Lenten Journey: The Christ Candle

I wrote this years ago for a dark spring day. It seems appropriate again. Truth be told, my Christ candle has been burning every day since January 20. The candle has been a faithful reminder this Lenten season too. 

Advent is the season of waiting for the Christ. It’s typically celebrated during the month of December as the church collective waits, again, with eager expectation for the arrival of Jesus—joining in the ancient longing for His first coming and looking forward to His second arrival. Often a special wreathe with four candles encircling it is used to count down the weeks. Each week a different part of the narrative or a different virtue is commemorated. A pink or lavender candle is lit for joy or for hope or to remember the shepherds or the angel’s part in the Old, Old Story.

And normally there is a fifth white candle, the Christ Candle, which is lit in tremendous elation on Christmas morning. Christ has come. He is here. The waiting is over. He has arrived.

Obviously I put away the Christmas decorations months ago. But the past several years I’ve kept the Christ Candle out into the new year.

I light it when the worries are too consuming and I need to remember that Christ is here.

I light it when the world is in shambles—Egypt is volatile, Pakistan is again attacked, Syria is still unrested, political corruption spreads here and around the globe. I light it and I bring to mind that Christ is Ever Present.

I light it when my friends are hurting: someone’s roof is leaking, someone’s child is sick, someone is overworked, someone is facing a new job and is nervous, someone struggles at family reunions to remember she is truly loved. I light my precious white candle and I recall that Christ Himself attends to my friends. He cares deeply and personally for each one. He alone is the light in their dark night.

I light my Christ candle when I fear for my own children, when I see the anxieties of their souls creep out on to their faces, when I know by their eyes that they are weary and worn down, afraid or battling loneliness and longings beyond their ages. I light my candle then.

I light it for myself too. Sometimes the sorrow is too great. Sometimes the sadness threatens to steal all joy. Sometimes my own weaknesses, my own sins, my own selfishness consume me. Sometimes I worry, I fret, I fear. Anxiety and panic dance on the edges of my sanity. I light it then. I deliberately recollect that Jesus is very near, he is Emmanuel, God with us. The waiting is over. I can breathe. I can trust. I can rest. The flickering flame repeats these seemingly fragile truths back to my knowingly fragile soul and I am comforted.

 

During Lent we also are in waiting. We wait with the seeds sleeping in the soil. We wait with the dead resting in the grave. We wait with Friday for the news of Sunday. We wait for Resurrection! We wait for new life!

                                    ~St Patrick’s Prayer~

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

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Lenten Journey: A Lenten Vent

Over my personal church history, I wasn’t really exposed to Lent as a practice. As a young girl we attended a Baptist church, and later I went to an interdenominational boarding school and a Bible college of the same variety. There was a brief season at St John’s Shaughnessy, an Anglican church in Vancouver, before I met Lowell and we headed to India. There we attended an international fellowship made up of a wonderful blend of countries and cultures. Now Lowell and I go to an Evangelical Free church of Scandinavian descent.

I suppose it was in India at the international fellowship where I was first really introduced to the idea of Lent. I remember my friend, Ellen, who had grown up Methodist, deeply contemplating what she would take up for Lent. That intrigued me. She seemed to really examine herself, she took her propensities and weaknesses seriously. Motivated by nothing but true longing that Christ be more fully formed in her she chose carefully a self-imposed discipline or a fast to serve as her trainer.

I had never really entertained the idea before but here was a close friend modelling what it might be like to intentionally choose a path of preparation for Holy Week. Since then Lent is something I anticipate. I look forward to the lean long days of discipline. I think and pray about abstinences and observances. I consider areas of my life where I seem to have given over control to calories, or indulgences, or sloth. I search out my sore spots, my weak places, my gluttonies, my greed and I seek out the Great Physician and his suggested treatment. Some years I’ve given up social media, other years sugar in my coffee or sweets. I’ve given up certain television shows. I’ve given up bread. I’ve written a daily thank you note. This year I’m going for a daily walk.

Last year just as Ash Wednesday was dawning and friends on Facebook were saying goodbye-announcing their intentions to be absent from that digital social space for the duration of their Lenten journey—another well-meaning friend, boldly posted that Lent is unnecessary and unuseful. He flouted his freedom to not participate. He proclaimed that he’s always aware of the death and resurrection of Christ, that no preparation is necessary for him, since Christ himself made all the preparations necessary for our redemption. His Facebook post stirred something up in me. To be honest, it made me more than a little angry. It seemed to me that he had missed the entire point.

