That Thing About Fear

I’ve lived with my old pal fear for a very long time. I don’t know if I struggle with fear more or less than the average person (who, by the way, has ever met this mythical average person?), but I do know that I’ve endured seasons in my life where I thought fear might ruin me, where the anxieties felt so overwhelming, so deafening, that I could no longer imagine a day when I would feel hope or lighthearted again.

These experiences attack your personhood. They make you feel weak and ashamed because you know you’re supposed to be able to handle your life, you’re supposed to be able to do basic stuff like have coffee with a friend or cuddle with your kids or drive your car to work without thinking you’re about to lose your everlovin’ mind.

There’s a lot to be said about all this, but for those who are in the midst of this dark hole, you must hear me: there’s lots of help. Our lives don’t have to lock into this debilitating cycle forever. A few good friends make a world of difference – and if you haven’t entrusted your story to someone, take that leap. It’s not that having friends makes the noise go away, but it does mean you’ll have someone to go grab a taco or see a movie with you when the noise hits an unbearable decibel. Also, doctors and therapists are your allies here. I know therapists can be expensive, but don’t let that stop you. Exercise and being outside does wonders. Sometimes your biochemistry is off, and meds do the trick. And sometimes, you have to just gut it out, at least for a little while. You have to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking, choosing to believe that the crazy circus show that’s camped out in your head will not stay forever.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about my fears. Maybe this will be helpful to you, maybe not. Whenever I fear something in a compulsive, runaway train kind of way, I’ve learned that I have to step into the fear, not away from it. If I fear an interaction with a person, I step toward them. If I fear a certain social setting, I move into it. I don’t do this all the time, creating some whole other loony compulsion. Rather, when the time seems right or when my action is required in order for me to be present with those I love, I buckle up and do the opposite of what my fears tell me.

There’s psychological language for what I’m describing, but for me, it’s merely my refusal to allow my fears to control me. Whenever I enact this courage, it doesn’t mean my fear immediately evaporates (I may still feel anxious energy pulsing or I may still have wild chatter in my head). It only means I’ve decided that how I feel (fearful) does not define who I am (bold and hopeful). And I choose, in those moments, to act on the truth of who I am rather than on the lie of what I feel. This is a battle, and if I’ve made it sound easy, I lied. But it’s a good battle, and over time, the skirmishes lessen in frequency and intensity.

Here’s the thing: Fear’s gonna do what fear’s gonna do. We have to just keep on living.

Good Tidings {second week of advent}

starry night

Get you up to a high mountain,
     O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
     O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
     lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
     “Here is your God!”
       {Isaiah}

The prophet’s words on the opening days of Advent gave the body an alarming jolt. Anger and indignation. Disillusionment and fatigue. These are not revelations I expect to find printed on any of the holiday cards or included in any of the annual Christmas letters that will soon cover our kitchen blackboard. Advent leads us to joy, but first it reckons with the grief. And we’ve had more than a small share of grief in recent weeks, haven’t we? There are moments when I do wonder whether we will make it, whether this old world might not just release a final, death-rattle gasp and release us into the dark.

But the prophet who weeps is also the prophet who refuses to surrender hope. Isaiah, after the tears and the sorrows have their proper say, kneels beside the haggard woman, the broke-down man. Isaiah drapes his arm around weary shoulders and whispers into tired ears, Get up, now. Get up. This is not where it ends. We have work to do. And the work is to announce good tidings.

When the time has come (and only then – but absolutely then), we dry our tears. We shake the soot and the ashes from our head and our heart. We grab the weathered hands of those around us, and we sing. Our shaky voices unite in a happy song of protest and faith. We drench the cold night with a melody that heralds our stubborn insistence: We are not forgotten. Here is our God!

As God’s people, we weep and mourn over the world’s travails, over our own regrets and sadness. We do not peddle false fantasies. However, far more, we are belligerent in hope. We sing the glad song with tenacious, raspy voices. We cry into the dark. It is not only angels who bring good tidings of great joy. This work is ours as well. So, we lift up our hearts. And we sing.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 40:1-11.

