Faith and Courage: Overcoming Fear of the New

When was the last time you experienced a big change?

For me it was a few years ago. After living alone for ten years, I was remarried in August 2015. My wife, Emma, had an estate sale, packed-up her belongings, and moved into my home with her two small children, Evie and Isaac, who I loved as my own. This was a big change for everyone involved, including my two older sons, Jobe and Jackson, who returned home for visits.

Six months later, just as we finished unpacking the last boxes, I received a call from my District Superintendent who said, “Mark, you’re moving to Cocoa Beach to become the new Pastor at First United Methodist Church.” Before we could even establish a new normal as a blended family, we had to relocate and start all over again with new jobs, new friends, and new schools for the kids.

These two major changes evoked a host of feelings, including fear.

 

The Gift of a Paradigm Shift

There are many stories in the Bible that help us deal with fear, but one of my favorites is the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 2:1-23.

As a recap, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king of the Jews. When Herod got word of this, he freaked out because he was already the king of the Jews. The prospect of a new king was a direct threat to his seat of power, so he decided to eliminate the threat by killing the baby. After calling all the religious leaders together and learning that the child was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod lied to the wise men, saying, “Go and find where he is, then come back and tell me, so I too can go and pay him homage.” The wise men found the baby Jesus and honored him by giving gifts to the family: frankincense, myrrh, and gold. These specific gifts are important to understand an important lesson in the story.

Remember that something horrible happened to the Jews in the year AD 70, their temple was destroyed. The one thing that gave meaning and value to the whole world–the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life–was demolished. This led to a massive loss of meaning as they struggled with the question, “How can we make sense of the world anymore?” Some Jews thought that the destruction of the temple signaled the end of the world. Others thought that God would rebuild the temple if the Jewish people would perfectly keep the sacred covenant made with their ancestors.

In contrast, the author of Matthew had a different view, which he symbolically communicated by his account of the gifts brought by the wise men. According to Alexander John Shaia, frankincense and myrrh were essential components in the most important temple rituals and were as costly as the gold of the Temple’s vessels (Heart and Mind 82). Myrrh was an aromatic resin added to the oil used for royal and priestly anointings, and frankincense was burn during the highest sacrificial offerings. By having the magi give these gifts to Jesus, the author of Matthew symbolically transfers the components of the old physical Temple to Jesus, the Messiah and emissary of a new inner temple. The author is essentially saying, “Don’t focus on the physical rebuilding of the Temple but on how God is building a new temple inside of you!”

This was a paradigm shift that required a new spiritual journey to make sense of it all.

 

A Call to Radical Transformation

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as calling us to new life, and a call to new life is a call to radical transformation—a paradigm shift in our thinking and believing, a spiritual revolution. The most obvious example is found in John 3 were Jesus is recorded as saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (v. 3). The call to new birth is a call to new life. The implication, of course, is that we must leave our old life behind. We are called out of the familiar and comfortable and invited into a space that is foreign and challenging, which typically evokes fear.

As human beings, most of us are afraid of the unknown. However, we also experience times when old ways of thinking, believing, and doing no longer work. This creates a tension between the impulse to move in a new direction and the impulse to remain in familiar territory. Eventually this tension forces a decision. We can either turn backward and to try to recover a lost past, or we can face our fears and move into a new future.

Jesus calls us to move forward by calling us to new life. He also helps us see that we can muster the faith and courage to navigate change if we understand that this is precisely how God intends to transform us, and also that God will guide and redeem every step we take, even those that lead us into dangerous territory.

 

 Abiding in Dangerous Places

If the story of Jesus’ birth is any indication of what God may expect of us, we must prepare to abide in dangerous places.

Shortly after Jesus was born, God called Joseph to take his family to Egypt, the place where his ancestors were enslaved and abused. This must have been a terrifying prospect, but it was necessary to protect the newborn King from Herrod’s murderous plot. Like the holy family, God sometimes calls us to scary places to protect the new birth happening within.

This means different things for different people.

