28 August 2009

Follow-Up on "Fear Not" Meditation

Dear Friends,

Yesterday I sent my weekly meditation called "Fear Not". I talked about how fear sometimes functions in our spiritual lives. Turns out there is some biology that is a part of the dynamic, too. I heard a story on the radio this morning on the way fear is being used as a strategy in the health care reform debate. You can listen to the whole story by following this link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112315433. But below is a short excerpt about the "Science of Fear". From a theological perspective, this reminds me that--given the primitive biological roots of fear--it is by the grace of God and the transformative power of love that fear can function in ways that are helpful to us--and not destructive. And given that fear is such an ingrained, primitive response, it lends that much more power and weight to the many times Scripture reminds us: "Do not be afraid." May it be so!

Blessings, Jeremy

The Science Of Fear

But exactly why is fear such an effective tactic? Simple biology, says Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University.

It turns out that fear is a very primitive response, and "once fear is aroused in your brain, it tends to take over and dominate," LeDoux says. A brain paralyzed by fear is unable to think other things through.

It actually makes sense on a survival level, he says. "If there's a chance that you'll be harmed, then you better attend to it. In other words, you better be afraid of it and be careful about what's going on."

There's another thing that makes fear effective in political debates — it's contagious.

"Rats have ways of sending out ultrasonic calls to other rats to warn them that, say, a cat is nearby," LeDoux says. "And these sounds are a secret code, because they're outside the cat's hearing ability. So it's pretty primitive in nature that we have these kinds of mechanisms for detecting danger, for experiencing danger within the individual, and for sharing that information across individuals."
(Morning Edition, National Public Radio, Friday, August 28, 2009)

27 August 2009

Meditation: "Fear Not"

"They took Jesus with them in the boat...A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?' He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still!' Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, 'Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?'" --Mark 4:36-41

"The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear." --Henri Nouwen

***

Dear Friends,

When it happens to me, it's usually late in the evening. That's when I am most vulnerable because that's when I am most weary. Fear will creep into my consciousness. I'll quietly go into my daughter's room to give her a kiss before I go to bed, and as I look at her I'll feel the weight of my responsibility to her--to keep her safe, fed, clothed, cared for. And then the "what ifs" will hit. "What if something happens to me? What if something happens to her? What if there isn't enough? What if.. What if... What if..." And the cold fingers of fear will tighten around my heart. (OK, please know that just as often I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the gift she is!) Other times I'll lie in bed, staring into the darkness, and worry about the future or finances or any other number of things. And again, fear creeps into my heart.

I imagine a psychotherapist would have a field day with what I've just written, but I've been thinking about the times I feel afraid and what happens to me when I do. Suddenly, everything becomes about me. Fear is an important defense mechanism, but there are times when it crosses a line into a kind of ego-centrism. My fear can blind me to the needs of others because I'm too preoccupied with my own worries. When fear dominates my heart, I may not realize that Jesus is right there by my side, in the boat with me, in the middle of the storm--whether it is real or imagined. Fear is like a clenched fist that is not open to others.

I've been thinking about fear lately--and reflecting on my own experience of it--because there has been a spike in fear mongering in our country lately. All of the shouting about proposals to reform health care in our country have given rise to rhetoric meant to elicit fear: "The government wants to kill grandma!" or "You'll have to wait in line for years to see the doctor!" among others. When fear is running high, it's nearly impossible to pry our eyes away from ourselves to see the big picture, to see the need around us, to open our hands to share with others.

Jesus asks, "Why are you afraid?" That's a question worth deeply pondering. Because becoming aware of our fear is the first step in overcoming our fear. And overcoming our fear does not mean getting rid of it, but trusting that no matter what happens, our lives unfold within the love and grace of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Caring God, when I feel afraid, help me to place it in your hands trusting in your goodness and your mercy. Amen.

