Do not be afraid

Regardless of how you might feel about the health care reform bill that recently passed Congress and was signed by the President, it seems to me most of us can’t be too happy about the vitriolic language that so often characterized the debate, nor about the violent language (and, indeed, threats of violence) that washed over the country in the aftermath of the bill’s passage.  It was frankly shocking to me to hear veteran civil rights activist and Georgia congressman John Lewis say that he had been called names that he hadn’t heard since the great civil rights struggle of the 1960s.   Imagine that.  Recall what the struggles of the 1960s were like (either from your own experience or your study of history), and then consider the fact that Congressman Lewis encountered that same kind of name-calling just last week, name-calling he hadn’t heard for almost 50 years.   I find that to be remarkable — and horrifying.   And while it seems that Democratic congresspeople bore the brunt of this kind of behavior, some Republican politicians were also recipients of threats, one of which has even led to an arrest.

This kind of violent speech (and the frightening thought that it could lead to violent action) seems to me to come from a kind of anger that is ultimately propelled by fear.  We find ourselves living in a culture of fear, and that fear has been escalating ever since the tragic events of 9/11.   Some of those fears are certainly justified.  The fear of terrorism, for example, or the fears engendered by the difficult economic times we have been living through or of environmental change.  Of course, people can become too fearful of even reasonable fears.  What makes me most concerned, however, are the fears that seem to provoke much emotion but which don’t seem to me, at least, to be things that people really ought to be afraid of.   Fears of gay people or immigrants, for example.  Fears of liberals or conservatives.  Fears of Muslims or atheists.  Fears of those whose approach to life or beliefs or opinions are different from our own.  It seems that we have arrived at a point where any given issue with which we struggle as a nation gets invested with apocalyptic significance, which then raises the stakes involved and the level of fear.   It’s as if every decision we make as a nation will either lead us to everlasting glory or usher in the end of the world.   There may indeed be some issues that deserve that level of concern, but surely not every single struggle in American society deserves to be regarded in such stark, absolute terms.

What is really at the root of many if not most of our fears, I think, is the far more basic and fundamental fear of change.  Human beings tend to carry with us a rather static view of reality, taking comfort in the impression that things are supposed to remain pretty much the way they have always been.  But life is a dynamic process, and things don’t stay the same.  New people, new ideas, new ways of thinking are always arising, and sometimes they come at us so fast that we have trouble coping, we feel like we are losing ourselves, that our world doesn’t make sense the way it once did, and we become fearful.

Yet fear is not a biblical value.  In the Bible, the words “Do not be afraid” are found 67 times.   Sometimes they are said by one person to another, but often they come as a divine message, through a prophet or an angelic figure, as when Mary, invited to be the mother of Jesus, is told, “Do not be afraid.”  Or, according to some of the Gospels, when the women who serve as the first witnesses to the Resurrection are told, “Do not be afraid.”   And this is not just a message delivered to women.  In most instances where these words occur in the Bible, they are addressed to men.

As I survey the situations in which these words come up in the Bible, I am led to the conclusion that the overarching reason for this advice is a recognition that when we act on the basis of fear, we do not do God’s work nor are we being faithful to our best selves.  Fear closes us down rather than opening us up.  Fear creates a defensive posture, and as such, it creates a barrier between us and God.  It is as if fear is a kind of noise that drowns out the still small voice of God which, as Elijah discovered, can be heard only when we are able to silence our inner chatter (see 1 Kings 19:11-13).   Fear leads us into our darker places, rather than into the light of our true selves.  When we follow our fear, we become like the crowds on the first Good Friday who loudly called for Jesus’ crucifixion because they feared what he represented.

In the First Letter of John (4:18), we find this bit of wisdom:  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”  These words point us to a deep truth, which is that in Christ, we witness and experience a paradigm shift in terms of the human relationship to God and in terms of human relationships generally.  That is, in Christ, the basis of our relationship with God is moved from fear to love.  The image of God that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures, in which obedience is often predicated on divine punishment for disobedience, is eclipsed in the teaching of Jesus by an image of God who calls us into relationship based on God’s overwhelming love for us.  That shift in our relationship with God is also meant to cause a shift in our relationship with each other.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives a new commandment:  that we are to love each other as he has loved us (John 13:34 and 15:12).  In other words, the unconditional love of God for us that we see and experience in Christ is to be the kind of love with which we approach each other.  And when we do that, we cease to act out of fear.  Rather than seeking to punish or restrict those with whom we disagree or who are different from us, we seek to engage them in love, with the hope and expectation that we both will be transformed in the encounter.

