26 October 2009

Wrestling with Fear

Our parish Sunday Morning Adult Forum yesterday was the third in a four-week exploration of our economic melt-down and the Christian community's response to the many facets and effects encountered over this past 18 months (entitled, "God, Power and Wealth"). It was a fascinating discussion in which most everyone of the 19 people in the room contributed. The one word that kept entering the arena of expression was "fear."

One principle upon which most folks agreed was that the media has played a very large role in both promulgating and sustaining a high level of fear and anxiety within our culture. Sensationalism reigns supreme among the pundits and "talking heads" of both news and talk shows -- regardless of idelogical platform. There remains little or no objectivity in reporting events or critical material to the public. There seems to almost always be an emotional spin-up with any news story. But, that isn't the whole reason.

We are fearful people. The unknown or the uncontrollable can almost instantly create a fight/flight response grounded in fear. Behind that fear is a rather constant anxiety about our well-being and safety. And, even though we live in a time in history of unprecedented safety, fear still drives many of our responses to life events. Example: Almost anyone who lived in the 1950s and 1960s was exposed to two swine flu epidemics. I had swine flu as a young teenager and remember being really, really sick for about four days. My mother, an RN, kept me in bed, hydrated and medicated. I got over it just fine. The fact of the virus was duly reported, and folks were given precautions to take. Ultimately, the epidemic ran its course. I do not recall much fearfulness. When flu vaccines came on the scene, I started getting an annual vaccination and have continued for the past nearly 20 years. No one suggested we should be afraid of these injections....no more than we were fearful of polio vaccinations that began in the mid-1950s. Now, the media spin hard on the "bad news about vaccinations." Please.

Author Ursula LaGuin wrote a trilogy that I read in the early 1980s. The series was called the "Earthsea Trilogy." The first volume introduces the hero, Ged, who is discovered to have unique capabilities that defined him as a "mage" -- a wizard. He went to a special school on an isolated island of Earthsea. Being a tad cocky in his youth, Ged takes the bait of a taunting fellow student and conjures something very dark and sinister, which kills his teacher and begins chasing him all over Earthsea. Ultimately, almost dead, he finds himself at the doorstep of the old wizard that raised him. After being nursed back to health and sharing his deep fear and dread at the ugly blackness pursuing him, the old wizard tells him, "you must turn and face this thing...encounter it, or it will kill you surely."

What ensues is a back and forth flight-pursuit between Ged and this monstrous black thing. Entering a dark valley, Ged is now the one in pursuit. Finally, near exhaustion, the black ugliness turns, and Ged encounters it full force. They embrace and struggle wildly. Ged then looks into the face of the shadowy blackness of the creature and, behold.....it is his own face he sees. This creature is his death!

In the end, the struggle becomes integration. It is then that Ged is fully alive and truly complete. It is only then that he can become what he was created to be...a Mage of Earthsea.

Ursula LaGuin utilizes Jungian psychology to create a story that is the description of the struggle that each of us must engage. It is a story of encountering those things that we most fear, embracing them, learning their true identity and incorporating them into our daily life. Death is the ultimate "boogeyman," and the approach of All Saints' and All Souls' Days is one time to ponder the true hero's journey. The saint is one who has wrestled hard and deeply with the things most feared in life...and has prevailed. They become more alive, more complete and more truly reflective of the Image of God in which we have all been created. These aren't special people. They are the beacons that tell us all what we can and must do in order to be fully alive.

There are times when some folks will say to me, "you don't seem to care about....." (name it...an issue, a crisis, etc), or "you are not very responsive to....." (name it, someone's expressed anxiety or stress or discomfort). What is actually being said is that I am not resonating with the fear they are experiencing and, thereby, sharing it. It's the truth. Part of my vocation is to wrestle with the deeper things of life and creation. It often means walking in the "valley and shadow" of trauma, pain, grief, crises, etc. It is a blessing not to experience fear as a first order response to those situations. It gives me the time necessary to assess, question and identify....and, if necessary, pursue. It does no good whatever to respond to anxiety or fear with my own anxiety or fear.

Do I become afraid? For sure! Do I get anxious? You bet! Do I let it take over and run me amok or drive me to irrationality? Not if I keep my wits, say my prayers, go deep within, give chase and embrace whatever it is. I most often discover the true identity and take it on as a part of my life. In October 2007, I accepted the advice of my Lakota mentor -- when I was seeking to spend my sabbatical doing research among those wonderful people. I made Hanblecheya -- a Vision Quest in the center of the Black Hills (SD). After preparing by way of fasting and gathering the necessary tools for this time, I was led to the top of an isolated hill at dusk and spent the next 14 hours in solitude -- with only my gym shorts, a blanket and seated in on a buffalo skin on a hallowed rectangle of earth. I was admonished not to leave that space, not to fall asleep and to offer prayer as was customary to my tradition. Afraid? Yes, I was in a totally unknown place 15 miles from anything like civilization. It was very dark. What I experienced remains largely between me and those who mentored me through that experience. I came away having stuggled with some very seminal fears. I was truly a different person, as I was helped down that hill after sunrise the next morning -- cold and stiff from being in a small space for so long.