20 August 2009

Meditation: "Hidden Life"

"Jesus told them another parable: 'The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." Matthew 13:33

"There's a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; there's a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see." --Natalie Sleeth

***

Dear Friends,

On a hike in the north Georgia mountains several years ago, I have a distinct memory of stopping by a small creek. I walked about 20 or so feet from the trail to crouch at the side of this burbling, bubbling stream of water as it flowed down from the mountain above. I was alone. There was no other person anywhere near. As I knelt, smelling the damp, cool air stirred by the flow of water, I stared at the swirling water and realized that it was full of hidden life. What I mean is that, in that stream there was indeed life--plants, fish, microscopic organisms--but life that was not immediately visible to me, if at all. Had I not paused by that stream, had I blithely sauntered past on my way up to the mountain top, that life would have gone on unconcerned if I had stopped or not. But I would have missed realizing something important--that there is hidden life all around me if I would but pause and take notice and appreciate it.

I share this because I think too often I overlook the places where there is indeed life hidden around me, sometimes in unlikely places. So consumed by my "to-do" list or staying on the path I think I should be walking, I may miss an opportunity to discover life in an unexpected detour or an annoying distraction. But hidden in the detour or distraction there just may be life--and by that I mean an experience of feeling fully alive by and through the power of God. Paradoxically, even in a place marked by death there can be hidden life--hope for a better future, the sense of Divine presence stirring among the tears, broken relationships mended.

I know this is an esoteric kind of meditation this week--just happens to be my mindset at the moment. But I hope and pray that as you move through the coming days, you will find ways to be attentive to the life hidden within and around your own life. In those places, may you encounter God--the source of all life.

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

Prayer: O God, sometimes your life stirs in the quiet, hidden places of the universe. Heighten our senses so that we may see and hear and perceive the stirring of your life in and around us. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

12 August 2009

Meditation: "Being You"

"For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth."
Psalm 139:13-15

Dear Friends,

Have you ever had the experience of being "pigeonholed"? You know what I mean, right?--when someone who has just met you or barely knows you makes assumptions about you--what you are like, what you think and believe, who you are. This happens to me most often because I am the pastor of a church. On more than one occasion, upon meeting someone for the first time socially--when they discover that I am the pastor of a church--very often one of two things happen. If they are a church-going Christian, they often assume that I must share their theological and political beliefs--because there is just one "Christian" way of looking at issues, right? If they are not into "organized religion," then often a look of consternation crosses their face and other assumptions are made about me--that I must be intolerant or a hypocrite or stupid or, at the least, about to proselytize them.

I'm overstating it, perhaps. And this doesn't happen all of the time, but often enough that I notice it. Though I have gotten used to it, I find it discouraging and confining. Because the truth of who I am has nothing to do with what my vocation is, where I live, how much money I make, the color of my skin, my political opinions or theological outlook, or any other extraneous detail about my existence.

What matters is my humanity. What matters is your humanity. What matters is that, like all human beings, our existence flows from the creative impulse of God who "knits us together in our mothers' wombs"--to paraphrase Psalm 139.

I pray that when you find that you have been placed in a box--because of your age or sex or race or religion or any other extraneous detail about you--God will give you the grace to remember who you are and whose you are.

Beloved child of God.

And may being so reminded empower you to break out of the box to simply live as YOU.

Blessings, Jeremy

04 August 2009

Meditation: "Power of Love"

Dear Friends,

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." John 15:12

"Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that... And so I say to you I have decided to stick to love.” --The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
----------------

Last Sunday, while in Chicago at a continuing education event, I worshiped at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church (www.holycovenantumc.org). I expected that I would sense the stirring of God's Spirit as I worshiped at this church--it is known to be a vibrant community of faith. But the opening song blew me away, and I have had its lyrics circling round my head and heart since Sunday morning. It is a song by Aaron Niequist who until 2007 was a worship leader at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI.

Love Can Change the World (by Aaron Niequist)

bridges are more beautiful than bombs are
bridges are more beautiful than bombs
listening is louder than a lecture
listening is louder than a shout

an open hand is stronger than a fist is
an open hand is stronger than a fist
wonder is more valuable than Wall Street
wonder is more valuable than gold

but Love
Love can change the world
oh do we still believe that
Love
Love can change the world
oh do we still believe in
Love? Love?
God is Love,
our God is Love and
Love can change the world

may we never stop this dreaming
of a better world
may we never stop believing
in the impossible

God is love

As my voice joined others as we sang, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. This song was giving voice to something that I deeply sense to be profoundly true. It is, for me, the core message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At the risk of oversimplifying, here it is in a word: LOVE. I'm enough of a pessimist to see all the ways love is massacred in our world--and enough of an optimist to really, truly believe as the Bible and this song say, "God is love and love can change the world."