Groan {first week of advent}

Wintercholia.Small

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… {Isaiah}

Whenever Advent becomes the parlance of The Economy or The Industry (especially the Christian industry), we can be certain the Advent known by frightened shepherds and half-crazed prophets, the Advent familiar to a gutsy virgin and a threadbare people, has grown (to some degree) estranged to us. Advent’s force does not arrive via strategically orchestrated initiatives, certainly not from a writer’s well-timed Advent series. The very best we can do is hold tight and try not to mangle the whole affair while we wait for the mystery to happen.

Advent’s force does not answer cue, bidden by the craft of preacher, activist or entrepreneur. Advent first pierces the cold air as a desperate groan from those living at the jagged edges, from those who taste sorrow’s bitterness, those accustomed to the crush of disappointment, of fear. Advent comes first for those who have made a wreck of things, those who carry a legitimate complaint, for those whose existence teeters on the brink. If you do not know any pain, if you have no yearning for what is not yet true, if you have no pang of grief for your sorrow or the sorrow of another…if there is no raw, raspy voice somewhere in the hollows of your soul that every now and again whispers into the ravaging night, God, please…Please tear the heavens and come down… then some of what Advent offers will always stand remote for you.

And this is okay; it simply means you’re not yet ready. But tuck this in your pocket because someday… someday you will be.

Israel cried out for Yahweh to rend the skies, to move, to act — precisely because God was not acting. For generations, God had gone silent, and Israel, fearful that their history and their future might finally be extinguished, begged God to do what God had done for the ancients. On Sinai, the mountain trembled under the weight of the Voice, and on Sinai, Israel (besieged by the thunder and the darkness and the deluge) trembled as well. On Sinai, the people’s terror was so great that they wanted nothing to do with this God who cracks the sky, and they pleaded for Moses to deal with God and leave them be. But now the fear of ruin loomed larger than the fear of thunder. Now Israel stood desperate for God to act, to speak, to do anything that might assure them they were not abandoned.

And God would act. The Heavens would rip asunder so Love could descend. But now is not the time for that story, not yet. This is the moment for the groan, for the question of whether we will survive, the moment to wonder if there will be anything left of us at all.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I will reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 64:1-9.

Shalom. Now and Always.

Countryside Milky Way

In John’s gospel, each time Jesus encounters his friends and disciples during the wild days immediately after his resurrection, he pronounces a new reality, a blessing: Peace to you. Jesus does not speak these words in tepid piety, clinging desperately to a hope that peace might one day arrive. Rather, Jesus stands bold and strong, a Man drenched in victory. When you have descended into the depths of Hades and delivered a piercing, fatal blow to death itself, I suppose you are done with the niceties, disinterested in vague spiritual platitudes. You must speak the unadorned truth. Peace.

For us, the word peace can carry too docile a tone. As you know, peace emerges from the Hebrew word shalom which evokes well-being, an end of hostilities, the world made right. Shalom does not suggest (for it would be insanity if it did) that there is no such thing as violence, isolation, relational rubble, economic devastation or systemic injustice. Rather, shalom (whenever declared by Jesus and enacted by Jesus’ community through the Spirit) announces that the order of the world, because of Jesus’ Triumph, has met its match.

In those first post-resurrection days, Jesus did not suggest to the disciples that their life, hard-scrabble as it was, would soon all turn up tulips and lilies. Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, surely inflicting confusion and anxiety. Soon enough, Jesus’ teaching about the persecution and hardships his followers would endure became the disciples’ reality. Yet Jesus declared shalom. Shalom in the midst of (not escape from) the world as it actually was, in desperate need of God’s transformation.

Shalom does not mean we deny all that lies shattered around us. Neither does it mean we escape into some internal privatized spirituality, not knowing how else to make sense of the harsh discontinuity between God’s shalom and our ruins. Rather, shalom means that God stands bold and strong in the dead center of our weary lives and speaks the reality – that God is with us, that God will not leave us, that one day the story will come to God’s good end.

Shalom means we can join with St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

What’s Coming

long road

Perhaps some of us have a distaste for Lent because our life is already shot through with sorrow. We can’t bear days giving any more weight to what is broken, to all we lack. But Lent, we must remember, is far more than only a way to reckon with the wrong. It is even more a way of priming ourselves for the good. Disconnected as we are from communal rhythms, Lent runs the risk of becoming merely another exhausting exercise in isolated spiritual effort. I’d suggest we let that business go.