I don’t have to observe Lent. There is nothing in scripture that commands that I do so. I do not assume that it impresses God, that my denial of self accumulates any heavenly points. I don’t fast during Lent because I have to, rather I observe Lent because I get to.

I think many Christ followers are so committed to grace and to the freedom they’ve experienced as a result of the deeply freeing knowledge that there is nothing they can do to earn God’s favour that they’ve thrown out many of the spiritual disciplines we can choose to engage for the purpose of deepening our faith. It’s as if, in a visceral response against legalism, they’ve actually legalized grace. Any ancient spiritual practice that hints at a rule or an imposition has been abandoned. They no longer want to think about obedience, or confession, or fasting.

But there’s great benefit in practicing Lent that I don’t want to miss out on. There is a sense that in observing Lent, we participate in the sufferings of Christ. We identify with the great sacrifices he made on our behalf. It’s a way to cultivate empathy with our Saviour. It’s a way to pause and remember all that he did for our great benefit, our great blessing.

Lent also humbles me if I let it. It’s big and long and beyond my normal capacity for self-deprivation. In order to do it well I must throw myself on the mercy of Jesus. I need his help in giving up myself: my cravings, my self-obsessions, my fickle wants. And when I fail I get to experience the humiliating reality that I have simply done that: fail. Nothing changes in the spiritual realm. I’m still deeply beloved. I’m still invited to continue to pursue, even as I am completely pursued. I can experience the profound God of A Million Second Chances. I can come back, soak in his undeserving grace and start again.

Lent also affirms the reality that our bodies and our spirits are braided together. We are wholly one—our bodies providing the container, the temple, the vessel– for our souls. How I live in my body matters. Our emotions, our faith, our food, our sleep habits, our exercise routines, the prayers we pray, our splinters and bruises are all inextricably linked. As I drag my body out the door for my morning Lenten journey/morning walk I know this full well.

In participating in Lent I’m joining together with my brothers and sisters worldwide who are also observing Lent. The communion of saints from yesteryear who’ve given something up to better remember the death and resurrection of Christ—I’m part of that circle. Those that have yet to be born, yet to choose to live leanly during their Lenten expression—I’m part of that circle too.  Lent connects me to a larger reality outside my own self. It allows me to join with others on a pilgrimage journey that winds around the wide world, picking up people from the far away gatherings of scattered believers, to the cross of Christ. From where I stand I can see people from every tongue, tribe and nation.

I, for sure, do not have to sacrifice for Lent but it’s what I get to do. It’s a privilege that I’m pleased to practice.

The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, doing penancerepentance of sins, almsgivingatonement, and self-denial….In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance. Many Christians also add a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional or praying through a Lenten calendar, to draw themselves near to God. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ’s carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed. Many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches remove flowers from their altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are often veiled in violet fabrics in solemn observance of the event. Throughout Christendom, some adherents mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat, most notably among Roman Catholics. (Wikipedia)

 

“Pardon Our Dust”

We invite you to follow along with Marilyn and Robynn, both grace-desperate Christ followers– one a newly welcomed Orthodox the other a patchwork Protestant– on their Lenten journey. This is the first in this honestly human series.

 

Lowell and I, together with some friends, attended the evening Lenten Service at St Paul’s Episcopal church on Ash Wednesday. The nave is under construction and we met in the basement of the annex. Father Patrick took that inconvenient and unfortunate circumstance and skillfully wove it into the homily. He recalled another renovation experience he had when he was in grade six. At that time the Kansas City airport was under a significant renovation process. To his boyhood mind it seemed to be in disrepair for years. What stands out in his memory is the sign that was posted all over the airport for the duration of the project, “Pardon our Dust.” He went on to use the same disclaimer in connection with the church’s current construction project, pardon our dust.

During the homily Father Patrick said something I’m not likely to forget, “Ash Wednesday is the most honest day of the Christian calendar.” And it’s true, isn’t it? Ash Wednesday is a day we intentionally declare our brokenness, our need of rescue, our deep understanding that there is nothing we can do in our own strength or ingenuity to bring about the transformation we all need. We are marked with the sign of the cross, “Remember that you are dust and it is to dust you shall return.” We are reminded of our fragility and our brevity. Wearing the ashes on our forehead we announce to ourselves and to the world that we stand in need of grace and perpetual mercy.

