Fear Not What We Can't Control
By Charles Rush
December 16, 2007
Isaiah 35: 1-10 and Lk. 1: 29-34a, 1: 37-38, 2: 19
(mp3, 6.7Mb) ]
st now, you are probably glad that we aren't filming your family coming to Church as your life is more hectic than ever, especially if your spouse just informed you about 3 more things for your 'to do' list'…
heard about a commander of C-141 plane that was late getting out of the U.S.
air base in Thule, Greenland.
Everything was going wrong and he got more and more irritated when he noticed
that- one more delay- the airman pumping sewage out of the plane was proceeding very casually. Losing his cool, the Captain
yelled at the airman and threatened to have him punished. The airman turned
back and said, "I have no stripes, I'm stationed in Greenland,
it is 40 below zero and I'm pumping sewage… What more can you do?" And you
think it can't get any worse???…
is a whole section in the Archaeological
Museum in Rome
which traces maps and the history of maps or cartography. I was surprised to
learn what an ancient art this is. Some of the maps there re over 4500 years
old, dating back before the time of Abraham. There are several intriguing
details about these early documents, but none of them more interesting than how
they depicted the area where they had not been. Instead of just leaving these
spaces blank or acknowledging that this territory was yet to be explored these
ancient cartographers inevitably filled those areas with images of dragons and
monsters and beasts. Why did they do that? Because in these moments they
stopped reflecting the outer terrain of geography and began to reflect the
inner terrain of their own spirits, for in this realm there has always been
apprehension in relation to the unknown. Is not this
something we nearly all feel? Much has changed between the world of that day
and our own times, but one of the things that has not
changed is the sense of easiness that usually accompanies the
not-yet-experienced. Rare indeed is the person who is neutral about the
unknown. As a rule, whenever we come face to face with mystery of something we
do not know, at least part of what we feel is foreboding. And while it is true
we no longer fill our maps ahead images of monsters, most of us do still feel
what Prompted those ancient cartographers to draw as they did; namely, an apprehension
of the unknown.[i]
live in a culture that regularly prompts in us a fear of that which we can't
control. I think it was Thomas Friedman who wrote that when historians write
about the first couple decades of our century, the picture that accompanies the
chapter will be a Palestinian teenager with a bomb pack around his torso and
his thumb on the trigger. All of us here had that collective experience of
'mouth agape' on September 11th as we collectively wondered exactly what this
meant and settled into the discomfiting reality that we just witnessed an event
powerful enough, even if infamous, that we would never be the same again.
A few years ago,
we met some family friends in Europe for a couple of
days. They had come from Jerusalem
where they had lived for 50 years. This was during the height of the Intafada and Jerusalem
itself had become a target. I had read that 70,000 Israeli's had moved out of Jerusalem,
people who had a reputation for being urbane, intellectual, progressive, and
moderate or cool to religion. This couple certainly fit that description. You
could have met them at a party on the Upper West Side. I
asked them if they were thinking about moving.
They looked at one
another, got pensive and reflective. That began a discussion that ended with
the sun nearly up as they detailed what their life was actually like. The
"Café Mavi" of their neighborhood was blown
up by a suicide bomber, the place they went 3 times a week on the way to work
or to meet friends. The event is bad enough but when they happen again and
again, you find yourself living in a state of constant threat which easily
devolves into irrational fears, suspicion, strange little rituals you do for
luck, and a deep disgust. They had neighbors who died, friends that were badly
It is the
randomness, the lack of any correlation between grievance and resolution, it is the weeks which turn into months. At some
point, it simply becomes an untenable existence. Here they are at 75, moving
rapidly towards retired retirement, when you hope your life is relaxed and in
'reduced stress' mode, and they are questioning their decision to move to
Israel, whether Zionism ever should have happened- which is in effect, the
meaning of their lives, questioning God… these fundamental questions of
meaning. It is very unsettling to reach this impasse at that age. It is soul
So much of it
revolves around things you can't directly control. How do you stay centered in
such an environment? That thought occurs to me almost every week when I listen
to our prayer concerns. I think of young Gabe Chessman who had a spinal stroke
at 21 and is suddenly paralyzed from the nose down. How do you deal with that
news that this might be a permanent situation that all you can do is move your eyes? Or these many people that are diagnosed with
a potentially lethal form of cancer. It could break this way or it could
metastasize and grow that way, we just can't say for sure. How do you live in
that uncertainty? How do you stay in control when you have to manage your life
with so many things out of control?
Don't kid yourself
either, control is important. For better and worse, it appears hard-wired into
our emotional constitution. I'm getting back in touch with that lately. My
granddaughters were both with us for a few days at Thanksgiving. They are like
a year and a half and the other one is a couple months short of two. One on
one, they are just great. But you put them in the room together and you have
two charming women vying for the attention of others. They can't even talk yet.
They haven't even seen a single episode of "The Bachelor". Before
they even understand it, they are competing for control.
There could be a
pile of 10 books but if one of them walks over to pick one up, the other will
run get it first, hold on with all her might, until the veins in her neck start
to bulge and her head starts to shake. It is like they are contending for a Louis
Vuitton handbag. Don't even mention that each of them
can have a copy of the same book. No, I want only this copy… Now…
Waaaaaaaaa!!!! I forget how much energy is devoted to
keeping two children from screaming at the same time… No, this is all about
control. No one taught them this.
And their parents
think they are Angels. Of course, they are. But the older one will see the
younger one, hold out a book, as if to say, "Care
to have a look?" The younger one will fall for it every time. She walks
over to her older cousin. She gets near and the older cousin just bolts for the
next room. More sobbing and bawling. I just love that
look of mischief in her face. Or the way she responds when questioned by her
parents as in "Do you know why your cousin is crying?" (The innocent shrug "Who me?").