Sometimes we are literally called to relocate to a risky place. Think, for example, of men and women who feel drawn to dangerous mission fields in places like Central America, Africa, or the Middle East. Listening to their stories, it’s clear that God radically transforms people who make personal sacrifices to help others. Sharing life with people in dangerous places can give us a radically new perspective and exponentially grow our faith.

For others, the call is more symbolic. Some people are called to scary emotional places. If we struggle with old wounds that keep us stuck in dysfunction, our transformation may require us to abide in scary emotional places to work through memories of loss, neglect, abuse, or moral failure. Some are even called to scary spiritual places, to a time of great questioning, doubt, and even loss of faith. Tradition teaches that most people experience a crisis of faith before a genuine spiritual transformation.

 

 Sometimes We Can’t Go Home

In my own experience, the journey to transformation is long and challenging. As we see the light at the end of the tunnel, our hope is often to go home, even if in a different way. This is the journey of the hero, which we see, for example, in Greek Epic Poems such as Homer’s Odyssey. However, we sometimes discover that we cannot go home because home will not nurture the new birth emerging within. Home no longer fits who we are.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary and Joseph are from the region of Judea and probably lived in or around Bethlehem. This is very different from the story told in Luke where they lived in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem late in Mary’s pregnancy because of a Roman census. However, a careful reading of Matthew suggests that the Holy family already lived in Bethlehem and experienced a home birth. This is an important detail because after living as refugees in Egypt, they were hoping to return home after the death of Herod. However, this hope would remain unrealized because Archelaus, son of Herod, assumed control of Judea and presented an ongoing threat to the baby Jesus. Thus, God warned them in a dream not to go home, but to build a new life in Nazareth, which was considered a dumpy little town in the region of Galilee.

Sometimes we too make a hard journey only to discover we cannot go home. Again, this means different things for different people. Sometimes we get the feeling that we, literally, cannot go home. Think of how many young people go off to college, experience transformation, and decide to move to a new city after graduation. As we grow and change, we sometimes need a new start in a new place, so we can build a new life that fits who we’ve become.

For others this is more symbolic. Some people cannot go home emotionally. When thinking about the true meaning of home, we usually focus on our most important relationships, and as we experience transformation we often discover that we cannot return to these old relationships in the same way. Some relationships need to end, and others need to be redefined by clear boundaries. As we renegotiate old relationships and nurture new friendships that support our new birth, it often becomes clear that we cannot go home emotionally.

Likewise, many can’t go home spiritually. Sometimes we must walk away from (or drastically reinterpret) what we were taught in the religion of our youth. The old ways of thinking, believing, and acting just don’t make sense anymore; they don’t fit who we are and what we have come to see as beautiful, valuable, and true. Sometimes these old beliefs even prove to be hurtful, exclusionary, and death-dealing, requiring us to actively resist them. This often requires us to find a new church, a new denomination, even a new religion. Sometimes we cannot return home spiritually.

 

Faith and Courage

Every aspect of this journey requires enormous faith and courage, gifts that God is ready to give to those who have open hearts and minds.

First, God gives us internal resources. In Matthew 2, we see that the magi followed a star, which is an enduring metaphor for a spirit that guides us. The English word “disaster” literally means “dis-star,” and to be separated from your star is to be separated from a deep, inner wisdom (Shaia, Heart and Mind, 82). Likewise, angels in the Bible are messengers that God uses to communicate important things to human beings. Understood symbolically, they can also represent a deep inner wisdom.

From a Christian perspective, we often speak of the Spirit of Christ living in us. Since Christ resides in the deepest part of who we are—what is often called the soul—Christians are encouraged to go deep inside themselves to meet Christ there, so that we can hear the wisdom he whispers. Most often this happens in stillness, solitude, and silence as we pray and meditate on scripture.

In addition, God sends us external resources. Just as God sent the magi to the holy family, God sends us wise people who bring good gifts to support our journey toward transformation. Often these people are the ones we least expect, people who are foreign, strange, different, weird, even disagreeable. They could even people be people of a different religion or no religion at all. (Remember, the magi were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.) The messengers God sends can come in the form of close friends or passing acquaintances, and their voices can come to us in personal conversations or through their writings, songs, art, or films. Furthermore, the gifts that God gives to us through them take different forms. Some will be small, like a piece of the past resolved, and others will large, like the call to new life.