Pardon our dust.

When we lived in North India we rented an ancient old stone house on the banks of the Ganges river. When we first moved in there were walls down and thick weeds growing up over some of the debris. The room that would later be transformed into a guest room had a hole in the roof and bird nests in the rafters. Mold grew up the walls of the courtyard. There were rocks piled up in front of the house. Termites had eaten door frames and window ledges. Another building that would later be changed into a retreat center was completely over run with branches and buried in its own brokenness.  Slowly we began to clear things out. Working together with friends we hired a contractor who rebuilt the guest room, added a bathroom and toilet and a sitting room. Over time we reclaimed corners in the courtyard and we planted flowers. We cut back the mango tree to allow in some sunshine. A kitchen was built, windows were screened, doors were repaired. Rocks were eventually cleared out, grass was grown, more flowers planted. Friends moved in after we left and more space was sanctified. It became this beautiful sacred place.

The thing that used to irk me the most, was when visitors would come, and like us, they would see the potential in the property. They had, of course, no idea how much work had already been done. All they could see was what could be done. They saw implicit promise and they’d remark on it.

Wow… this property is amazing!

Think about what you could do with the place!

The possibilities are limitless.  

Have you ever thought about planting a garden?

How did you find this place? It has so much potential.

Perhaps we should have posted signs, Pardon our dust. Acknowledging the potential seemed to deny the ongoing agonies of transformation we had already embarked on. It didn’t honour the work, the tears, the frustrations, the sweat, the struggle, the effort we had already expended. What we needed was for our guests to Pardon our Dust. We longed for them to admit the work of transformation, to see our desperate need for grace in the ongoing work of redemption. To sit with us in the place of brokenness. To have eyes to see the beauty in all of it–the broken bits, the cleaned up corners, the salvageable spaces. To clearly imagine what yet might happen, what glory might yet be shed across the yard, what visions of continued growth might be just around the corner.

Pardon our Dust also serves to remind us that these are temporary times. There is an end in sight. It’s true we’re limping along now, accommodations are being made, we’re making the appropriate changes. Like any renovation or construction project there is a beginning, a middle and an end. We will get through this. We will be made over. Transformation will happen.

Lent gives us this profound opportunity to admit our great need for a savior. For a season we’re honest about our propensity to sin and selfishness. We acknowledge our need. As a community we readily admit we need each other. We journey toward the cross. We travel together, human and humbled, knowing we’re on the way to reformation, all the while aware we are dust and our terrible need for pardon.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a

season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

(from The Book of Common Prayer)

The Grand Unraveling

For several months I had been calling Trump’s impending presidency The Grand Unraveling. He made campaign promises that seemed horrifying to me, he boldly made declarations of things he would do, things he would undo. During those campaigning days things seemed bleak, ominous even, but most of the time I assumed he was using loud words that would surely prove hollow.

And now here we are. President Trump has been in the White House for just over a month and The Grand Unraveling has begun in earnest. Or at least that’s how I’ve felt over the past two weeks. To make matters worse I’ve also felt powerless to prevent it. Yes, we’ve prayed persistently, our family has participated in peaceful protests, I’ve made calls to Representatives and Senators. Still it has felt like I’ve been helpless to do anything. Things have been coming undone and the world has seemed scary and unstable.

Thinking about unraveling however, made me remember a story from my childhood which has given me cause for pause.

When I was a girl we used to go to the Lundah Bazaar on the main street of Layyah, the town where I grew up. Lundah Bazaar was a wonderful prequel to Good Will and other secondhand stores I’ve come to love. There were piles of used clothes laid out on plastic sheets on the ground. Rumour had it that these were clothes sent into Pakistan as foreign aid but sold instead to retailers who in turn sold it to eager customers. Auntie Helen, Mom and I were some of those eager customers. We loved to go and rummage. If we saw something in the stack, we’d reach in and grab it, hold it up, inspect it, and either toss it back on top of the cloth hill or hand it to the shopkeeper to add to our own growing pile of things to buy.

