Fear and Faith

It seems that it is embedded in my thinking that fear is opposed to faith and faith is opposed to fear and ne’er the two shall meet.  The two are mutually exclusively and not compatible…or so I am prone to think.  But, then, I read the Bible.

Moses said to the LORD, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”  The LORD said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the LORD?  Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”  But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” Ex. 4:10-13

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance.  The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Deut. 31:7-8

A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back.  His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him…Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.”  On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.  1 Sam. 17:4-7,10-11

If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.  Dan. 3:17-18 

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”  Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Matt. 26:38-39

This is just a skimming of highlights from the whole story of God’s redemptive work.  There is no part of the process of restoration that hasn’t required great trust in the One who has promised to complete it.   Moses was afraid and didn’t want to trust God’s plan.  Joshua was called into battle against those far more intimidating and apparently powerful, not to a vacation by the sea.  The opponents of God’s people have always been lawless, unpredictable and terrifying.  

The opposition to “God’s call” is often that “it’s dangerous” or communicated with the question “is it safe?”   Before we moved to this neighborhood, people might communicate their hesitancy with our decision by saying something more passive like, “Well, I’m sure you’ve thought through all the issues because you wouldn’t be doing it if you hadn’t.”  Have we thought through every possible scenario?  Could we control the outcome better if it were possible to know every single challenge that may come our way?  The icy fingers of fear that rip into my insides through these critiques seem to imply that if it feels scary, if we haven’t got a plan for every single possible circumstance, it must not actually be God’s will.  If we feel scared, we shouldn’t be here.

 And just this week, I’ve started feeling scared.  Has anything new happened?  Nope.  It has been as quiet and peaceful, if not more so, than any place I’ve lived since childhood.  But word of gangs by a nice guy we met on a walk today, the hibernation of most of the neighbors who stay behind closed doors all the time, the fear of an old friend who lives in a different part of the neighborhood but couldn’t believe we were moving in…all these remind me that God hasn’t called us to a spa.  He has called us to a place so outside of our experience and understanding that we must look to Him, cling to Him and trust in Him.

God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah.  I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”  Gen. 17:15-16

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.  Dan. 7:13-14

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Matt. 28:18-20

I have no clear goal for our residence here.  I have no measureable objectives to know that we’re on the right course.  I have no job description for this particular phase of living by faith.  I don’t know the why or the what or the when or the how.  All I know dimly is that He is with us, He is for reconciliation and unity among His people who are called from many people groups and cultures and that He asks us not to lean on our own understanding.  Is my heart beating fast with anxiety?  Yes.  Might He grow my faith in this very experience?  Absolutely.  He will use my fear to grow my faith and I will wait expectantly for Him to do so.  I have to trust Him through the valley of the shadow of death, and know that both His rod and His staff will comfort me.

Show me, LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. 
You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.  
“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be. 
“But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you.  Psalm 39:4-7

The True Pioneer and Perfecter of My Faith

I’ve never been very comfortable with change.  I like my routines, I like knowing people and feel much more secure knowing what to expect.  At the same time, I always felt most alive as the center forward on the soccer team rushing down the field past defenders no matter the bruises to my shins or tumbles along the way.  That desire to be like Braveheart and “fight for Scotland” is born out of a clarity of vision and certainty of God’s Kingdom. Yet, the places He takes me to fight with confidence for His Kingdom (most currently: parenthood and as a minority neighbor) are the unfamiliar, the unexpected, the uncertain environments where my insecurity is more tangible than my faith.  The tension between the two is disorienting and it seems that I am quicker to fall into unbelief and paralysis than to announce like Braveheart, “They may take my life, but they will never take my freedom!”  I’ve had increased anxiety at bedtime doubting everything and feeling totally lost and alone.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Cor. 13:9-12

I am feeling the “partly-ness” of my faith…and it robs all my security, confidence and courage.  I walk around the block in our neighborhood with my children and dog, smiling at folks going into a house on the corner likely just to buy drugs.  They smile back, but keep turning to watch me wondering if I’m a threat or simply a curiosity.  We met three other guys carrying a stereo into their house on the next street over.  They were ostensibly friendly and we had some smiley small talk, and then they too kept watching me as we walked on.  My eyes are fixed on the unfamiliar, my mind reeling with uncertainty about how to interpret “reality”…is it really as different as all that I’ve known or is this just an extension of the centuries of distrust, cynicism and division that is easier than the discomfort I am feeling now?  What will “completeness coming” look like here?

