The Lord is our strength; whom shall we fear?

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We all have fears.  Some of us have basic fears, like that of the dark or a spooky movie.  Others of us have phobias–physiological reactions to certain stimuli, like heights or spiders.  Some are paralyzed by fear, absolutely frightened by the unknown.

Fear can become overwhelming, but it can also become a powerful catalyst for spiritual transformation.

First, we must admit that fear exists.  I’ve heard it said that fear reveals an absence of faith, but the Bible is filled with situations in which fear plays a part.  Many psalms for instance, like Psalm 23, are prayers to God that result from fear.

The proclamation, “I will not fear,” does not mean that fear never existed in the first place.  Quite the opposite; we must know what fear is in order to be saved from it.

Nor does God rebuke us for having fear; rather, God meets us in the midst of fear and gives us reason to trust in Him.  Consider Psalm 27:  “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

How about Psalm 34?  In this psalm the author is fearful (v. 4), but then sees fear as something God uses in order to increase one’s respect for God: “Fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want” (v. 9).

I can remember the first time I experienced a fear of heights.  I was very little, and my father tried to put me over his shoulders.  I panicked and nearly knocked myself out of his arms.

Even now I have trouble in high places.  When I drive over a bridge, I have to stay in the center lane.  Yet, this same feeling of fear is what brought me to the Lord.  I feared death and eternal separation from God.  I feared not being able to see my parents and sisters in heaven.  I said the sinner’s prayer in a preschool Sunday School class because of my fear of hell.  In fact, some hell phobia can do us all good now and then.

Fear continues to linger for some of us; and it is, literally, a living hell on earth.  Our futures remain uncertain; anxiety and helplessness can get the best of us.  God seems absent in limping economies and deplorable tragedies.

Although I am not a counselor and cannot give any advice about clinical fears, I do have several spiritual practices that seem to work, at least for me.

Like psalters of old, I journal whenever I am afraid.  I write prayers about my worries and doubts.  I copy some of the Psalms and make them my own.  It lets me see the big picture of how my fears are no match for a mighty God.

Another spiritual practice is to sit in silence.  Psalm 46, which begins with the affirmation that “we will not fear, though the earth should change” (v.2), encourages us to “be still and know that” God is God (v. 10).

This practice can garner fear in and of itself because we do not know what to do when we quiet our minds before God.  We wonder what we should say or what we should think; we get concerned about all of the voices that creep up in our imagination.

Silence is simply a time to be.  It is, in fact, timeless, in that we come to God in the present without worrying about our past or our future.  We are with God without being distracted by our thoughts about God.

God is a “refuge” who meets us in the midst of our fears, not in spite of them.  If you are filled with fear today, trust that God will meet you right where you are and provides you with opportunities for healing.

Caregivers: Burdened and blessed, and how to move on (Part 2)

In our southern society, it is inappropriate to complain, speak negatively, or moan-n-groan in general.  Ours is a community that prides itself on having-it-all-together and not revealing the deepest feelings with which we live on a daily basis.   As we consider this second article (of three) on how caregivers can grow spiritually, we must turn to the first order of business: Learning how to express feelings we would otherwise suppress, and becoming vulnerable with a loving, compassionate God.  In other words, letting it all out.

Many people feel that hiding feelings is somehow beneficial.  If we “let it out,” then we will loss control of ourselves and unveil our very fragility and brokenness to a cold and cruel world.   For some, especially women caregivers, this means that being passive, subdued, or subordinate, is a regular part of life.

Pursuing spiritual growth requires us to ignore these survival instincts.  Our conversations with God, not to mention our very relationship with Him, must honestly reflect the tumultuous storms that sometimes rage in the deepest parts of our being.  Jesus is our example:  Hanging on the cross at Calvary, his own bitter prayer was that of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul encourages his readers to “present your bodies as living sacrifices” and “be transformed in the renewing of your mind.”  Becoming vulnerable in honest prayer–allowing the frustrations that result from caregiving to see the light of day–is a spiritual act of surrender that gets us closer to the heart of God, because we let God into our heart.  We bend to God’s good and pleasing intention for our life.

There is a story of a woman who entered a psychiatric hospital kicking and screaming.  The nurses took away all that she owned except for a coin.  She fought anyone who tried to take it away from her.  Holding it with a deathgrip, she protected it because it was the only thing that reminded her of her old way of life.  But it was her old way of life that kept her from healing.

