Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘anxiety’

Living in Trust, Living in Peace

Philippians 4:5-8

Emotional health is hard to come by in a world that seems to discourage trust in a healthy way, especially among many of in our communities who have a history of being marginalized. How can we seek a path out of the destructive patterns that recreate abusive relationships? How can we work towards a future that doesn’t recreate the past? What keeps us from this kind of healthy, holistic living: broken trust. When trust is broken we feel betrayed, alone, even worthless. We can enter into behavior patterns of mistrust, even when people have shown us that they are to be trusted. We can even perpetuate the same patterns in our relationships

Thus, it is essential that we seek restored trust. What are the elements of trust that we look for in a person, in life? What if we pursue and nurture these qualities in our relationships?

So…who was Paul of Tarsus? Good question. Like every author of Biblical literature, there is a lot of speculation and interpretation as to who Paul was. What we do know from other historical documents of the time and other Biblical books, is that Paul spent considerable time in prison. He was accused by the people of Philippi of disturbing their city and promoting customs that were not lawful for them or the Romans to observe. Leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin also sent Paul to trial because they considered him an agitator and a leader of a sect of the Nazarenes. We don’t know for sure, but it’s very possible that Philippians was written while Paul was in prison.

Before I go on, if any of you have any baggage about Paul, i.e. what’s been most likely pushed on you by others, let’s put that on the table first. Some [and maybe that’s you] consider Paul a misogynist, homophobe, and strict legalist. By no means am I claiming that Paul of Tarsus [or any other Biblical authors for that matter] were perfect or extra-inspired, super-holy people, and that’s why they are Biblical authors.

No way.

Paul, like anyone else was a flawed human being and he actually said as much in some of his writings. Now look, I cannot address the whole “against women and gay people” thing in a few sentences and you’ll need to do more thinking and study to come to wise conclusions. What I do know, however, is that women covered their heads in the 1st and 2nd century. It was cultural. This is not a teaching of Paul. Likewise, some of Paul’s closest associates on his missionary journeys and most trusted leaders were women. They were obviously teaching and leading. People who wish to propagate the idea that women cannot be leaders or ordained ministers use Paul as a way to justify their gender bias. And, Paul was not a homophobe. This word and also the word homosexuality did not exist until this century and neither did the concept of sexual orientation. It’s a fact. When Paul mentions in his letter to Rome, unnatural acts, he is speaking of a whole of behaviors [as defined by Greco-Roman culture and Jewish culture]. I point you to Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and others for a more in-depth look at NT sexuality.

I say all this only so our conversation is not derailed by our biases about Paul of Tarsus. Otherwise, all that follows will not have any relevance. You see, Paul was a Pharisee originally. He was raised with a rigid belief system and set of morals. Most everything was “right” or “wrong.” He was raised to trust in a religious system and eventually to trust a Roman Empire that occupied Israel and spread its cultural and societal norms. But like most people who go through some sort of psychological break, Paul had a life-changing moment. We don’t know if it was a day, a week, or a period of years. Whatever the case, he changed his world view. He no longer trusted being a Pharisee. He no longer trusted the Roman Empire. He found peace and contentment in the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. But that was long after Jesus’ death; Paul never met Jesus. His journey to self-awareness and contentment was not as a follower of Jesus. Perhaps this is why some people can resonate with at least part of Paul’s story. He came from oppressive power and great privilege. At some point he broke away from that and changed. As Jesus did, Paul spent the rest of his days with the marginalized. And in doing so, he found peace within himself. This leads us to a pretty well-known part of Paul’s letter to Philippi, chapter 4.

The phrase “Do not worry about anything” could certainly sound like wishful thinking at first glance. But, as it fits within the original meaning of the Greek language, consider placing it after the first part of this text. In other words:

Be gentle with others, because you really don’t know what they’re going through. In your day-to-day moments, meditate, pray, be grateful. Whatever is honest, just, joyful, beautiful, kind, life-giving—think about these things and pursue these things in your relationships. If you do, a divine, holistic peace that doesn’t fit into society’s or religion’s boxes will fill you and surround you. You will think differently about yourself and others. You won’t judge life and its situations so much because you’ll take them as they are. And anxiety will not control you anymore.

