Wilderness Venture

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I’m excited about the publication of my  article “Wilderness Venture: Toward a more honest sermon” in the recent issue of the Christian Century.




Remembering that we are Dust

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“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.  For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:13-14

Two years ago we received the tragic news that a young alum, Andrew Kuebrich, had been killed in an accident while bicycling the coast of Taiwan.  It always hits hard when someone young dies so tragically—mostly because it doesn’t make any sense.  Andrew graduated before I came to Monmouth, so I didn’t know him.  But after his death, story after story emerged about how encouraging he was of others, how contagious his energy, humor and optimism were, how his kindness touched many.  I learned how Andrew had taped a square box on the floor of his dorm room, named it the dance box, and required anyone who stepped in it to dance their stress away.  I learned how important the Relay for Life charity event was to him because both his grandmothers had died of cancer.

During one of these events, Andrew raised money for his charity by running 45 miles—in one night!  Andrew spent his college summers working with disabled children.  He participated in alternative spring break trips building homes for Habitat for Humanity.  He traveled to Taiwan after graduation to teach English to Taiwanese children and discover the world.  A picture surfaced of Andrew crowd-surfing on the hands of a mob of celebratory college students.  I don’t know what they were celebrating, but it certainly seemed like Andrew Kuebrich was a big part of it.  He was known here as the Chief of Good Times.

I imagine you know someone like Andrew, someone full of life and charisma and joy. These are the kind of people you imagine living forever—people who are absolutely unstoppable—invincible.  Never in our wildest dreams would we believe a young man so full of life could die at 24.

But human life is fragile—a fact we don’t often consider.  A parent knows, though.  Moms and Dads learn this when their babies are born.  Our advances in medicine and technology lead us to believe a healthy birth is a sure thing…until complications arise…. the baby’s heart rate drops unexpectedly, or the chord wraps around her neck…the nurses grow tense, ring the doctor on call, and the parent gets the impression that these risks are par for the course for those who work in labor and delivery.  Babies are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little people.

Parents know this as their babies grow, too. I remember negotiating with my parents over a spring break trip to Florida that I really wanted to take with my college roommate.  It was our senior year and we planned to drive the whole trip by ourselves, from Michigan to Ft. Lauderdale, without stopping. My parents didn’t want me to go.  They asked a lot of questions.  To which I responded, “Mom, Dad, why are you so worried?  I’m 21!  I’m an adult!”  As if that meant that nothing at all bad could happen.

Now that I am a parent, though, I know why they were concerned.  They were worried because they remember the day I was born.  And they remember the day they lost track of me in that giant department store. And the day I fell on the skating rink, cutting my chin open.  And they remembered that boy (or those boys) who broke my heart leaving me a sobbing, mush of a mess.  They knew (better than I) how tiny, and fragile, and vulnerable I am.

Today, God, too, speaks to us from the parent’s perspective.  “As a father has compassion for his children,” Psalm 103 reads, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”  “God knows how we were made,” the scripture says.  God knows because God was there.  From the moment of your birth, God was there. And because God was there at our beginning, God remembers that we are dust.  We were created out of the dust of the earth and one day to dust we shall return.  In other words, to God we are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little creatures.

The stark honesty of Ash Wednesday’s message—that we can so quickly return to ash—always makes me stop to consider how I have been living my life.  This year the word “reckless” comes to my mind.  Not that I’ve been bungee jumping, or sky diving, or drag racing through the streets of Monmouth.  But reckless in the sense of not paying attention to my life.  My life is often such a blur—one long frenetic streak of activity from the moment I wake up at 6:00am to the moment I crash, exhausted, in bed at 10:00pm.  If it were not for all my smartly synced calendars, I wouldn’t even know what day it is.

