Guided by Faith, not Fear

110834144_35bb54fe9b_oPeople are always surprised when I tell them one of my biggest fears is public speaking. I get very anxious before I preach—just ask my husband. And, of course, the bigger the audience, the bigger my fear. You should have seen me before preaching at our college’s Baccalaureate Service last May.  I was a wreck.

I have gotten better, though. The first sermon I delivered was in seminary when I was asked to fill in for a pastor at a small church. I decided to do it only because I knew I had to face my fear at some point and I knew this church had nice people.   It took me six months to write that first sermon and when the Sunday finally arrived every muscle in my back and neck was twisted so tight from stress I thought they were going to have to balance me up there on a backboard.

So I’ve shortened the window on how long it takes me to write a sermon. And I’m not having panic attacks anymore before I preach. But still, if there is one thing that would tempt me to give up this whole calling to ministry, it would be this fear. I’d much prefer to write up my thoughts and hand them out for people to read at their leisure.

In Exodus 32 we hear the story about how the Israelites demanded that Aaron make a new god for them, a Golden Calf, because their leader, Moses, was talking to God on top of Mt. Sinai and they were afraid he might never return.  The passage is a warning to all of us about the sin of idolatry.  But clearly it was the Israelites’ fear that led them astray.  They waited for Moses to return, and waited, and waited some more, until their minds started to wonder, “What if he never comes back?” “What will we do out here in the wilderness without a leader?” “We are so far from civilization, how will we survive? And what will we do without Moses to connect us to God?”

My husband, Dan, leaves for an hour-long walk every morning. He doesn’t take his phone—which I hate, because if he is not home in an hour I start to worry. And since I have no way of contacting him my mind starts to wonder, “Has he hurt himself? Did he turn his ankle? Has some student he failed gotten their revenge? Has he been attacked and eaten by wolves? Or an angry mob of alpaca? (There’s an alpaca farm near us and they are not friendly beasts.) Yeah—when the person you love is not where you expect them to be—you tend to worry—you get scared!

And when we get scared, we often don’t think rationally (angry mob of alpaca), and we tend to make poor choices—like turning away from God, melting down all our jewelry to make and worship a Golden Calf.

Fear itself is natural. Fear is human. We all know fear. When the scriptures repeatedly tell us not to fear, I don’t think this means we are to deny this all-too-human emotion. Instead, we are told not to fear because this raw, powerful emotion often tempts us to stray from the faithful path.

Students fear doing poorly on an exam, so they are tempted to cheat.

We fear being ostracized by our peers or our colleagues at work, so we are tempted to compromise our values and act in a way that we know is not right.

We fear losing what we have, so we deny others what they justly deserve.

We fear our neighbor, we fear not having enough, so we build walls and fences to keep us apart instead of bigger and longer tables so more can be welcomed to the feast.

We fear for our lives and the lives of those we love, so we are tempted to worship our guns, and our military, and condone violence, convincing ourselves that peace simply isn’t possible.

White society fears the black male we meet in the street, so we are tempted to detain him, shoot him, and kill him.

Yes, fear often leads us away from God and from God’s expectations of us.

So what are we to do? Because fear will always be a part of our human reality.

Many religious traditions talk about the state of enlightenment as a spiritual goal. Enlightenment involves both the mind and the heart and can be described as a state of being “awake” or “completely open” to emotions, such as sadness and pain—our own or others—which fosters empathy and compassion within us. Enlightenment is also connected to our ability to love—the heart opens, flowers, blooms in this state of enlightenment leading us to see as God sees—leading us to see through eyes of love.

Fear blocks us from achieving enlightenment because fear builds walls around our hearts—walls that we think can protect us—like the fence around our home, or the wall built along our border, or the wall of prejudice and ignorance we allow to go unchallenged—or the emotional walls of anger, indifference, arrogance, or pride. We think, in our fear, that these walls can protect us. But the enlightened heart knows that the only thing that can actually protect us is love, compassion, genuine care and concern for others, and the peace that comes when we let go of the illusion that we are in control.

So, returning to Exodus 32, how would this story have been different had Aaron sat his people down for prayer and meditation once he recognized their fear? How would this story have been different had Aaron acknowledged their fear in genuine love and compassion, but then (instead of jumping to build an alternative god) he sat down, got quiet, turned inward, and focused on opening himself and his people to the living God? How would this story have been different had Aaron guided his people by faith, rather than fear? How would your story be different? How would our story be different?

