Thursday, May 24, 2012

Faith's Bitter Foe

This post is longer that usual.  It is a copy of an article I wrote in the current issue of Weavings Journal. Unfortunately, the article is not available online on their website - so I make it available to you here. 

            I am a fearful person.  Not in the sense of phobic, though I am a bit wary of heights.  This is fear as anxiety.  I worry.  I worry that my bills will outlast my paycheck, that my children will be enticed down the broad path, that the unfamiliar tightness in my abdomen could be more than just a curiosity, that my wife seems irritated with me.  I worry that I’ve squandered opportunities, that I’ve missed God’s blessing, that I’m wasting my life.  In fact, I worry about most anything that appears to threaten my security or well-being.   I worry much like Abraham.  Despite his credential as “the man of faith” (Galatians 3:9) and his leading roll in the cast of characters who model faith in Hebrews 11, Abraham is not immune from the struggle between faith and fear.  He wrestles with anxiety over issues much like me.
Fear is stalking Abraham at every turn.  When he's told to leave Haran (Gen. 12:1), it's fear that would hold him back; he is stepping into the unknown and leaving behind the safety and security of life as he knew it. When he arrives in the land and finds it occupied (12:6), we can imagine fear raising questions of whether this major uprooting has been in vain.  When he travels to Egypt (12:10-13), fear looks over his shoulder, and capitalizes on a vulnerable moment. He fears for his life and lies about his wife’s identity. When he reflects on his wife's barrenness (Gen. 15:2) he fears that his inheritance will go to his servant Eliezer of Damascus.  The subtle outline of fear is recognizable in each scene.
But when God chooses to address this issue of fear, it comes, curiously enough, on the heels of Abraham’s most courageous display, rescuing his nephew Lot from four powerful kings (Genesis 14). It appears that Abraham has courage in spades.  But in the very next scene the word of the Lord comes to Abraham in a vision saying, "Do not be afraid!”(Genesis 15:1). It seems God's timing is off.  Has he so quickly forgotten Abraham’s bravery?  Or is the context of bravery part of the point being made, a subtle hint that what God has in mind is not the crisis fear of Genesis 14.  It’s another breed of fear that still affects Abraham, Lot’s daring deliverer.  It’s the same fear that grips my heart – anxiety.
The Hebrew verb used by God to tell Abraham not to be afraid is used frequently, according to one Hebrew Dictionary, to express “the terror associated with some of the common circumstances of everyday life.” (Van Gemeren, 528).  The emphasis on common circumstances is helpful, but terror is too strong a description in many uses of the word. For example, when Elihu hesitates to speak to Job before those who are older (Job 32:6), it’s not because he’s terrified, but because he is anxious - not wanting to give the impression of impudence. Or when Lot was afraid to live in Zoar after Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed (Gen. 19:30) it was less about terror and more about general uneasiness.  Frequently our day-to-day experiences present us with this low-grade fear.
Crisis fears strike with fury, but usually don't last long. These are the thunderstorms that roar through our lives on occasion.  Day-to-day fears strike with less intensity, but greater resilience. These are the dreary rain showers that, during some seasons, never seem to end.  This slow, steady stream is erosive and destructive, albeit gradual. And while Abraham can handle the torrent, he continues to struggle with the steady stream.   In my own life, this gradual decay almost destroyed my marriage.  My aversion to conflict allowed problems to remain unaddressed.  Mounting resentment led to bitterness and emotional detachment.  Our union was eroding one thin layer at a time over the span of years.  Healing began only after we realized the power that fear was exerting in our relationship.   This fear had to be laid to rest.

