“If Sandy is Not Afraid…”

“If Sandy is not afraid, I’m not afraid!” That’s my mantra. I can feel that familiar knot in my stomach. Fear incarnates my entire being. Gary and I and our daughter Sarah are standing at the beginning of a zipline that traverses an enormous gorge over the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Having done ziplining once before in Alaska, I assume this would be the same. Silly me. A dozen short ziplines over the canopy of the forest is nothing compared to zipping into a canyon over a river that is closed even to whitewater rafters because of the volume of water cascading over Victoria Falls at this time of year.

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I feel like the warthog I saw on his knees “praying” as he ate lunch. “Don’t be silly,” I say to myself, as I imagine what it would be like to tumble a half mile down into the roiling waters. “This is perfectly safe. If Sandy can do it, I can do it.”

Sandy is an adventurous woman in her seventies who accompanied our mission team to Africa University. Earlier in the day we had been buddies, navigating the slippery paths at the top of Victoria Falls. I learned that Sandy did bungee jumping at age sixty. Two years ago she made her first tandem parachute jump with an instructor. Ziplining is tame for her. Sandy remarks, “After raising three sons, I’m not afraid of anything!”

Sandy is always seeking to try new things. Despite a bad knee and having to use a cane for balance, she refuses to cut anything short on our three mile walk through the falls. “You only live once. I am going for the whole thing. I am not going to stay home and be old,” she says.

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“Now, why am I doing this?” I mumble to myself, standing on top of the gorge outfitted in a fancy harness and preparing to be hurtled into the canyon. “I am paying good money for something that is causing great internal distress. It’s not too late to back out. Yet if Sandy is not afraid, I don’t have to be afraid.”

Fear is a necessary part of human life. Fear can evoke either panic or courage. Fear can paralyze us or call out the very best in us. Fear can blind our vision and diminish our capacity to act or ennoble us to do great things. All through the Bible we read the words “Do not be afraid.” They come from the patriarchs, psalmist, prophets, Jesus, and the apostle Paul.

  • Psalm 118:6  “With the Lord on my side I do not fear.”
  • Isaiah 41:10  “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God.”
  • Joshua 1:9  “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord God is with you wherever you go.”
  • John 4:18  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Angels appear to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, urging them not to be afraid, as each one plays a role in the birth of the Messiah. Jesus encourages the disciples not to fear when they face storms, uncertainty, or danger. At the Last Supper in the gospel of John (14:27), Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Nevertheless, Jesus’s followers disappear in fear after he is arrested.

It’s almost my turn to zipline. “If Sandy can do this, I can do this. There is no rational reason for my fear,” I keep repeating. Yes, it is good to be cautious. It is wise to think through situations and not make rash choices. Preparation enables us to make good decisions so that we do not have to fear. “I can do this. I will not be afraid.”

We watch five young adults do the zipline before we’re up. One woman trembles and says, “I don’t want to do this.” Urged on by her friends, she makes the plunge and gives a thumbs-up as she hurtles down the zipline. A man with a camera strapped to his helmet intends to video himself. I assume he would display bravado, but he’s obviously scared as well. He finally lets go of the platform. Another woman goes tandem with a friend, but she is shaking when she returns and says, “That was awful. Why did I ever do that?” Whatever shred of confidence I had is gone.

Does fear ever take over your life? Do phobias get the best of you? Do you miss out on great experiences because of the fear of failing, embarrassment, and physical harm, or the inability to trust? I am not a great risk-taker when it comes to daring physical acts like parachuting, skiing down double diamonds, or racing my bike down a hill at forty miles an hour. I also have a well-developed fear of enclosed places. At the same time I thrive on continually pushing myself physically and professionally because I am convinced that human beings have the capacity to do far more than we think we can.

Even on Easter morning, fear abounds. In Matthew the guards are scared stiff when an angel rolls back the stone and perches on it after an earthquake. In Mark a young man sitting inside the tomb says to the women who come to anoint his body, “Do not be alarmed.” But they flee the tomb and don’t say a word to anyone, “For terror and amazement had seized them.”

In Luke, when two men in dazzling clothes appear beside the empty tomb, the women are terrified. However, when the men say to the women, “He is not here. He is risen,” they overcome their fear and rush to tell the good news to the disciples and all the rest.

My stomach is tied in knots. I really don’t want to chicken out now. Besides, I’ve always tried to face my fears. Every time I preach I am terrified and feel sick to my stomach. I fear that I won’t be able to express what is in my heart and am afraid of looking like a fool. But every single time, for thirty-two years, I have prayed, “God, I can’t do this by myself,” and God has been with me. Should I or shouldn’t I?