Auntie Helen always bought sweaters. She’d inspect them carefully before purchasing them. These sweaters weren’t examined for being fashionable or trendy, but for the quality of the wool or yarn that was used. Auntie Helen would take them back to her friends in the villages, who would unravel the sweaters carefully. Younger women would roll the recently undone sweaters into skeins to be later used in the making of something new.  Auntie Helen was always very generous with my brother and me. If she thought we might like something she went out of her way to make it happen. She doted on us with treats and new books; with silly games and impromptu parties. More than anything, Auntie Helen wanted us to have a happy Pakistani childhood. But, having said that, she was quite protective of the sweaters she chose that had potential to be remade. I remember a fuzzy pink sweater with wonderful buttons that I noticed almost at the same moment Auntie Helen did. I hoped against hope that it wouldn’t pass her inspection. I groaned inwardly when she added it to her pile. When I sighed a little and maybe suggested that I might like that sweater to wear myself, she simply smiled and picked up the next woolen garment.

Auntie Helen had bigger things in mind. She knew the procedure and normally I loved to see the process unfold as the sweaters were unraveled, rolled and reworked into booties, and baby hats, sweaters and sweater vests. It felt like redemption. Auntie Helen was careful in her selection. The women were gentle in the undoing of the sweaters she brought them. The rollers did so with precision. The new knitters took pride in their creations. The old was gone; the new had come.

The unravelling wasn’t in vain. Even the pink sweater I loved, lost, and grieved had a higher purpose. Eventually somebody’s grandbaby would be decked out in a matching layette with a bonnet, a sweater, and drawstring booties with lovely large tassels of the same bright pink.

If Auntie Helen were still alive I think she’d have us pick up the frayed bits and start rolling them up, start making skeins, start twisting what we have into some sort of coiled ball. I suspect she’d refuse to think this was the end. She’d insist that this ratty remnant of what used to be a stable country might be put to good use. She’d see potential and hope. She’d examine it and imagine new things made from the old.

It takes energy to stand ready to collect what’s falling apart, what’s falling off, what’s fraying away. It takes discernment to see which parts are worth salvaging. It takes strength and stamina to roll, and wind, twist and coil the strands of an unwound country onto a reel. It takes courage and creativity to see what might yet be. It takes a prophetic imagination to see the Kingdom beyond and past and outside the borders of the country. It takes a sacred vision to imagine a country so radically different that we wouldn’t recognize if but for the scant shades of blue, white and red worked under the tapestry of red and yellow; black and white. It takes hope to see past the present desolation to the promise of full redemption and restoration.

God bless us all as we do the work of collecting, rolling, sharing, knitting and recreating.

 

(*Photo credit: Kari Patterson)

 

 

 

Yesterday I Baked a Cake

Yesterday I baked a cake. It’s my birthday on Sunday and yesterday I baked a birthday cake for myself. Later this morning I will spread a raspberry filling between the layers, I will make an almond-flavoured frosting and I will ice it generously. I’ll sprinkle the cake with almond shreds and I’ll carefully load the cake in to the car and take it down the road to share with a group of Catholic nuns and fellow spiritual direction students.

Over the years—the nearly 47 years, I’ve had many marvelous cakes lovingly prepared for me. When I was a little girl my mom made wonderfully creative cakes. She had a green plastic box small filing box filled with cards that each contained colourful and fanciful cake ideas. Mom turned out train cakes and clown cakes and heart shaped cakes. But the cake I remember the most fondly was the one that became my favourite, the one I’d ask for each year, it was her homemade angel food cake. She’d wrap coins in plastic wrap and push them deep into the light and luscious cake. She smothered the cake in a lavish layer of Quick Fluffy Frosting (because I loved it, but also because it was made from granulated sugar and good powdered sugar was impossible to find in our back corner of Pakistan).

My first birthday in India my friend Dianne made a delicious cake. She had heard stories of my childhood favourite and she went out of her way to replicate that nostalgic cake memory including the plastic covered rupee coins placed strategically in the cake. Ellen once made me this unbelievable lemon log rolled cake filled with a decadent lemon curd. The thought of that cake still make my mouth water.  Several years ago, Susanne, made me an almond layered cake drenched in almond liqueur. It was delicious! Other dear friends have made other dear cakes. There have been cakes at team meetings, cakes after our International Fellowship church service, cakes with friends at birthday tea parties or birthday lunches.

