Monday, February 28, 2011

A Modicum Of Boldness In The Age Of Anxiety

Our opening prayer is called the collect of the day,
because it collects the themes from each of the lessons
into a single point.
The single point is in the first line,
“Most loving Father whose will it is for us . . . . to fear nothing
but the loss of you . . . . Preserve us from faithless fears
and worldly anxieties.”

Today’s lessons are about fear.
A funny thing happened to our culture a few decades ago.
During the Depression, the President used to tell us
that we had nothing to fear but fear itself.
Courage and hope were the backbone of life itself.
Courage and hope were national policy
and core values of our culture.

But as we entered the next era,
we were taught to be afraid.
The government taught us to be afraid of communists
lurking behind every bush.
We were afraid of the atom bomb for decades.
Then we learned to be afraid of all sorts of things.
The poet W. H. Auden captured the new spirit
of our time in his poem The Age Of Anxiety.
The composer William Bernstein saw Auden had pegged
the mood of our time, so he wrote The Age of Anxiety symphony.

Jerome Robbins picked up the idea and wrote The Age of Anxiety ballet.
And philosopher Alan Watts titled the first chapter one of his early books,
“the age of anxiety.”

Soon, corporate marketing learned to play on our fears.
They made us afraid of criminals to sell us alarms for our window,
afraid of accidents to sell us insurance,
afraid of body odor to sell us soap.

The escalation of fear has been accelerating.
When I left Idaho to move to New York,
I found people there were afraid o being mugged.
That made sense to me.

But 3 years later I moved to Macon, Georgia,
a sleepy little Southern college town,
and found that people were more afraid there
than New Yorkers.

Today, the P. A system of every airport I go through,
tells me that various precautions are being taken
because of “heightened security.”
It sounds as if something especially dangerous is happening that day.
But it says that every day.
The security is perpetually heightened.
“The security level is orange” an ominous voice says.
That’s bad. Almost red. But it’s always orange, always.
We should always be afraid.

Clergy training is grounded in fear.
Do not let a child sit on your lap at the parish pic nick.
You may be accused of child molesting.
Never meet with a church member of the opposite sex
without the door open, a witness present,
and a tape recorder running.
And it might be best do use the same precautions
with church members of the same sex.
Churches close their doors to AA groups
and others who want to use our buildings
because we are concerned about potential liability.

Risk management is a leading science.
I wonder what today risk managers would have said is
to Ferdinand and Isabella when crazy Columbus
said he wanted to sail around the world to India.
What would they have told Lewis and Clark?
What would they have told Jeremiah Johnson
about his career choice to be a mountain man.

I have been one of those crazy people singing songs
and carrying signs for this cause or that cause for decades
– end the war, desegregate, ban the bomb, you name it.
Next month I am participating in a rally against human trafficking,
but this is the first time I have been required to register as a participant
and – get this – sign a liability waiver in case I fall off the sidewalk
or another demonstrator pokes me in the eye with his sign.
We built a culture, we formed a civilization,
with courage and hope.
We formed a free society by daring to take risks.
But that culture built on the foundation of courage is crumbling
from a studied and deliberate practice of cowardice.

Fear is a tool of manipulation and control.
Fear and intimidation keep people from exercising power politically.
Fear is used to sell everything from cars to mouthwash
not to mention alcohol and xanax.
And the price we pay is our very lives
because life requires a certain modicum of boldness.

I don’t expect congregations to be major Biblical scholars.
But I want you to know this.
If you don’t know anything else about the Bible I want you to know this.
What instruction did Jesus give people more than any other?
What was the one imperative sentence he said more than any other – by far.
It was this very simple sentence – “Do not be afraid.”//

The bottom line central message Jesus taught was “Do not be afraid.”
He didn’t make that up himself.
It was an old teaching in his religion.
When God first called Abram to leave his home in Ur and travel to Canaan,
God said to Abram “Do not be afraid.”
When God called Moses to liberate his people in Egypt, God said to Moses,
“Do not be afraid.”

Every time God sent the judges or the kings into battle,
he always said, “Do not be afraid.”
Prophets like Isaiah said, the Lord has inscribed you on the palm of his hand.
"Do not be afraid."
So it went down through the centuries
until one day an angel appeared to the Virgin Mary,
and the first thing he said to her was “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus’ mother probably taught her little boy
the words of that angel, “Do not be afraid.”

That’s what today’s lessons are about.
Paul was under attack at his church in Corinth.
People were calling him a fraud and a swindler.
But Paul was not afraid of their accusations.
He was not afraid of the judgment of the people.
He would not be silenced, shut down, or driven out by fear.
In Matthew, Jesus says not to be afraid of poverty,
not to be afraid of not having the necessities of life.
Don’t let fear consume your life.

Well, it’s easy enough to say “do not be afraid.”
But there really is danger in the world.
There really are threats to our safety.
There really are criminals, terrorists, drunk drivers,
and carcinogens.
And there are plenty of forces in society
to play on our fears, to rev them up, to amplify them.
How can we possibly not be afraid
especially when we live in the age of anxiety.

We are going to feel afraid sometimes.
That’s human.
But when Jesus says “do not be afraid,”
he does not mean never feel fear.
He means do not “be afraid”
– do not let the fear become your identity.
It’s one thing to have a feeling.
It’s another thing when the feeling has us.

We can feel fear without believing our fears.
We can feel fear without letting the fear control our lives.
We can be aware of a risk but not live our lives
like mice hiding in the dark.

