things that scare me

Lately one of the feelings that comes up for me over and over is fear: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of commitment, fear of rejection, fear of uncertainty, fear of certainty. You’ll notice that all of those fears are antonymous word pairs, and that is quite deliberate. The funny thing about fear is that it’s not entirely rational, it rarely functions along the lines of logic, and when it does, it’s often a hyper-logic of sorts that it seems to stem from.

Fear is a powerful force upon the psyche, and many people know this and in fact use it to their own advantage. Playing off people’s fears is a powerful way to exert dominating and controlling power over another person or group of people. Our mass media are full of stories inciting fear about everything from our drinking water to the safety of public transit, stories that amass to create a culture of fear.

Much of this fear seems to stem from a deep mistrust of the world as it is. People of my generation especially have been taught to not trust the world, and the reality that surrounds us seems to reinforce this teaching. AIDS, environmental crises, overpopulation, economic instability – all of these have been active in the world for my entire life, I have known no other world than one that is seemingly inhospitable and even hostile.

little plantBut is this the reality of how the world is, or is this mistrust merely a matter of perception? “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;” says Jesus, according to Matthew 6:28, “they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” The lilies do not fear to grow, neither do the blades of grass that push through concrete or the salmon that fearlessly swim home every year. There may be things to fear in our world, but faith teaches us to trust, even in uncertainty. The earth itself teaches us to trust. “It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain,” says Julian of Norwich in her Showings, “but all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

Underneath and inside and beyond the pain, all shall be well, and that is why we need to entrust ourselves into living lives beyond our fears. “In our culture of fear,” says Vancouver Sun columnist Douglas Todd in a recent article, “staying calm amounts to a political act.”Being calm, centred, non-anxious presences in the world is perhaps the most profound calling that people of faith can live out in this time.

rollercoasterI deal with fears by reminding myself that often what scares me most also excites, exhilarates, thrills me –  “roller-coaster-fear” is what I call it. I love roller coasters because of the adrenaline rush from fear and excitement.When I remind mysef of just how enjoyable it can be to take a risk and entrust myself to life, in spite of how scary it also is, I find it easier to step forward into uncertainty.

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on the most depressing day: ten reasons to be happy

I keep reading news stories that say that some scientist has determined that January 24th is the most depressing day of the year. Now, other accounts say that it was actually Monday the 22nd that was the most depressing this year, either way, here are some things to be happy about, in order to counteract the cloud of gloom that supposedly surrounds this week.

1. Apparently Newspapers are thriving in Asia where increased incomes and literacy rates are resulting in people who are ravenous for free media. “Read all about it” here.

2. It’s sunny in January in the Pacific Northwest – how often does that happen? Spend some time taking in the gorgeous views.

3. Kenyan political rivals Kibaki and Odinga have met and are pledging to resolve the crisis that their country is facing in the wake of their December elections. (cbc.ca)

4. There is a great magazine called Ode that is dedicated to solely reporting good news. Check it out.

5. “Scientists appear to be a step closer to transplanting a kidney without the need for a lifetime of drugs.” Full story here.

6. We still have two more Sundays of Epiphany/Ordinary Time in the Christian calendar before Lent starts, so live it up before you give it up folks. Listen to a great Epiphany reflection here.

7. Jim Wallis’ new book The Great Awakening, which contains tons of good news about how people of faith can take stands on issues that are important is now available.

8. If you live in Vancouver, there are still a few days left to enjoy the gastronomic delights of our town at special prices. Dine Out Vancouver restaurants have prix-fixe 3-course menus for $15, $25, $35. Visit this site for more info and to make a reservation.

9. Despite what some may say, food, I believe, in moderation, can be the ticket out of the winter blues zone. Imagine pairing two great comfort foods into a delectable loaf of, get this, chocolate bread. (You’ll find a recipe at the end of the NPR article that the chocolate bread link will take you to.)

