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Posts tagged ‘Psalm 23’

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…

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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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Rising up to See Life Next to Death: Reflection on the Events in Boston and Beyond

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

I had prepared to say something different, but Monday came and Boston became a focus for many, and as the week went on, things changed. I am not ever sure that words are adequate in this kind of situation. But when I feel compelled to respond, that means I should. As a religious leader, as a person of faith, and as a human being—I feel that I have a responsibility to respond. So I will tell you a story.

This week I was part of PECO Energy Company’s Voices of Diversity and Inclusion event. Essentially, it was an interfaith dialogue [a panel] of five people from different faith traditions. They each shared with PECO employees and executives about their faith practices, the challenges and misunderstandings they face, and how they work with others for the common good. It was a really amazing program: people talking about faith in the workplace! Well, on Thursday afternoon, after the panel, one of my colleagues, a practicing Muslim, turned to me and said:

Josh, the reports are still coming out of Boston.
I hope that the perpetrators of this violence are not Arab.
Or brown.
Or Muslim.
I hope.
Oh, I hope not.

I paused for a moment, for my colleague had real concern on his face. I found out later that his son is a college student in Boston and was due to return to school on Friday. As a parent, my colleague was thinking about a lot of things. Of course, he expressed to me that he wished this kind of violence would never happen in the first place. But he admitted that his initial thought after Monday’s events was clouded with apprehension. He had experienced too many times when Muslims in general were blamed for a wide variety of violent acts or politically-motivated incidents. When tragedies like this occur, his first thought is about the safety of his family and friends who are Muslim or who are of Arab or Indian descent. Will they be blamed for something they have nothing to do with? My colleague is a peaceful man. He also likes to joke around. His son, the college student at Boston University, is a musician and a poet.

I did not know what to say to my colleague, so I just listened. But after we talked again on Friday [he had obviously cancelled his trip to Boston], I felt compelled to say something.

I say this as a religious leader, but also as a person of faith who is friends with various people who are Muslim. What happened in Boston was awful. No one denies that this kind of needless violence is horrific. But actually, what happens in Syria every day is awful. What happens in Palestine and Israel is awful. The murders in Guatemala are horrific. The violence that is happening in Chicago to young people is awful. Any violence is awful, actually.

But over the last week, I’ve heard and seen reactions to this Boston violence turn into blaming. This is what my colleague was apprehensive about. People often blame particular groups of people—simply because of their faith tradition, cultural background, nationality—or even the color of their skin! Enough is enough. Such blaming is extremely harmful. As individuals we are all responsible for our actions. If we hurt others, we are responsible for the injury and suffering we cause. But just because individuals may identify with a particular group does not give us license to dehumanize whole religions, cultures, or nations.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, said it best last week:

The first thing we have to do is to signal that [the perpetrators] represented nobody: they didn’t represent young people, they didn’t represent Chechnyans, they didn’t represent college students, they didn’t represent Muslims. The murders of all traditions belong to one tradition: the tradition of murderers.

We are tempted to jump to conclusions and to blame. When we walk through difficult and sometimes violent valleys in life, we are tempted to blame something or someone for our sufferings. We may try to convince ourselves that we will feel better and that our suffering will ease if we make someone or something responsible. But blaming doesn’t relieve our sadness, anger or fear. It just causes more suffering. When we blame or seek revenge, we dwell in hate; we walk the path of destruction. We cause fear in people.

So it is appropriate to hear the voice of Psalm 23—a song that expresses the human reality of walking through deep valleys of pain and suffering but offers a hopeful response. Everyone has to walk through such valleys. But the psalm pushes us to journey through these valleys of the shadow of death without fear. We should not be afraid because we are not left alone. We should not fear because if we walk the path of compassion laid out for us, we won’t stay in the deep, painful valleys forever. Eventually, we will emerge from that place of death to find goodness and mercy. Do not fear. You are not alone.

stillwaterIt is no surprise that Psalm 23 is often read at funerals or during difficult times of loss or uncertainty. The stark images given to us are of green pastures and still waters; good paths stretched before us to walk on. But the darkest valley is still there and we walk it, too. There is evil. There are enemies. There is discomfort and fear. But even so, in the valley and in the midst of fear and hate, there is still oil that drips and a cup that overflows. Goodness and mercy follow us.