I feel reckless living this way because I, of all people, should remember how close we live to the edge of death.  I’ve been around death as a pastor.  I’ve stood at the bedside of those who were taking their final, shallow breaths.  I’ve laid my hands on cool foreheads to bless those who have just slipped away.  I’ve stood in the circle of family members, the holy ground of love, as they said their final goodbyes.  Why, then, in light of these experiences and this knowledge, why do I not pay more attention to life?  Why do I allow myself to become so frenzied and frantic?  Why do I not hug my children more and whisper words that matter to the husband I love dearly?  Why don’t I stop more to listen to my own breath and be grateful for the beating of my own heart?  Why don’t I, Teri McDowell Ott, remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return?

In the midst of writing this sermon and thinking these thoughts, the voice of Jill Kuebrich, Andrew’s mother, found its way to me.  Jill read a sermon of mine on my blog after Andrew’s death and we wrote each other briefly about Andrew and his life, and the impact he had on others.  Jill directed me to a blog she had started, a place where she could remember her son and write about her grief.  I found myself reading it again this week.

I was moved in particular by a post she wrote for another grieving mother.  To this mother Jill writes:

“When you asked me at your son’s wake if it gets easier I truthfully and tearfully told you NO! I regret not lying to you to give you some comfort. You will never miss him less and when you think of what has happened it will be like a sock to the gut every time. But you will see signs of your son everywhere! Take each one and let it put a smile on your face.  Try not to let what has happened define and ruin your life. The best tribute I think we can give our sons is to live and love more fully than ever before led by their example!”

Jill’s words resonate with me as a mother of an extraordinary son, and as a child of God trying to make sense of tragedy and the fragility of human life. Jill’s words to me this week felt like the Psalmist’s words. As I read I felt as if she were smearing my forehead with ash….waking me up to the gift that is my life.

After Andrew’s death, Jill and her husband, Matt, discovered a journal he had written full of writings and containing a list of 152 things he wanted to accomplish in his life.   He started this list by writing, “Ever since I was a little boy I would always hear older people say I wish I would have.  They were looking back and wishing they had the courage to follow through with their dreams.  NOT ME.  I am creating a list. This is not a bucket list,” Andrew wrote, “this is a TO DO list.  This is not a wish I would have done it list.  This is a I DID IT list and it was amazing.  The main reason I am creating this list is because I feel like most people wander aimlessly through life like a zombie, never breaking through and experiencing life.”

Some of the “To-Do’s” on Andrew’s list included:

  • Make a million dollars just to give it away
  • Milk a cow
  • Make a huge difference in at least three people’s lives
  • Read the entire Bible
  • See Professor McMillan’s sheep
  • Mow the lawn in cut offs

“I am Andrew Kuebrich,” he concluded, “and this is my journey…”

The Burden of Judgment

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burden_of_memoryThomas Merton stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in a busy shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people. That they were his and he was theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though they were total strangers.[1]

The evenings of my recent winter break were spent reading and contemplating Merton’s words.  More than any other spiritual writer, he makes me pause to survey my interior life.  During those quiet evenings I realized how burdened I had become by judgment rather than love.  Certain people had taken up residence in my mind—they had moved in, it seemed, just to spite me.

I recalled the smug face of the old, white, pastor who once invited me to sit down for a “get-to-know-each-other” chat.  Then he stretched out his legs, put his hands behind his head and talked about himself for the good part of an hour.  Perhaps this wouldn’t have angered me so much, if hours, months, even years of my life had not already been stolen by other men like him—arrogant wind bags who do nothing but talk about nothing, and yet believe they are something.

Next the freshman football player came to my mind—a handsome, strong young man, with an olive complexion and beautiful hair—who, last autumn, sat on the front row of the auditorium, smirking and whispering rudely to his friends while I gave a presentation on the heritage of our college (a subject I care deeply about.)  He disrupted and angered me, which helped him powerfully manipulate the space.  It was all I could do not to call him out and tell him he was behaving like a real ass.

Finally, a handful of young college women arose out of my quiet contemplation.  The ones who are growing bored with me and my style of religion because it is “too political.”  They are not interested in immigration issues or the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  Theirs is a personal Savior who calls them to an outreach of making disciples.  They want to travel the world, spread the Good News of the Gospel, and pose for Facebook with an African baby in their arms.