Somehow, we need to work this kind of creative engagement that opens up the possibility of transformation back into our political process and our national discourse.  Otherwise, I wonder what will happen to our democracy.  For just as fear displaces love, it can also prevent people from feeling free to participate in our national life.  And when the pool of participants in a democracy shrinks, power becomes ever more concentrated in the hands of a few, and then we have to wonder whether we really have a democracy anymore.

The Annunciation

In most years, March 25 falls during the season of Lent.  But every year, March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation.  It is a celebration built around the story from Luke’s Gospel in which the girl Mary finds herself in unexpected conversation with the Angel Gabriel, who invites her to become the mother of Jesus.   She is not exactly sure how this is to happen, and the angel is frankly short on specifics:  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”  And so the adventure begins.

The story that came to be known as the Annunciation (because the angel announced or annunciated God’s invitation to Mary) is one which a lot of people have difficulty with.  After all, we have likely had no experience with angels (that we know of!) and the idea of a  Virgin Birth is not only outside our experience but something which modern medicine can’t quite seem to work out.  Yet I am convinced that theology is at least as much poetry as anything else, and so I wonder what we might learn if we are willing to enter into the poetry of the story.

I must admit that Mary is a figure I respect very much.  If you come to my office, you will find at least six depictions of her scattered across shelves and walls.  To me, Mary is an iconic figure, representing what every Christian person is called to do and to be.  More than that, in her story I think we learn exactly how it is that God seeks to work with each one of us and we see what it is God seeks to bring about in each one of us.

The first thing about the Annunciation story that attracts my attention is that initially, Mary is not thinking about God.  It is not as if she is on her knees, praying fervently, and has a vision of an angel.  Rather, she apparently is just going about her business and, rather unexpectedly, God breaks into her daily life and offers her something extraordinary.  Most of us are like Mary at the beginning of this story most of the time.   We are not sitting around spending lots of time thinking about God.  We are instead thinking about whatever it is we need to think about in order to make our way through whatever day we happen to be in.  Mary’s story reminds us, however, that even amidst the daily ordinariness of our lives, God can (and does!) break in and invite us to go deeper into the Mystery upon which that daily ordinariness depends.

That quality of invitation is the second thing I notice about the Annunciation story.  Mary is invited into a particular kind of journey with God, and that invitation says something to me about the way God approaches each of us.  So often, I think, we speak of God as commanding and ordering and expecting.   But this piece of theological poetry does none of that.  Mary is invited to be God’s partner in this journey into Jesus, and the very nature of invitation requires from Mary a response – one that will certainly affect the way her life will be shaped.

And Mary does respond.  She agrees to be God’s partner, and thus it is through her that Jesus comes into the world.  We are accustomed to Mary’s title as Virgin, but that is not actually the oldest title that has been given to her.  The more ancient title in Greek is Theotokos, which translated into English means “God-bearer”.   Mary is invited to be the bearer of God in the world, and the result of her agreement to do this means that she gives birth to Jesus.

In a spiritual sense, I think we are all invited to be the bearers of God in the world, and to give birth to Christ in the depths of our own beings.  It is a metaphor for the kind of transformation to which the Christian life is meant to lead us, and it is a metaphor for the kind of transformation that we are to invite the world into.

And so the poetry of Mary’s story for me unfolds the heart of the Christian life:  that God seeks to speak to me in and through the daily ordinariness of my life; that I am invited to become God’s partner in my own transformation and that of the world; that I must consent to be God’s partner, perhaps even on a daily basis; and that as I continually consent to this partnership and try to live into it, I do become in some way a bearer of God in the world and allow Christ to come into being within me.

So, as the calendar falls this year, as we stand on the threshold of Holy Week and Easter, we are given an opportunity to step back and remember the beginning of this adventure of which Easter is the culmination.   We are given the figure of Mary to contemplate, and in her we find a courageous young woman willing to join God in the on-going work of redemption and transformation.