As such, this is not telling you to just push aside your problems and feelings, to ignore suffering, to be complacent and to “don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, this is an invitation to trust those things and people that bring you joy and encouragement, fill you with acceptance and peace. To think about and meditate on such trusted things and people, because the trust is earned. I’m hearing this text giving us all permission to Live into trust and into peace. Life is about Moving forward.

It is about stopping the continual dysfunctional patterns within our lives and relationships.

handscirclepeaceSee, we can try to be healthier, more spiritual, whatever—but we won’t be unless we change. We won’t find peace and wholeness by tweaking this or that or by trying various religious practices or joining clubs or making small lifestyle changes or making New Year’s resolutions. We can continually rearrange things in our lives, but it will never end. Not until we realize who we are at our core.

Are you feeling stuck in a dysfunctional past? If so, why? What relationships and behaviors are keeping you there? How can you move forward?

What drives you in life? Think about these things.

Where have you been hurt? Recognize this.
What qualities in people inspire and encourage you? Meditate on those qualities.

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The Gratefulness Factor

Luke 17:11-19 [NRSV]

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus* was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers* approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

gratefulThe adjective grateful means “thankful.” Gratefulness is an abstract noun formed by adding the suffix -ness to grateful and therefore means the state of being thankful.

Being grateful is a practice that all of us should take seriously. Why? Because gratefulness positively affects our brain function, according to a variety of studies out of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.[1] 

When you are grateful, your brain floods with reward chemicals. When your brain is experiencing gratitude focused on a specific person, i.e. thanking someone for how they have treated you, your brain fills with pleasure chemicals. It’s like eating chocolate—your reward center is activated and so your brain learns to crave that feeling again and again.

Secondly, when you are grateful, your anxiety and depression symptoms may lessen. Research shows that even something simple like keeping a daily gratitude journal has interesting effects on people suffering from anxiety and depression. Those who are anxious sleep better; those who are depressed experience more positive changes; their depressive symptoms rate better on regular mood tests. Gratefulness challenges and upsets the negative thought cycle that can send us into anxiety and depression.

Third, a grateful brain means that your hypothalamus is working better. Gratitude activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating all sorts of bodily functions, including hunger, sleep, body temperature, metabolism, and how the body grows. In 2009 studies using MRIs of brains showed that the limbic system [of which the hypothalamus is a part] is activated when we feel gratitude. Gratefulness actually makes our metabolism, hunger and other natural bodily functions work more smoothly.

Furthermore, when you’re grateful, you are more resistant to stress. Your body and brain, in a state of gratefulness, have the ability to bounce back from stressful events like trauma, homelessness, grief, or job loss.

I mentioned earlier that gratefulness helps you sleep better, and this factor contributes to you experiencing more positive emotions overall. When you are grateful, suggest some psychologists, your prefrontal cortex where memories are formed is being trained to retain positive information and reject negative info over time. Makes me think that practicing gratitude just might lead to increased happiness, right?

Absolutely, says David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar who gave a Ted Talk all about the link between gratitude and happiness.

Since 1953, Brother David has been a monk of Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery in New York, dividing his time between hermitic contemplation, writing and lecturing. He’s the co-founder of gratefulness.org, supporting ANG*L (A Network for Grateful Living). I invite you to listen to his Ted Talk or to check out his webpage. Some really good stuff there. To sum up some of his Ted Talk, Mr. Steindl-Rast says that “there are many things for which we cannot be grateful, but there is no moment for which we cannot be grateful, because in every moment, even difficult ones, we have the opportunity to do something.” He makes it clear that gratitude is not realizing that people are worse off than you. So pointing to be people going through tough times or those in horrific situations and feeling lucky or better off is NOT gratefulness. Instead, being grateful requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your life—not comparing your life to another’s. So you can be grateful by appreciating even the simplest things in your life. And you can be grateful when you show appreciation for another person, which is openly expressing gratitude. Finally, Steindl-Rast says that being grateful occurs when something valuable to us is freely given. We do not earn it; rather, it is a gift.

davidgratefulGratefulness is the theme of the Luke story about a Samaritan leper giving thanks. I absolutely love this story, because I think it speaks to people on a universal level and you don’t even have to be a religious person to be blessed by it. There are obvious clues in this story as to how this thankful person was seen by others. He was a leper, so he was untouchable and lived on the margins of society. And, he was a Samaritan, so he was hated for his nationality, ethnicity, and religious tradition. But Jesus of Nazareth didn’t care about those things. Jesus chose to heal this Samaritan leper; he made him clean, along with nine others. The now-healed Samaritan leper realized his new situation. He shouted out with joy. He turned back, approached Jesus, got on his knees, and he said thank you. And then Jesus sent him out—on a new path of gratefulness, a new life.