Of course we need to be reasonable.
We need to take sensible precautions.
Having faith does not mean leaving our wallet in the car
with the door unlocked.
But faith means daring to live our lives trusting God
to bring us through life and even through death
into his love and blessing.

Faith is knowing that the God of love and mercy
who created us is also our destiny
and nothing can take that from us.

Paul wrote,
“If God is for us who can be against us. . . .
For I am certain of this:
Neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities,
nothing already in existence and nothing yet to come,
nor any power, nor heights nor depths,
nor any created thing whatever, will be able
to separate us from the love of God.”

He was echoing the teaching of Isaiah 800 year before,
“Surely it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For he is my stronghold and my sure defense
and he will be my Savior.”

There is a way to pray into that faith.
Just close your eyes and let your fears come to mind,
all your worries one by one, summon them up,
and as each one comes to mind hold it there and say
“Even if . . . “ then fill in the blank with your fear.

“Even if this happen, I am a beloved child of God
and all will be well.”

However great our fear may be,
whatever disasters may actually befall us,
God is bigger. God’s love is greater.
And God will be our Savior.
That’s the Christian way of risk management.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Being A Community Of Life

The author of Ecclesiasticus writes:
“Before each person are life and death,
And whichever one chooses will be given.”//
He is echoing the words the Lord spoke through Moses
in Deuteronomy centuries before:
“I have set before you life and death . . . . Choose life.”//

Every moment of every day,
each of us is given the choice between
the way to life and the way to death.
We have a chance to speak to each other in a way
that will invite life-giving relationship
or in a way to offend, to put someone on the defensive,
to wound and distance.
We have the choice to greet each new day as a fresh start
or to spend our days rehashing all that went wrong in the past.
We have the choice to open our hearts or to close them.
It is our choice – ours alone.

But we are creatures of habit
and our habits are shaped by the culture we live in.
If we live in a family, a neighborhood, a society
that habitually chooses the way of death
in any of its many forms,
then our first impulse is apt to be
the way of death – not the way of life.

Do you know what I mean by the way of death?
It has a number of forms.
We can start with the 7 deadly sins
but it doesn’t stop there.
One is the habit of self-pitying victim status.
Another is drowning our spirit in drink, work,
or any addictive distraction from life.
Another is using fight-flight conflicts about side issues
instead of getting on with a shared mission.
Another is living in old wounds, clinging to old grudges
instead of living today with a hopeful eye
looking toward tomorrow.
These are all ways to sabotage life instead of living it.

The most important thing a church can do for its people
is to be a culture of life
and so help them to form the habit of living.
But not all churches are cultures of life.
Far from it.
The great Catholic novelist, Walker Percy, asked,
“If Christ came to give life, why do the churches smell of death?”
Churches choosing death is all too common.
Churches choosing to wring their hands over division and decline
are all too common.
Churches sabotaging their own mission are on every corner.

Does that matter? I say “yes, it matters.”
It matters because when churches choose the way of death,
they instill in their members the way of death.
As if by osmosis, a dying church teaches its members
to choose death in their families, in their jobs,
in their neighborhoods, and in the world.
Churches of death can suck the life out of a whole city.

But other churches instill life in their people.
You know what it’s like to be in a meeting, a party,
a class or a social gathering.
If certain people walk into the room,
the energy level goes up.
If other people, walk into a room,
the energy level goes down.
The test of a church’s mission is what happens
when its members walk into a room.

The living church recharges people with life energy
that they share with everyone they meet.
They make the world a better place, a more godly place.
They are agents of the kingdom.

Choosing life is how we beat death in the end.
People who choose life can outlive their bodies.
In death their spirits still glow like embers.
The Holy Spirit can breathe on such embers
and restore them to life, make them blaze up
into a brighter flame than ever before.
We can be breathing our last breath and still choose life
because we trust in the Lord, the Giver of Life,
who is stronger than death.
That’s why it is so important that churches
be vital, energetic, creative places on the move.
Such churches nourish the part of us that does not die.

Some folks have the notion that the bishop’s visit
is some kind of inspection,
that I am here to see if you are “doing everything right.”
That is not actually what I have come to do.
If that were my purpose, I’d have an inspector’s clipboard
instead of a miter and staff.

There is, however, one thing I do need to check on
– not just when I visit but all the time.
I need to know whether a congregation is alive or not.
I need to know that because life is a gift of God,
a gift to be accepted or rejected,
and whenever it is accepted,
then it is a gift to be celebrated.
I am glad to report that St. Martin’s is very much alive.
I can tell -- because you are breathing.
You are breathing in and you are breathing out.

The in breath of a church is everything the church does
to strengthen and support the members.
It is fellowship and it is study like your Sunday School
and your weekly Bible Study.
It is prayer like your practice of Evening Prayer.
Some churches just show up on Sunday morning
and go through the motions.
But where there is fellowship, study, and prayer,
that is a church drawing in a good strong breath.

But we cannot live just by breathing in.
We also have to breathe out.
The outbreath of a church is its apostolic mission,
its service to the community, its engagement with the world
outside the walls.

You do that in so many ways.
You feed the hungry.
You care for the children, the youth, and the seniors.
You recycle everything from cell phones to bicycles.
This church is breathing out as well as it breathes in.
That is choosing life.

So I am not here with an inspector’s clipboard.
I am here to celebrate your life, your creativity, your energy.
I am grateful to you and inspired by you.
You give me hope.

I am here to say thank you
and I pray to God you keep being who you already are
– a living witness to the Lord, the Giver of Life.