The Shenandoah and a Pattern of Grace

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Next to my desk, I have a shelf of books intended for the nourishment of my soul. On this shelf sits (among others) the Book of Common Prayer, Celtic Daily Prayer, Working the Angles, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry and Hiking Shenandoah National Park: A Falcon Guide. For me, poetry and prayer and long walks in the woods are all three ways of doing a very similar thing. My jaunts in the Blue Ridge mountains, immersed among pignut hickory and shagbark oaks, asters and goldenrods, teach me the same language Scripture leads me toward: gratitude, wonder and restfulness. The Orthodox speak of the book of Scripture accompanied by the book of nature. This makes sense to me.

Last week, I went for a long walk in the Shenandoah. I started the trek feeling a heaviness, the weight of many questions. But true to form, over the 9 miles or so, the weight trickled off my shoulders, a lightness returned. I took a couple detours to examine flora, beautiful luxuries that exist carefree knowing only their need to bask in the shade and sunshine, their single task to emanate beauty. As I neared a creek I needed to ford, I looked up to find a black bear on the other side, perhaps 15 yards away. There are roughly 800 bears in the park, but I had yet to meet one in a standoff. She intended to cross my direction, and I intend to cross hers. I was happy to let her win, but she inched down the brook, munching leaves as she rambled. I inched up the brook, watching my escape route with vigilance. She really was a marvel.

Image quality low due to Photograph fear high
Image quality low due to photographer fear high

Arriving at my destination, I drank crisp, cold water from my Hydro Flask, crunched on my Pink Lady apple and my chili lime cashews. I stretched out my legs and read Barry Lopez reject (through one of his protagonists) “the assertion, promoted today by success-mongering bull terriers in business, in government, in religion, that humans are goal-seeking animals.” Rather, Lopez affirmed, “we believe [humans] are creatures in search of proportion in life, a pattern of grace. It is balance and beauty we believe people want, not triumph.” I read these words, and I uttered an amen. I’m nearly certain one of the birches waved its green leaves in agreement.

I strolled back to my car, a heart filled yet again. Switching out my Keens for breezy sandals (a sweet moment, as any hiker will attest), I hopped into my truck and turned the engine. As I pulled onto the road and turned up the radio, NPR voices and the crackle of static greeted me. At that elevation and at that distance from any city, I was picking up two NPR broadcasts, interlacing. Two shows on two different topics, moving in and out like waves back and forth along the shore. I heard only snippets from each conversation, not enough even to really follow the topic. However, between the two separate shows talking to two separate panel of guests and apparently interacting with two very different themes, I heard – within only 90 seconds – the word anxiety spoken 5 times. I had only dipped my toe back into the “real world” before I was again battered by fear, by hand-wringing, by high-pitched rhetoric.

So I remembered that bear ambling over the creek, with me watching my backside. I remembered those lacy white wildflowers that forced me to stop and gawk. I remembered Lopez’s conviction of our deep longing for a pattern of grace. I pointed home, and I ignored the enticement to drink in all the fear.

Something More Than Fear

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There are a few things Jesus repeated often, as if there are a few words so essential they must be spoken again and again. Words like this: Don’t be afraid. Apparently, Jesus’ friends were prone to fear, with the powers menacing and their futures uncertain. And into these grave moments, Jesus spoke a clear instruction. Don’t be afraid.

We too are prone to fear – and the fears are often legitimate. Evil strikes at this world, and if any of are so naive as to think otherwise, the awful truth crashed upon us yet again this weekend, as it crashes upon us most every day in so many places far and near.

And yet, in the very midst of terrors, Jesus tells us to resist this compulsive urge to give ourselves over to fear. Fear takes on many guises. We may succumb to panic. We may hide, just drowning out the noise. We may go the way of machismo and beat our chest, motivated by the madness of crazed retribution. All fear. And all of this yields destruction. None of this yields life.

And to “not be afraid” does not mean that we must never feel fear, but rather that we do not succumb to it. We do not feed the fright. We choose something truer, something more powerful. It means we move toward courage. We resist the catcall of doom and ruin. “My courage is a wild dog,” says Ze Frank. “It won’t just come when I call it. I have to chase it down and hold on as tight as I can.”

And we do hold tight, clinging to an alternative possibility. We refuse to let our courage loose. And even when we must act with a boldness and ferocity (and sometimes love requires exactly this), we still refuse the fear. We hear Jesus again: Don’t be afraid.

 

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.

The Mad Dash

I’m a competitive fellow. Yahtzee. Foosball. Air Hockey. It does not matter. I fear I’ve passed this to our sons. After a recent round of Spades where Wyatt exploded the game with a daring Blind Nil, he thumped his chest and announced his triumph and slid around the wood floor performing a gyration that we’ll just be generous and call a victory dance. After the spectacle, Miska looked at me with no small measure of satisfaction and said, “You have met your match.”

This competitiveness sometimes makes an appearance on my morning runs. If I see a jogger ahead of me, I’ll often set a bullseye on their back in hopes that I can gobble up the distance between us. My plodding pace rarely pulls the steam necessary to accomplish the feat, but I remember Browning’s wisdom about a man’s reach exceeding his grasp and my defeat then seems connected to the great mythic struggle which is, of course, a kind of a victory all its own. We competitive types work very hard to convince ourselves we’re still in the game.