I think the story speaks for itself. Practicing gratefulness can change our lives for the better. So to close, how can we be grateful like the Samaritan leper?

  1. We have to stop and give full attention to the moment we are in. This means letting go of those future and past-focused thoughts.
  2. We need to look at our lives right now and ask: What am I grateful for in this moment? What opportunity is life presenting me, for which I can be grateful? Keep it simple. Consider your senses, the weather, your ability to learn something, a pet, food, a friend, your body, or nature. Think of each of these things as a gift as opposed to a given.
  3. Practice this gratefulness thinking especially in times of transition or when you feel particularly vulnerable to stress.
  4. For some, keeping a record of gratefulness is a very meaningful and powerful thing. Consider writing down your gratefulness in a gratitude journal.
  5. Lastly, express your gratitude to others. There are many ways to do that: short FB messages, a kind email, a phone call, even a text! Taking a risk to acknowledge someone’s kindness, patience, or character is powerful.

So find ways to start or to keep practicing gratefulness. Make grateful living your way. Become aware that every moment is a gift—you have not earned it or bought it. You don’t know if there will be another moment given to you. So this very moment is an opportunity and gift. What are you grateful for?

[1] Alex Korb Ph.D. PreFrontal Nudity: The Grateful Brain, The neuroscience of giving thanks, Posted Nov 20, 2012.

Spirit-Connected Truth-Living

John 16:12-15   Inclusive Bible

I have much more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth. She won’t speak on her own initiative; rather, she’ll speak only what she hears, and she’ll announce to you things that are to come. In doing this, the Spirit will give glory to me, for she will take what is mine and reveal it to you. Everything that Abba God has belongs to me. That is why I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and reveal it to you.

connectTrying something new. Each week I would like for you to engage with me in what many refer to as conversational preaching or dialogical preaching. The general idea of such a practice is that the message comes from not just one person [i.e. me or any other preacher] but instead is a message formed in community. This will be a work in progress, but I am excited to see what will happen! There are a couple of people engaged in such work that I have gleaned wisdom from. First, Bruce Reyes-Chow, a minister in the PC USA and a consultant for the Center for Progressive Renewal, an author and speaker, or as he says: ⅕ Pastor and Chaplain, ⅕ Preacher and Speaker, ⅕ Consultant and Coach, ⅕ Blogger and Author, and ⅖ Stay at Home Dad.

Bruce recently gave a presentation for the Festival of Homiletics about conversational preaching. In his presentation, he affirms the possibilities of such a community-based sermon style, leading to such things as: healthy hospitality, creative space use, integrated worship. He states:

Conversational preaching pokes at our willingness and ability to graciously engage with others about issues of faith.

In this type of sermon, we can model disagreement, engage in faith re/formation, and expand our ecclesiology, i.e. our connection to the wider church and beyond. The dialogical sermon also helps individuals in the community of faith increase knowledge about the Bible and theology, develop broader perspectives, and to embody emotional and spiritual intelligence. Conversational preaching allows the community to approach and embrace common truths and bounds and promotes the health of community.

Doug Pagitt is the founder of Solomon’s Porch, a holistic missional Christian community in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is also one of the founders of Emergent Village, a social network of Christians around the world. Pagitt is an author, professional speaker, and consultant for churches, denominations, and businesses on issues of postmodern culture, social systems, and Christianity. He recently was interviewed by the United Church of Christ and you can find that article here.