“The saints are what they are,” Merton writes, “not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else.”[2] 

Okay, dear friend Merton, I asked, how do I love and admire these people?  Their behavior turns my mood black.  They trap me in obsessive recall as their words and faces tediously run through my mind—leaving us all in need of liberation.

“[The saints have] a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals.  It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning other men.”

Realizing the burden I carry, I finally took these people to the mat—the meditation mat, that is, where I go whenever I feel foul.  I held each one in my mind as I sought to create (like Merton did) a space of compassion.  They irritated me, at first, because here they were again, intruding on my life and my quiet.  But, in the light of compassion, these burdensome people slowly began to transform.

“A man becomes a saint not by the conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.”

I began to notice the deep need in the old, white pastor to be relevant in a world (“his” world) that was shrinking all around him.  And I noticed the demanding and tiresome nature of the freshman football player’s ego—an ego that expected this boy to constantly perform for others and control his space.  And I discovered the frailty and insecurity of the young, evangelical women, as well as their desire for a religion that might finally make them feel good about themselves.  And then I found myself in the midst of these bothersome people—each human like me—and I recognized their needs are mine as well.  I, too, desire to be relevant.  I, too, struggle with my ego.  I, too, am frail and insecure.

Which is, perhaps, good to know—but hard to live with.  I don’t want to be like these people.  I want to be better.  And in being better, I want to push them aside, rejecting them for my, more noble, path.

This, in turn, made me realize how I am reduced by judgment. I know I cannot be more than I am until I lay myself down with the wind bag, the pompous jock, the Facebook queens, and embrace them as I would my own frail heart.

[1] Thomas Merton, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” (Doubleday, New York, NY, 1965), pg. 156.

[2] All italicized quotes are from Thomas Merton’s, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg.

Choose Life–Even When Life is Hard

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13030589.aspxI have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. Deuteronomy 30:19

Do you believe life is a choice?  It doesn’t feel like a choice.  Life feels more like something that just happens—something you can’t control.  Life propels you forward and you just swim along, doing the very best you can.  Then sometimes life is too much—too hard.  Someone close to you asks, “What’s wrong?” and you can’t tell them—because it’s nothing and everything—and because you don’t know.  All you know is that life is too much and you can’t deal with it.   You just want to make a little nest for yourself and crawl in, lie down, and go to sleep for a day, or a week, or a month.  But you can’t, because you have kids and responsibilities—because life just keeps pushing you forward.

Kathleen Norris, the poet and memoirist, writes that this state of lethargy, or weariness of life, is what the desert monks might have called, “acedia” (a word that can be translated as “indifference”) and in the Middle Ages it was considered sloth, but these days is most often named, “depression.”  Kathleen Norris knows this state herself.  She writes, “I had thought that I was merely tired and in need of rest at year’s end, but it drags on, becoming the death-in-life that I know all too well, when my capacity for joy shrivels up and, like drought-stricken grass, I die down to the roots to wait it out.  The simplest acts demand a herculean effort, the pleasure I normally take in people and the world itself is lost to me.  I can be with people I love, and know that I love them, but feel nothing at all.  I am observing my life more than living it.”[1]

Norris’ words resonated with me because I’ve suffered from depression off and on my whole life.  If I don’t take care of myself, especially during times of extreme stress, it can get pretty bad.  For a long time, I thought I was alone on this island of depression.  But I’ve become increasingly aware of how prevalent “acedia” has become in our society.  I counsel college students suffering from it all the time.  Sometimes their depression is situational—they are extremely stressed about their classes or their future and the stress just takes them down.  Other times the depression comes as if out of thin air.  It’s something chemical—an imbalance that they may have inherited—and for which they need to get some help.  I’ve known farmers who suffer with it, affected by the winter’s lack of light, prompted by the stress of trying to predict Mother Nature’s whims, or just trying to survive their general daily grind.  Older adults know it too, those who are alone for a majority of their day with little to occupy their minds and their time.