Over the years I’ve discovered techniques for facing fear:

  • Staying physically fit and rested seems to give humans strength and courage.
  • Learning to trust others makes it easier to trust God and tap into the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Acquiring knowledge about potentially fearful situations gives us confidence to act wisely.
  • Teaching ourselves ways to keep calm under pressure counteracts fear and panic.
  • Reminding ourselves of lessons learned from the past empowers us to formulate a plan for encountering new fears.
  • Periodically pushing ourselves to move out of our comfort zone helps us to enjoy new experiences rather than fear them.
  • Focusing on caring for others rather than obsessing with ourselves is a great antidote to fear.

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Now it’s our turn. I want to go before Gary and Sarah, knowing that otherwise I might just walk away. I rationalize, “Just because Sandy can do it doesn’t mean you have to. On the other hand, you have to learn how to deal with your fears, Laurie, or you will miss out on a lot of great adventures in life.”

“Mom, I’ll go with you.”

I hesitate. I don’t want to ruin her experience.

“It’s okay, Mom. I’d love to go with you.”

“Really? Thanks, Sarah. Let’s do it.”

I give a thumbs up and off we go, riding tandem. Now exactly why was I so afraid? After all, you only live once.

Blessings,
Laurie

Going Down

We’re two-thirds of the way through Lent, and it’s just about time to buckle our seat belts and make a steep descent with Jesus into the mess of Holy Week. Even though Jesus is technically going up to Jerusalem, he’s really going down.

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After three years of preaching kingdom values that turned his world upside down, Jesus is getting in his last licks. He cleanses the temple, launches into an attack on the religious leaders with his “Woe to you” admonitions, mediates a fight with the disciples about who is the greatest, washes their feet and then gives them a new commandment to love one another. In a final act of passive (same root word as passion) resistance, Jesus allows himself to be arrested, mocked, tortured and crucified.

We ask, along with the disciples, “What were you thinking, Jesus? You brought it on yourself.” Ultimately, the only way Jesus could bring about the change he taught was to live it. Up or down? Ascent or descent? Me or others? Master or servant? First or last? Rich or poor? Power or selflessness? Privilege or poverty? Jesus chose to go down, to let go, to become the sacrificial lamb by offering his very self for you and me.

After more than thirty years in ministry, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that most Christians will choose to skip right from Palm Sunday to Easter. I’ve concluded that the reason many people avoid Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is not because they don’t want to take the time to worship. It’s because they don’t want to see Jesus go down. It’s very painful to watch Jesus fail because it implies we also will fail at some point. Furthermore, seeing Jesus go down means that the very building blocks upon which we so often live our lives – power, wealth, status, and prestige – are destined to crumble.

Descending into the depths of despair and hopelessness is a necessary part of the maturation of our faith and is the only way to fullness of life. Religious headlines in the past few months convince me more than ever that our insistence on ascending to greatness rather than choosing to go down results in even grander falls that change our lives forever.

“The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:2-3)

Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory recently built a $2.2 million 6,400 square foot mansion for himself. The construction was made possible by a large donation from the estate of Joseph Mitchell, nephew of Margaret Mitchell, author of the Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind. When Mitchell died in 2011, he left an estate worth more than $15 million to the archdiocese on the condition that it be used for “general religious and charitable purposes.”

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Meanwhile, Pope Francis continues to make extravagant and wasteful spending a focus of his early papacy. He calls for “a poor church for the poor” and models a “going down” theology by living simply in a modest guest apartment, driving around Rome in a Ford Focus, and criticizing bishops for “living like princes.”

In a decisive move to signal his seriousness on the matter, Pope Francis suspended the bishop of Limburg, Germany, last October for spending $42 million to renovate his residence and other church buildings. The German press dubbed the free-spending cleric the “Bishop of Bling.” Pope Francis removed Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his position on March 27 and said in a recent interview, “The gospel condemns the cult of wellbeing.” The pope also said that when you and I are judged in death, “our closeness to poverty will be counted.”

After receiving criticism over the spending in letters, emails, and telephone messages, and coming on the heels of the Bishop of Limburg’s removal, Archbishop Gregory apologized a week ago. In a column posted on the website of the archdiocesan newspaper, he said, “I am disappointed that, while my advisors (sic) and I were able to justify this project fiscally, logistically and practically, I personally failed to project the cost in terms of my own integrity and pastoral credibility with the people of God of north and central Georgia.

“I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the Archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services,” he added. Gregory said that he will sell the house and move elsewhere if church leaders wish him to.

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“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cummin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)

Trinity Church, a historic Episcopal congregation in the heart of downtown Boston, recently purchased a $3.6 million condo in Beacon Hill for its rector Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III. The 3,200 square foot condo has a wine cellar, two-car garage, courtyard and guesthouse and is within walking distance of the church. Church leaders are convinced that the purchase of the condo is a wise and practical investment that will not take away from the operating budget because much of the cost is covered by the church’s $30 million endowment.

