Awakening to Fear

The Flathead River is a hop, skip, and jump from my home in Columbia Falls. At the start of the pandemic, the winter snows had just begun to melt away and for a brief period, I could take Ember down the steep brush-covered hill and enjoy a reprieve from the ever-present canyon wind while wandering along the rocky bank with the warmth of the sun reflecting off the placid water and a hushed quiet broken only by an occasional bird song. It was a surreal time that I relished – within a block from my home I found escape and respite from the daily COVID counts, the crashing stock market, and the loneliness of isolation.

***

COVID-19 stirred us from the usual narratives of our lives – shook our foundations of routine and wiped away much of what we took for granted – the air we breathe, the people we surround ourselves with (outside of our own four walls), the freedom to “go” to work and “go” to school among so many other facets of our daily lives. At first, we were incredibly disrupted, but as the weeks wore on and the idea of sheltering-in-place was less of a novelty and more of a necessity, a new rhythm of life set in. We began to celebrate our stay-at-home life and the notion of staying-in became the stuff of morning newscasts, cooking shows, and advertisements for everything from buying a car to lawn fertilizer. My phone and Zoom conversations really did seem like a lifeline and I found myself not wanting to say goodbye.  Getting to know all about your nearest and dearest became not just an ancestral-oriented hobby but a real thing. And after far too many (for some) quiet moments of self-reflection and self-realization, getting really tired of knowing all about oneself also became a thing. All of this, of course, was our attempt to evade the much-feared Coronavirus that was invading our communities, upending economies, and snatching away lives and livelihoods.

***

When the mountain snows began to melt and the spring rains began to fall, my beloved river of respite began to rise; slowly at first, but gaining more and more of the rocky bank with every visit I made until there was nothing left for me to explore let alone stand on. And then the spring rains gave way to violent storms – sudden deluges of water from heavens added to the rising waters. The once sable colored reflecting pool was now a raging river of mud and fallen trees.

***

As the days, weeks and months of COVID-19’s unwanted presence wore on, the novel communal narrative of our lives began to change. Shelter-in-place restrictions were lifted and we emerged from our cocoons of confined comfort to a communal reality check waiting for us. It was as though the virus not only infected bodies but awakened us to a stark truth: while the media and CDC wanted us to think we were all in this fight together – clearly, we were not. Sectors of our society, those whose personal narratives have always been different from mine and most likely yours, were pummeled. Pummeled not just by the severity of the virus’s impact on certain ethnicities but on those whose already precarious financial stability was stripped away. COVID-19 exposed inequalities across many of society’s systems: justice, education, health care, food supply, employment, and housing. Add in the undercurrent of racism – whether one is blatantly so or our lives simply reflect the very long story and history of race and fights for equality across the many lines of division that have defined us as a nation, and we are now seeing the other side of American greatness and being forced to deal with a seismic shift in the narrative of our nation.

***

The last two weeks, my walks to the river have been few and far between. It would seem that mother nature is taking her cue from those of us on mother earth and throwing a bit of temper tantrum. One violent storm a week was something I was accustomed to growing up in Eastern Montana, but here in the Flathead, we seem to be having a rather unusually violent spring storm cycle. When the river’s roar beckons me near, my breath is taken away by the deep seductive green flows rushing by. Whitecaps and nearly surfable (at least for me) swells leave me in awe of the sometimes destructive, always humbling power of nature.

***

“Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed,” said actor and director Will Smith in August 2016.  Who could have imagined how true these words would become? Things are not worse; they are being uncovered and the truth is seeing the light of day. As Jesus says to his disciples as he sends them out to tend to the people on the margins of society of the Roman empire in Matthew 10:26-27: “Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now.” (The Message)

As the fear of COVID-19 seemed to disappear overnight, news reports and social media were flooded with images and stories of a new fight taking place on the streets of our country and in our hearts and minds. And if you find yourself asking what happened to the way things used to be – you know just four short months ago before the great disruption – you are not alone. But the chasm that divides our nation and brought throngs of citizens to the streets has infected us much longer than the virus that has recently plagued our society – it just took death and perhaps communal isolation to make them visible.

And behind that longing for the way things “used to be” – if you are really honest with yourself as I have been – is the underlying force of fear – fear of being wrong, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of being unsettled and uncomfortable, fear of losing power and control (who doesn’t crave power and control?), fear of loss, fear of the truth, fear of disruption and confrontation, and fear of what we do not understand. Perhaps foremost, fear of a damaged or lost identity and being called to a higher allegiance than the powers that be in this world.

Fear. Is there any more pervasive or powerful motivating force in human experience?

From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us, certainly to fear the stranger, sometimes to fear even those who are closest to us. Political leaders have long recognized the power of fear in ensuring our conformity to the structures of this world, even when doing so does not serve our best interests. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy, as well as, increasingly, our political priorities.[1] Fear is what gives rulers power over their subjects – it has been a reigning force in authority from the beginning of man. Why do you think most animals run from us?

But there are other motivating forces that can topple the fiercest fears – the direct opposite of fear – knowledge coupled with love. When we become cognizant of the facades of human power attained by the power of fear and recognize the infinite power over our whole beings of mercy and love, the threats of hate, injustice, and racism are no longer the determining forces in our lives.

It is hard work confronting fear and power, but it is work that Jesus called his disciples to do – the kicking out of evil spirits and of tenderly caring for bruised and hurt lives – and His call continues to us age after age.

