Sunday, March 29, 2020

God's Providence

This continues the Lent reflections on trusting God in tough times. 

There was a time a couple of years ago when there was a family crisis. My brother was having a serious life-threatening problem, and as I rearranged my schedule to see him that day I had to make a choice of what to do in the brief time before I could see him: a choice between a support group meeting and dinner. I chose the support group meeting, which is generally out-of-character for me; I don't skip meals. But with the stress, I wasn't sure of my stomach anyway. When I got to the support group meeting, one of the other members had made and brought a batch of soup. It wasn't just any soup, it was broccoli cheese soup which is probably my favorite soup. So there I was, having worried about missing a meal, having made a tough call about priorities -- and what I needed was provided. I'd never heard of anyone bringing a meal to that meeting before or since. But the one night I needed it, it was there.

That is not the only time I've seen things provided when I needed them, but one anecdote will do for tonight. Remembering those times helps me focus on what is important, and trust that not everything is up to me.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Cast your cares on him

This continues my Lenten meditations on the peace of God in the face of human fear. 

"Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:6-7)

I've often thought of this verse as referring only to prayer: that in prayer, I can cast my cares on God because he cares for us. Again, there is the reassurance of God's care for us, which anchors our prayers. Without belief in God's compassion, in God's mercy and loving kindness, there is no reason to pray.

And while those are good prayers, Peter wasn't necessarily talking about prayer alone. I find myself praying at certain times of the day, the worries and cares do not limit themselves to those times. "Pray without ceasing" as they say, but when worry seeps into my mind, I may want to let that be my prompt: "Take this. It's out of my control."

When I picked "addressing fear" as my Lenten meditation, I didn't have a clear picture of just what this spring would bring. I thought I would be working on my tendency to stress. As it turns out, I find it very stressful to have to wait in long lines to get into a grocery store where a number of the shelves are empty anyway. There was a "food insecurity" time in my life, years ago (a polite phrase for not knowing where my next meal was coming from or even what day it would be). And yet there was an act of God's particular providence where, after all, I didn't go hungry. And still there is a temptation to fear now.

I've often heard sermons about the Israelites in the desert, doubting God even after all he had done, sermons that call us to be sure of one thing: in their place we would have been no different. Even after seeing his deliverance, even while enjoying his providence, the people were still moved to fear. We are dust, therefore we fear: we know exactly how frail we are. And yet God loves us. We cast our cares on him for one reason: he cares for us. The thing is to keep my mind fixed more firmly on that.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

"Fear not" when the Messiah comes

The Gospel of Luke introduces the gospel first through the eyes of the people who would be involved in the earliest stages: Zechariah, Mary, and later some shepherds who were nearby when Jesus was born. In each case, God's angel announces "Fear not;" in each case, the angel gives them a reason to hope instead of fear.
"Fear not, Zechariah: your prayer has been heard" (Luke 1:13)
"Fear not, Mary; you have found favor with God" (Luke 1:30)
"Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people" (Luke 2:10)
"Your prayer has been heard." How many years had Zechariah prayed? (Had he stopped praying?) I know the feeling of sadness, grief, and fear when I think a prayer is not heard. The angel told Zechariah not to fear: God was listening.

"You have found favor with God." Have I offended God? Have I disappointed God? Am I too often in need of forgiveness? Lent brings a new covenant, one of forgiveness, a covenant of God's favor and mercy. Think what you will about the legends of Mary's sinlessless; God's favor is not only for the sinless. And so he establishes a covenant of forgiveness.

"I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people." We've got enough bad news. People go out of their way to find bad news, or cast news in a bad light. And good news for one person is often bad news for another. The good wins. Because God is merciful, because God is loving, good wins.

So when Jesus first came in human form, the announcement "Fear not" is good news. We see three times where people are given reason to celebrate because of what God has done, is doing, and will do.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Perfect love drives out fear

Continuing the Lenten meditations

This week my Lenten meditations have focused on the teaching "Perfect love drives out fear." I have mainly considered it from this angle: if someone loves us then their love for us will overcome our fear of them.

Love overcomes fear by its benefits toward the one who is loved. Love treats the beloved with patience and kindness, with compassion and care. Love creates a sanctuary for the beloved, a solid foundation, a refuge. If someone is loved, under healthy circumstances there is a tangible increase in the well-being of the beloved.

First for my tendency toward fear, I recognize the role that I grew up in a home that was not safe, where the children lived in chronic fear. The fear was precisely because of the lack of genuine love. Real love would have meant safety and welcome. Real love would have meant there was typically no cause to fear. The people whom I have feared, the common thread is a lack of love -- sometimes disguised with a pretense of it but without its necessary attendants of compassion and respect.

So as an adult, what do I make of "Perfect love drives out fear"? In smaller things, it means that I can set aside anxiety and fear when dealing specifically with people who are loving toward me. And yet outside that scope, large parts of the culture are hostile and hateful toward me or toward groups which include me; I often feel unsafe and unwelcome in the culture in which I live. Within that context I have some safe havens, generally associated with either my religion of choice or support groups with an official policy of taking no stand on outside issues.