So, in our text for today, when I read of God laying out a buffet of choices for the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land saying to them, “I have set before you today life and death, blessings and curses” and then implores them to choose life—I wasn’t sure I quite understood (or agreed).  Is life a choice?  Certainly we have the power to choose death over life because we have the power to end our own lives and the lives of others (through acts of violence.)  On the other hand, though, life can be a form of death, we can be alive physically, but dead spiritually, emotionally, psychologically—the depressed person knows this well.  And this state of death-in-life isn’t always a choice.  Sometimes it just happens.

But I do understand why God would implore God’s people to choose life, because the temptations to escape to a state of death are everywhere.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death led a group of us at the college into an interesting conversation about addiction and temptation.  Hoffman apparently died because of an addiction to heroin—which, I learned in this conversation, is a drug that offers a high like no other.  Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs because its effects are so euphoric.  As I sat there listening to heroin’s euphoric high described, I remember thinking—wow, that does sound pretty good.  To just escape life for a little while—go on a little euphoric trip and leave all your worries and responsibilities behind.  Of course I never would do heroin because it is clearly a choice of death.  But I might sit down with a glass of wine to melt my worries away…or hit the mall for a little retail therapy….or (as I found myself doing last week) raid the refrigerator way too late, dipping spoonfuls of frozen yogurt into a container of vanilla frosting and then slapping it on a cookie to eat.  These temptations don’t rival the evil of heroin, but they could still lead me to a physical, spiritual, emotional state of death if I excessively indulged…and kept indulging.  The temptation to escape life is huge—especially when you are tired, or stressed, or—depressed.

And I imagine God knows this—which is why this scripture feels more like an imperative than a statement.  “Choose life” God implores, “so that you and your descendants may live.”  There’s passion in these words.  There’s love in these words.  There’s almost a sense of desperation in these words because God knows that life can be hard and that the temptations to escape life are so strong.

I come to understand God’s sentiment even better when I started to think about these words from the perspective of a parent.  I wouldn’t say these words to myself so much….I wouldn’t implore myself to choose life over death (especially if I was feeling depressed) but I certainly would my child.  I can picture my children, Isaac and Ella, going through life, encountering its hardships, struggling with defeat and stress, even tragedy.  And I can see the temptations to escape looming around them.  Perhaps they will be tempted by drugs or alcohol or wild nights out.  Perhaps they will be tempted to overindulge, to drown their sorrows in Happy Meals and chocolate milk shakes. Perhaps they will turn away from God and the church and from the community that cares for them in search of something else.

The parent knows the value of her child’s life because the parent knows how much that child is loved.  The one who created you, labored over you, and bore you into this world knows how much you are loved and knows how valuable your life is.

And as my own children face all this I imagine myself saying to them, with the same passion and the same authority as the God who made all of us, Choose life, Isaac and Ella.  Choose life over all that is dark, and death-like, and tempting.  Choose life, Isaac and Ella, because you are extraordinary and you are valuable and your life is a gift—even when it is hard.  So don’t give up.  Always push on.  Choose life.

[1] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pg. 130-131.

Dear Church, Please Add Salt

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salt-in-evaporator“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” Matthew 5:13

There is a deadly threat looming over the church today.  It’s a threat greater than any theological or denominational difference, greater than any intra-church fighting or political battle, greater than society’s cultural shift towards the more secular.  It’s a threat that the church isn’t talking about because 1. it’s hard to recognize from within and 2. it’s the kind of thing you don’t talk about because it’s actually really insulting.

The threat is that the church has become really boring.

I know this may sound insulting, but I feel like I am in a good position to say this since I love the church and I am a part of her…and because I oftentimes find myself being boring too.  I mean, heck, you just need to look at me:

  • I dress predominantly in grey or black.
  • I am a white, middle-upper class girl who grew up in suburbia.
  • I’ve always been the “good kid”
  • I’ve never smoked pot.
  • I go to bed at 9:30pm.
  • My idea of a perfect evening is to be ALONE with a good book and a hot cup of tea.