While Jesus warns his disciples of the hazardous work ahead of them, He also empowers them with the Holy Spirit: “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove. Don’t be naive. Some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation—just because you believe in me. Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. Without knowing it, they’ve done you—and me—a favor, given you a platform for preaching the kingdom news! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there; the Spirit of your Father will supply the words.” Matthew 10:16-20

While I don’t feel as though I am a sheep among wolves, I do find myself having more and more difficult conversations with people – those I barely know and those I admire and love. Why can’t they just see?? See the truth?  See the other side of things? See it my way? Just look for heaven’s sake! And I am sure they are thinking the same thing following our discussions. But I soldier on – in my quest for knowledge and understanding. My work is much less hazardous – it mainly consists of less talking and more listening – to all points of view. I do refuse to be, as Jesus says, “bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.”  (Matt 10:28) But I keep an open mind knowing there is nothing they can do to my soul, my core being. I’ll let God handle that.

One of my struggles in life as a whole has been accepting change and making decisions in the face of change. I am always afraid of making the wrong decision – but if I allow myself time to make decisions and research my options and learn about the opportunities – I find myself less fearful of the unknown that comes with all change. Last month I wrote about being okay with not knowing things. However, with knowledge comes power – power over my own fears – and the power of understanding. So, I have taken it upon myself to try to understand the lives of those whose narratives are vastly different from mine. While I wish I could say I have been doing this all along in life, that would be a self-serving blatant lie. On the contrary – it all began just a few mornings ago.

I was out for my morning run without a care in the world, other than my ridiculously slow pace.  As I listened to the news, story after story from the frontlines about the fractured state of our nation left me numb – but one story left my heart broken – and maybe for the first time really cognizant of the privileges I do have for being born – white. Shawn, the son of a MN State Representative, is a 17-year-old star athlete who happens to be an avid runner himself – albeit a much faster one than me. This young man’s determination to be the best he can be should be the only thing that defines just how great he can be. But that is not the case. Because he is black – he cannot run alone in the neighborhood in which he lives – because “black boys” who are running – are running from trouble. Shawn knows this first hand as he has been stopped on more than one occasion and questioned by “good folks” and the police. He has made peace with the fact that he can only run on the school track or with the team from now on – but he shouldn’t have to do that.  He should be able to run in his neighborhood just like I do every morning and worry only about his pace. Amid all the other stories about racial disparity and strife, his story hit home with me.

As did the story of a fellow partner in ministry.  As I read an essay written by a woman pastor in the Lutheran church her words stopped me short: “The toughest thing I have ever tried to be is both black and Lutheran.”

***

I spent some time by the river a few days ago – it was still rushing wildly, still rising and disturbing the landscape that directs its course. It was early morning before the sun could warm the air. Waves lapped at my feet and every so often would crash against a logjam splashing me with icy cold water. What a wake-up call.

***

My beginnings in the church echo the writer’s. We both had moms who were church organists, we both were in church every Sunday, and we both remained involved throughout high school and desired a deeper life with God. She pursued seminary – despite the fact that women pastors were still the rarity – I did not. But while our beginnings were the same, our experiences in the church were not. Unlike her, I have never been asked why I became a Lutheran – I am a blond Scandinavian – you just are. Nor have I been accused of not being Lutheran enough or told I am not the best one to be making decisions about the direction of our ministry based on my background. We are two women who believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. And, so are all the people who are on the margins in this world. We are two women who share a living, daring, confidence in God’s grace that welcomes all as a whole person.

My most formative years were spent in the cultural stew of Northern Virginia. I like to say that my Black, Asian, Hindu, Iranian, Turkish, and Hispanic friends were a great group of kids with similar ideals and plans for life. Ideally that would be the truth. Perhaps I was too young and colorblind to understand. Perhaps I am still too colorblind. I have scoffed at the notion of white privilege. I believe we are each responsible for making our way in this world and every single one of us will encounter hardship along the way – some more than others – but that really is life. Life is not fair. We all face circumstances that we would never wish on anyone else. But my circumstances occur in a world where I can pretty much do anything I want within the systems I have grown accustomed to. The odds are on my side if I set my mind to do something – for people like Shawn and Pastor Tiffany, the odds are not so favorable.

Yet they are confronting fear on all fronts – their own and those of a society ingrained in systems that only work for some. I am listening to their stories with an open heart and mind that wants to understand. I am confronting my fear of challenges to the systems that have served me so well because these systems are not what I chose to align my life with. Paula D’Arcy, a writer who also serves as adjunct faculty at Oblate School of Theology and Seton Cove Spirituality Center, in Texas shares in her essays  “The Freedom of the Greater Heart,” and “Emancipation,” these thoughts: “The illusion is thinking that, by changing a system, an ideology, or our external circumstances, things will change. No; freedom is . . . realizing that this Love is not a symbol or an ideal; it is a living power. . . . There is a living love that exceeds our circumstances and our conditioning. That’s the truth we all must find. The profound problems of hatred, judgment, [racism,] and revenge, our jealousies and our violence, will be solved by love, and love alone.”

There is a lot of which to be afraid of in the world these days, but it is not just the spread of COVID-19, economic instability, and violence in the streets. My fear is living in a world where people align themselves with the powers gleaned from fear rather than those from courageous love.

***

“Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me. Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night! My life is God’s prayer.“  – Psalm 42:7-8

Let your light so shine!

[1] Stanley Saunders, Assoc. Professor of New Testament Studies, Columbia Theological Seminary. Commentary on Matthew 10:24-39

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