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Cor. 4:18

It is this belief that “what is seen is temporary” that drives me to parent my children for the people God has made them to be rather than lose hope in the moments I see more of my own sin in them than His righteousness.  It is this belief that what is unseen is eternal that drives us to live for peace and reconciliation in a society that has long given up truly believing that many different parts make up the one complete body of His Kingdom.  It is believing that the unseen redemption of all things is more true than the seen brokenness and division around us that brought us to this neighborhood.  So how does the Gospel make this truth more certain to my heart than the fears which grip it, more visible to my gaze than the strange and unfamiliar sights which capture my attention, and more audible to my thoughts than the voices of skepticism which implore resignation?

Here is what the person and work of Jesus reminds me about sharing in His life, death and resurrection:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3

I am so very easily entangled by sin and way too easily hindered by fear and uncertainty.  But like Peter stepping out of the boat, would He draw my eyes to His face and away from the dark, deep, threatening waters.  And when I begin to sink, would I trust that even then He has me in His grip and is perfecting my faith in all circumstances and in all my varied responses to them.  But I will consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners so that I will not grow weary and lose heart.  Even as the curse from the Garden reminds me of my inclination to trust myself, trust my perceptions and trust only in what I can see, I will trust that His blessings are more sure in the promise and completed work of Jesus than in any “familiar comforts” where I might otherwise seek such peace and blessing.

This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD.  That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.  But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him.  They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”  Jer. 17:5-8

Restless

So, it turns out that not taking the cough medicine with the word “narcotic” in the packet information was not a good decision tonight.  I am awake and it is 2:40 am.  I woke up coughing, then took the non-narcotic cough medicine so I wouldn’t be drugged all day tomorrow and apparently it is a stimulant.  Awesome.  Maybe I should use this time to wrap presents, or fold laundry, or organize our office/study/den (can’t quite decide what to call it) or…and that brings me to the place in which I really need the Gospel to make some serious changes in my heart – “distracted, fragmented, scattered” needs to be quieted, made present in just one place with just one person at a time, content…oooooh.  That rings some internal bells:  contentment!

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”  Luke 10:41-42

I’ve always recognized this Marthaness of mine, but lately I’ve seen how it builds walls relationally.  I am never “with” my children, though much of the time we are home together.  When my sister stops by to visit, I’ll frequently be getting something done while we visit.  When my mom wants to talk, I find myself responding to “time sensitive” texts and other messages.  When I begin a task in one room, I take something to another room and feel the urgency of a second task, and then a third, and rotate among even more accomplishing very litte in the given amount of time.

This is not a new problem and I’m sure I’ve written about it often.  But I’m starting to recognize it’s future implications with my daughter, who adores my company but is easily distant and eagerly rushing toward independence.  It shuts my mom out or even down when she is excited about sharing something or discussing something.  It tells my sister she is on the clock.  It devalues people as it bows down to an elusive promise of a completed to-do list.  I can never rest, really, because the “many things” keep yelling at me.  (Did I mention recently that Elizabeth Turnage commented on my life being “full of the muchness of many things”?  While that can be a richness to life, I think I’m feeling it’s toxicity.)

Jesus was never hurried.  He was never anxious.  I don’t think He was ever distracted.  Little girls and good old friends were dying, but Jesus remained present where He was and attended fully and redemptively to them in the proper time.  He was fully present with whomever stood before Him.

So, a good old moralism answer would be to “be like Jesus” and start being more present.  Just love others better.  Do unto the least of these what we I’d like to do for Jesus.  But there is that old nagging problem of sin.

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!   Romans 7:15-25

I want to be still with Jesus, but my natural self keeps moving away and back into that demanding old kitchen.  I want to be present with the hemorraging woman, but my natural self feels hurried to the dying girl and swears I’ll be back to help the lady in the street later.  I want to rest in the boat, but my natural self is too busy bailing water and screaming at everyone while turning green with sea sickness that a nap seems absurd.

“Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”  Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods!  Josh. 24:14-16

My gods are environmental order, the completion of the always growing to-do list, and the tossing and turning of every whim which catches my ADD mind’s brief attention.  It is helpful to see it this way, and know I can choose these gods or I can choose to serve the Lord with exactly His selected focus for me each moment.  But here is the thing, if I could just make a new year’s resolution about it, I wouldn’t need Jesus.  But I can’t, and I do.  The pull of my heart to worship the tangible and the thing which promises the most immediate rewards (completed tasks for all to see!) almost always seems stronger than my desire to worship the Lord who can’t be seen and is asking me simply to be attentive to the story of the person He has set in front of me.

Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.  In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves.  Psalm 127:1-2
And here is the Good News – I am “the one He loves” as I stand hidden in the ONE He loves.  He will complete the good work that He has begun.  And, as Scotty put it, “I will boast in Jesus to the extent I don’t in me”.  I can’t force His work in me, or hurry even that.  But I will know it when I see it, and I will be grateful.

The Magic of Christmas

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”  Luke 1:32-33

A few years ago, when we had arrived a bit early for our Santa appointment (yes, that is right I said “appointment”, but alas I wasn’t online in time this year), we suddenly spotted Santa walking down the wing of the mall returning from his lunch break.  Honestly, my heart skipped a beat.  It was magical.  We spotted him and he was coming our way, as jolly and gentle and large as dreams.  Ellie and Chad were excited about this movie star-esque character coming straight toward them, and their mother felt the wonder too.  When he stopped to talk with us, without hurry, it felt really special.

OK, so that is sad, you may be thinking.  Or, how could you let Santa into the story when it is all about Jesus?  And my answer, honestly, is that I’m ok with Santa in the story perhaps just as God was ok with Adam, Noah, Moses, Jonah, David and all the other types and shadows which point to Jesus.  They were flawed and never God replacements, but they pointed to the flawless One who would do what they failed to do and would also do what they did but His version would be perfectly, fully and redemptively for all time.

Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.  Rev. 22:12-13

I just don’t know much in adulthood that stirs up that same kind of wide-eyed, giddy, vulnerable anticipation the way a Santa approach can.  But waiting for Santa and seeing him appear surely doesn’t compare with the wide eyes I will have when I see Jesus, nor the intensity of the giddy, vulnerable anticipation.  The magic of Santa is about a big guy who loves kids and wants to give them toys and candy by a warm fire surrounded by family in the comfort of pajamas and a cozy living room.  Is that not a sweet type and shadow of even far better things to come?

But what a self-centered view of the second coming, of resurrection and Glory, you say?  Well, if stoicism was remotely Biblical and if I only mentioned the toys and candy thing, maybe…though maybe not.  But, that typical image of Christmas morning is more than the part about opening gifts…it usually involves the using of the gifts, the sharing of a festive meal, family together in a relaxed way (yes, even with a squabble here and there – shadow, remember, not the final reality!) and sheltered safely, warmly and comfortably.  That is a taste of good things to come.  Even if distantly, it can remind my heart of the wedding feast that awaits us, the harmonious family that will live in perfect peace together, the provision of gifts that will be used in work that will be absent of toil and thorns and the warmth and security and comfort of being immediately in His presence.

So when did cynicism steal the magic of Santa?  When did practicality and responsibility rob the Christmas season of its joy and wonder?  When did “reality” come to mean credit card debt, family feuds and spring prom night really being excruciatingly long as it underwhelms all expectations?  Is it possible that the same heart assailants have equally diminished the magic, wonder and anticipation of Jesus coming, making all things new, and bringing us to the place He has prepared?

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life. Rev. 22:17

The Adopted Stray

But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. Is. 43:1

There seem to be a disproportionate number of stray dogs in our neighborhood.  Two weeks ago I encountered this precious tiny brown and white puppy,  on one of the coldest days this month, rummaging through our yard and then into our neighbors front yard.  I went out to get the tiny, shivering dog who was clearly looking for food, only to embark on a chase.  Though the dog was hungry and cold, it was afraid of me.  After following it helplessly through back yards and to an alley, I finally gave up since I couldn’t help the dog if he didn’t want to be helped.

This was my view of God’s care and pursuit of us for so long.  He has food and shelter for us, healing and blessings, but we have to be willing to be helped.  UGH!  I am so glad God’s omnipotence isn’t limited by my ignorance, stubborn will, defiance or even obedience.  Unlike my own half-hearted pursuit of the stray dog, God is not so emotionally needy or weak willed that He would turn away from His pursuit in response to the one He pursues. 

It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. Romans 9:16

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. John 6:44

And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.  John 6:39

This is comforting to me, particularly since I know how strong my tendency to behave like a stray dog is.  My default mode really is that of an old curmudgeon.  As awful as that stance toward others is, it is just easier sometimes to snarl or run away than to love and be loved.  Yet because I belong to Him, the security of His commitment to me is not threatened by my frequent falls from grace to self-reliance, from hiding myself in His righteousness alone to trying irritably to be righteous by my self, from loving others as generously as He loves me to demanding that others serve my ego and comforts, or from desiring to be made more in His image to forcing Him into an image of me.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
         No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 8:31-39

Would my soul find peace and even rest in this larger than I can grasp reality and even believe and trust that it extends to others as well.