Of Lattes and Laptops

Ok, so it wasn’t really a latte that I spilled onto the keyboard of my laptop this past Tuesday afternoon, it was just plain black coffee.  But, “Of Coffee and Laptops” didn’t have the same ring to it.  Whether latte or not, however, the effect was instantaneous:  the computer immediately turned off.  I deftly (if I do say so myself) flipped it upside down, and watched with a horrible feeling as coffee poured out from around the keys on to my desk.  This was definitely not a good thing.  When no more coffee would drain out, and the mess had been cleaned up, I summoned as much courage as I could, and pressed the laptop’s power button.  As I feared, nothing happened.  Without giving it much thought, I rushed to the Apple Store.  The guy at the door heard my story, and managed to look sympathetic and grim all at the same time.   But I didn’t have an appointment.  They would see me the next day.

Later on, at home, as the computer sat there, suddenly there was a sign of life.  It came on, all of its own initiative.  It had forgotten the date and time, but soon figured that out.  And it had dropped one of my email accounts.  Most ominously, the display was flickering a bit.  I turned it off.  Later, I turned it on.  I could tell that it had turned on, but the display was no longer displaying.  Not a good sign.  The next morning, at the Apple Store, I received some high-tech pastoral care from another grim-looking young man who kindly asked if he could take my laptop to the back room.  Who knew what unspeakable procedures awaited it back there!  Alas, it was opened up, some lingering liquid was removed, it was blown with air, and when he brought it back out, the display was working again.  I was ordered to give the laptop a 24 hour sabbath, and then, well, we would see.

As this little drama unfolded, there were a number of thoughts that preoccupied me.  Why didn’t I spill coffee on my old laptop, rather than on my shiny new one?  Why did I have to spill the coffee at all?  Why didn’t I back up my data more frequently (that should be read, “at all”)?  And the most urgent nagging thought of all, What would I do without my computer?  How could I function?

In the midst of all these thoughts, eventually another one intruded.  The little voice in my head (which I’m hoping everyone has) said, “Is this really such a big problem?  It seems to me that this is a rather privileged problem to have, really.  I mean, think of how much worse stuff you could be dealing with!”  That voice was right, of course.  In the grand scheme of things, my computer snafu really isn’t such a big deal.  After all, I don’t have some terrible health problem confronting me.  I have a home to go to, and a family who loves me.  I don’t ever have to wonder where my next meal is coming from, I have a job I love, and I live in a beautiful and interesting place.  I do not experience my life as a constant struggle.  A little coffee in the computer and the possibility of some lost data really doesn’t rank that high up on the list of things that one really should be genuinely worried about.

Perspective is a blessing.  It is so easy for us to become locked inside our own little insulated worlds, and within those small worlds, things can often seem like much bigger deals than they really are.   We can lose perspective, and we can lose sight of what is really important.  Some of you who are reading this are undoubtedly dealing with some difficult issues, or know someone who is.   Recovering a proper perspective helps us keep those people as the focus of our prayer, and it helps us foster a sense of gratitude about the things that really are good and beautiful about our own lives.

So I left the Apple Store with a glimmer of hope that perhaps all had not been lost.  I emerged into an absolutely beautiful Northern California morning, and I felt grateful for the beauty of the day and for the many ways in which life offers us the opportunity to feel blessed.   And, I felt saddened for those whose lives are filled with much bigger troubles, and who cannot  experience either blessing or gratitude.  That is something far worse than a little coffee in my laptop.

Oh, that little voice?  It had another idea:  “Perhaps you love your computer just a little more than you should.”

Naaah, that can’t be right.

Run Away from Justice

Unless you happen to be one of my children, it’s not that easy to make me angry.  Generally speaking, I don’t have much of a temper (again, except where my children are concerned).  I have to say, however, that this week, I heard something that made me pretty mad.  Here it is:

I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes.

These words were uttered on the radio by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, who went on to equate the desire for a just society with both Nazi-ism and Communism.    Really?

Perhaps the best answer to Mr. Beck is supplied by the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest:

But Glenn Beck is saying something else: “Leave Christianity.” Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus mentions our responsibility to care for the poor, to work on their behalf, to stand with them. In fact, when asked how his followers would be judged he doesn’t say that it will be based on where you worship, or how you pray, or how often you go to church, or even what political party you believe in. He says something quite different: It depends on how you treat the poor.