Pagitt actively engages in dialogical preaching and Solomon’s Porch is a faith community that knows nothing else. They work together to craft the message each week. In essence, here is how it works:

The speaker says something that causes another person to think something she hadn’t thought before. In response she says something that causes a third person to make a comment he wouldn’t normally have made without the benefit of a second person’s statement. In turn the speaker thinks something he/she wouldn’t have thought without hearing the comments made by the other two. So now everyone ends up in a place they couldn’t have come to without the input they received from each other. In a real way the conversation has progressed.[1]

Sermons belong to the people—not the preacher.

So that is what we will do. Here is the format we will start with. As I said before, it will be a work in progress, and I hope that via your feedback and participation, we can agree upon a way to do this that works well. On this blog, you can comment, of course. I also encourage you to email me if you wish to engage in further dialogue.

Here are the steps I will start out with:

  1. Induction : considering the context of the story/scripture passage and the community and those present in that community
  2. Discussion: there will always be Q & A with those present [in this case, online]
  3. Interviews and Sharing: at various points, invite people to share a story that relates to the topic. [guest writers and bloggers]
  4. Collaboration: At the end of each message, I’ll give the teaser for next week and invite you to make comments during the week via email, social media, etc.
  5. Note-taking/Research: at certain points we will encourage people to research certain things or to take notes.
  6. Evaluation: we will briefly sum up and evaluate the message.

So let’s get started. Today’s topic, like last week, is indeed the Spirit. We are looking at John’s Gospel and what is often called Jesus of Nazareth’s “farewell discourse” because he is about to leave his friends, the disciples. The context is of course that the disciples are scared, doubtful, and a bit confused. Jesus responds by speaking comfort to them, promising that even when he is gone that they will not be alone. The Spirit is the word parakletos in Greek, now called the Spirit of Truth. This Spirit will lead the disciples. The parakletos is an extension of Jesus Christ. As the disciples had been encouraged to follow Jesus on “the way” now they will be led on “the way” by the Spirit. Of course, Jesus is referred to as “way” and “truth” and “life.”

In other words, the disciples will not be abandoned, even though they think they will be. They are left in good hands. The Spirit will hear and then speak to them. This Spirit will point to a way forward, something beyond the limited and often imbalanced existence. This Spirit is present in all times and places.

Considering that background, my first thought is about the current state of the faith community I serve called the UCC in Warminster. In various conversations I’ve had with many people, I know that some are fearful of being abandoned, i.e. because we are still in the transition of looking for a new space and because we are in the process of re-organization, and because of money. Some are fearful that the congregation won’t make it and that they will be left without a faith community. They care about UCCW and want it to thrive and grow. So they are fearful and anxious. It isn’t change that they are worried about, it is loss. They don’t want to lose this congregation.

I hear this loud and clear, and often I share many of these feelings and thoughts. Of course, I admit to being in a different position than they are, because as pastor of the congregation, this is not only my faith community but also my job—my livelihood. So the anxiety or fear, quite frankly, is both about the congregation [not wanting to lose the community], but also the anxiety of losing a job and the uncertainty of that financial situation.

And yet, for some reason, the fear and anxiety I feel, though very real, does not take over my excitement and enjoyment as part of this community. If you were to ask me why I keep doing this, in spite of the challenges, I would say it’s because I am still having fun doing it, that I find joy in the little things and that I am still very hopeful about today and tomorrow. For me, this is the spirit at work in me. I can be honest about my feelings of anxiousness and even fear, and that leads me to balance and wholeness. The spirit comforts me with honest feelings and for me that is truth.

So let me ask you. What questions do you have? What does this spark? Question time.

Okay, now here is the teaser for next week:
What is faith to you? Can faith lead to healing? If so, how?

So what did we learn? How did it go? How can we improve?
Thanks for participating!

[1] Pagitt, Doug.  Preaching Re-imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Contentment

Philippians 4

All life is suffering.

This is the first and truest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, an essential belief for Buddhists—that sorrow, loss, and death await all of us and the ones we love.
Sounds depressing, maybe, but it is true.

And you don’t have to be Buddhist to believe it.

Everyone “suffers” at some point.
We feel sad because of the evil or injustice in the world.
Someone close to us dies.
Others have something to eat one day and nothing at all the next.
Some have no home and are not safe.

Suffering.

So what kind of lunatic is this Paul of Tarsus who apparently wrote a letter to the Philippian church?

He wrote:
Have no anxiety about anything.
Be content no matter what.