10. Happiness has a strange way of popping up in the most random of places and people. Be on the lookout for happiness and you’ll probably find a lot of it.

waking-up our religious sensibilities

Yesterday I attended a fascinating lecture by Ari Goldman on ‘Covering Religion’ at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. Goldman talked about why, in his view, religion is the most important “beat” there is to cover today. Religion has become a major part of nearly all the issues and stories that headline our papers these days. Even here in Canada our papers shout headlines about the US presidential race, where religion has come to play a major part in voters’ decisions. Understanding religion, said Goldman, is key for understanding why people do things, it helps us understand their motivations and see why stories have evolved in certain ways.

He focused on the importance of learning about and reporting on different religions in order to show people why and how the Other is not scary. Journalism, for Goldman, ought to primarily take on an educational function, teaching people something. Goldman emphasized that he does not take a neutral stance on the notion of faith, he always advocates for faith as something that can do a lot of good, something that ought to be encouraged.

great awakening coverDuring the question and answer period I asked about how moderate religious voices can get their stories heard by media who primarily focus on the sensational stories of religious fundamentalism and extremism. His simple answer was: “you can’t, you’re sunk.” I pushed back a little, asking him to instead say something about how groups such as Sojourners, with Jim Wallis as their main spokesperson, have managed to change the discussion of what constitutes a religious value, reminding people that issues of well-being such as poverty, immigration reform, and peace are moral issues for religious people, and not just the issues that the loudest evangelical, fundamentalist voices proclaim to be “moral”. Goldman got an excited look on his face and enthusiastically jumped in to say how much Sojourners really has shifted the debate in the US. He helpfully pointed out that they have shifted the debate by positioning themselves against the voices of the extreme right, saying that the religious right does not speak for all people of faith.

The monologue of the religious right in the US is indeed over, and voices proclaiming that people of faith care about what goes on in the world, care about the well-being of the world, because of their faith-based values are getting heard more and more.

In his soon-to-be-released new book The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis of Sojourners makes a case for the notion that the US is in the midst of another Great Awakening, a religiously-fuelled movement toward change. Spiritual revivals in the past led to the abolition of slavery in the US, the end of slave trafficking in the UK, the beginning of publicly-funded health care in Canada, movements toward democracy in Latin America and the continuance of hope for people in Tibet.

Wallis describes in his book how religion has led to revivals in the past, what is changing today, provides some theological foundations for Christians to base their movements toward change on, and then presents a possible new framing of public dialogue with a moral centre. His writing is accessible, yet not simplistic, and he grounds his work in solid theological concepts that are central to Christianity, rather than a generic humanist stance.

And I think that perhaps Goldman’s analysis was just a little bit off, because what is going on under this new awakening is not just people standing up against evangelicals, but evangelicals themselves standing up and saying that a few loud voices are not representative of what they, as people of faith, believe. The Great Awakening will hopefully help people better understand the shift that is going on, and set it carefully amidst a long tradition of people of faith who refuse to separate what they believe from how they live their lives.

pastoral epiphany

epiphany flowersYesterday was the Christian festival of epiphany – the day that we celebrate the arrival of the wisemen from the east, come to worship baby Jesus and offer him gifts. Yesterday I had the chance to offer a gift of my own in service, I allowed my name to stand as a nominee for pastor in my home congregation. In the Community of Christ we have annual business meetings where the pastor is elected by the congregation. I’d let some people know that I was willing to let my name stand, but ultimately the decision came down to either accepting or not accepting the nomination. It was scary, it was awkward, but also exciting. I was the only one nominated, and now I am the new pastor of the Vancouver Community of Christ.

This is the kind of work I have been preparing for for the last four and a half years of my life, and ultimately, it really just comes down to me finally saying “enough with the learning! time for some doing!” I have long felt called to ministry as my vocation, and now, even though it is in no way a “normal”, paid full time job, I feel like I am finally getting a step closer to what it is that I ought to be doing with my life. I know it won’t be easy, in fact I keep trying to remind myself that this will be hard work and I should be prepared for much pain and difficulty. However, at the same time, a huge part of me says “yeah, so?” Could there not also be enjoyment, fulfilment, newness, even in the midst of the pain and difficulty?