Whether these gifts come from within or without, we can trust that they will be powerful and precious. They will give us the faith and courage we need to start the journey, to travel through dangerous places, and to build a new home to support a new life. However, to receive them we must keep expectant watch, and when divine messages come we must be attentive so that their wisdom can unfold as we travel.

 

Challenge

Have you heard the invitation to new life? Have you mustered enough faith and courage to take the first step? Have you been willing to go to those scary places that require more personal and spiritual work? Have you met the challenge of building a new home? Where are you in all of this? Have you been able to find the faith and courage you need to walk the road of transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the wisdom, faith, courage, and support I need to continuing walking the path to radical transformation.

 

(This post is the third in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

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The Power in the Bad Parts of Your Story

More people purchased genetic ancestry tests last year than in the four previous years combined. To date, approximately twelve million people around the world have used this service. The jump can be partially explained by the affordability of these tests and the millions of dollars spent every year in advertising by companies like ancestry.com and 23andMe. But these sales strategies wouldn’t work if people didn’t already have an interest in learning their history. The desire to feel connected to the story of our ancestors seems like a universal phenomenon, and the Jewish people living during the time of Jesus are no exception.

 

The Loss of Meaning

It’s difficult to describe how important the Temple was for first century Palestinian Jews. The beautiful structure was located in Jerusalem high atop the pinnacle of Mount Moriah. For a 1,000 years it had been the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life. It was the one thing that gave meaning, value, and purpose to the entire universe.

During the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire ruled Israel, and while the relationship between the native people and the occupying power waxed and waned over the years, something catastrophic happen to the Jews in the year C.E. 70. In response to a revolt around Jerusalem, Emperor Vespasian destroyed the Temple. It’s high altar was shattered into tiny pieces, scrolls of the Torah were burned, holy vessels were destroyed, and the walls of the temple were dismantled and removed from the city stone by stone until nothing was left. If this weren’t bad enough, Roman soldiers executed almost all the Temple authorities, including the priests, scribes, and their families, and also killed many innocents who were on pilgrimage. In this way, the Romans annihilated the one thing that made sense of the whole world. This unimaginable loss initiated a time of massive change, requiring the rebirth of a people.

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a small group of Jews who were trying to make sense of the destruction of the Temple in the context of their belief that Jesus was the promised messiah. Given this historical background, we can understand why the author of Matthew would start his gospel with a genealogy.

 

What’s Up with All Those Names?

Many contemporary readers skip over the genealogy because most of the names are foreign to us, and long lists of unknown names seem boring and irrelevant. But for a first century Jew undergoing seismic change, this genealogy would have been a source of inspiration, encouragement, and hope.

On the surface, Matthew is clearly trying to make two important points in listing all these names. First and foremost, he was giving evidence that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and the answer to Jewish prayer. Second, the author was saying, “Take heart because this is your heritage. You came from a long line of people who endured tremendous loss and prevailed. You came from heroes like Abraham and David, and like them you are strong. You are heirs of the promised messiah and are special.” This was an important message for a people who desperately needed encouragement in the face of deep loss and change.

However, a close reading of this passage discloses another important message.

 

Breaking with Tradition

It’s important to note that genealogies were not uncommon in the Ancient Near East. Sumerians, Egyptians, and other groups wrote genealogies to show how their people were exemplary by tracing their lineage through the most admirable and powerful people in their past. When doing this, they were careful to omit anyone that might evoke embarrassment.

What’s striking is that the author of Matthew doesn’t do this.

If you look at the list of people in Matthew 1:1-17, you’ll notice that the genealogy breaks with Ancient Near Eastern custom in important ways. Most notably, he included women in the genealogy. This is strange, because in the ancient world everyone traced their lineage through men. Men were thought to contain the seed of life, and women were expected to provided their bodies to simply grow the fetus until birth. Since the person growing inside the woman was thought to come entirely from the man, genealogies didn’t typically include the names of women. So the author of Matthew broke with established custom and did something that he didn’t have to do, something that nobody would have expected him to do.

