simply “keeping on”. That is what Paul means when he says “stand firm”. Sometimes the best way to “keep on” is simply to stay put!

This is hardest for me when I am anxious or fearful. One place where I struggle with this is money. Things were very tight for us when I was growing up, and I fear being in that place. Whenever the bills mount up, it is tempting to postpone writing those checks to the church and other places where I give regularly. And I’m more prone to think twice (or more) about helping with a special need. Standing firm or “keeping on” means following my regular routine in writing those checks first–and trusting God to get us through the tight patches.

I fear failure. Yet I find the life of faith calls me into doing new, risky things, at times. It may mean a new situation of speaking about Christ, or a new responsibility where I could crash and burn! The “firmness” in standing firm is not the firmness of success versus the shakiness of failure. It is that whether this new venture flies or flops, I am secure in Jesus–firm.

So a few questions for your reflection:

  • In what instances might you be looking for certainty when God has given you sufficient reason in scripture and your experience that he is good and can be trusted?
  • Where might you be attempted to stop “keeping on” in some practice of faith in your life?
  • Where might the Lord be inviting you to trust him to keep you firm and secure in some new, risky thing?

[This is also posted on Going Deeper, a blog reflecting on the messages at my church on which several of us post]