catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 5 :: 2005.03.11 — 2005.03.24


Do not be afraid

It was amazing how calm I remained?considering the degree of panic on the other end of the phone. He was so upset, his voice laced so heavily with sobs and tears that I couldn?t even tell who it was at first. Then I heard, ?Alex, Mom. It?s Alex.?

My 9-year-old was terrified. It was during the week in June that he spends with his biological father. He has fallen asleep in his dad?s SUV and when he woke up he couldn?t find anybody. His fear was very real, growing in his soul since he learned about a girl who was dropped off at her grandparents? home by her mother?a mother who never returned for her.

It turns out Alex?s dad was close by?not in the house where Alex looked, but in the shop his grandparents owned that was connected to the house. A more thorough search, a louder cry for help may have been all he needed to find what he was searching for?a sign of life, a sign of hope, proof that someone who loved him was nearby. But he didn?t know that. He only knew gut-wrenching fear. And his answer was to call for ?mom,? the one person in the world that he believed could help in a time such as this.

In retrospect, Alex?s problem was relatively minor and his condition of fear quickly relieved, but from a 9-year-old perspective, his sense of despair was no less acute than you and I have faced in our grown up world of death, loss, violence and fear that comes in my guises.

We know what it is to be in painful, even life-threatening situations and find that we are unable to make things right. How then can we possibly hear the words, ?Do not be afraid, little flock?? In the midst of hardship and suffering, how can we possibly trust such words?

On Friday I returned home to find out that a good friend?s 10-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with cancer. This is just the latest in a long list of crises among the people I know. The longer I am in ministry the clearer it becomes that EVERYONE is hurting. Accidents, rapes, death, disease, abuse, neglect: the list goes on.

You know the pain I?m talking about. None of us totally escapes crisis in our life?those unexpected breaks in our equilibrium, those sudden changes that leave us overwhelmed and anxious. We move through shock and denial, bargaining and depression until we return to some sense of reorientation.

But when the tension we experience in crisis is not relieved, when instead we find ourselves living with unbearable emotions and unacceptable impulses, when we live in a state of perpetual crisis, then we have known true trauma. Trauma makes us feel helpless, that there are no options left. Trauma causes the imagination to break down. And we cannot believe in God without imagination.

And trauma is often experienced in silence. In my first pastoral care class at seminary I was told crisis will seek you out, but trauma will hide from you. So I preach about trauma?because I know as a survivor of domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse how important it is to find a safe community in which to work through trauma.

Each of us carries our own scars, our own wounds, our own trauma. Yet even into our traumatized lives God sends Jesus to tell us ?Do not be afraid, little flock. Do not be afraid.? God is present with us in moments of pain. God reaches out to us when we can no longer reach beyond our selves. God promises to remain with us and to help us as we work toward healing and reorientation. Jesus gives us the seed of hope that although life right now is shattered, God will walk with us through our pain, our anger and our bewilderment.

And he tells us more. Jesus tells us that we can discover a whole new way of being, by letting go of our worldly cares and concerns and giving our hearts to God. He tells us the importance of learning to trust. Psychologist Erick Erickson in his groundbreaking work on developmental stages identifies trust as the core task in our first stage of spiritual and psychosocial development.

As newborn infants, we were not conscious of being selves?beings independent of our surroundings. The world was simply an extension of us as we were fed, changed, and held in response to our needs. But as we grew our needs weren?t automatically met. As toddlers, we learned that the world was separate from us.

Marcus Borg tells the story of a 3-year-old girl with a new brother. Within hours of the baby coming home the little girl asked her parents if she could be alone with the baby in his room with the door shut. The parents were reluctant but agreed because of the intercom system in the room through which they could hear if anything strange or unsettling occurred.

So they let their daughter into the room, shut the door and then raced to the intercom listening station. They heard their daughter?s footsteps cross the floor, imagined her standing over the baby?s crib, and then heard her say to her brother, ?Tell me about God?I?ve almost forgotten.? The story is both haunting and suggestive for it implies that we come from God and that when we are very young we still remember this. But that in the process of growing up, of learning about THIS world, we increasingly forget the one from whom we came and in whom we live.