I have to work really hard NOT to be as boring as I really am—especially when I preach.  Preaching isn’t that hard.  Anybody can do it, really.  Preaching well, though?  Preaching in a way that is interesting?  Now that’s a lot of work.  And I certainly don’t always succeed.  There was a man in my congregation in North Carolina who fell asleep every time I got in the pulpit.  Seriously…I would just open my mouth and I’d see him start to nod off.  I told myself that he must have narcolepsy or something.  It was my only solace.

Not being boring is hard work….but what I am finding in my ministry and as I make my way through life…..is that it is essential work to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  Just listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples again.  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the flavor.  You are the spice that wakes food up.  You are the counter to bland.  You are the preserver of fresh!   Does this, my friends, sound like the church to you?  Maybe in some cases.  But I must admit a growing frustration with the church as I travel and preach.  And my frustration is that we all seem to look and sound the same.  We congregate in churches where we are around people who are like us—people who worship in the style we like to worship, people whose lives mirror our own, people whose issues are our issues.  We all have the same hang ups – we can’t talk about sex, or politics, or money very well because those topics aren’t polite and we Christians are very polite.  At the highest level of our church’s governance, all the denominations are fighting the same battles…gay marriage, women in leadership, abortion, peace.  But rarely do these important debates trickle down to the local congregations. Locally, our battles are the same too.  Every church I know has fought over the color of the carpet to be replaced, how much money should be devoted to the mission fund vs. the building fund, and whether the pastor should stay or go.  In light of all this it feels to me like the church has simply become predictable.

Which, according to Jesus, is a very dangerous state of being.  If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

I started to think about these words from Jesus in a new way while reading a book on writing by the poet Stephen Dunn.  Dunn writes that the “burden of the writer is to somehow keep alive and vital amid all that’s dangerous and deadening in the world, and this is difficult wherever one is.”[1]

Dunn then quotes a poem by Theodore Roethke called “Dolor” (a word that means a state of great sorrow or distress.)

“I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,

Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,

Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,

Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,

Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate gray standard faces.”[2]

Not to become one of Roethke’s “duplicate gray standard faces” takes vigilance, Dunn writes.  We must guard against this danger to our vitality.  We must look around with prophetic eyes and put on our spectacles of truth in order to see where the dust is falling.  Have we been standing in the same place for too long? Has life become an endless Walmart checkout line?  Have we moved forward, developed or grown?  Because if we haven’t, something must be done.  This is not life well lived.  This is the life of the walking dead.

So what do Christ’s disciples need to do in order to guard the church against this loss of vitality, this life of the walking dead?  Who do Christ’s disciples need to be to be the salt of the earth?

Each disciple needs to answer these questions for him or herself.  But I can tell you about my experience.  Two come to mind.  The first being the time I decided to preach a sermon series at my church in North Carolina on difficult texts and issues.  It was my husband’s idea really. (He’s always doing this to me.)  I wanted to do a series but I couldn’t decide on a topic that interested me enough, or that would interest my congregation.  Dan suggested the difficult texts and topics, which scared me to death.  But admittedly, it was interesting.  So I ended up preaching on Cain and Abel, which turned into a sermon about capital punishment.  And I preached on the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, because it is a story I have never been able to justify—and I decided not to justify it in my sermon, only point out its problems.  And then I preached on homosexuality—a topic I had always avoided as a liberal Christian living in the bible belt.

Each sermon in this series was an extraordinary challenge.  My fear and anxiety over tackling these topics motivated me to work harder than I ever had.  My goal was to preach in a way that could be heard by all, even if they disagreed.

In the end, this became one of my finest experiences of the church. My congregation came alive with energy and attentiveness.  Our discussions about the topics lasted long after Sunday morning worship.  No one told me I shouldn’t have done it.  Everyone seemed to agree that the church should be discussing issues that matter—even if those issues were controversial.

My other experience is one that is still ongoing.  I have recently reawakened my passion for writing.  Since moving here I started attending the Iowa Writer’s Festival in Iowa City each summer. There I have discovered that the “writers world” is much bigger and much more diverse than my “Presbyterian Church world” and that the church can learn a lot from writers—particularly poets.  In order to be a successful poet, a writer must walk through life paying close attention, mindful of the details, the nuances, the complexities of everything.  When the poet puts pen to paper, he or she needs to write about life in a way that is not cliché, or stale, or (the worst) predictable.  Instead the poet must write to be surprised.  There should be a point of discovery in every poem—a discovery that will be meaningful and memorable to the reader.

Now I have a poet for a writing coach.  I send her every sermon and she sends them back full of red ink.  She calls me on my overly abstract, “churchy” language and tells me to speak directly to the people in the pews.  She pushes me, and pushes me, until I find my way to a new discovery.  She tells me to be specific, to give people an image to hold on to, to use more concrete details.

All of this has been extremely helpful in my quest to be Jesus’ salt. So I do not broach the topic of how boring the church has become today without hope.  The opportunities to be alive and vital as the Body of Christ are limitless.  But we in the church must:

  • Be vigilant, to guard against the dust that is falling, asking ourselves questions like: What are we doing just for the sake of doing it?  What has lost its meaning?  Where have we grown numb?  What practices, programs, even doctrines, are we perpetuating simply because this is what we know, this is comfortable, this is the way it has always been done?
  • Subject ourselves to feedback and constructive criticism from those who know things we wish to learn.
  • Speak about issues that matter–whether it be gay marriage, or the power of money or the growing diversity of our community.
  • Reveal to the world that there are still discoveries to be found within Christ’s body and among his people—reveal to the world that we are not the walking dead.

We in the church bemoan her decline. We wonder how we can attract new members—young people! children!—and then keep them.  We cry foul at a world and a society that doesn’t much care.  And yet what are we doing that is different?  How do we feel about change?  What risks are we, who love and cherish the church, willing to take?

[1] Stephen Dunn, Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry, (BOA Editions, Ltd., Rochester, NY, 2001) pg. 141.

[2] Ibid, pg. 84.

Lion Running

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10.-Lioness-walking-head-on-close-focus-wide-angle-Serengeti-TanzaniaI stole a moment to go running today.  Twenty whole minutes, in fact.  This morning as I anxiously reviewed my to-do list I decided my workout had to get skipped.  Then, to my surprise, my work went so smoothly and at such a fast clip that an unexpected window of time appeared, and I jumped at the chance to give my body what it craved.

When I run I always take the same route.  We live in rural Illinois where the country roads have little to no shoulder and the sightlines are terrible for cars that drive too fast.  So I run the same route, out and back, that is not the most picturesque (one long cornfield after another) but it is the safest.

The lack of scenery doesn’t bother me, though.  I don’t look around much when I run.  I am too into the way I feel to pay attention to my surroundings. I also cherish the mobility of my body.  At 41 I can still tick along pretty fast.  The fresh air brightens my mood and the heavy pumps of my heart cleanse me from the inside out.  The rhythm of all this lulls my mind as I sift through the thoughts and feelings of my day and of the days ahead.  This is my best time.

As I rise to the top of 200th Street, I hit an open patch of cornfield where the wind hits me full force.  I tell myself the wind is good for me.  I get a better workout here than on the treadmill.  Pressing on, I reach my ten-minute mark and turn around, where suddenly the wind is at my back.  I’m practically flying now, buoyed by all this Midwest wind power.

Then it starts to snow.  At first the flakes are tiny, like dots of white rain falling upon me.  Gradually the flakes grow and transform until they are like giant, craggy communion wafers falling from the sky.  With the wind at my back, the giant flakes hit me softly from behind, break around my body, and envelope me in an extraordinary tunnel—a vortex of dancing, swirling, silvery snow.  I run right down the middle.

Opening my hands, I marvel at the size and beauty of the flakes set perfectly against my black running gloves.  The surprising beauty of it all alerts me to become mindful of the moment.  So I pay attention.  I look around.  I turn off my Ipod to hear the crunch of my shoes on the gravel beneath my feet.  I inhale.  I exhale—deeply.  Every breath a prayer of gratitude for this moment in which I have been swept.

And I recall a recent conversation with a student during which he reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s metaphor for mindfulness.  “Be like a lion,” he suggests, “going forward with slow, gentle, and firm steps. Only with this kind of vigilance can you realize awakening.”

