A sermon to Seekers Community, December 8, 1996
From Fear to Hope
(Do the "wave" from one side to the other, and back, to the words "From Fear to Hope.")
The beginning of the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark starts with the baptism of Jesus. For Mark this means that the beginning is the point of identity between the presence of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Incarnation is not tied to the magic of a virgin birth but to the entry of the spirit that is promised to all in baptism.
Baptism in the River Jordan was a radical act by John the Baptist. First of all it signaled that sins could be forgiven without sacrificing in the temple in Jerusalem. Baptism was triply radical. First of all it made cleansing an opening to the Holy Spirit rather than some kind of deal with God. It also broke the dependence on the Temple which was the overwhelming center of Jewish religion. One way of thinking about the radicalness of this is to remember that the Samaritans were considered unclean and bad, in part, because they worshipped in hill shrines and not in the temple.
Furthermore, breaking away from the temple meant breaking away politically from Rome because Rome was ruling through the deals cut between the Herodian Kings and temple leadership. The symbols of John as a wild man and the significance of the symbol of the River Jordan as the entry point to conquest of the Promised Land, all raise the pressure of this kind of symbolism. This is not like a sweet little baby being held in his parents arms at the front of a cathedral being welcomed into established Christendom. This kind of challenge got John arrested and then killed. In taking baptism from John, in taking up much of the message of John, Jesus knew where he was headed. Jesus is not sort of accidentally a person playing out a script in a drama where all the real action is hidden in heaven. He was a man caught up in a radical vision of religious and political freedom, finding a way to offer his gifts of healing and prophecy and willing to take the consequences.
Jesus had to be afraid in that setting. For those who think that the identity between Jesus and God is some kind of metaphysical magic, saying that Jesus was afraid seems blasphemy. For those who understand that courage is one of the key marks of the presence of the Spirit, the fear of Jesus makes his actions all the more significant. His trust of God wasn’t because he was a supernatural pretender who wasn’t touched by the world. His trust comes from simply giving his all to what was life-giving, even against all the signs of death. This is incarnation, all that is life-affirming breaking into the midst of life.
One of the distinguishing marks of human beings is our genetic capacity for grammar. It only becomes active when we hear words and grammar from others, or grammatical signs as in American Sign Language. And you can’t find it by looking in the genes. Genes make it possible but the genes are only a necessary and not a sufficient condition. Our precious capacity to do all the things we do with grammar, such as creating sentences we have never heard before, requires engagement with others, the building up of language as a shared reality.
Think of the human soul for a moment as a perceiving rather than an intellectual reality. Just as we have the genetic capacity to develop and use grammar, we have the capacity to directly participate in, to embody, the eternals of love, justice, truth and beauty. Every time we risk for what is truly transcendent and meaningful we are making room for the baptizing presence of the spirit and sometimes we are directly aware of it. This doesn’t answer all the questions we can imagine. It is only enough to live a full and meaningful life. It is only salvation from all that would starve, misdirect and misuse our most precious gifts from God.
But it is scary. If you are not feeling scared it is because you are not paying attention or not really committing to the path of Christian courage. Following the requirements of truth, justice and courage is as scary now as it was for Jesus.
But if you are not scared, you’re still in pretty good company. Most of Seekers are pretty secure. Most of us are white and middle class with all the advantages this brings. Most of us have education and money and other resources. We think of asking for computers, expensive vacations, fur coats and new cars when we dream of Christmas presents. We assume that the police are for our protection, that our health insurance will protect against the cost of medical emergencies, that our navy can keep any military threat from our shores. With our insurances, and pensions, and savings we have invested in holding fear away.
Except that fear is inside us. We can lose a job. Our families may disintegrate. Our children may be injured or worse. And the rage that has been passed on to others through our social system may find its way back to us even if we have a million people locked away in prison.
In 1976 three big risks caught up with me at the same time. I managed to both publish and perish as a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I actually learned this was going to happen in 1975. Because I had made a lifetime commitment to be in Christian Community with Shalom Community, I did not look to continue my academic career beyond the immediate area. I was fully engaged by our vision of a retreat center. In part we were modeling Wellspring. But, in 1976, after 16 years of marriage, it became clear to me that it was time for my marriage to end. When that became clear it also became clear to me that Joyce needed to stay in Shalom Community far more than I did. Suddenly I had no job, no wife, and no Christian Community. We had invested all our financial resources in Shalom Community and there was no way to extract my share. We had two vehicles, both of which were important to the Shalom vehicle pool and I left both of them.
At one point I remember going to sell blood to get a little money together. During the process of giving the blood I passed out and started into convulsions. The Blood Bank people were very efficient and no damage was done. Even though I hadn’t completed the donation they were kind enough to give me my $20. I think that was my bottom point, thinking, "Damn, I can’t even give blood." Despite being a good boy and doing everything right I had lost my financial and relational resources, the typical middle class night mare.
It might have been a crisis of faith point for me.
I was shocked at losing my job as a professor. I was doing so well professionally. I was well liked by my students. I had the full support of my Departmental Chairman. I thought I could stand up on some issues of racism. I thought I could defend a couple of lesbian students against oppression. I thought I could teach my students how to ask strong questions about sociological theory and method. I thought I could back up my Chairman in his commitment to democratize the department. I thought I could have longer hair. It was a shock that a couple of Senior Professors and the President of the University could do me in. As Bill Noland said, "You’re doing fine Pat. You’ll win on this side of the street. But I’ll win on the other side of the street (in the President’s Office). He did.
I was not shocked about the ending of my first marriage. It was a struggle all the way. It was a very good marriage in that it accomplished what it could in developmental terms. But I was clear that the same love which led me into the marriage pointed to setting Joyce and myself free for new relationships. We did all the things we were supposed to do in terms of relational processing and I was pretty sure Joyce would do better without me and that I would do better without her. And that’s how it worked out. I was confident that I would be able to meet my parenting commitments to Daniel and Dawn since we had such a good relationship and I was committed to staying in the area.
But I didn’t think through having to leave Shalom Community. I had invested so much in this dream of Christian Community that I couldn’t conceive of it ending. People had moved from around the country to join me and pursue intentional Christian Community. We worked so hard to create a stable community structure and build relationships. We bought land that was so nice, 46 acres of rolling woods with a few acres of fields and a small lake filled by a spring that rose on our land. We built a wonderful common dwelling that was so special, had a road cut and a well dug for our Retreat Center. And when I told the community, in a state of semi-shock, that Joyce and I would divorce and that I would leave Shalom, they did not respond with sympathy. I was inundated by my feelings of loss and of anxiety of moving out with no place to go, no money, no car and no job. What happened is that they told me how angry they were, angry that they did not know we were going to divorce, angry that I had called them to come to Greensboro and was now pulling out, angry that I wasn’t going to be there to help make the dreams of Shalom Community come true. Their anger was very reality based and I couldn’t say a thing. I just walked away.
Walking away meant that Daniel and Dawn were not very accessible. They were out in the near countryside and I was scrambling to make do in a cheap apartment with one ceiling falling down. I had no TV or other entertainments if I brought them to me. For awhile I couldn’t afford a phone.
I felt that I had followed my commitments to love, justice, truth, community and responsibility and that, as a result, I had lost everything. I kept a poem in my wallet that I memorized.
"I want to be buried in an unmarked grave, far, far below the surface of the earth, with nothing to do save rot, and plenty of time for that."
Of course I had not lost everything. I had my health. I had my graduate degrees. I had my experience of living in the South Side ghetto of Chicago and the models of coping they gave me. I put my life back together. I built a relationship with Lois Stovall.
I didn’t lose my faith for two critical reasons. First of all I kept an interior sense of rightness even though all my externals were coming apart. I took time for my grief, prayed for my children and for Shalom community. I learned that I had indeed given everything freely to Shalom Community, and whether they could show me any thanks or not, it was indeed a free gift and I could trust them to use it as well as their spiritual leading would allow. Soon Joyce found another partner, a man I knew. I was confident this would be good for them both and so it has proved to be. In short, I gave plenty of time and space to my inner journey, confessed my sins, released and grieved all that I had invested in, and never felt emotionally separated from God.
Secondly, I had a strong sense that the dreams that took me into the creation of Shalom Community were bigger than one moment of human relationships. I learned with shock that it was arrogant to assume we could design a perfect Christian community that would be right forever for anyone willing to make enough commitment. I knew Church of the Savior and Koinonia Partners and other Christian creative efforts were going forward. I knew God had given me valuable gifts and that I was called to use them in creative Christian contexts.
I’ve taken some more heavy hits since that bad time in 1976 and hope that I’ve grown more, deepened more, because of them. So this morning I want to share my thoughts about moving from fear to hope.
- First of all, we have to know our fears. What have you invested in? What do you care about? What would be hardest to lose? If we are covering up our fears with security props, practical and psychological, we will not deepen past your fears and we are likely to defend your props and avoid a lot of life.
- Second, we can’t defeat our fears with a game plan that makes us feel that we control our future, that we are in charge of our destiny. Planning, strategy, tactics, counting costs, all are good ideas, but as long as we are relying on our visions, our wisdom, our capacities, we are not trusting that God will be available at all points to help us figure out how to celebrate, how to respond.
- Third, we have to embrace risk and conflict as a normal part of life for anyone who really wants to follow Jesus. What is eternally valuable: love, justice, truth and beauty; will always be banging up against withdrawal, oppression, lies and ugliness. Embracing risk and conflict means giving up Hollywood romanticism. Just because we are heroic doesn’t mean the script writer is going to make it all come out right.
- Fourth, if we can give our life away as a gift, all of it, then we will not be attached to anything we have invested in ways you cannot release. If we follow what is eternally valuable, our life is a gift, not because we have shaped it and controlled it, but because we have been part of all that really matters and your contributions live on, remembered or not.