This is all well and good, maybe even inspiring, but putting it into practice is--as the cliche goes--where the "devil" is in the details. Aaron Niequist, in the commentary on his song, addresses this when he says, "[This love] needs to begin with how I treat the server at Chili's, the family member who bugs me, and the person who broke my heart."

And so for me, and perhaps for you, the task is this--to put my heart where my mouth is. If I really believe that God is love, that Christians are called to love God and neighbor with their whole selves, then I need to find a way to do that--each and every day. And I really do believe that the power of this love which, at its core is a gift of God's grace, can change the world.

Blessings on you this day,

Jeremy

P.S. You can listen to this song--and I highly recommend it--at Aaron Niequist's website: http://aaronniequist.com/. It's on his latest album, "with broken fists".

Meditation: "Abundant Living"

Dear Friends,

"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." John 10:10b

"If we only have so many days on earth, then we should, like the inmates in the movie 'The Shawshank Redemption', see that this leaves us only two options: Get busy living or get busy dying." --Gregory S. Clapper

***

Do you ever have those days when it feels like all you ever do is respond to other people's needs? (As the parent of small children, I feel like this more than I care to admit!) Or a day when you are in the middle of an activity or job and you think to yourself, "Why am I doing this? I don't even like doing this!" Or perhaps you agree to head up a committee or join a group or do something that you really don't want to do, but you do anyway out of obligation or guilt or some misguided sense of responsibility?

We don't always have the freedom to stop doing things we don't enjoy or that do not "give us life." But sometimes we do. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn.

Jesus reminds us that our lives are meant to be ALIVE--that his life is about helping us to discover our own true, abundant life. We can drag through each day with a sense of obligation, resenting the commitments in which we are involved. OR we can cut loose those activities we've taken on that truly are optional and do nothing but drag us down--so that we can then pursue those activities and relationships that truly DO give us life, and life abundant. And in so doing, we are than able to face those responsibilities in life that are non-negotiable with a whole new sense of freedom (and even joy!), because we have made space in our lives for the same revitalizing Spirit of God that pulsated deep within Jesus' life.

I hope and pray that you will find some small way to "get busy living" this week and in the days to come.

Prayer of the Day: "God of abundant life, help us not to be burdened by our responsibilities, but to embrace the abundant life you created us for, in Jesus name. Amen."

03 August 2009

Meditation: "Soul Food"

Dear Friends,

"Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.'"

The other day I was reading a news story on the web about a hot political topic. Below the story was a listing of the comments that various people had made on the story. I found myself reading one after another of angry, sarcastic, aggressive, snide, and just plain mean comments that people had posted. They came from all sides of the debate. These posts created no meaningful dialogue.

At one point, something made me stop reading (the grace of God, perhaps?). And I had a small epiphany. "Why am I consuming this negativity?!" It was doing nothing to nourish my soul, but plenty to stir despair and uneasiness within my heart. I consume so many things every single day--food and drink, of course, but also media--newspapers, internet, TV, the radio, to name just a few. I'm not always as careful as I would like to be about what I "eat," so to speak. There are times when it takes a great deal of intentionality on my part to consciously stop consuming something that does little to nourish my heart and my soul.

Jesus reminds us that he is the "food and drink" that really sates our hungry and thirsty souls. So, in some small way, each day, I try to "take in" a bit of Jesus--a few verses of scripture here, a moment of silence there, a prayer lifted before a meal or bed time--something that nourishes me in a way that only God in Jesus Christ can.

Prayer: God, help me to take a few moments each day to nourish my soul with your love by taking a moment of quiet, reading scripture, saying a prayer, or simply paying attention to you as I move through my day. Amen.