These days are a gift to receive, not simply another place where we buckle down and exert our last ounce of self-discipline. These ashen days allow us to welcome those who mourn, those life has bent low, those excluded from a life always lived on the upbeat. In a world of plastic cheer, Lent can provide a much-needed space for hospitality to those who are, for the moment, estranged to joy.

Best of all, Lent provides an extended space for the imagination, a stretch of time to dream of bright sunshine and hearty laughter, to lean toward all the raucous joy to come. Lent is not merely an affirmation of a world shot-to-hell but rather a promise that death’s days are numbered. Sorrow holds claim only to the few, fleeting night hours – but have you ever tried to hold back the morning, to chain the sun? We best ready ourselves for the fire and light. No one can stop the morning. No one can stop life.

Sunday’s text told us that Abraham believed in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. This gives us the heart of Lent. What we know, real as it is, does not rule the day. Whatever is dead, whatever goodness does not yet exist – this is God’s Easter work. This is what we have coming.

Ashes to Wood

This world is a splendid and magnificent thing. Our lives are wonders to behold. Having no language to top the Creator’s own description, we take a wide, contented gaze and simply exhale, “My, my, this world is good.”

But we are in disarray these days, our world and our lives seeming so fragile, our bright hopes sullied. The truth is there’s much evil and sadness in our world, too much death and too much anger and too many stories of friends and strangers clinging at the brink. Some of us have lost our keen-eyed wanderlust for the horizon, the splendors ahead, the good to come. We are no longer able to hold on to the belief that bright love will write the final chapter.

But it will, friends, it will. The God of all love and goodness, the God who promises to bring tears and evil to its end, is not fragile. God has not forgotten. “My, my, this world is good.”

So have hope. Dig in. Love bold. Go dance. Write a novel. Make babies. Clean up a river. Plant a grove. Bike the Eastern shore. Rent a convertible and tour Route 69. Receive the Eucharist with gusto. Learn to play the sax. Give yourself to big ideas and big causes. Laugh in the face of fear. Do something foolish with a friend simply because they’re your friend. Grab the one you love and kiss them extra hard and extra long. Cry. And then laugh. And then cry again.

If the Christian story says anything at all, it says this: the gloom we know is not the final tally. The God who named the world good gets the final say. The heart of Christian hope is the promise that death is, in the end, merely a two bit player in the great drama.

In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, the pastor offered the eulogy at the funeral of a young girl who died tragically and too soon, and he knew this hope:

The preacher coughed and asked for silence and said he had a few final words. He went through the formalities of prayer and the old biblical Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but then he said that it was his firm belief that ashes could someday return to wood, that was the miracle not just of heaven, but the miracle of the actual world, that things could be reconstituted and the dead could come alive, most especially in our hearts

Ashes return to wood. Sorrow to gladness. Cold hearts burn again. One day, everyone will experience the truth that is already here, if we’ll see it. My, my, this world is good.

Advent Hope #adventpicaday

Jeromie Rand.FrozenIt’s been said, at least a time or two, that a picture’s worth a thousand words. I buy it. But, as any son longing for home or any mother listening for love will tell you – it’s also true that sometimes a word’s worth a thousand pictures.

Bottom line: Pictures matter. Words matter. Love matters. Hope matters. A kiss under the moonlight matters. Tucking your boys in at night matters. It all matters.

But we’ll soon be moving into Advent, and the quiet, watchful Advent days are days particularly keen on opening up tired eyes and adding a twinkle when you don’t see it coming. Last year, a few of us helped one another pay attention, to see the days before us, by snapping a picture that spoke of Advent mercies. I figured why not go for it again.

Here’s how it works. This year’s theme will be hope. We’re watching for signs of hope, for things that give us hope – and also for the places we pray hope will arrive. As many days of Advent as you’re able (and please, let this be easy, no pressure or discipline or any such thing – this is Advent, mercy-time, for crying out loud), snap a photo (like the one above – Jeromie Rand gave us this one last year) and post it on Instagram with #adventpicaday in the caption field. That way, we’ll all see what you see.

It is this joyful expectation of God’s coming that offers vitality to our lives. The expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us is what allows us to pay full attention to the road on which we are walking. {Henri Nouwen}

Now that’s hope.