Two Branches: Fear for security and fear for prosperity
These day-to-day fears spring from one of two branches: fear for my security and fear for my prosperity.  Will I be safe?  Will I be well off? In the first, the focus is on avoiding dangers and is rooted in my aversion to problems.  In the second, the focus is on experiencing blessing because of how desperately I want good fortune.
These two broad categories account for the substance of Abraham's fears: his fear of not having an heir makes him feel both insecure and insignificant.  And Abraham is not alone in these fears.  I deal with them, day in and day out. Will I be safe?  Will I be satisfied?  I want problems to be held at bay and good fortune to be showered on me. If either of those are threatened, fear grips my heart - anxiety chokes out peace.
Faced with these fears, God tells Abraham not to be afraid, and encourages him with two promises that speak to those two branches of security and prosperity. 
In the first God addresses Abraham’s fear for his own security by assuring him of his protection. He offers Abraham security in Himself.  “I am your shield” (Genesis 15:1).
The shield was the key defensive weapon of the Old Testament warrior.  It was a portable fortress, a defensive wall that could be taken with the warrior into battle.  It provided a barrier between the vulnerable flesh of the warrior and the dangerous impact of various weaponry. It’s a recurring image, particularly in the Psalms, of God’s protection.  It’s a promise not only to Abraham.  “He is a shield for all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 18:30).  That promise reaches across the generations into my own life.
In his grace, God doesn’t pooh-pooh my fears or ridicule my pettiness. He comes upon me busy at work constructing a shield. I want to feel safe.  I'm working with the materials I have at my disposal, the things of this world that people turn to for security - comprehensive insurance policies, robust 401K plans, a secure job, a steady income, a house in the suburbs, smoke detectors in my kitchen and hallway, airbags in both vehicles. In reality, it amounts to nothing more than tinker toys and construction paper. He watches as I meticulously craft my flimsy defense.  It may not be much, but it makes me feel safer; the things of this world used to ease my anxieties.  And after observing for a time he says, "Oh Phil, you don't need that.  Just sit in the palm of my hand.” In this I'm shrouded by a shield of inconceivable strength.  The attacks still come, but there is security within them.
But Abraham not only wants the peace of security; he also wants the joy of  prosperity.  Beyond survival he wants to thrive and to experience a life of blessing and satisfaction. God fills that desire for joy and satisfaction by offering himself as Abraham’s great reward.  “I am your shield and your great reward” (Genesis 15:1).
And while this reward is available freely and abundantly to all, it is often neglected for substitute rewards that glitter and shine, but tarnish easily. We get caught up in a delusion of our own making, convincing ourselves of the value of the treasures we pursue while blind to the treasure that is right before us in God himself. We demand gifts and quickly forget the giver.  We set our sights on the fleeting pleasures of this world - a happy family, a prosperous career, a luxury car, a beautiful house, a powerful position, a good reputation, a night on the town, a sexual experience, a good hearty laugh.  Like a jilted lover, God laments his bride’s unfaithfulness, choking out his sorrow between tears:  “She decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, but me she forgot” (Hosea 2:13).
We fool ourselves into thinking that satisfaction is found apart from God.  But in the end we find that all of the things we chase are either elusive or unsatisfying.  We thrash about for things that are just out of reach.  And on those rare occasions that we actually grab hold of them, they fall disappointingly short of our expectations.  Satisfaction is not found apart from God or even through God - it is only found in God.  The reward is God himself.  And so I find that my fears, for both security and satisfaction are laid to rest beneath a genuine relationship with God Almighty.  He promises to be all the security and significance that I need. 
Dr. E. Stanley Jones observed, "In anxiety and worry, my being is gasping for breath - these are not my native air.  But in faith and confidence, I breathe freely - these are my native air.”  In response to God’s promises we hear Abraham gasping for breath.  “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir” (Genesis 15:3). His family line is facing extinction.  The whole genealogy listed in Genesis 11, stretching from Shem to Abraham, is about to be broken.  The curtain will be drawn on this family name - unless he produces an heir.  This is his fear, the anxiety he is living with.  His fear blinds him to the connection with what God has just promised.  He struggles to live by faith because of the circumstances that are so difficult to make sense of.  When I fail to find security and satisfaction in God it is not because he has failed to provide it.  In every case it is because I have become short sighted, failing to look beyond immediate circumstances to God’s more encompassing plan.
But God graciously makes the connection for him.  First, the assurance that his family line is safe.  “...a son coming from your own body will be your heir.”  Abraham won’t be the last link in the chain.  And second the pledge that his family line will not only survive, it will thrive.  “Look up in the heavens and count the stars - if indeed you can count shall your offspring be.”
Now it all makes sense.  In his real life fear, God will be his shield and his very great reward.  He will offer protection and prosperity.  And having made the promises relevant to his own situation, Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
So it is when we take the promises of God, make them practical to our own situation, and take him at his word.  Like Abraham, I want to be safe and I want to be well off.  Thousands of years later God’s promise remains the same. He is my shield and my very great reward.
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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mother's Day

On a recent episode of the podcast Radiolab (a podcast I highly recommend), Robert Krulwich talks about an interesting study being done at Tufts University.  It caught my attention.  I’ve always considered fetal development very tidy.  One cell becomes two, two become four, four become eight, increasing exponentially to the trillions of cells in a baby.  But infancy, as any parent can attest, is not a time of tidiness.  This is a messy assemblage.  During pregnancy, as the baby develops within the womb, cells from the fetus spill from the placenta into the mother. It’s like my son pouring milk.  He pours with intensity, like it’s a race to fill his cup.  Not surprisingly, he often spills.   This is how I envision fetal development.  The exponential increase in cells gains speed rapidly.  There is some spillage. 