What’s even more striking is that Matthew included names that evoked scandal.

Take, for example, the mention of Tamar. There was a patriarch named Judah, the son of Jacob. Judah had three sons. The oldest, Er, was married to a woman named Tamar. But before Er and Tamar could have children, he was killed for being wicked in the sight of God. Since Tamar was childless at his death, she fell under the ancient custom of Levirate marriage and married Er’s brother, Onan. The expectation was for her to bear children to continue the family name. But he also did things that were wicked in the eyes of God, which resulted in his untimely death. Judah, her father-in-law, convinced her to remain unmarried until his youngest son, Shela, was old enough to become her husband. However, in the interim Judah came to see Tamar as a curse on his family and reneged on the deal. Heartbroken and desperate, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law. She became pregnant, and when Judah heard the news he sentenced her to death until she was able to prove that he was the father of her twins, Perez and Zerah. This sounds like an episode of the Maury Povich show!

What’s interesting is that Matthew could have avoided evoking all this scandal by simply saying, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah,” but he intentionally continued, “by Tamar” (1:3). It seems odd that Matthew would not only break with custom by adding a female name, but choose a name that would evoke such an embarrassing story.

The same is true of the unnecessary reference to Bathsheba. When listing the heroes of the Jewish faith, the author could have simply said, “David was the father of Solomon,” but he intentionally continued, “by the wife of Uriah” (1:6). Why reference Bathsheba, and why do it in a way that would intentionally evoke another scandalous story? It’s like Matthew was saying, “Hey remember when our most admired king was overcome with lust and selfishness, misused his power to force a married woman into having an affair with him, got her pregnant, and then had her husband murdered on the battlefield? Yeah, that guy!” King David was remembered for some pretty great achievements in the history of Israel, so why refer to Bathsheba and draw attention to his biggest moral failure?

Also, in Matthew 1:5, the author names Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who rescued Hebrew spies on a recognizance mission in Jericho prior to the conquest of the Holy Land. Again, why add a Canaanite prostitute to a Jewish genealogy?

 

The Power of the Bad Parts of Your Story

Perhaps one reason Matthew mentioned these women is to remind us of the power of the bad parts of our story. The primary purpose of Matthew’s genealogy was not to give a sanitized version of Israel’s history, so they could delude themselves with ethnic pride. Rather, its purpose was to remind the Messianic Jews of how God had remained faithful throughout the generations in both the good times and bad. Of how God worked in and through their people, not only when they were faithful covenant partners but also unfaithful covenant breakers. Of how God used the good and the bad choices of ordinary human beings to transform them, and through them the world.

The author of Matthew knew that the power of their ancestral stories was not in the moral perfection or nobility of their national heroes, but in God’s ability to work through success and failure to reveal truth, love, justice, and healing. Indeed, people like Abraham and David, Rahab and Ruth, didn’t become heroes of the faith because they always did the right thing, but because they experienced incredible suffering (which was often the result of their own bad choices) and came out on the other side stronger and wiser because they trusted God and believed in themselves.

Matthew shows us that the dark parts of our story can be the most powerful, that when understood in the context of God’s providential and redeeming love they can be great sources of courage, strength, and hope. We see that when navigating disorienting change, we needed the power of our whole story, because a story without bad parts is a story without redemption, and a story without redemption is a story that’s incapable of transforming us for the good.

 

Embracing and Sharing Your Whole Story

All of us want to see ourselves as good people, and we want others to see us as good people too. As a result, we often try to deny, minimize, or hide the bad parts, not only from others but also from ourselves. Unfortunately, this cuts us off from the most inspirational and transformative parts of our story. We need to remember the times when we were at our worst, because it is here that we see most clearly God’s love, forgiveness, and redemption manifest in our lives. Remembering the bad parts and how God used them to transform us can provide a wellspring of memories capable of renewing our courage, strength, and hope as we move through new seasons of change and loss.