I’m excited to be in the midst of a congregation that is wanting to ask questions about where they are, where they want to be, how they want to be together, what they want to spend their money on, and what kind of help they need. I like the fact that I will have an opportunity to guide a discernment process in relation to what they want to do next and who they’d like to be, and what they will need for that journey.

flowers and branches

I’m scared of the usual stuff: rejection, disappointing people who care about me (even though I know in my heart that they will love me no matter what), failure at the tasks I’m given, making mistakes, the list goes on. Even though I know these aren’t necessarily rational fears, they are still there. And then there are also more subtle fears, fear of uncertainty, and fear of losing control or never having control – these are ongoing creations of my mind, however, and plague most people I think, delusions that we are in control or can have control over people and things. I know very well that I will make mistakes, that I will mess-up, that I will find myself in situations where all I can answer is “I don’t know”. There is also a fear of burnout, of being overwhelmed, of being too stressed, but those, too, seem like things I can handle, with careful and intentional self-care and support networks.

There is also a strange fear, however, of success too. I use the word “success” very reluctantly and loosely, because how can one really gauge “success” in a church? But there is a lingering fear of actually maybe finding something that I enjoy, that I’m good at, and that I want to keep doing. For a seeker, the prospect of finding something, anything, can be a frightening one, what is one supposed to seek for anymore?

So I have a new beginning in life to celebrate, one with uncertainty and excitement, one that will bring new challenges, new learnings, and hopefully allow me to offer myself in service to God.

(A side note on the pictures in this post: on new years day I decided to test-drive the ikebana holder my sister got me for christmas, so I bought some flowers to play with. I first put together the arrangement in the first picture, with some starbursts my aunt gave me, it seemed rather epiphany-like with the bursting and the stars and the wintry branches. The second photo is the ‘leftovers’ bouquet, which I admit is now my more favourite of the two, with the lively white flowers nestled amidst the stark branches, it’s really quite striking and lovely I think. Maybe if the pastor gig doesn’t go well I’ll become a florist.)

helpless awe

awe“Awe is the salve that will heal our eyes.”
-Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Lately I’ve found myself reflecting on helplessness, on vulnerability, and on control. There is so much that I am (we are) helpless to in the world. A new year is as good a time as any to reflect on that which we have no control over, exemplified iconically in this time of year as time itself, which “marches on” relentlessly, without care to what might be happening in our lives. And Christmas, too, is a good time to reflect on vulnerability as we contemplate the salvation that lies in the most helpless among us: a baby, and the impossible possibility that it could be vulnerability and submission, and not dominance, that could indeed save us.

My friend Matt recently blogged about “the helplessness of knowledge” and I was moved by his honesty in sharing that in the dark time that he speaks about, for the most part all of his academic work in philosophy and theology failed him, those discourses were helpless to truly speak any comfort or peace into what was unfolding. It was rather prayer and worship that pulled him through.

Some days it feels absurd to attempt to fit a subject like theology into any kind of language, let alone the language of academia. I feel helpless sometimes in trying to express that which comes from my heart, from my desire for union with/in God, the World, Love. My heart has held some surprises for me lately, surprises of emotion that have overcome me unexpectedly, times when I’ve stopped and said “gee heart, I hadn’t realized I felt that way, thanks for letting me know.” And I’ve sat in awe of the love that manages to pour out so unabashedly from my little heart that allows itself to be incredibly vulnerable in order for that outpouring to happen.

And this is the turn that I’m wondering about lately, rather than feeling sad or resistive to the reality of helplessness and vulnerability, why not simply take a posture of awe? Awe has an almost magical ability to turn naive helplessness into deep wisdom, simply through a refocusing of attention. I think that’s what prayer and worship can do, as Matt experienced, they can shift our attention away from the painfulness of our lack of control over what happens to us, and instead stand in awe of it, floored by the mystery.

In a world where our eyes are assaulted by problems too large to solve, helplessness seemingly the only answer, awe can indeed, as Rumi said, be that salve which heals our eyes. Awesome.