fearful anticipation

walking to my morning watering hole (does that title work for coffee shops, too?) down Main Street with sandals on my feet, my fingers tingle just a little bit with the cold.  Later today, it’ll be 70 degrees, but now it’s hardly 50 out–I love the freshness of the morning. 

Even so, the peeking sunshine jogs my memory of long, hot, sticky days in July and August–already I dread walking more slowly because it’ll keep my temperature down and feeling as if I’m swimming down Main Street.

It’s 51 degrees, and in my mind I’m already baking in 101-degree weather.

My memory and anticipation (of sweaty 101 degrees) ruins the present moment (of gloriously chill 51 degrees).  Some anticipation is good; studies show that most of the enjoyment and mood-boost of a vacation occurs before the actual event takes place.  When anticipation steals the present moment’s joy, though, and even causes you to lose focus on the good, blessed bits of life, anticipation, and especially fear (if “fear” isn’t too serious a word for a reaction to hot temperatures!), ought to be kicked to the curb as quickly as possible.

Big futurey clouds can quickly overshadow the present moment; all the uncertainty and possibility can overcome the gentle, ordinary beauty of your simple surroundings this very moment. 

Instead of looking ahead in fear to July’s heat, or to the possibly wonderful, possibly disastrous future, may we take a deep, deep breath and notice the beauty of this very moment right here.

The Unknown

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On Tuesday, here in Columbia, South Carolina, we began to batten down the proverbial hatches for Leon, the Snowpocalypse.  Most children were out of school (though the weather didn’t start till after school time, Atlanta’s is a cautionary tale), the roads were treated, the university and the government were closed.

Among those of us who gathered at work, diverse attitudes abounded.  I was soon struck by the variety of responses to the same news, and realized that a bit of what we were experiencing was how each of us–where ever the impending ice-meggedon found us emotionally that morning–dealt with change and uncertainty.  Of course, no sleep the night before, or a big deadline, or experience driving in snowy weather surely affected our outlooks as well, I was struck that the way we respond to small things may inform the way we respond to large uncertainties in life as well (then again, a death in the family and a possible snow day are rather different things).

There were those who greeted the possibility as a gift–an unexpected opportunity for something different, an adventure, a change of pace, a tool to knock us out of the “norm” and into whatever the day or the weather might have in store for us.

A few others of us looked at the sunshine, the empty, dry roads, and slivered our eyes, “Is there really weather coming?” we asked the skies.  The existence of the storm was doubtful, its effect unproven.  These folk were unimpressed-till-snowed-in; crossing the bridge if it happened to materialize out of the sunny skies, pragmatically focusing on the task at hand till then.

Though there weren’t any in our offices yesterday, I suspect (judging from the empty OJ, milk, and bread shelves at supermarkets) that another significant group was gripped with fear of the unknown.  Would it come?  Would it not-come?  What would happen?  The anxiety of an uncertain future was debilitating, and so they busied themselves laying in supplies.

For a Christian, there are bits of truth in each of these life-attitudes.  We need not fear or be anxious about the future, but we ought to be wise as serpents, shrewd in our decisions and prepared for unexpected events (thinking of the virgins and their oil lamps).  Of course, we ought not run about as a chicken sans-head; being so preoccupied with the unknowable possibilities of the future as to forget the task we’ve been set to here and now isn’t for the best interest of our earthly companions or for the glory of God’s kingdom.  Finally, life is indeed a joyful adventure, though hopefully we can remember that when the weather (or a day) is unremarkable as well.

Harry Potter Life Lesson #4 – Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost – Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, SC

In the late summer of 2007, the biggest question in the first world was: “Does Harry Potter die at the end of the series???”  We flooded to bookstores, we stayed up till all hours, we drank in the last installment of the now-legendary series by J.K. Rowling.

I won’t spoil the ending for you in case you haven’t read it yet, but I will say: it’s something like Jesus.  As the last book opens, they are frightening times in the wizarding world; things have gotten out of control since the dark lord came back to power.  Wizards, you see, live alongside non-magical people, and the world of magic, though it usually doesn’t encroach upon “normal” life, has started to spill over.  Catastrophes, tragedies, and strange occurrences are taking over England; people are getting scared.  Throughout the last book, the tension mounts—how is evil ever going to be destroyed?  The forces of darkness have grown powerful—you know, they feed on fear—and the good forces have been picked off one-by-one, leaving fewer and fewer of the faithful left to fight.  It is starting to look very much like evil is in control, like evil is the owner of the world.

The dark lord—that is, the head wizard of evil magic, whose name is Voldemort—has very carefully built his kingdom.  He has defended himself on every side; he has informants within all the structures of government and bureaucracy, in the schools, and even within the inner circle of the good wizard society.  Voldemort, this dark wizard, knows that fear is very powerful, and feeding on the fear of others provides energy for his movement.  How can a good wizard, who has vowed not to use those spells which cause death, stand against the ever-more-powerful forces of evil and darkness?

Voldemort built his kingdom on the power of fear and death.   He gained power by killing others through the use of violent spells and instilling fear in the hearts of those who witnessed and heard about his actions.

A lot of our society is built to help us to focus on fear and darkness.  We have car insurance, health insurance, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance—these are all policies we buy to hedge our bets that something bad will happen to us.  Our movies are full of violence and malice, our news programs and websites are focused on tragedy and destruction.  Best-selling books are full of soul-tarnishing language and situations.  These bombarding influences are like a late summer deluge while you’re driving on the highway—they’re completely blinding, making it near impossible to imagine that there is another way.