Though this story seems a bit extreme, it reminds me of our resistance to the Lord.  We feel that if we surrender all of who we are to God, we will somehow lose ourselves in God.  We fight hard to protect our sense of identity, our sense of control.   It is scary to pray honestly because the posture of prayer includes open hands rather than clenched fists.

Caregivers resist God because coming to Him with open hands also leads to guilt.  It’s bad enough that caregivers rarely feel like they are doing enough for loved ones; for caregivers to also admit that they have personal struggles, points of resentment, and periods of exhaustion just adds to the burden of care.

By coming to God with open hands and an open heart, however, caregivers can find a new sense of spiritual freedom.  Vulnerability is scary, no doubt–how many times have people let us down when we have become vulnerable to them?  But God is not human; He does not turn away a contrite spirit.  He does not allow open hands to go away empty.  There is no condemnation for those who love the Lord.

There are many ways to express feelings to God.  One idea is to keep a journal.  The best journaling happens when one free-writes without having to worry about audience, grammatical accuracy, or modesty.  Another idea is to read a variety of the psalms aloud–there is everything from pain (Ps. 22, Ps. 130) to praise (Ps. 23, Ps. 135).

Whatever we choose, we must realize that letting out frustrations and becoming vulnerable with the Lord is healthy for a vibrant spiritual life.  This is especially helpful for caregivers who face a multitude of burdens as they fulfill their call to care for loved ones.

Trinity Baptist Church is hosting the open house of the Center for Caregiver Spirituality on September 30th, 7 PM.   Click on the link for more details.

Breaking through to God in prayer, Part 2

Last week I mentioned that prayer is an important part of faith but is not something we can naturally master.  In fact, prayer can be downright difficult, and there are many things that disrupt an effective prayer life.

Guilt, resentment, fear, and sheer laziness can all hamper a wonderful, growing relationship with our Lord.  But a deeper, more personal hindrance exists.  Sometimes we find it hard to pray because we do not want to face God’s silence.

We get on our knees, close our eyes, shift our weight from bad knee to good, position our hands just right, and finally settle in.  And there, at that moment of timeless stillness, despite the occasional ticking of the nearest wrist-watch or the tumbling of clothes in the dryer, is that deafening silence.

Jesus faced God’s silence when he was dying on the cross.  There at Golgotha, Jesus prayed the first verse of Psalm 22:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Curious that Jesus chose this prayer, because if you keep reading Psalm 22, you find that the psalm plunged ever deeper into the darkness of unanswered prayer: “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer.”

All of us have hit the wall of silence in our prayer life.  Too often we miss it entirely because we drown out silence with endless chatter of the television, radio, or recitations of our to-do lists.  But it is still there.

There are two sides to this coin.  Psalm 22 may expose the undercurrents of unanswered prayer, but it must be noted that the author of the psalm (and, by default, Jesus) was still praying.  Like the persistent friend in Jesus’ parable in Luke 11:5-13, the author continued to knock on God’s door even though God seemed to sleep in the midst of crisis.

Persistence is a key that turns the tumblers for effective prayer.  Continue to read Psalm 22, and the author eventually recognizes God’s presence in his life and in all creation.  “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted,” the author writes, “God did not hide His face from me, but heard when I cried to Him” (v. 24).

The second side to this coin is that the author of Psalm 22 was honest.  He (or she) did not hold back, and he trusted that God was big enough to handle petition and despair.

A modern prayer of honesty comes from French priest, Michel Quoist, who once prayed:

“Lord, do you hear me?  I’ve suffered dreadfully, locked in myself, prisoner of myself.  I hear nothing but my own voice; I see nothing but myself.  And behind me there is nothing but suffering.  Lord, do you hear me?”

For Christians, prayer is a school of honesty, and only when we open up to God in persistent, vulnerable prayer will we slowly recognize God’s mysterious activity in every aspect of our lives.

As a result of persistence and honesty, we remember that Psalm 22 is followed by Psalm 23, which affirms God’s presence with us while we travel in the valley of death’s shadow.

This type of prayer does not come easily.  We avoid discussing it in the pulpits of America, where we simplify prayer into cliché equations and acrostic formulas.

Truth is that we all pass through seasons in our prayer life, including seasons of death-filled winter.  But no matter where we find ourselves, Jesus tells us to pray all the same: Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened unto you.