And it’s not just our personal stories that can help, but also our family stories and the stories of our spiritual ancestors. Reading about our forerunners in the Bible empowers us to remember that if God helped them, then God can help us too. Reading about the saints of our own time, like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr., gives us hope that if they could faithfully navigate change, then we can too. Remembering our family stories can also provide wisdom as we make decisions and move into a new future.

 

Challenge

Take some time this week to remember the bad parts of your story. Some may have experienced real trauma and will need the help of a skilled therapist, but most of us can safely recall memories of things we would rather forget or hide. It can be healing to recall these dark spots and reflect on good questions: What happened? What was changing or shifting? Where was God? What did I learn? How did I experience redemption? How did it transform me? How can I draw from this story as a source of wisdom and strength when dealing with change and loss today? And how can I make my story available to others who also need inspiration and encouragement?

I also encourage you to surround yourself with people, poems, books, stories, music, art, and films that inspire you. Let them nurture your soul and give you strength.

 

Prayer

God, help me see my whole story in the light of your redeeming love so that I can receive the gifts of courage, strength, and hope that it has to offer.

 

(This post is the second in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

The Land Between: Navigating Transitions

The “land between” is the place of change and transition. It is where life is not as it once was and there is uncertainty about the future. Some people are suddenly thrown into the land between without any warning.

  • Your boss says, “You are being transferred” (or worse, “Your position has been eliminated”).   
  • Your partner says, “I don’t love you anymore.”
  • Your daughter says, “I’m pregnant.”
  • Your son calls and says, “I’m at the police station.”
  • The doctor says, “The tumor is malignant.”

In a matter of seconds, you are ripped out of your normal life and find yourself in a new and uncertain world.

Others gradually slip into the land between.

  • A marriage slowly erodes until both feel like roommates.
  • The business slowly bleeds out until there is no more money and you have to close. 
  • A parent’s memory slowly fades after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
  • Your health deteriorates after a cancer diagnosis.

This message series (see below) is designed to give you tools to navigate this kind of transitional space in healthy and faithful ways. The land between is a challenging place, and if we are not careful we can slip into self-destructive behaviors that undermine our faith and cause us to lose our way. However, if we stay close to God we can navigate transitions in ways that strengthen our faith and lead to a brighter tomorrow.

Video Links:

Message 1: “I’m Sick of This! Complaining in Times of Transition.”

Message 2: “Bring Your Pain to God: Dealing with Discouragement.”

Message 3: “Divine Provision: How God Works Through Others.”

Message 4: “From Tribulation to Transformation: Finding Purpose in Your Pain.”

Don’t Waste Good Wine: Remaining Flexible in Times of Change

We are living in a time of rapid change and cultural upheaval. Most people don’t like change because it requires us to grieve losses, solve novel problems, and acquire new skills. Some even retreat into religious fundamentalism and a literalistic reading of the Bible to insulate themselves from the challenges that come in the wake of change. In retrospect, we can clearly see that this approach has always done more harm than good to the Christian community and the world it claims to serve. For example, fearful “change avoidance” has compelled Christians to use the Bible to attack modern science, defend slavery and segregation, and deny women equal rights. This impulse is grounded in the idea that unity is a divinely ordained homogeneity that must be defend against any intrusion of difference. Difference is seen as the source of division, as a dangerous enemy to be eradicated. But the New Testament casts a vision of unity that is grounded in and strengthen by diversity. This is a counterintuitive idea for many, and Jesus knew that we would never be able to grasp it unless we had flexible hearts and minds. I believe that this is why Jesus told the parable of the wine skins (Luke 5:36-39). In this message, I exegete this parable to suggest two things: (1) we need fresh interpretations scripture that will help Christians solve complex problems in their contemporary context, and (2) Christians need pliable hearts and minds to receiving and assimilate these new interpretations. If this message blesses you then please share it with others.

For those who would like to learn more about interpreting the Bible in light of some of the most important insights in contemporary biblical scholarship and Christian theology, I highly recommend a book written by Rev. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today.