The hero and heroine's quests are not for that "golden or bejewelled something out there" that will make life worthwhile. The quest is what is within that must be discovered and enlivened by the struggle -- the darkness within. If we embrace it, we discover that we are less fearful and more truly alive.

As the letter writer John says: "Perfect Love Casts out Fear." (I John 4:18)


Fred Mann

02 October 2009

Speak Your Truth in Love

Truth is a tremendously hard concept to grasp these days. As I ponder this, I consider how information is packaged that is passed along as "the truth" in our culture. The information highway has been reduced to packets of material that are about 10 minutes in length...about the average adult attention span these days. Television has helped to create this diminished capacity by presenting commercial breaks after about ten minutes of whatever show is playing. Even that is diminishing in most series to about seven minutes. The average one-hour television series has about 42 minutes of actual presentation. The rest is commercial material.

Each commercial is presented as the latest truth about a condition, product, or other commodity that is essential to our lives. Marketing and advertising is designed to convince us that we simply must have what is being offered -- and it is grounded in the truth of research or the word of experts, or famous persons in our culture (entertainers, actors, sports heroes, etc).

In the area of media information services (news and talk shows being the most notable), the commentators and guests are the passionate experts that work hard to convince us that their agendas, ideologies, points of view or observations are undisputed truths. Well, in some cases that may well be the case. However, with some truly intentional research, the vast majority of pundits can be found to have more emotional smoke than factual meat upon which to chew. As I said to one colleague recently, "I miss Cronkite!" He was truly an honest and objective reflector of the state of affairs being observed and reported.

I must admit, however, that the worst offenders of truth-based reality are those who represent religious materials via the mass media. The disciplines of theology and biblical exegetical method are demanding, exacting and complex. That is not to say that they can't be embraced by anyone willing to invest the time and energy; but one must do just that -- invest time and energy. One does not "do" these disciplines by osmosis. Remember the eunuch whom Philip came across in Acts of the Apostles? He was reading a scroll from Isaiah. Philip asked what he was doing. In response, he admitted that, while interesting, he could not possibly understand without a teacher. Philip climbed aboard the chariot and began teaching via exegetical means (i.e. interpretation based upon both research and revelation). Ultimately, the eunuch saw in himself the need for baptism. He made contact with his truth via revealed Truth.

The mass media moguls of rehashed religion are busy trying to sell a commodity, and they have done well to reduce the vast journey of faith into several very individualistic criteria that, with a gift of some dollars, can get you a book or DVD that will provide everything needful for salvation -- right now and neatly wrapped. It staggers the mind the extent to which folks will go to convince others that their lives are worthless and hell-bent. Along with the other things without which we cannot survive, we now need them to insure we have a ticket on heaven's train.

I am not sure that I have The Truth that I can share with folks. That would make me nearly perfect, and I shy away from that state of affairs rigorously. Sorry, no perfection behind these words or the face that fronts them. What, then, does one find when one comes to this place called St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. Hopefully, it is honesty that begins with the person in the pulpit and at the Altar.

I grew up in a garden variety family; in a post-World War II neighborhood; in a season of history that saw the first of the technology boom. I grew up getting into my fair share of trouble with my parents for actions that would irritate the stew out of my younger brother and cause consternation (and resulting punishment) from my parents. Lots of things happened growing up that would firmly plant me in the place of "normal kid."

As a young adult, things didn't change much. I loved (and still really enjoy) playing pranks and practical jokes on friends and those who seemed to be deserving of same. Few things please me more than long treks in the woods, swims in the Gulf of Mexico, or canoeing down a tree-canopied river. I love theology and the study of what makes us who we are and how we got to be where we are. I love science almost as much as theology. More than anything, I enjoy being a sojourner in the soul-scape of being.

One of the things I learned (and this was a hard lesson for me) is that I am first responsible to know my own soul-scape and interior being. Real exploration in this region of who we are reveals those things that are agendas, biases, prejudices, judgements or critiques based upon false or misleading information. Going deep is a painful process, but the rewards are so great that I fail to understand (now) why anyone would not want to take the risk.

Let's be really clear. This is not a set-up for sainthood. Each new revelation of the true self creates a new need to deal with yet another unpolished nugget of internal reality. This work is never done. No one is ever perfect! Not in this life.

The take away point here is that, if I am truly honest with myself and God, what I speak with be what is called "my truth." This isn't a selfish "my" but the "my" of internal honesty and transparency. The Native American culture and early Celtic Christian culture had phrases for "Speaking your truth." In the New Testament, St. Paul reflects Jesus' teaching in the exhoration to "Speak the Truth in Love." At the core of who we are is the Self created in God's image. It is the fundamental Truth of being. In touching that place, we reflect a passionate truth devoid of agenda, ego, prejudice, judgmentalism, etc.

It's not an all the time thing....but it is way better than nothing...or the smoke that often passes for the truth these days. A healthy faith community is the laboratory for this work. Believe me, it is work.