[Feature Image: Loretta Prencipe]

Hell Bent to Persuade: Donald Trump’s Choice of Fear as a Political Tool

44264051_33407bc16c_oWhen I served as the pastor of a Presbyterian church down South, I learned of an event common for local Baptists on Halloween. Instead of a Haunted House, these churches would sponsor a Hell House and invite children and youth of the community to go through. It was scary, and kids like scary at Halloween. So lots of them went. Parents would send their children, even as young as eight, to make their way through the house towards the message at the end. The second to the last scene of the Hell House did not feature ghosts or goblins or any creatures associated with Halloween fun. Instead, it was a passenger jet that had crashed or a brutal car accident. Church members lay around the wreckage, beaten up and bloodied, acting the part of the dead. Before the children left the scene, they were asked a straight forward question. Do you know where you are going when you die? Before given the chance to answer, though, they are shown another scene of the torturous pits of Hell. By the time the children make their way to the end, they are deeply frightened, some reduced to sobbing fits. So when they are asked the final question, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your eternal Savior?” their answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

Fear is an emotion often used (and abused, I would add) as a tool to win over, convert, or control. It’s an emotion ripe for manipulation because when it rises within us we are raw and vulnerable and easily shaped by any potter who steps to the wheel. Donald Trump, a man eager to take the seat of the potter, eager to get his hands into our national clay, is a master manipulator of emotions. I felt myself being manipulated as I sat down in my living room to watch the Republican National Convention and listen to his daughter, Ivanka, introduce him.

As I listened to Trump’s beautiful, smart, eloquent daughter, I thought, maybe, I was wrong about this man. She spoke of her father’s company employing more women executives than men and supports family leave. Her father was a man who is color blind and gender neutral, she said, and I found myself wanting, or maybe just hoping to believe her— hoping to believe that this man who has garnered so much support, this man who many want to become THE man, the most POWERFUL man, was actually good and kind and fair. Was the report I read about how he violently raped the 13-year-old girl a lie? Was he not the distractible sociopath who will do anything for attention that his ghost writer wrote of—the sociopath this ghost writer fears will be the “end of civilization” if he has the nuclear code? Ivanka painted a picture of a loyal father, a wise mentor, a man who runs for President only because he wants to serve. Earlier in the convention, Rudy Giuliani spoke of Trump’s anonymous charity and good deeds for which he never wanted any credit. And then, Donald himself walks on stage, begins his speech humbly, gratefully, using the word “we.” But all of this—this picture of a kind, generous, self-sacrificing, good and fair man—faded for me as Trump began to shout.

He shouted that we will be a country of “law and order”, that the “attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” I heard these words and wondered how he could succeed while ignoring, blatantly disregarding, the cries of Black Lives Matter, the injustice of police brutality, the needs of the African American community. He shouted about his way of “Americanism” that would replace the current way of “Globalism” and I wondered how he could succeed while clearly choosing not to play well with others.

He was succeeding, though, by the use of an effective tool. Stoking the fear of white middle-class Americans, leading them rhetorically through his own version of the Hell House, motivated people to vote for him. His claim was bold. He was the strong man, the savior, the hero who can protect and make us safe.

Donald Trump reveals how easily a country’s emotions can be exploited by a man hell bent on getting his way. To witness so many fellow Americans sucked in, manipulated, and emotionally abused by such a narcissist, makes me afraid, very afraid.

So Trump has also tapped my fear, but not to his own benefit. I am determined to speak out and act out against him. Fear, in a sense, is motivating—a heated, pulsing emotion that moves us out of complacency. But I wish it weren’t so effective. Just as I wonder about the damaging effects of fear used to convert in religion, I wonder about the long-term use of fear as a motivating force. The heat of fear cannot be sustained. It eventually burns out, or we do. A better, healthier, less abusive tool for persuasion and motivation, then, would be an appeal to our best self, our sense of justice, our desire—and need—to live in peace, rather than fear.

Terry Tempest Williams hooked me recently in her plea to save our National Parks. I heard her speak at an independent Iowa City bookstore, where she began, yes, by tweaking my chord of fear. “In their platform” Williams began, “the GOP proposes getting rid of all public land. This means all our national parks, monuments, and historical markers.”

As she spoke, I recalled trips with my family to Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. Those trips were capstone experiences for me as a child, as the beauty of the landscape called to mind the grandeur of our country and our ideals. Even with the boom of our population and our dependency on the limited resource of oil, how could anyone consider doing away with this public, protected land? Williams made me feel the heat.

But, as she continued, she turned to a different, more poetic tool for persuasion. She described beautifully, eloquently, what our public land provides. She shared an experience she had driving through Yellowstone, coming to a bison jam in the road. She inched her car forward, her windows down, her radio set for classical music. The bison, to Williams’ surprise, did not move away from her car, but inched closer, and closer, tilting their heads to listen to Vivaldi. I smiled at the picture she painted, and felt the emotion beauty stirs within, as Williams reminded, “We are not the only species that lives and loves on this planet.”

Our national parks are our “breathing spaces” Williams surmised, where veterans go after coming home from war to heal, learn to trust again, and open their hearts to beauty. They are where children are taken to learn that the world and those who live in it are not to be feared, but respected and cared for and protected. Our national parks are places 300 million visitors appreciate every year, perhaps because they know they need an alternative source of motivation, an alternative to the fear that will eventually destroy us if we do not seek a more peaceful and sustainable way.