But our epistle helps us see that there IS another way of looking at our world.  We’re challenged by the author of Hebrews to recognize and pay attention to the invisible things that are happening around us.  We know that this world we see isn’t a faithful account of everything that exists.  We know from experience that there’s more going on around us than what we can look at with our eyes—that’s part of J.K. Rowling’s point about the magical world.  It’s not so far-fetched as it seems at first glance, because each of us, if we pay attention, have been in the midst of curious, wonderful, strange interactions and situations, events that may seem like magic.  We might call them the Holy Spirit.  The way of fear and death and temptation isn’t our only option, though they’re often more easily seen than the way of hope and life that God offers to us.

When each of us had fallen into sin and death, we when let fear into our hearts, having taken our focus off of Jesus and allowed the stormy waves of life to distract us, God sent Jesus to steal us back from the evil house in which we’d been taken captive.  In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which we will remember and celebrate in a few minutes at the altar, God offers us a way out of darkness, into the light and love of God.

Part of Jesus’ exhortation to us to “be ready” is to be trained out of fearful reactions and out of habits of darkness, and to replace these habits with attention to Jesus’ rescuing acts in the world, and the embodiment of God’s love.

This past week, I went to Trinity’s children’s choir camp at Kanuga.  During their time together there, they break bad singing habits and learn how to most excellently use their voices, as well as their whole selves, to worship God.  It’s a sort of retreat—it’s training to recognize and strengthen good habits, and to dismiss bad ones.  It’s not just singing, though; the whole program is shaped so that they’re constantly reminded that it is for God’s glory that they practice and they sing.  They’re learning how to pay attention and be ready for Jesus to rescue and reveal himself them, both by what they’re taught, and by how they pray together five or more times a day.

In moments of great evil, we fall back on our habits; will we fall back on faithfulness, or fear?

In 1942, a small village in rural France, led by their pastor, Andre Trocme, fell back on faith, and stood up to evil.  Despite the fear and darkness enveloping the world at the time, these Christians—and even non-Christian townspeople—banded together to hide, nourish, and protect almost 5000 Jews from the evil Nazi regime.  The small village hid people in private homes, on country farms, and even in plain sight, producing counterfeit ration cards and identification.  When raids of German troops would come through, the town had a system to warn the victims who would flee into the woods.  After the troops left, the villagers would take to the woods, singing a song, which was the signal of safety.

The truth is that God’s love is always stronger than any darkness or evil—we’ve seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus that God’s love is stronger than death itself.  God rescues us from sin; we don’t have to be overpowered by our temptations or by fear any longer.  Because of our relationship with God through Jesus, our mediator and our advocate, we are able to be free of fear, and we are able to choose good things and withstand temptations.

A significant part of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is built on the tension between Harry and Voldemort, as the two of them come from very similar situations.  They’re both abandoned orphans, they both have no idea that they are magical until the same wise old mentor explains it to each of them, and they both are very, very talented and powerful wizards.  One of the great questions readers are left to ponder is how Harry turned out good, while Voldemort turned out evil.

One possibility is that Voldemort chose to wallow in the loneliness of his upbringing, he decided to depend on himself alone to be his savior from tragedy, and the only tools he could use on his own strength were darkness and fear and evil.

Harry, on the other hand, realizes that life without commitment to and love for others is hardly worth living.  God created us for himself, to share his light and love and joy with us.  This is the life for which Jesus rescues us: that we might be free of fear and darkness, and to cultivate good habits of love and faithfulness, for each other, and most of all, for God. Amen.

Bible Study Notes – Isaiah 43

Unable to withstand more judgment yesterday’s cold January evening, the intrepid Monday Night Women’s Bible Study broke rank and jumped to Isaiah 43, just for the evening.  So, now–more reflections on the same chapter as the last (entry), with much more brainpower behind it!

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you” (Is. 43:1)

“Do not fear, for I am with you” (Is. 43:5)

What does it mean to “fear” God?  Isn’t this discordant with God being all love and all goodness?  What do we have to fear in him?

If we’re–with God’s help!–seeking the good and have experienced just a taste of the goodness and perfection of God, then we’re growing in virtue, and, knowing what it is like to be in the presence of real good-ness, we really are (or would be) afraid to behave in a way that takes us away or separates us from the good, and true, and beautiful in life.  Our fear is of being separated from God–we are not afraid of anything else that might come upon us, because if God is with us in whatever trial or event or danger we experience, we have nothing to fear.  God is with us.  This promise he makes in verse 5 is described in v.2–see post below–and this God who promises to be with us no matter what we face is someone you really want on your side (see vs. 11-13).

This talk of “fear” led us to reflect on the difference between fear and anxiety: fear is born of an experience–if we’ve touched a hot stove burner, we are afraid when we are pushed from behind toward a stove that’s on.  Anxiety is from anticipating–dreading!–something that we have never experienced; it’s worry.  We’ll always have fear, it’s just a matter of what we choose and habituate ourselves to be afraid of; anxiety is not something we have to have.

God’s promise to be with us is elucidating in another way; one of our number shared how different she felt when she broke up with her college boyfriend of two years compared to when her father ended up in the hospital for a heart attack–in the case of her father’s illness, the extended family showed up quickly and en force, her immediate family was not alone, and though it was a scary time, they were all together in it, and it was beautiful, she said, because of the love that she felt.  On the other hand, when she and her boyfriend broke up, the despair was engulfing–exactly because she was alone, and the cause of the pain was a declaration of alone-ness.

The discussion of fear and of being alone reminded me of Daniel and his friends in the fiery furnace.  They tell the king, “[W]e have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.  If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18).  God is God, and he can save us–but even if he doesn’t, he’s still God.  Actually, here’s a sermon that says all of that much more articulately and beautifully. (The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells)