Many sources note that we, as Americans, are increasingly anxious. While this clearly has been the case in prior episodes of history, there is little doubt in my mind that many of us are filled with angst. The reasons are varied. We live with great uncertainty as volatility characterizes many domains of life. Technological, social, scientific, and cultural changes, some positive, others less so, are constant and frequently upending.
With this in mind, it is important to note that even those who were with Jesus faced difficult and anxiety-producing circumstances. Take Mary and Joseph. How they envisioned the future, the likely well-ordered plans they had in mind, their ways of doing things, were suddenly and radically changed. Although the circumstances are vastly different, how many of us have also been confronted with a 180 degree life turn around?
Take the woman with the bleeding disorder. Ill for 12 years, financially devastated, socially ostracized, one day she decides to put it all on the line and literally reach out for Jesus. Now, centuries later, we face something. Solutions are seemingly nowhere to be found. Despair sets in. We go out on a limb and take a chance. We are questioned. We question. Yet we put it all on the line. We are challenged and uncertain.
Take the 12-year-old Jesus. He and his folks travel to Jerusalem for a big deal religious event. When it is over, Mom and Dad and a crowd of other folks head home. Little do they know that Jesus decided to stay behind to do some work on his own spiritual journey. When Mary and Joseph are about a day’s travel time out of Jerusalem they ask, “Where’s Jesus?” Like Waldo, he is nowhere to be found. Three days later they find him in the temple in Jerusalem. They admonish him and tell him they had been filled with worry. Their fear elicits anger.
Similarly, we don’t know how someone we love is doing, emotionally, physically, or psychologically. We don’t know what to do or where to begin. Overwhelming?
These stories and so many others highlight that people who had heard about Jesus, were around Jesus, turned to Jesus, all had moments of tremendous fear, anxiety and consuming stress. And we who have heard about Jesus, turn to Jesus, yet have no opportunity to be around Jesus’ presence in the flesh, have had, have, and will have such moments as well.
These stories of giants of our faith tell me that when we feel as they did, we need to stop questioning ourselves, putting ourselves down, or being critical of ourselves in any way. Their experiences tell me that what they went through is part of what it means to be human and there is nothing wrong with us when we have such experiences.
Their experiences, our experiences, are part of what it means to be alive in our bodies before we are alive in other ways with God after this life. It is part of what it means to have faith. It is a signal that we are on an amazing journey of faith and that, just like God called each of those I described above to trust and let go of fear, God asks us to do the same.
As I have mentioned, is gritting our teeth and trusting God hard? You bet. Absolutely. But it is what we are called to work on day after day. That said, however, there are a variety of things we can do to help us let go of fear. I’d like to mention just a couple of them here.
Our mind goes where we place our attention. What we attend to determines our emotions and reactions. Given this, there is a beautiful passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Paul writes in chapter 4, “6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. 8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. 9 Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.”
Here Paul invites us, when we are filled with angst and fear, to focus our minds on God by praying to God. Letting God know what is on our mind, what is happening, what we need, and to thank God. Note the components of how Paul suggests we pray.
Secondly, Paul invites us to focus our minds on what is “true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable…that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
If we choose to pay attention to what is ugly, all the divisiveness, all the rancor and anger on television and in discussions around us, violent movies and stories, hatred, and everything that is the opposite of what Paul mentions, the result will be the opposite of peace and release. If however, we make the decision to spend most of our energy on the things Paul suggests, “then the peace of God will be with us,” as Paul writes. What we focus on and the resultant feelings and actions are 100% our decision.
Finally, I invite you to join me in doing something over the days ahead.
Get to a quiet place. Turn off technology. Give yourself some open ended time. Get quiet. Get silent. Listen to the silence for a bit and then pray. I invite you to pray something like the following.
God. Here I am. I am coming to you in this quiet place wanting and needing to hear from you. While I may or may not hear your voice, I ask that you at least help me to sense your thoughts in my thoughts. Here is what is happening that is causing me great worry and stress and fear. I know you already know all this but I just want to share what is happening.
I ask that you help me trust you. I ask that you give me this gift. I ask that you help me let go of fear and worry and anxiety. God, the thing you say more often than anything in scripture is, “Trust me and don’t fear.” Help me to trust you. Help me to let go of fear. Help me to trust and not fear regardless, no matter what, despite what happens or does not happen. Help my trust and letting go of fear be outcome independent. Please help me trust you right now. Please fill me with your peace that passes all understanding. Please help me let it go and let you take over. Give me your peace and trust.
Pray using your own words, but give yourself plenty of time in this quiet place. The more you invest in doing this kind of thing, the more trust and peace and release will fill you.
Indeed, these are troubling times but, as followers of Jesus, there is much we can do in response to help us in our journey in faith.
A couple of weeks ago the Aspen School District had a fall break period of a couple of days. My wife Regina, our son Peter, and I headed to Grand Junction as many do to get some stronger sun and warmth as it had been so cold. We decided to spend some time at the Colorado National Monument. If you have not been, go. It is spectacular and a treasure. The plateaus, monoliths, cliffs, and red rock are striking and awe-inspiring.
Regina arranged well ahead of time for us to meet a guide one morning. I was game and not too apprehensive even though the guide we were meeting was a rock climbing guide. Our guide was not sure what to make of me when I told him, after meeting him, that the last time I was on a cliff, helicopters and a dozen or so mountain rescue members got involved. But that was then and this was now I assured him.
When we had hiked for 30 minutes or so up a canyon with backpacks filled with equipment, our guide said, “We are here.” Looking up at the surrounding sandstone cliffs I asked, “Where is here?” “Up,” he said. “Here? You mean there,” pointing toward the sky. “Yes.” Above us was at least 100 feet of a flat wall pictured on the front of the bulletin.
Soon, after we hiked around some more to the other side of that cliff to set up anchor points, we received instructions, and put on harnesses and helmets. Our son Peter went first followed by Regina. They both made it look easy and when they repelled down, it was apparently my turn.
After running the rope through the harness tie in points and attaching the carabiner to the belay loop, terms I still am learning, I was ready to go. I stood at the base of the cliff. I turned around and asked, “Where do I put my hands and feet?” “Really” I said in response to what the guide told me.
Somehow, someway, I made my way 30 feet or so up the cliff when all of a sudden I yelled, “There is no place to put my hands or my feet.” The guide replied, “Yes there is.” I retorted, “But I feel like a hippopotamus ice skating; this is not possible.” “Yes it is,” he said. “Look for tiny places to put just part of one foot and places to pull yourself up with your fingertips.”
Somehow, someway, I continued. About half way up, with cut hands and bloody knees as I was dumb enough to wear shorts, the guide yelled out, “Take a break.” “Where?” I asked. “Where you are; just lean back.” I won’t repeat what I whispered to myself.
Anyway, I did what I was told. I relaxed and leaned back from the cliff securely held by the rope. And as I did so, I looked down to see where I had come from, up to see how far I had to go, and all around to take in the view. I felt very blessed and asked myself, “How many people get to hang off a cliff today, voluntarily?”
After a few minutes, I continued climbing upward, falling now and then, but quickly caught by the rope. Eventually I made my way to the top, exhaled, and took in the glorious view of the canyon and the ants of Regina, Peter, and the guide below. Soon I repelled down planting my feet firmly on the ground. I was met with cheers.
Whether or not you have rock climbed with ropes, I was yet again reminded that day about what trusting God is all about when challenges abound. Hopefully not carrying this metaphor too far, we all have cliffs to go up. They are as varied as there are people, but we all have them. It can seem impossible at times to scale what we need to move through. It can indeed seem that there is no place to put our hands or feet and there is nothing to grab a hold of. We all go through this.
But we have a guide. We have God. And God is completely trustworthy. Even when it seems impossible, our feelings don’t determine what God can and cannot do. Even when it feels that God is nowhere to be found, our feelings, once again, don’t determine God’s presence. We’ve got to trust God. We have got to find those places to put our hands and our feet with God’s guidance.
And whether or not we realize it or accept it, there are people around us as we make our way. People to encourage us. There are always people around even if those we thought we could depend on don’t show up, others will if we reach out. And just as it is important to pause when we are in the middle of a cliff climb to rest, and to see where we have been and what is ahead, the same is true of those passages in which there are mighty challenges.
I’ve been thinking back to some of my cliffs. Parents dying. Friends dying. Illnesses that people I love have to endure. Times of incapacity due to serious injury. Struggling children. People I love whose time is limited. Not knowing what the future held with this and that. The cliffs I’ve been through over the decades as a pastor.
Cliffs, we all have had them, have them, and will have them. But Jesus’ message, God’s message to each of us is precisely the same. Make the decision to trust the guide and climb. Make the decision to move forward. Make the decision to pause and reflect. Make the decision to emote and share feelings with God. Make the decision to grit your teeth and trust.
And one final thing that is so important. Whenever we are not on a cliff, let us all take the time, make the intentional effort, to reach out in concrete ways to those who are on the ropes. Let us encourage them, applaud each movement they make, love them, grit our teeth and trust God on their behalf, when they are not in a place in which they are able to do so.
Sometimes it is our turn to trust. At others, it is our time to trust on behalf of others. But regardless, a theme that runs throughout the Bible and an invitation from God that runs throughout our lives is clear. Our guide is not going to let us go regardless of what cliff we are on and attempting to climb.