In the Gospel of Matthew (25) he tells his surprised disciples, that when you are meeting the poor, you are meeting him. They protest. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

But our responsibility to care for “the least of these” does not end with simple charity. Giving someone a handout is an important part of the Christian message. But so is advocating for them. It is not enough simply to help the poor, one must address the structures that keep them that way. Standing up for the rights of the poor is not being a Nazi, it’s being Christian. And Communist, as Mr. Beck suggests? It’s hard not to think of the retort of the great apostle of social justice, Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

In the Vision I have proposed for Trinity Church in Menlo Park, I included the words, “A Heart for Justice”.  And I have been rightly reminded by some of my flock that the people of Trinity do not all agree on what this means.  No one, however, has challenged the idea that working for a just society is anything but a deeply, centrally Christian value.  The differences truly lie in what exactly a just society would look like, and how we might actually get there.

For someone to suggest that people should run away from a church that is not afraid to talk about social justice reflects a significant lack of understanding about what Jesus spent a lot of time doing and talking about.   After all, who were the people at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 1960s?  Christians – whose churches took their responsibility to work for a just society seriously.   At the time, many people – including many Christians – disagreed with them, and perhaps even thought they were Nazis or Communists.  Today, however, you would find few Christians who would suggest that they were doing anything other than pursuing the reign of God.

For those of us in the Episcopal Church, we promise as baptized Christians to “respect the dignity of every human being” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people”.   Those aren’t just pious words:  they are solemn vows, taken with passages like the one from Matthew quoted above in mind.  They are meant to be acted upon.  It doesn’t mean you’re a Nazi or a Communist.  It simply means you take Jesus seriously.

For everything, there should be a time

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, we read, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”  (3:1).   It is a verse that points us toward balance, and suggests that when we are able to have balance in our lives, we are able to fit in to our lives what needs to be fit in.   In other words, it suggests that there is time for everything that we need in our lives, if we are willing to balance our priorities.

So often, when I hear people talking about their schedules (and when I hear myself talking about my schedule!) we sound as if we are victims of our calendars.   We talk about not having time for something, and in doing so, we speak as if we are at the mercy of some Grand Scheduler who makes entries into our calendars whether we like it or not, and who appoints duties and tasks to us over which we have no control.   How many times have you heard yourself say, “I just can’t do that.  I don’t have time.”

Yet, there is no more or less time now than was true in the past.  The day has been 24 hours long since any human being can remember.   We do not find ourselves having fewer hours with which to conduct our lives than our ancestors did.  If anything, the invention of the electric light gave human beings more usable time than we previously had.   But we so often speak as if time has become a scarce commodity, and we have convinced ourselves, I think, that the scarcity is real.  We have done such a good job of convincing ourselves that we have less time, that we are often more willing to part with our money than give our time to something.  Who would have thought that the day would come when money would seem more plentiful to people than time?

What we have is not a scarcity of time, but an abundance of choice.  No where is that abundance of choice more evident, perhaps, than among our children.  When I was a kid, there frankly was very little to do.  No computers to occupy my time, of course, and only four available channels on the TV.  Other than sports, there were really no extra-curricular school activities to get involved in.  There was a lot more space in my schedule, and fewer priorities to choose between.  These days, there seems to be no end to the kinds of activities that are available to children of all ages, and many of us who are parents feel like we need to have our kids highly scheduled, in part to keep them out of trouble and in part to make sure that their college applications have plenty of extras aside from academics to attract the attention of admissions officers.

The kid world is probably a reflection of our adult world.  We seem to equate being busy with being successful, and there are many more things available to us to keep us busy than was the case a generation ago.  Even our vacations tend to be tightly scheduled and filled with activity.   We work hard, we play hard, and as various causes and organizations vie for the time that is left over, we find ourselves having to say that we just don’t have time to do everything.

And in a sense, that’s true, of course.  We don’t have time to do everything.   But we do have the time to do what is necessary in the various parts of our life:  work, family, leisure, spiritual and charitable.  It is a matter of being rather disciplined about setting our priorities and making sure that we make choices that allow us to balance our lives.  It’s not easy (I don’t claim to have mastered this myself!), but it is possible and worthwhile to do.  As we are able to achieve a better balance, we teach our children that balance is important, and we lead more healthy lives, along with our families.

It begins with an understanding of what is truly important to us, what we truly value, and then allowing that understanding to guide our choices.  We’ll still be tired at the end of the day, but we may also find that we are more fulfilled.