This morning, however, I began my long, straight stretch down 5th Street when I heard from behind the faint patter of feet. With sound so distant, I guessed I still had a block on them; but the cadence and light, easy steps told me this was, unlike me, a runner deserving of the name. And I knew exactly what was happening: a bright red bullseye aflame across my back.

Immediately, I hit the accelerator. I’m not sure it would ever be fair to say that I dash, but my legs responded with eagerness, as though they’d been training and waiting for such a time as this. For the next 1/3 of a mile, I hit and maintained my top speed. I’m not suggesting I was Carl Lewis, but I was determined that this runner on my tail would have to pay a price to take me down. He would not waltz past me, grinning and offering me a breezy “hello.” Twice, I glanced sideways, catching only a peripheral glimpse of my black-clad nemesis gunning for me. Twice, I revved my engines for that last ounce of breakaway burst.

I aimed for Brookwood, where I would turn left and begin my slow, final run up the steep incline to our house. If I could reach Brookwood before my lean, swift adversary overtook me, I would not be churned under by his powerful gait.

Elated, my toe touched the corner of Brookwood and 5th. I turned and took several steps up the hill, then spun around to spy the runner and measure my margin of victory. No one was there. I looked up the entire stretch of 5th toward downtown, and only saw one woman in pink walking the opposite direction toward the bus stop. No nemesis. No sprinter gunning for me. I was racing shadows.

I think we spend too much of our life running from shadows. The opinions and judgements we presume others will hurl at us. The histories that linger at the edges of our soul. The self-condemning mantras that consume our inner dialogue. All the dreadful possibilities of how our life might go very, very wrong. Of course, shadows have an upshot. Sometimes they do get us moving. But we can only keep up the pace so long.

Sometimes we might need to stop in our tracks, turn full circle and face whatever’s dogging us. If it’s a mirage, then we’ll know. If not, we can give the fast-closing terror a slap on the rump as it passes by and say, Alright, good one. But I’ll get you next time.

God Does Not Care

When we are wrought with some debilitating fear, crushed by guilt for a failure or indiscretion, perhaps when we’re teetering with anxiety over all that could go wildly wrong – I get the sense that sometimes God simply does not care.

I do not mean that God forgets how, in God’s deep being, he exists as love. I do not mean that God abandons his tender attention toward the slightest spaces of our lives, treating us with the gentleness known only by the One who counts every hair on our head and makes certain even the lilies of the field have all they need. Rather, I mean that God provides us a gift, allowing us to encounter how the things that seek to unravel us are simply not as powerful or important as we’ve imagined. They are far less significant than the steady love that holds us.

I imagine God listens tenderly to our run amok mind, letting us spill clean, gathering it all. Then, I imagine God giving a slight shrug of the shoulders, tilting his head, tenderness in his eyes. Ah, that’s no biggie. Save that energy. You may actually need it one of these days.

Fear Undone

Fear drains life from your soul, like a line tapped into a vein, spilling your blood on the brown dirt. 

Even if fear turns us boisterous, productive or angry, as it does for many, do not mistake this exertion for a good source of energy. This energy is lethal. We may drop a bomb because we fear our enemies. We may build a career because we fear others' dismissive opinions. We may marry because we fear being alone. We may hover over our children because we fear their harm. We may follow religious piety because we fear divine wrath. These fears will get the wheels turning and produce some result, but the final tally will be emptiness and sorrow.

Scripture tells us that the antidote to fear is not, as some might suspect, more courage or more tenacity. We do not conquer fear by conquering fear. The one thing that overwhelms fear (and all the obsession and anxiety it breeds) is love. Love welcomes us the way we are, even with all our idiosyncrasies and failed plans and blundering efforts. Fear says, "I best manage this because no one else will." Love says, "I've got you covered. Take a stroll."

This is another reason why these words are the best news of all: God loves you. Completely.

 

Fear

Fear and I have a history. We aren’t friends, but we’ve arrived at a wary detente.

These are our current arrangements: I’ll stop railing at fear, cease exerting vast energy toward banishment. In return, fear won’t take offense when, after it bushwhacks me with its best shot, I simply shrug my shoulders and tell it to piss off.

I’ve learned that fighting against fear, needling it, setting it under the microscope, reasoning with it through every shade and crevice is a waste of time. Fear is a beast asking for your energy; if we play along, the game goes on and on.

Of course, we shouldn’t banish fear even if we could. There are things to be afraid of in this world. I’ve come to believe that fear is a necessary cost for engaging the world truthfully. If we want to live with rose-colored glasses, then perhaps we will be able to arrange things delicately enough to whistle our way through the horrors. Keep walking. Don’t look around you. Certainly don’t stop. Don’t engage. Pat a back here and there, push a platitude. Press on, always on, whistling and beaming, ever louder, ever forward. We could follow that trac and perhaps keep fear at bay (perhaps). I’d say your odds are slim, but if we tried hard enough and whistled loud enough, maybe.

The question to ask is not whether or not we’ll encounter fear, but what will we do with the fear when it comes? Will we step into it? Will we risk and love in spite of it? Will we throw caution and good reason and every self-protective instinct to the wind and, fear be damned, walk into the chaos? Any sane person knows the chaos we’re afraid of is indeed something to fear. It just might pillage us. What will we do then?

To be fearless is not to not feel fear. As Stanley Hauerwas said, “The courageous have fears that cowards never know.” If we truly know no fear, we either have a disorder or are paragons of denial. To be fearless means to feel fear’s dread, the press of its stifling weight and the pinch of its fangs – and to run and to hope and to love anyway.