Really, Paul?

What would you know about suffering anyway?

Oh, right. You were arrested and put in prison.
Oh, yeah. Apparently they wanted to execute you.

Okay, maybe I’m listening…..

Yes, let’s talk about this thing called contentment.

It’s directly related to anxiety, I might add.

First off: contentment is not accepting abusive or violent circumstances and considering this to be your lot in life. Contentment is not accepting great suffering at the hands of others or things because well, that’s the way it is.

Instead, contentment is finding within yourself a hidden flower.

Allow me to explain.

All of us [and I mean all of us] at one point or another have looked at another person and thought:
“Gee, I wish I had what she has.”

Or:
“If only I had his job, or his life—things would be so much better.”

It starts at an early age and it doesn’t stop. We look at other people’s lives and we think that they are so much better than ours. And we live in discontent.

It happens with things, too. We can convince ourselves quite easily that if we just obtain that certain item we will feel better. So we buy, buy, and buy some more. Sometimes it’s small things, but other times it can be big-ticket items like cars, houses, expensive jewelry, electronics, etc. The more we obtain that which we thought would make us happier, the more our insatiable appetite grows to obtain more. And the emptier we feel; not content.

Not being content with ourselves can lead to even deeper suffering.

Some of us face addictions. They are real and they are terrible. They trick us into believing that we need whatever it is we are addicted to in order to survive in this world. In the day to day struggle of addiction, people can start to feel deep depression. This feeling is not some passing thought that someone should just “get over.” There are chemicals at work in our minds and in our bodies. Some of us have more physical tendencies to feel depressed. Regardless, addictions and depression do not enable us to be content at all.

We can start to wither away. Not being content internally with ourselves, who we are—leads to us think that we are incapable of doing anything good. Discontent leads us to try to copy other people; to chase after material things; to fill the void in us.

Paul of Tarsus saw this discontent in himself before his spiritual awakening; he saw it in the early church. People were jealous, they horded power, gossiped, and caused suffering.
But he, on his journey, had discovered another, blessed path:
The path of Contentment.

Now you may not agree with all that Paul wrote about the church [I don’t either], but consider his story—his journey from discontent and violence to awakening and transformation. Paul was a persecutor before. He pushed others down and away. After his awakening, he became a bridge-builder. He joined both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, in a common community.

And most importantly, he found contentment within himself. He focused less on the external which he could not control. He was at peace. His mind was freed by contentment, and the external circumstances of life [even prison and death] could not change that.

I said earlier that contentment is like finding within yourself a hidden flower.
There is one particular flower that holds great meaning in spiritual traditions.

white_lotus_flowerThe lotus flower is often a symbol of contentment and also is the flower associated with Buddhism. The lotus’ symbolism relates to its actual behavior in nature. Consider that the lotus’ roots are buried in the mud at the bottom of a pond. Then, the lotus rises above the water towards the sky, opening its petals of white and pastel colors. The symbolism is simple—movement from mud and darkness to freedom and light.

Flowers/plants in general, are under the ground; their roots stay as they are.

The external world can bring cold, rain, snow, heat. But the roots are in the ground, waiting for a moment to bloom, to emerge from the earth and to rise above it. Regardless of what happens outside, the plant’s roots do not change. They absorb whatever moisture and good soil and sunlight that they can get.

They are always expecting to eventually bloom.

I think this is why plants and flowers are often symbols in many faith traditions—including Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth mentioned flowers and plants in many of his sayings. Most likely, as humans, we need to be reminded time and time again that we are not much different than the plants and flowers. We forget this, because we are so caught up in everything material. We rarely take even a moment to consider that even in our most difficult and low times that we are just a flower waiting to bloom. We often forget that in moments of despair and uncertainty—when we are buried in the mud—that we are meant to eventually rise up above the water towards the sky. To find light.

It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in worry, anxiety, fear, and discontentment.

That is why focusing on that which is noble, right, lovely, admirable—positive stuff—this is where our minds ought to wander.
Because here’s the thing about contentment—it’s something you have to practice.

If you spend most of your hours and days worrying, fearing, stressing, coveting, or regretting—well, you’ll become an expert at it. That’s why it is important to be mindful of our thoughts.