 

tabithaThe story of Tabitha is like Psalm 23 in that it also presents us with images of contrast. A little church in Joppa close to the Mediterranean Sea. A woman named Tabitha [Dorcas in Greek] lives there. Her name, from the Aramaic, means gazelle. She is called a disciple—equal to the disciples mentioned in the Gospels. She is known for her generosity of time and gifts. But beloved Tabitha gets sick; Tabitha dies. The mourning widows of the town prepare her body in the traditional way and place it an upper room. The other disciples of Jesus there contact Peter [staying nearby] to come immediately. He does, and Peter arrives just before the burial. Broken with sadness, the women show garments that Tabitha had made, reminding Peter of her generosity. But Peter asks everyone to leave.

He falls to his knees and starts praying. Then, he says: Tabitha, arise! She opens her eyes and sits up. She takes Peter’s hand and he lifts her up. And then Peter invites all the people to come back to see Tabitha alive.

Remember that the people who wrote Acts were the same authors of the Gospel of Luke. Take a look at Luke and you will notice something. Tabitha’s resurrection story is familiar. When Peter tells her to arise he uses the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus [9:22, 18:33, 24:7]. It is also the same word used in the story of Jesus raising a little girl [8:49-56].

The details in the story are very similar, too. First, someone must be a messenger and contact someone, calling them to the place where the person has died. Second, bystanders mourn. Third, during the miracle, people must leave the room or place where the person is. Finally, the person raised up must take another person’s hand. So Acts, meant to be read with Luke, is making a point. What Jesus lived and taught is now being lived and taught in people.[1]

This healing legacy is older, though. In the Hebrew Scriptures [OT], the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed miraculous acts of this kind [I Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37]. Rising from death to life had been happening, with God’s help, throughout the centuries.

But for the many of us who identify with the disciple Thomas, wanting to see and touch such a resurrection—we wonder about the validity of this. But I think there is hope for us skeptics. Both the Old and New Testaments offer stories of resurrection, but not just of dead bodies. Something is resurrected in people and that something is hope. Human beings are instruments, vessels, agents for God’s transformative and merciful power. Even in times of death and sadness and despair, there is life. There is resurrection.

I guess, with God, rules are meant to be broken. Life coexists with death; joy with sorrow; healing with pain.

I hear Psalm 23 still ringing in my ears. In the valley of the shadow of death, there is still hope; there is still life.

Friends, neither this psalm nor Tabitha’s story deny the pain, suffering, and death of the world. But both say a defiant, confident thing:

We are not alone, even in the painful valley. Someone is there to offer a hand to us.

Even when we feel dead, there is still life. A hand reaches out to us.

And there is no fear.

So in light of this, if you identify as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who said do not be afraid;
if you are a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, or of any faith background;
if you are an atheist or agnostic–

Let us all be advocates and instruments for peace and reconciliation everywhere and now.

If we are finally recognizing that everyone around the world walks through deep, difficult valleys; and that people across the globe, near and far, suffer needless violence; and that hate can grow out of fear and misunderstanding; can we live a double dose of mercy where there IS this hate? Can we be extra peaceful where there is violence? Can we be even more accepting of those who are different when there is prejudice and discrimination? Can we pray even more when despair seems to win?

Will we defiantly and truly live out the no fear in love thing?

I’m convinced that we can be peacemakers and bearers of reconciliation in a broken world. But we will need to acknowledge that everyone, around the world, has to walk through horrific valleys where suffering is real and it’s easy to be afraid. We share this. But when we walk through these valleys, we have a choice.

Will we become more afraid? Will we look for others to blame or even for revenge?

Or, will we walk through those valleys together? Will we accept the hand and help of another who offers to get us through those valleys? And will we offer our hand and help to others when they feel alone or suffer or get scared?

Sacred Scriptures are radically telling us something: do not fear. Again and again the scriptures tell us to not be afraid. Even in the face of death, we should not be afraid.

Why? Because the gospel is a gospel of blessed contrasts: Life co-exists with death. Where there is hate, there is love. Where there is separation there is unity. Where there is ignorance there is understanding. Where there is violence there is peacemaking. In the valleys of doubt and fear, there is comfort and confidence. When we feel completely lost, a path of goodness and mercy is laid out before us.

So friends, what life will you bring to a dead relationship or situation today?

What bridges of mercy and compassion will you build this week?

Who will you reach out to in the deep, difficult valleys of life?

Rise up without fear. Rise up to love. Amen.


[1] John C. Holbert, Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX, http://www.Patheos.com.

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