When we become aware of our selves?when we become self-conscious?it is inevitable that we develop self-concern. We all go through this. We can?t develop into mature human beings without being self-conscious and yet in this very process of growth we fall into a world of self-consciousness and self-centeredness, becoming more and more estranged from God, eventually living in exile.

Older and older we grow, more and more shaped by the world, mystery and magic left further and further behind. By the time we reach adolescence, we have internalized the world?s values and use them to judge ourselves. Our appearance, our achievements, our affluence become all important measuring sticks of determining whether we are good enough?or not. My son Jackson is 12 now and spends much of his time trying to determine if he looks cool or just foolish. Any of you who have teenagers or have ever been teenagers know exactly what I?m talking about.

And so we continue through life, comparing and measuring ourselves. Our fall into exile is very deep. We become self-preoccupied, materialistic, worry-filled, insensitive, greedy, angry, afraid. Thus we need to be reborn. We need to receive Jesus? words of promise and assurance. We need to recover our true selves and begin living our lives again from the inside out rather than the outside in.

When Jackson turned 9, I remember him being overwhelmingly sad at bedtime one night. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, ?I?m already 9 years old. I?ll probably be moving out of the house and going to college when I?m 18. I?ve already lived half of my life with you. It?s just all happening so fast.?

Billy Collins captured my son?s emotion in his poem ?On Turning Ten:?

The whole idea of it makes me feel
Like I?m coming down with something,
Something worse than any stomachache
Or the headaches I get from reading in bad light?
A kind of measles of the spirit,
A mumps of the psyche,
A disfiguring chickenpox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
But that is because you have forgotten
The perfect simplicity of being one
And the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
By drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
Watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed
drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
As I walk thorough the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
Time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
There was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

As we grow there is so much we leave behind. But as mature Christians, there is also much we can recapture. When we live lives more deeply centered in the Spirit of God, we can even begin to forget our selves, a self-forgetfulness that accompanies a deepening trust in God.

To be born again in this way is not something we can ?make? happen either through our strong determination or by learning and reciting the right beliefs. It is a work of the spirit. But we can help the process along. We can become intentional about our relationship with God and work to deepen it. We do this by paying attention to it through worship, community, prayer, scripture and devotion until by faith we find that we are moving outside our selves in order to enter into the brokenness of life so that we might reach out to other people who still live in fear. That is our mission ? to become known as the place along the lakeshore where All are Welcome.

Of course, we still have days filled with cares and concerns and burdens. But sometimes just realizing that we have for the moment forgotten God can help. The simple act of reminding ourselves that God is real?that there is more?can lighten the load we carry, can help us rise above our self-preoccupation. This process of ongoing spiritual transformation is central to all the world?s enduring religions. For Christians, Jesus is the way of that transformation?the path of new life that comes from a new heart and a new self centered in God.

And as we begin to trust more fully in God, we are called forth to be agents of hope for others. We are to be a witness for the pain they carry. We are to be the voice of memory when others have forgotten that God is near.

It is not our job to come up with pat answers for why bad things happen to good people. There are no easy answers. But it is our job to be faithful to our sense of community. Healing only takes place in relationship. You may be the one person whose presence speaks ?god is here? to someone in need today?someone searching for a sign of life, a sign of hope, proof that someone who loves them is nearby.

You are necessary here. You are needed here more than you know. It is in our tending to one another that we find the faith to trust those words: Do not be afraid, little flock, do not be afraid.

Almost every day I hear of another crisis, another trauma, another request for comfort and prayer. And I am also reminded every day by your witness that we are not a people who live without hope. For we are a people whose God wants nothing more than to give us the kingdom. We can claim that kingdom. We can claim it today and every day. It is ours to experience.

God continues to seek us out. Listen to the promise: You are not alone. I am right here. Trust in me, little flock. Remember me and do not be afraid.

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