Nobody is perfect, but certainly we can make a commitment to more grateful, peaceful, balanced, and loving thoughts. If we practice this daily, we will combat the other thoughts that can pull us down or keep us from walking forward.

It won’t be easy, but any real and positive change in life is never easy.

Hopefully, you won’t have to go to prison to realize this; or hit rock bottom; or find yourself in a desperate situation.
But maybe that’s what will happen; perhaps that’s how contentment will come to you.
I don’t know that, because it’s different for everyone.

Regardless, accept that the circumstances around you are often out of your control.

And that’s okay.

Ask yourself: what would it mean for you to be content whatever the circumstances?

Whether hungry, or fed, or living with plenty, or living with nothing—what would it mean for you to be content in every situation?

No need to deny or minimize the things you go through in life.
No need to try to explain them away by saying that your suffering is God’s will or something like that.
Recognize any pain or anxiety or fear that you feel.

But then realize that you can be persistent in your prayer and meditation, in your silence, in your finding of contentment.
The peace that passes all understanding is available to you.

Whoever or wherever you are today, know this:
You are a flower waiting to bloom, waiting to be reborn.
You may be in the mud today, but the skies call you.
You may have all your petals closed right now, but eventually they need to open.

May you find contentment.

How to Love in a Scary Place

John 10:1-10     and     Psalm 23

A SIDE NOTE:
Not really sure why, but recently Rihanna’s song We Found Love has been in my head. I really don’t have any idea if her song has anything to do with what it makes me think about it. But I will just say that the phrase “We found love in a hopeless place” rings true for me. So listen, if you want, and then read the rest…

—————————————————————

You know what it feels like.

Your heart races out of control, beating so fast you cannot believe it.
The palms of your hands start to sweat.
You’re short of breath and you’re having trouble taking air in.
Your stomach turns in circles.
Your shoulders tense up and other muscles spasm uncontrollably.

You are afraid.

Fear is an emotion that directly affects our bodies and not just our minds. We, like animals, have a reaction built in to our systems called a fight or flight response. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

The fight or flight response is pretty helpful to animals and humans alike when real danger is present. Imagine a saber-toothed tiger or an angry, fire breathing dragon coming right at you.

sabretoothedtigerAn extra shot of adrenaline and quick thinking would be useful, right?

But honestly, most of us are not facing tigers and dragons. And unlike animals, who do face a lot of predators and other dangers quite often—our fight or flight response may not be helping us.

A little bit of fear might be helpful to keep us alert and motivated. But a lot of fear overcomes our common sense. Our judgment gets clouded and we get lost in that fear.

Neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz explains that

“in a time of crisis, you’re not thinking the way you normally do. You may find yourself acting before you even realize what you’re doing. When the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information, and starts to prioritize rapid responses.”[1]

Sounds good if the tiger is bearing down on you, but most of us are not running from this kind of danger. So this fight or flight thing can lead to poor decisions. You can hear a loud noise and think that you’re in danger—even when that loud noise is a balloon popping. You can see a person who is approaching you on the street as a threat to you—even when he’s going to help you by letting you know that you dropped your wallet on the ground.

And even when your fight or flight response starts to calm down, the effects continue. Our coping mechanisms for fear are not the best. We often cope by wanting to sleep, taking drugs, binging on a variety of things, etc. And ironically, our fear can become chronic and more common, even in normal situations.

And we might as well call it anxiety now.

Most scientists talk about fear and anxiety interchangeably, even though they generally define the two terms like this:

Fear is a negative emotional state triggered by the presence of a stimulus (like a tiger) that has the potential to cause harm.

Anxiety is a negative emotional state in which the threat is not present but anticipated.[2]

So, simply put:
The fight or flight response of fear can keep us alive.

Anxiety can keep us from living.

And this is where we separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom—and not in a good way. All animals can detect and respond to danger—just like us.

But when it comes to anxiety, we are the champions.

We can actually anticipate danger and project danger onto situations that haven’t even happened yet. We’ve developed the ability to fear things that do not even exist today!

Pretty much all of us can attest to the fact that we’ve felt anxiety of some sort in our lives. Some of us have suffered from anxiety disorders that drastically affect everyday life. Having known many people who have suffered from anxiety, it is not something you “get over” and telling people to “calm down” won’t help either.