The challenge for me is to carry the love of God with me, to drive out fear even among people who are hostile toward me. That challenge is still a work in progress. In Lent, we observe the 40 days in which Jesus set out toward Jerusalem -- during which time some of the religious leaders began to announce their intent to have him executed in Jerusalem: "hostile territory" in the extreme. He shows his sense of mission, a determination to love and to treat other people from love, even recognizing that it did not guarantee his safety. One of my own hesitations is that I want to enjoy my fearless moments when I am safe. And yet that leaves me, in some ways, restricted by other peoples' hatred and hostility.

I am glad that Lent is a journey, leaving more time for growth. I am not yet where I want to be.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Two ways to stop borrowing trouble: Sermon on the Mount on Worry

Continuing the Lenten meditation and self-reflection on worry, this is a brief thought on the texts from the Sermon on the Mount which I wanted to set out separately from the prior post. 

Reading the Sermon on the Mount for texts addressing worry, I was surprised to find an echo of those thoughts in neighboring verses, one of which I had related to fear and worry before, and the second which I hadn't:
"Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will worry about itself. Sufficient for each day is its own evil."
It's the very next verse that reminds us:
"Judge not, lest you be judged." 
At first glance they seem unrelated and I had always separated them in my mind. But this past week I considered whether "Judge not" was meant as something of a parallel: in the same way that each day has enough trouble of its own without borrowing more trouble from another day, likewise each of us has enough faults of our own without troubling ourselves about another person's faults. "Why look at the speck in your brother's eye when you have a plank in your own?" It sounds a lot like what he was saying about worry in just the previous breath.

So there are two easy ways to reduce my load of worrying: keeping myself to here and now, and keeping myself to my own faults.

It seems that keeping myself to my own faults would have two quick advantages. First it would lighten my load of worries by the amount from concerning myself with the faults of others. So the faults that remained would be my own. (Does anyone but Jesus need to have a worry about the weight of other peoples' faults?) Next it would lighten my load by reducing my own faults by whatever amount of fault it was to be looking over my neighbors' faults in the first place.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Toddlers in the faith: The Sermon on the Mount on Worry

Context: For Lent this year, I am self-reflecting about the tendency towards fear and worry, which I'm considering an acceptable meditation for Lent based on the Maundy Thursday text, "Do not let your heart be troubled." 

This week my meditations considered the portions of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount addressing fear and worry. This is the section which contains the memorable quote, "Which one of you, by worrying, can add an hour to life?" And we know that worry and stress tend to shorten a life, rather than adding to it. So my instinct to worry can be harmful, and my natural tendency to stress can be a form of self-sabotage. The worry won't give me even one more hour, so how many hours should I allow it to take away?

When I continued to read the portions on worry, it became clear that the topic had been part of the surrounding topics of the same sermon even before worry became the leading topic. "No one can serve two masters ... no one can serve both God and money" seems to address my wish to have things both ways. I structure my days around financial security, and the sideways eye on my account balance is never sure whether there will be enough. Jesus' sermon contains a long arc developing that theme. Is Solomon's appearance ("Consider the lilies of the field") meant to be a cameo of someone who served two masters, or someone who had incredible wealth (or lots of troubles) but couldn't compete with a patch of wildflowers?

From "Do not lay up treasure on earth" where it is easily eroded or taken, there is a theme that our sense of security is misplaced. We stress because we know that our security is misplaced. I look sideways at an account balance knowing that I cannot control the cost of a broken appliance, or of a car repair, or how long any material thing will last. I cannot control whether the currency will hold its value or whether a retirement account will hold its value. Come to think of it, there are significant expenses for car insurance, home insurance, and health insurance -- the cost of buying off future financial disaster. And yet on average most people lose more to the insurance than they would have lost to disasters (which is how insurance companies are profitable). Our fear of disaster has created its own kind of disaster. ("Insurance: disaster on the installment plan" -- said no advertisement ever.) Taking an honest look, knowing that my security is misplaced, does not alleviate my stress.

"Consider the birds of the air. They do not plant or harvest or store the harvest in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Do you not excel them?" This world is overflowing with life, which (unlike human financial systems) will continue as long as life endures. The providence of nature is part of our security. The love of God is its backing.

"Consider the lilies of the field. They do not toil or spin, but not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed as one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass -- which is here today, and tomorrow is fuel for the fire -- how much more will he clothe you, little-faiths?" This week I found myself mentally translating "O you of little faith" (little-faiths, I think, in the Greek) as "toddlers in the faith". I get the impression that Jesus didn't mean it unkindly. The abundance of life is not something that belongs to the appliances. I will never be as grateful for my appliances as I am for the little patch of wildflowers under the crepe myrtle tree, no matter how much the community association may fuss as I mow around them in the spring. (I've toyed with the idea of putting up a tiny cordon with a sign reading "wildflower sanctuary". It wouldn't make the community association leave me in peace til the spring bloom is past, but it would bring me a smile, and maybe the neighbors too.)

The human systems on which I rely (though do not necessarily trust) are built precariously. Considering their fragility can bring fear, or it can remind me to stop misplacing my confidence.