- Fifth, if we celebrate in every moment, if we notice what God is doing in us and in the world around us, we wont be attached to the future or the past in ways that destroy the Presence of the Spirit, the descending dove of baptism. Memory is a big part of identity and orientation. Anticipation makes human relationships possible. But incarnation happens in every current moment, including the moment we are sharing right now. With this awareness we will never be distracted by the myth of heaven or misled by thinking an education, or a pension, or our insurances, or our investments will protect us.
- Sixth, we just have to keep on developing our gifts, accepting your diminishments, and following our calls. This includes all the internal work of finding our gifts and discerning our calls. Jesus didn’t have to win or be successful to bear the saving truth he incarnated.
- Seventh, we must remember that God is not just working through us as individuals. If we find our place in Christian community, even at those points we are not gathered in the name of Jesus, we will understand we are not carrying the eternals alone. We can be satisfied with participating rather than controlling or knowing. In 1976 I learned that you can be pushed outside the camp and find God in the wilderness. I have a place in Shalom Community that cannot be taken away by throwing me out. If you have given yourself and your gifts freely to Seekers you are part of what God is doing with us forever, you are part of what is eternal that is being manifested in our lives.
I feel the need to say one more thing, a word about mystery. This is a much loved word for me. I find myself sometimes using it wrongly, as Seekers sometimes uses it wrongly. Mystery is not about what is totally unknown, that which in some Christian theologies is called the "wholly other." Rather, mystery is about the truth we participate in but cannot grasp, a truth we know only from a limited perspective. To acknowledge mystery is to confess that we can only sense part of the truth. We know we are alive, for example. We can sense something of truth and beauty, of love and justice. But we don’t know these things from the point of view of God. We know them from our limited perspective as creatures. How will my gifts of love bear fruit? How will my act of justice affect the powers and principalities? Will the beauty I offer through my craft, the turkey soup I make for dinner, be felt and appreciated? Does my appreciation of vitality promise anything about life I can’t sense as a living body?
- Finally, we have no choice other than to trust the mystery, to follow what we see in part. The saving truth is that we do not have to claim doctrine as truth. We do not stand where God stands, cannot know what is only God’s to know. We follow Jesus when we embrace what is life-giving, what is eternal, even if we are misunderstood, even if we rewarded with a shameful, painful and unjust death, even if we are separated from those we love. The saving truth is not a doctrinal statement of the unknowable but a trust that embracing, without reservation, what is loving, just, true and beautiful, is a sufficient link to God to last a lifetime, a joy that death cannot overcome.
The gospels are intent, in their stories of Jesus entering the world, to show that Jesus was greater than the founder of the breakaway movement within Judaism, John the Baptist. Perhaps this was a matter of false pride or of a competition for loyalty among the followers. Perhaps it is because Jesus brought special gifts and perspective that go beyond those of John. The healing power of saving truth and an existential understanding of the end of the world come to mind. What we learn in this gospel story is that Jesus was baptized, that he chose to stand with John at whatever cost, and that the marks of the spirit were evident to those who were there. This was a moment of claiming for Jesus and it opened the channels of grace. Saving power became incarnate in a follower, a follower who found his calling and lived it, who trusted the Mystery in the midst of death, oppression and misunderstanding. Jesus is my Savior because of what he has opened for me, not because of his prestige.
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Summary of From Fear to Hope
- First of all, we have to know our fears. What would be hardest to lose? If we cover up our fears with security props, practical and psychological, we will not deepen past our fears and we are likely to defend our props and avoid a lot of life.
- Second, we can’t defeat our fears with a game plan that makes us feel as if we were in charge of our destinies. Relying on plans and strategies can mean not trusting that God will be available when needed.
- Third, we have to embrace risks and conflicts as a normal part of life for anyone who really wants to follow Jesus. Embracing risks and conflicts includes giving up the romantic notion that heroism will make some script come out right.
- Fourth, if we can give our lives away as gifts, then we can let all of our investments go when the hard moments come. Our contributions live on, remembered or not.
- Fifth, if we celebrate in every moment, if we notice what God is doing with us and in the world around us, we wont feel a desperate need to be attached to the future or the past in ways that destroy the Presence of the Spirit.
- Sixth, we must keep on with developing our gifts, accepting our diminishments, and following our calls. This includes all the internal work of finding our gifts and discerning our calls. Jesus didn’t have to win or be successful to bear the saving truth he incarnated.
- Seventh, if we find our places in Christian community, even at those points when we are not gathered in the name of Jesus, we will understand that we are not carrying the eternals alone. We can be satisfied with participating rather than controlling or knowing.
- Finally, we have no choice other than to trust the mystery, to follow what we see in part. We do not stand where God stands, cannot know what is only God’s to know. We follow Jesus when we embrace what is life-giving, what is eternal, even if we are misunderstood, even if we rewarded with a shameful, painful and unjust death, even if we are separated from those we love. The saving truth is not a doctrinal statement of the unknowable but a trust that embracing, without reservation, what is loving, just, true and beautiful, is a sufficient link to God to last a lifetime, a joy that death cannot overcome.