So I think that it’s good to talk about fear and anxiety in an authentic way so that no matter where we are in life, we can discover ways to really live.

Psalm 23 and John’s “Good Shepherd” story are two examples of scripture establishing something:

Fear is real, but love can overcome fear.

I don’t know whether you buy that or not, but let’s give it a try.

First, though, we have to realize that both the Psalm and the Gospel talk about sheep.

sheep
Let’s be honest–sheep aren’t always the greatest of metaphors for us as humans—or so we think. But sheep are not the zombies or robots that blindly follow anyone off a cliff or who just say baaaaah and then roll over on their back with their legs in the air.

Although that last thing sounds like fun.

The idea of the sheep metaphor is that sheep discern good voices from bad voices. In other words, they recognize when the caring, compassionate love-leading voice speaks to them and knows them by name. They filter out the dangerous voices that may try to harm them or lead them by using fear or manipulation.

Thinking like a sheep is being aware of those who love and care for you, and those who don’t.

In John’s community in Palestine, everybody knew about shepherds and sheep. Taking care of or tending sheep was just as it sounds. Shepherds took great care of their sheep. They indeed  called them by name. The sheep responded to the shepherd’s voice. At night, the shepherd led the sheep into a safe place.

So Jesus of Nazareth, in John’s Gospel portrayal, draws upon Hebrew stories and a cultural context of sheep to get his point across.

You see, John’s community knew all about fear.
Many were persecuted for their culture and religion in the new reality that was Roman rule. The 1st century was scary. So Jesus referred back to the book of Numbers to encourage his followers:

He would go out before them, come in before them, lead them, and bring them in.[3]

This would have been encouraging, because the disciples were worried about the “bad” shepherds or the “thieves and robbers” who would lead them to dangerous, scary places. In their context, even the leaders of the temple were scattering the sheep, robbing them of their money and dignity, and refusing to feed them.

But there’s a twist.

Not only will Jesus lead his followers into the sheepfold at night, but he will also lead them…OUT.

The sheepfold, where the sheep sleep at night [a place of safety], is not where they stay. They emerge from the sheepfold and into the scary world, but with new life.

They were led out by resurrection.

Jesus, in John’s Gospel, is the way of comfort and sustenance, abundance and strength, even in the face of death.

And the good shepherd way is the way of love and not fear.

Jesus’ followers, after his death, were learning how to love even when they were scared. They were learning how to be compassionate, even when times were tough. They were discovering how to call others by name, treat them with great care, heal and show them mercy— even when things were terrifying in the world.

Maybe that’s why the image of the good shepherd was trending more on Twitter than the image of the cross. People responded much better to the image of the compassionate, leading, loving shepherd. This was carved on walls and catacombs.

good-shepherd

The good shepherd was bigger than the cross.
The way of love was stronger than the way of fear.

I wish the image of the good shepherd were more prominent than the cross.

That’s right–I said it.

Frankly, religion has become so much about fear these days.

And why?
So certain voices can manipulate, oppress, harm, and scare.

Friends, the fear and anxiety can hinder us. We can become convinced that the world’s empty offer of quick relief from scary things is worth our time and energy. So we sell out to fear and anxiety that can lead to prejudice, isolation, and even violence.

But we shouldn’t listen to those voices, because they actually don’t care about our humanity.
Anytime we make decisions based on fear and anxiety it does not work out well.

Anytime we judge someone because we’re afraid we allow prejudice to creep in.
Anytime we close doors out of fear we miss opportunities to open them.

So let us walk the way of love instead. Don’t give your time, attention, or energy to fear. Instead, give your time, attention, and energy to loving action.

And don’t dwell on scarcity. Instead, learn to think and talk and act as someone who is grateful. And generous.

Following the lead of the good shepherd is not ignoring fear—it is facing fear, but with love. This is resurrection.

Think about compassion, practice empathy, live gratefully.

Be love.

Help others find love in a hopeless place.

 

[1] Szalavitz, Time.

[2] “Searching the Brain for the Roots of Fear”, the NY Times, JOSEPH LEDOUX, January 22, 2012.

[3] Num 27: 16-18.

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