Because these cells are different from the mother, you’d expect the mother’s immune system to attack and kill off these alien cells in her body within hours, if not days.  On the contrary, these cells remain within the mother not for days, months, or even years, but decades.  Forty years after my birth, my mother still carries some of my cells within her body.

The obvious question is “Why?”  What function do they serve?  The unsatisfying answer is “We don’t know.”  The results are mixed.  In some cases, these cells appear to help the mother.   They rush to areas where backup is needed and help protect, defend, and repair the mother. In other cases the cells appear to hurt the mother.  In cases of arthritis and rheumatism, it appears that these cells rush to the site and join the attack.  So sometimes these cells help, and sometimes they hurt.

And these mixed results seem fitting.  This is a cellular sliver of motherhood that reflects the whole.  Mother’s carry their children within them, long after delivery.  There is an intimate connection that is unparallelled, even by the bond between father and children.  This is unique.  This level of intimacy brings with it a host of joys and sorrows that carry on for decades to come.
      - The joy of watching them take their first step, and the sorrow of loneliness when they leave the nest.
      - The joy of a child’s wise choice and the sorrow of watching them face consequences of foolishness.
      - The joy of an honest answer and the sorrow of deceit uncovered.
      - The joy of a warm embrace and the sorrow of a screaming fit.
      - The joy of watching them succeed and the sorrow of seeing them fail.
      - The joy of a transparent conversation and the sorrow of the silent treatment.
      - The joy of commending them and the sorrow of punishing them.

Motherhood is a bi-polar mix of joys and sorrows.  Children are the greatest source of blessing and joy and pride.  They are also a powerful source of pain and grief and anxiety.  And this is what makes motherhood the most difficult and most rewarding role a woman can play.  Long after the child is born, the mother holds that child within her – on a cellular level, within her body; and on an emotional level, within her heart. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Harper & LeGrand: Stories of Justice and Grace

Bryce Harper, picked number one by the Washington Nationals in the 2010 draft, was just called up to the big leagues on April 29.  I know this because the AAA affiliate of the Nationals is my hometown Syracuse Chiefs, where Harper began his season this year.  He is almost certain to become a significant MLB star, though there is some question over whether this 19 year old is ready for the bright lights of the majors just yet. In his 20 games with the Chiefs, he hit .250, with one home run, three RBIs, and 14 strikeouts.  These stats are underwhelming.

But, with injuries to the starting line up, the Nationals decided to call up Harper earlier than expected. How long he’ll stay is uncertain.  All agree that it will be contingent on his production.  As his Chiefs teammate, Mark Teahen said,  “He’s going to have to hit and produce because in the big leagues it’s all about production.’’

He had his first Sports Illustrated cover when he was 16 with the headline “Chosen One” (June 8, 2009). At 17 he was the number one draft pick.  Now at 19 he has a record setting contract for a position player, making $9.9 million over five years.  None of these are reason enough to keep him in Washington.  If he can’t pound the ball and play the field, he’ll be back in Syracuse.  This is a familiar formula.

And then, this anomaly.  Three days after Harper made his major league debut, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Rutger’s defensive tackle, Eric LeGrand, as a free agent.  In the torrent of free agent signings following the NFL draft, most are hardly newsworthy.  Having scooped up the players with the most potential in the seven rounds of the draft, free agency is the realm of rolled dice and crossed fingers. 

But in this case, it was a sure bet, though not one you’d expect   The Buccaneers signed LeGrand knowing that he would never play a down of football for the team.  You see, Le Grand is a quadriplegic, having fractured two vertebrae in a game against Army on October 16, 2010.  At the time, Greg Schiano was the head coach of Rutgers.  Now he is the head coach of the Buccaneers. On signing him, Schiano explained, “This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men.”

And this is not what we expect.  Bryce Harper is the formula we’re familiar with. His longevity with the Nationals is directly tied to his competence as a ball player. You earn your spot on the team.  It’s about production.  You get what you deserve.  It’s a satisfying formula.  It’s a formula Eric LeGrande doesn’t fit, even remotely. And, ironically, there is delight in the unfairness of it all.  When justice rules the day, we feel satisfied.  But when grace takes the scepter, the needle pushes past satisfied to inspired.  These are the stories that stir our hearts, when effort is not enough and grace steps in to fill the void. 