When I turned 40 my friend Yvonne made and decorated my birthday cake for the party that Lowell had organized and planned. It was perfect. Onto the sheet cake she designed a flag that incorporated the Canadian flag, the Pakistani flag, the Indian flag and the American flag. It captured my strange story so wonderfully and the memory of it brings tears to my eyes. I’ll never forget that cake!

Some of the most special cakes I’ve received have been ones that my daughter Adelaide has made and decorated. She’s mastered cake making and beautifying. It’s the perfect mix of math, science and creativity for her. She’s good at it! She made me a cake shaped like a tea cup once. A couple of years ago she made one that I especially loved with a bird cage piped on to it.

Yesterday I baked my own cake.

There are many years where making my own birthday cake would have made me very sad. I would have spread the cake with loneliness and sprinkled it with tears. Memories of other cakes from other years made by others who love me would have choked me as I creamed butter and sugar and eggs. The cake would be heavy and dry and tasteless.  But not this year. This year, as I baked, I was filled with gratitude and joy.  Lowell and I have taken a fast from sugar and carbohydrates. The anticipation of cake contributed to my happiness, I’m sure. But I also realized how much I am thankful for. I stirred that gratitude into the batter——for a warm house, sweet memories of cake and dear friends, for my children—all three passionate leaders true to their convictions, for my parents who are actively engaged in our lives, for my kind hearted mother in law, for Catholic sisters, my morning coffee, a refrigerator and pantry well stocked, bills paid, my one true Lowell.

I experienced wonder at the diverse and precious group of friends I’ve been given. I have close friends that keep my secrets. Each of the chapters in my story have included deep friendships—many of those friends I’m still connected to, they still very much matter to me, I miss them keenly.

There was worship blended into the cake dough too. I’ve been given so much. Jesus has been faithful. He’s been leading me, he’s been deepening my experience of the freedom he’s given me. I’ve learned so much these last years and months about the ways that I’m wired, the ways that I bear his image to the world, about my emotions, my personality, his emotions and his personality. I’ve discovered things about my identity—who I truly am—that intensify my connection with Christ himself.

Birthdays are a grace. I’m alive and I am loved. Cake is a luxury. I can afford sugar and flour and flavouring. Icing is mercy undeserved. I’ve been given so much I don’t deserve. There is so much to say thank you for. Yesterday I baked a cake and today I get to eat it. On Sunday Lowell and I plan to have dinner out with other beloved friends. By Monday this cake will be added to the list of treasured treats I’ve been bounteously blessed with.

Yesterday I baked a cake. Thanks be to God!

Attending to Our Souls

A couple of years ago, over Christmas, we dog-sat an unusual Greyhound named Pickles. Pickles was a large and awkward canine. He stood taller than our coffee table and took up a great deal of real estate in whatever room he occupied. Connor and his girlfriend at the time had planned on exchanging gifts at our house, in our living room. They sat on the floor and gave each other their presents. Pickles oddly enough felt the need to stand right between them. For those of us looking on there was no way to see the other side. The dog was in the way. Connor and his sweet friend bent down a little lower to see through Pickle’s legs. Our youngest daughter peered around the dog’s back end. Necks were craned, bodies tilted. Eventually with amusement, Lowell told Pickles to go lay down and Pickles regretfully and unwillingly complied.

In English, we have this expression, “the elephant in the room.” Google explains it as, “a major problem or controversial issue that is obviously present but avoided as a subject for discussion because it is more comfortable to do so.” Cambridge Dictionary defines it this way, “an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.”  Clearly, here in the United States, we have now an entire herd of elephants stomping and snorting, pacing and pooping in nearly every room we enter. The large, unpredictable, bull elephant is rumbling and trumpeting and he’s making lots of noise.

Marilyn feels very strongly that Communicating Across Boundaries should remain a politics-free zone. I understand that. Politics polarizes the public very quickly. Defenses go up, weapon-words are sharpened and launched and then people run for their corner. It’s virtually impossible, it seems, to have a calm conversation about these things. I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything different. We’re not merely musing over a distant theoretical system, we’re voicing values and convictions. Politics, on the level that matters, is deeply personal. It’s essentially about educating our children, keeping everyone healthy and safe, living peaceably within our communities, protecting the vulnerable, paving our streets, mending our bridges.