I finish my run like the lion, grateful for my twenty minutes of awakening.

Do Not Be Your Fear–A Christmas Message

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fearWhat follows is my sermon from Monmouth College’s Christmas Convocation on December 10th, 2013.

I’m going to begin today with things I am afraid of.  It’s sort of a random list, but here we go.

I am afraid of:

  • Change
  • Global Warming
  • Snakes and Large Spiders
  • Faculty

I am afraid of:

  • Deep Water
  • Rejection
  • Speaking in Public
  • Looking or sounding stupid.

I am afraid of:

  • Something bad happening to my children.
  • The power I possess and how it can change me.
  • The power I do not possess and how it can change me.
  • Being all alone when I am old.
  • Stomach bugs that wreak havoc on my household
  • Disappointing people
  • My car breaking down far from civilization on a moonless night. A pick up truck pulls in behind me and a man gets out. He’s carrying an axe.

This is my random list.  I could go on.  But what’s on your list? Maybe the things on your list are far different from mine, but I’m wondering if your list is just as long. I was struck recently by the words of Quaker and teacher Parker Palmer who writes about the dominant role that fear plays in our lives.  Palmer says, “It is no accident that all of the world’s wisdom traditions address the fact of fear, for all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy. And all of these traditions, despite their great diversity, unite in one exhortation to those who walk in their ways:  ‘Be not afraid.’”[1]

When I first read Palmer’s words, I suddenly remembered that the scripture text from Luke that President Ditzler just read—the story of Jesus’ birth, the story of Christmas—included this exhortation.  “Do not be afraid!” the angel said to the shepherds who were “terrified” by this heavenly vision.

Which is extraordinary, if you stop to think about it, because what could really scare a shepherd?  Dan and I live just outside of Monmouth—which means we live five minutes away.  It’s beautiful out there, though.  I love it because it really feels like I am getting away when I go home. This area outside of Monmouth is Carhartt country, because our neighbors are farmers and day laborers—men and women who I see working out in the fields on bitter cold days, with their hoods pulled up over their ears, their Carhartt jackets zipped to the neck. I drive my son to school with the car heater blaring and I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work.  When we first moved to Monmouth from North Carolina three years ago in the bitter cold month of December, Dan and I ventured over to Farm King to equip ourselves for our new climate.  My amazing, talented, brilliant husband tried on a Carhartt jacket and—no offense, honey—but that thing swallowed him whole.  Carhartt’s are not made for men with professions like my husband’s.  Carhartt’s are made for shepherds.

Yes, this is who the angel appeared to on that cold 1st century evening.  The shepherds were the day laborers, the field workers of their time.  With their wind-chapped faces and dirt-stained hands, they were hardy and strong, able to work long hours outside in the bitter cold. Their job was to protect their flock from wolves and bandits and all types of evil that only appear when the night is darkest. They’d seen it all.  Until an angel showed up surrounded by the glory of God.  And these shepherds, these strong, hardy, fearless men were, suddenly, terrified.  Which reveals that no matter who we are, no matter our profession, or our life experience, or our temperament, fear lives in all of us.

Last week as I was feverishly preparing for this Christmas Convocation our son, Isaac, came down with a stomach bug.  We were up all night on Monday.  Then on Tuesday the bug bit our daughter Ella.  She got it worse than Isaac, which meant Tuesday night was, well, quite frankly, hell.  As soon as Dan and I fell asleep, Ella called out for us again.  She just got sick and sick and sick some more.

Early in the evening I took the general health precautions—washing my hands after every time I touched her or anything associated with her.  But by four in the morning I was so tired I just sort of gave up trying to keep myself clean because at that point puke and poop were everywhere.  It was in that 4:00am moment of exhaustion that I started to freak. As much as I was concerned for my baby girl who was so sick, I couldn’t keep my mind from reviewing my calendar and all the things I had to do—things that really could not be put on hold if I got sick.