Williams appealed to my sense of possibility, tapped my appreciation for beauty, and wove a message that stirred in me a desire to save—not by the threat of hell—but by the promise of heaven on earth, for those of us willing to strive towards it.


[Feature Image by mell]








Writing to Discover

6281142155_e8a8afcddb_oIn an essay I am writing about my son I am discovering just how much I love my children. This feels odd to write because of course I already know that I love my children. But as I challenge myself to go deeper in this essay, to be more truthful, to choose words that resonate with emotions that I rarely bring to the surface, I am discovering the power of this art I have chosen (or perhaps has chosen me.)

Yesterday, I hit a raw vein of truth—namely, the fear I bury that something bad will happen to my children. I imagine all parents hold this fear and bury it deep. It’s not an emotion we can live with on the surface or else we’d never let our children out the door in the morning, let alone get on that big yellow school bus which is sure to be full of bullies. I climbed into my fear yesterday, though, as I sat at my desk with my notepad and pen and picked that fear raw to see what was living there. Why would I do this? Why subject myself to such torture? Well, I guess because I’m learning that emotions are not to be avoided. The feelings our hearts yield are signs pointing us towards truth waiting to be discovered—truth about who we are, how we are, and how we relate to the world. I learn so much when I honor my emotions enough to sit with them.

Out of the raw place of fear that I mined yesterday, the love I hold for my children overcame me like a wave grabbing and ripping me away from the safety of shore. It was a love that moved so far beyond the healthy lunches I pack every night and the grass-stained clothes I endlessly launder and the good night cuddles I linger over. It was a love that hurt—a love that physically gripped me—a love that clearly needed to be safely managed and stored back away so it wouldn’t devour and consume me. Good God, now I know what it means to call love a risk. Because to lose the source of this love—like many parents I know have—would be near impossible to survive.

Writing brought all this to the surface for me. I walked around for the rest of the day with my unsurfaced love jangling about like a bundle of unplugged chords. Then, my children came home from school and I was extra attentive. I stroked their little blond heads. I bathed them tenderly, relishing the chance to wash the day’s dirt and sweat and crumbs and routine chocolate smears off their growing-up-too-fast bodies. I kissed them and hugged them and clung to them before tucking them into their beds and thanking God that, for the moment, they were safe.

I don’t want to live in fear. Because that’s not really living. But I do want to live awakened, alive to the emotions that drive me and the truth that can be uncovered, or recovered, when I am willing to honor all that is inside. Writing is the path that takes me there. What path do you choose?


[Feature Image: Ramiro Ramirez]


The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 2)

Fear 1On a bright summer morning, I dropped my 5-year-old daughter off at day camp placing her in the care of counselors who all appeared to be in high school. Looking at Ella’s counselors I remembered myself at their age, and the parents who entrusted their children to me. I didn’t take the same precautions with those children as I do now, with my own. I suspected the same was true of these teenagers. But I was too busy with Ella’s transfer–lunchbox (check), bathing suit and towel (check), water bottle (check), sunblock and bugspray (check)—to give my worry much attention. The camp counselors were busy too, loading my daughter up in a 15-passenger van. They were taking the kids on a trip to the lake.

Driving away from the drop-off, the image of my tiny, tow-headed daughter, climbing into the camp van stayed with me. Arriving at my office, unlocking the door, arranging my desk to tackle my long list of to-do’s, my mind kept returning to my daughter in the van.

Then, a premonition overcame me; a feeling, a knowing. My mind pictured the tragedy—a van overturned with my daughter’s body inside it.

The urge to go and get her—to chase down that van, find my daughter, pull her into my arms and keep her with me for the rest of the day—swelled. Fear flooded my nervous system and I broke into a sweat.

Am I crazy? Or is this a sign? Will I regret this forever if I don’t go and get her? How could this possibly be true? I was suffering terribly and almost succumbed. My car keys were in my hand when I remembered my practice.

So I took my suffering to the mat and sat with it. This was a tough one because the fear was like violence within me. It was beating me up inside, clubbing my heart, contracting my lungs, scorching me with its heat from the inside out. It was almost unbearable. But I sat with it and breathed. I leaned into my suffering instead of running away from it, or running immediately to resolve it. And, like my anger previously, I eventually felt the urgency of my fear dissipate. The oxygen calmed my nerves and restored my reason. I was still afraid, but not overwhelmed. And in this new state I realized that I had to let Ella go…and keep letting her go…because her life and mine could not be ruled by fear.

Our suffering has much to teach us, and yet we do everything possible to avoid it or get rid of it. I am becoming much more aware of my suffering now and my power to sit with it. This, in turn, has led me to become more aware of the suffering of others. The faces of humanity rise in my mind as I sit on my mat. I hold each in my heart, just as I hold my own fragile self. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, believes that the world would be a more peaceful and compassionate place if we all practiced meditation. As I stop to imagine this—a world that could learn from its own suffering and not be ruled by fear—I give thanks for the profound gifts of a simple practice.