Last weekend our son, Connor, called from Canada. During the conversation, I made some comment related to the state of the Union and he balked, “I don’t want to talk about politics,” he said. I suspect my response was rather quick and a tad bit harsh, “I understand that. But you live in a different country where you have the privilege of breathing different air. Here it’s everywhere, it’s a part of every conversation, it’s the elephant in every room, it’s the air we breath! I’m afraid we no longer have that luxury–!”

Many of you know that I’m a Spiritual Director. When a Spiritual Director encounters elephants in the room he or she is trained to look past the elephant to the heart of the matter–to your heart which matters. We might name the elephant but we might not. What really is of critical importance is what’s being stirred up in you because of the elephant. A Spiritual Director helps you explore how you feel about the elephant, what uncomfortable places you’re avoiding and why, what it might look like to press into those places. A Spiritual Director is curious about your soul, about your responses to the world around you, about the ways you are encountering God.

It’s time to attend to our souls. There are activists among us who are resisting the elephant’s movement. There are fact checkers and ethics committee members that are scrutinizing the elephant’s loud bellows. Courts in the land, run by judges committed to “swear to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth,” are holding the elephant and his trainers to justice. But it’s our own responsibility to take care of our hearts.

How are you holding up? What emotions are surfacing in you? How are you dealing with those feelings? Can you recognize and name what’s happening inside you? Are there places of panic or fear or dis-ease welling up? Can you find the courage to step closer to Jesus with your troubled spirit? Do you know, has it been your experience, that you are deeply loved? Are there ways that you are trying to protect yourself from pain? Are you struggling to love your neighbor as you’ve struggled to love yourself? Are you isolating yourself? Do you need to seek out someone to help you hold steady to the soul work that’s ongoing in you? Are you being called to something beyond your soul’s borders? Can you identify what Jesus might be inviting you into? Is there something inside you preventing you from engaging?

This is a strange season. These are troubling times. The elephant is on the move and there’s a great deal of dust in the air. Can you take some time to tend to your own soul in the midst of the turmoil? Can you take a break from the resistance you might be involved in to ensure you’re not resisting your own center? Can you push pause on activity and contemplate your deeper core?  You might not be able to tell the elephant, as Lowell told the dog Pickles, to lie down, but maybe you can leave the room for just a little while. Give your soul a Sabbath from the messy elephant tromped up space. Take some deep breaths. And attend to your soul.

 

(*Photo credit: edie.net)

When Your Fear Goes Through the Roof–A Repost

I’ve worked for hours on a piece that isn’t ready yet…. I’m trying to wrangle some of my heart’s response to the past couple of weeks into words. It hasn’t gone smoothly. So until I get it done I give you this piece I wrote in November 2015. The situations have changed. Perhaps the fear hasn’t. 

Many people are sincerely afraid when they think on the events of the last few weeks: the twin attacks in Lebanon, suicide bombing in Afghanistan, the plane crash in Egypt, protests for justice and equal treatment on campuses across the US, the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Terrorism and the threat of violence have paralyzed people. What once only happened far away creeps closer with every news broadcast. Our world seems hazardous and our safety in great jeopardy. Fear has taken root and has quickly converted to a deep paranoia that colours every opinion, every conviction, every decision.

Consequently there is a growing number of American States that have emphatically decided to close their doors to Syrian refugees. Kansas Governor, Sam Brownback, in a recent editorial in the Wichita Eagle wrote with words wreaking of worry, “My first priority as governor is the safety of all Kansans, and in this dangerous environment, we must take prudent and responsible actions to protect our citizens. That is why I signed an executive order directing that no state agency, or organization receiving grant money from the state, will participate in or assist in any way in the relocation of Syrian refugees in Kansas.” (www.kansas.com/opinion)

Fear is universally understood. When I hear fear in another person’s words empathy for them rises up in me. I have felt afraid many times and it’s not a pleasant place to be. Even this past weekend I spent a nearly sleepless night battling my own set of freak-outs. Friday late afternoon, along with thousands of others, I learned of the Paris attacks for the first time. Lowell is scheduled to fly to Paris on November 25th. He along with thousands of delegates and participants is descending on Paris for the COP 21 International Climate Summit. By Saturday night fear had stirred up my soul into an intolerable frenzy. I turned and tossed all night. I’d fall off to sleep only to be awakened by dreams with bad guys and chases and dark corners and Lowell. I lied there and tried to speak reason to my tortured thoughts. But reason was weak when the lights were off. My imaginings wrecked havoc on all rational thought. I was afraid.