So I started picturing myself on stage at Saturday night’s Christmas concert praying and puking.  I pictured myself here today preaching and puking.  Everywhere I went in my mind that night I was puking.  Puking on the President.  Puking on communion.  Puking all over Christmas at Monmouth.  As it will in 4:00am freak outs, my mind raced.  My chest felt tight.  My breathing grew rapid because I was afraid.

Isn’t it funny how fear doesn’t make rational sense?  I mean what good was my anxiety serving in my 4:00am freak out?  If I was going to get sick, I was going to get sick.  There was nothing I could do about it.  So why be afraid?  And why were the shepherds terrified when the angel showed up? Sure, they’d never seen anything like that before.  But did that mean it was going to be bad news?  They had no idea why the angel had appeared.  We just have such a hard time, we human beings, when we don’t know, when we can’t predict, when we aren’t in control.  Fear rises in all of us when we face the unknown.  (By the way, how are you students feeling about final exams?)

“Everyone has fear,” Parker Palmer writes.  “’Do not be afraid!’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Instead, ‘Do not be afraid!’ says we should not be the fear we have.”[2]

“Yes we have places of fear inside of us,” Palmer continues, “but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith.  We can choose to [live] from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety.”[3]

The morning after my 4:00am freak out, I wrote an email to a friend in which I shared all my anxiety about the week ahead.  In this email I mentioned that ironically my Christmas sermon was all about fear.  My friend didn’t think it was ironic, though.  She thought it was perfect that I was led to write and preach on fear in the midst of an anxious week.  “All of our expectations of what ‘should be’ throw us off,” she wrote in her note back. “What is happening is happening. You just need to find the place inside of you that can help you navigate.”  I wrote most of this sermon after receiving that email.  The panic was fresh, so it was easy to describe. And the act of writing helped me move my fear to its proper place within me.  From that moment, I moved forward in faith. What was going to happen was going to happen.  I would navigate and negotiate.  And I would not be my fear.

Some of you may be wondering…so how’d all this turn out?  Well, I did get a little queezy last Friday.  But that was it!  Today I’m good to go!  President Ditzler, you are SAFE sitting beside me!

Getting back to the shepherds, though, they also overcame their fear.  Out of their trembling, they moved from a place of panic to a place of faith, and hope and trust.  Which led them to a baby.  The Christmas story is a story of new birth, yes, but it’s also the birth of a new way of being.

A new way of being, that to fully understand, we must acknowledge the context of fear into which Christ was born. A context that poet Madeleine L’ Engle describes as:

A land in the crushing grip of Rome

A people betrayed by war and hate

Honour and truth trampled by scorn

The inn was full on the planet earth.

This was no time for a child to be born.

And yet Love still took the risk of birth.[4]

With this birth, a way of being was born that brought people together rather than pushing them apart.  A way of being was born that inspired people to courageous, revolutionary acts, rather than crippling them with anxiety and panic. A way of being was born that commanded we care for the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, rather than a fearfulness that built walls and fences and deep-rooted prejudices to push away all who were different.

Yes, the Christmas story is a story of new birth, but it’s also the birth of a new way of being.

So let’s revisit my list and wonder for a moment about who I could be if I were not shaped by my fear of change, or rejection, or of disappointing people?

Who could you be if you were not constrained by the fear of making mistakes, or of following your passion, or of asking yourself the hardest questions?

Who could we be if our fear of loss, or of being wrong, or of not having enough did not rule our lives and our world?

Who could I be?  Who could you be?  Who could we be if we lived not from a place of fear, but from a place of faith, hope, and trust?  Well, we’d be a people made new.

Christmas is always a beautiful time of year.  It is even more beautiful when we understand it as God’s invitation to us, once again, to be born into a new way of being.  “Do not be afraid!” The angel cries.  Do not be your fear.  For unto us a child is born.

Now to the God who invites us to this place of new being, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, (Jossey-Bass, SanFrancisco, CA), pg. 93.

[2] Ibid, pg. 93-94.

[3] Ibid, pg. 94.

[4] Lines taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s poem, “The Risk of Birth”, The Ordering of Love, (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2005) pg.155.