I believe that the grand arc of history is the gospel, the story of God’s redemption of fallen mankind.  It is the metanarrative that holds all the disparate parts of history together.  It is, not coincidentally, a story that brings justice and grace together. Justice demands a penalty for sin.  There must be a reckoning for the shortcomings of men and women.  Perfect justice must address all infractions, from the smallest white lies to the gravest atrocities.  This is why hell is necessary.  We have broken the moral law and must pay the penalty.  But grace allows for another to take the judgment that I deserve. The penalty must be paid, but a substitute has volunteered to stand in my place.  This is why the cross is necessary.  “(Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the cross…by his wounds you have been healed” (I Peter 2:24).  In the gospel, our longing for justice is satisfied and our delight in grace is stirred.

I wonder if our reaction to these two stories tells us something about how we are made.  Woven into the fabric of our being are threads of justice and grace.  What is happening on a macro level in the gospel is continually reiterated on a micro level in our lives - stories of justice and grace.  These are the themes of the great epics, the blockbuster movies, the best selling novels.  We respond to these stories because we were designed for them.  Intellectually, we want a world that is fair, where everyone gets what they deserve.  Emotionally, we want a world that is gracious, where everyone gets a little more than they deserve.  Our heads will insist on justice while our hearts pull us toward grace.  Which is why we are satisfied with story of Bryce Harper and inspired by the story of Eric LeGrand.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Severe Mercy

This week my roll as manager collided with my roll as friend. It’s not the first time, but it may be the most pronounced. Details are unnecessary.  The silhouette is this- I uncovered a pattern of which I had to alert loss prevention.  Their investigation led to the termination of an employee whom I consider a friend. What she did was wrong, but I would not consider it grievous - probably more a reflection of foolishness than impiety.  Still, there are consequences for decisions made.

This is a young woman with a full plate. Large helpings of family conflict, relational turmoil, and health concerns leave little room for this heaping spoonful of unemployment and its accompanying side dish of financial struggle. I’d like to be far removed from this buffet.  Instead, my prints are on the serving spoon.

My head and my heart are at odds.  Even knowing I did the right thing, I still find guilt lurking around the edges of my disappointment – guilt for hurting a friend.  To conceal what I knew would have made me an accomplice, jeopardizing my job as well as hers.  So I tipped the first domino and watched the rest tumble.  I knew where it would end.

As whistleblower, I feel somewhat responsible.  Now I want some assurance that what I did was not only right, but good. To think that I have hurt a friend is unsettling.  I know it was just, but what of mercy? If mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13), have I plunged into the wrong side of the pool? 

Or maybe these aren’t really at odds at all.  This may be a severe mercy.
                  Severe – adj. strict, painful or distressing, hard to endure.
                 Mercy – n. show of pity or leniency, divine blessing
An odd pair, these two.  Severe is jagged, rough, extreme, gritty, Mercy is smooth, gentle, subtle, tender. Severe sounds rock hard; mercy sounds pillow soft.  There is a tension pulling them apart.  But this is tension like magnetism – a tension that can be harnessed. 

Electric motors are built on the principle of the repulsion between like magnetic charges.  Two positive terminals in proximity repel each other.  This repulsion creates motion that is harnessed in a spinning axel.  Inertia is overcome. 

Severe mercy carries this same tension that, when harnessed, overcomes inertia in ways that nothing else can.  Painful or distressing circumstances can move me from complacency.  There are times when gentle mercy is not forceful enough to rouse me from my slumber, only severe mercy will do. 

I borrow this phrase - “a severe mercy” - from a book by the same title by Sheldon Vanauken. In it, he recounts his struggle to come to terms with the death of his beloved wife - a death that certainly qualifies as “severe.”  In the end he comes to realize that her death, painful as it was, was to his benefit.  He grew through grief in ways he never could have otherwise.  Foresight could not have predicted it and would not have chosen it.  But having lived it, Vanauken can see that the benefit outweighed the cost.   And so he discovered the meaning of,  “a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.”

The writer of Hebrews says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful, Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11).  He is speaking of spiritual discipline.  It is a severe mercy - painful at the planting, but bountiful in the harvesting.

I trust the same can be said of my role as whistleblower.  This is the wound of a friend - a friend who cares enough to risk the friendship in the hopes of growth.  In the long run I hope she matures through this.  May this seed sown produce a bountiful harvest - one that would not be possible without first breaking up the fallow ground (Hosea 10:12).  Time will flesh that out. 

In the aftermath, she asked me not to be mad at her.  Mad?  I’m not mad.  I’ve made mistakes bigger than this in my life. But I’ve had twice as much time for those seeds to grow.  It’s easy to see the harvest and lose sight of the planting.  But any fruit was preceded by deep furrows.  Failure has moved me forward.  In my journey, mercy has been truly severe at times – more than I ever would have fathomed.  Severe and truly merciful.  

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