When faced with fear we have choices. We can give into it and let it control our behavior—which is what I did Saturday night with less than restful results. We can ignore it, silence it, stuff it down. Or we can bravely name it and bring it to the only place of hope for healing. The antidote for fear is always faith. The only analgesic for anxiety is peace.

Something happened on Sunday. Whereas Saturday night I was convinced that Lowell should cancel his planned travel to Paris, by Sunday afternoon I knew he should go. I had found a place to put my fear. This may seem overly simple. To the unafraid or to the petrified this might sound shallow and silly, perhaps even trivial or trite. But trust me. I have found a safe place to store my fear and you can too.

I’ve written before about the story in the gospels where the four men—hopeless to do anything to solve their lame friend’s problem—load him up on a makeshift stretcher (essentially an old bed) and they bring him to Jesus. Out of complete desperation, and in full awareness of their own weaknesses and limitations, they actually dig a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus is staying. There in plain view of a large crowd, the same crowd that kept them from going through the door, they lowered their friend down on his stretcher right in front of Jesus.

In the past I’ve done that for my friends and family members that have suffered. I’ve done that for whole countries. I’ve lowered all of Pakistan down on a large charpai (rope bed) at the feet of Jesus. I’ve prayed “dragging, lugging, lowering, pleading prayers” for whole regions. And now, maybe because I’ve had so much experience in doing this for others, I’m doing this for myself. I’m taking my fear through the roof–from up where it’s crescendoed down to Jesus where he ministers. My fears, my anxieties, my perpetual little panics, my worries, my what-ifs, my worst-case-scenarios—they are all laid out on a bed with a tear stained pillow case and turmoiled linens…and I’m laying them out at the feet of Jesus.

Yesterday a young friend asked me what that looks like to, “lay our worries at the foot of the cross,” or to “give our fears to Jesus”. Author Tim Keller says the imagination connects what we know to be true in our heads with what we long to experience in our hearts. There is great power in our imaginations. I imagine bundling up all my fears and bringing them to Jesus. I imagine his expression as he sees me approach. Sometimes in my mind’s eye I throw all my worries at him…as if he’s somehow to blame for it all. He just gently catches it. Sometimes I picture myself pitching my panic at him. He doesn’t even flinch. I cast my cares on him knowing full well he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).

Playing Whack-a-Mole with our emotions doesn’t work. We cannot bop these things away. We cannot stuff them down forever. Far better is to recognize what’s going on inside us. Allow our fears to surface—acknowledge their presence. Identify them. Name them. Be gentle with your worries. There is no shame in being afraid. And then lead your fears to the bed, to the stretcher. Help them climb on. Look around inside. “Search me, O God, and know my heart? See if there are any other anxious ways within me.” (Psalm 139:21) Trap the little fear foxes and tie them down on your makeshift stretcher.

I understand the fear that drives a person to curl up into the fetal position. I resonate with the temptation to shut down, to self protect, to hold on to those I love closer, tighter, with shorter reigns. But we are called to external living. We are called to step outside, to love others generously, to welcome strangers warmly. We are called to exit the constricting circle of our fears and to enter into the wide space of faith and grace. This will not happen unless we invite our fears out of the shadows and out into the light. When we openly admit we too are afraid, bravely carrying our strapped down fears to Jesus, even that is an act of trust and surrender. This is where the work of resisting the power of paranoia begins. The Spirit of God softens our souls and leads us courageously into the risky place of love.

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears (Psalm 34:4).

Giving our fears to Jesus is not magical. Anxieties aren’t immediately silenced. Fear isn’t –poof!—instantly gone. In fact nothing fundamentally changes. And yet, something noticeable does happen. Jesus does not ignore the cries of those who suffer. With his love, he calms your fears, he separates you from them, he releases you from their power. Remarkably he intentionally stays close to your broken heart. He has a special love and affinity for those who call out to him when they’re hurting. With a tangible presence he surrounds you with unfailing love and comforts you in your troubles. It’s of great consolation to me that there is nothing that can separate us from that love—not even our frenzied fears for today nor our worst-case-scenarios for tomorrow, as hellish as they may seem.

(Psalm 9:12, Zeph 3:17, Psalm 34:4 & 18, Psalm 145:18, Psalm 32:10, 2 Cor 1:3-4, Romans 8:38)