Control is a
core/basic/primal in our hierarchy of needs. So when we lose it, we get cut the
core and it radiates throughout our psyches in a crisis of meaning. Everything
is off balance. I wish someone would introduce me to the Einstein in hospital
administration who decided that after you've been told you might have a serious
illness over which you have no control and you are in a heightened sense of
anxiety what you really need is a skimpy little gown with a slit up the
backside so that you lose control over the last thing you think you can
control, access to your bare bottom…
important. It is important for identity and a sense of self; it is important
for trust and having faith in yourself and the world around you; it is
foundational for other higher virtues.
And our scriptures
are very realistic about it, particularly in the Christmas season. Over and
over you read in the Prophets- especially in Isaiah- about people that had the
misfortune to be born into a time when marauding armies came in wrecked
everything, hauled all the women off, sold the young men into slavery. Over and
over, it uses images of civilizations coming to an utter end because of famine
Last week I
watched the documentary on Darfur that many of you have
seen. I was thinking as I was watching it, how spiritually realistic it was,
thinking of the images of devastation. A Sudanese woman is talking in that flat
affect that people get who have lived through word and thought defying
brutality. Her village was attacked, she was repeatedly raped. Everything was
destroyed. She looks right at the camera and says "My parents were killed…
three of my brothers were killed… two of my children were killed…" And
then she looks around her at the squalid refugee camp she is living in and she
just says "I have nothing… I have nothing." Her former life is gone
forever. She doesn't even really know who she is anymore. And she has almost
nothing which she can direct.
happen but it does. And it happens a lot. Listen to these words of hope again from
Isaiah 35, the promise of God being with us. Then 'the desert shall rejoice and
blossom… weak hands will be made strong… those with fearful hearts will be
strong… the eyes of the blind shall be opened; the ears of the deaf shall
unstop, the lame will leap…. Joy will break forth… A highway will be there… and
no travelers, not even fools will go astray… (this is
good news for my kids)… No lion shall be upon it…
There will be no
danger, no anxiety. Instead we will be filled with joy and gladness.
What a beautiful image. And you know when you are really sick, what do you say?
"I just want to be normal again"… And when you are really far away or
really, really lost, what do you say? I just want to be in my home.
scriptures, as opposed to the scripted Nativity scenes and the windows at the
Mall where everything is perfect… the actual scriptures are very realistic
about this in the Christmas story.
God's anointed one
is born to two teenagers, almost entirely bereft of resources, and forced to
beg to stay in the barn to get out of the cold. God's anointed one gets exposed
to all the wanton vagaries of our existence even before he is born. He is
baptized with our vulnerability. Bill Coffin used to say, 'why you could crack
that babies head like an egg.' How true. It is only a short time after he is born
that the Roman legions thunder into Bethlehem
with orders to murder every single child under 2.
By hook or crook,
our teenagers escape to Egypt
where they are, so to speak, political and religious refugees. That is how
Jesus starts his life. Little wonder we don't hear from his father Joseph the
rest of the gospels. After that frightful start, he decides to keep a low
profile. Smart man.
And that wider
story adds some poignancy to Narrator's description of Mary. When the Angel
comes to her to tell her that her pregnancy is special, the Narrator says,
"Now she wondered what sort of greeting this might be." And after the
baby is born, the Angels, shepherds, and Wisemen have
all come and gone, the Narrator says, "Mary pondered all
these thing in her heart and wondered." Maybe she is just that
pious, bigger than life icon that tradition depicts her as being. But I wonder
if she didn't just ponder these things like most Mothers ponder them, with a
wee bit of 'wait and see' whether this turns out to be a good thing or a bad
thing, pondering a fairly complex and ambiguous set of information that she is
not entirely sure what she is supposed to do with.
And that would be
wise because Jesus certainly doesn't get any pass on suffering later in his
life. There is no magical carpet that unfurls to glide him past injustice or
torture. God may intend for us to be safe on our highway. God may want us to
protect one another so that even the idiots that won't stop for directions
don't get lost… But… But in this world, hurricanes
still hit ground and crush whole cities. Economic downturns dry up your business
market. Your kids date people that you know are going to cause heartache. Some
of your relatives are as unstable as the addict within them and bad men roam
once wrote a prayer that has since been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous.
"God grant me the courage to change the things I can change, the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the
difference." That last part, the wisdom to know the difference,
that too is probably what Mary was pondering.
We Americans like
to imagine that our personal future is open-ended, full of growth opportunity,
and redolent unto blooming. But the truth is our lives are ever-changing, pock-marked
with conflict, inflicted with self-injury, our assets magnanimously multiplied
by a number of subtleties that are the product of being born on the right block
in the right era. We underestimate how lucky we have been to have had it so
easy. We almost appear shocked by set back.
point of our lives is to be able to handle the myriad of different challenges
that life will throw at us: loss as well as success, pain as well as elation,
having not enough and more than you need. If we live life to the full, we will
know some of each.
And knowing that
God wants for each of us safety on our travels, water to make things bloom,
strength to accomplish our potential, and health to live a fuller and
prosperous life, we are set with a commission and a direction. Whenever we can
and wherever we are, take in the refugees, heal those that are hurt, encourage
the anxious. We have that power for each other and with each other.
We can be the face
and the hugging presence of the Christ for one another. It does drive back the
dragons and the monsters of the unknown that we cannot control. This season may
you, too, be privileged to be an Angel to someone else.
May you too, by your presence and your actions say, "Fear not…" This
is the actual reason for the season. Amen.
John Claypool so many moons ago, I've lost the reference.
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