According to the February 3 Boston Globe: “Louise Burnham Packard, executive director of the Trinity Boston Foundation (an affiliate of the church), said the rectory purchase made ‘perfect economic sense’ to her, and because it required no cuts in programs or shifts in spending priorities, on balance she understood the vestry’s decision. ‘It’s problematic, because it looks like we’re just buying into the materialistic culture,’ she said. ‘I think that’s probably why the vestry wrestled with the decision.’”

Church members have engaged in profound spiritual conversation about how the church is perceived at the same time as they engage in numerous ministries in the city and are committed to standing with the poor and marginalized. The president of a local brokerage firm not connected with the purchase said about the property, it’s “an absolutely coveted address and location.”

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The scribes and Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the places of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogue.” (Matthew 23:5-6)

$210,000. That’s the reported amount that Seattle evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll paid to ResultSource Inc., a marketing firm that helps authors get their books on the New York Times Best Seller List. Driscoll’s book, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, written with his wife Grace, led the NYT Best Seller List for hardcover advice for a week at the end of January. The next week, however, it was gone. Not only was the ethics of using artificial means to create a bestseller suspect, but Driscoll allegedly used church funds to create this one week boost. Even a brief appearance can add to an author’s reputation and create lucrative speaking engagements.

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After great criticism, Driscoll apologized to the church in a March 15 letter and said that he would never use this marketing strategy again. “I understand that people who saw or experienced my sin during this season are hurt and in some cases have not yet come to a place of peace or resolution,” he wrote. “I have been burdened by this for the past year and have had private meetings one at a time to learn from, apologize to, and reconcile with people.”

Driscoll also said that he will not accept as many speaking engagements in the future. “I don’t see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor, and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter.”

I have great sympathy for Archbishop Gregory, Trinity Episcopal Church, and Mark Driscoll because the fallout from their decisions has played out in the public arena. Going down is never pretty. In fact, no one wants to do it, even Jesus (“Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me”). Yet going down is not only a major theme in the Bible, it’s the heart of our faith, the truth of our story, and the hope of our salvation.

If we choose to be saved by an economy of merit or privilege rather than God’s economy of grace, we’ll end up going down kicking and screaming rather than falling gently into the arms of selfless love. Either way, we are invited to crawl our way back up into the arms of our Savior – until we descend steeply again. Jesus is going down next week. Which direction are you going?

Blessings,
Laurie

The Truth About Detroit

The truth about Detroit is that the darkness of thousands of street lights that don’t work will never overcome the light of hope.

Elvis lived on the streets of Detroit for sixteen years and slept on the steps of Central United Methodist Church. Now Elvis is a caseworker, and he also cuts six hundred heads of hair a year through the NOAH project (Network, Organizing, and Advocating for the Homeless).

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NOAH, a ministry of Central UMC that started in 1999, describes itself this way: “We envision an end to homelessness in Detroit and Southeastern Michigan. For our part, we are committed to developing relationships that promote healthy change in the lives of individuals who are homeless, especially those for whom it is a chronic struggle.” NOAH provides a bag lunch program twice a week, hygiene kits, basic emergency needs, peer support volunteers, and counseling, crisis intervention, and social services. The goal is to empower clients to name and then achieve their goals.

Elvis, whose haircutting ministry extends to men, women, and children, says, “If you look better, you feel better, and you are more inclined to do something positive for yourself. I’ve lived homelessness, so if I can get my life together, anyone can do it. People come here to NOAH because it’s a family. Since we are committed to building relationships, those who are homeless have faith and trust in us.”

The truth about Detroit is that this proud city is rising from the ashes of despair. Ronnie, nicknamed Papa Smurf because he is a wise, smart man, relates that he was sitting downtown one day and observed how the faces of everyone passing by seemed to be down. Ronnie could tell that they did not believe in themselves, and the next thing he knew he was saying these words, “God bless me and help me,” in that order. At that moment Ronnie knew that his mission was to connect with the spirits of others, so he prayed, “Give me wisdom to be a blessing to others.”

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Ronnie said, “At the time I was caught up in an addiction to smoking crack. I had no meaning in life. I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. My life changed that day as I realized that things could get better, that if I believed in myself, I could pass on what I know to others. I am now a different me.”

Papa Smurf has been at the NOAH project for sixteen years because he likes to be where there is love and hope. He is a staff member now and also has a street ministry where he passes out Bibles. Ronnie says that his gifts are writing and sharing karma.

The truth about Detroit is that pervasive despair about urban blight, violence, and loss of jobs will not stop the seeds of beauty from growing and flowering into a city reborn.

Five years ago a member of First United Methodist Church in Birmingham was listening to the sermon one Sunday morning when she felt God calling her to feed the hungry. She drove downtown to Central UMC and asked, “What can I do?” The staff at NOAH said, “We are doing a good job of feeding the hungry, but we need people to feed the soul.” So she gathered a few people around her and developed an art studio.

Every Monday and Thursday, when dozens of people gather for their bag lunch, volunteers from Birmingham help the homeless and formerly homeless develop their artistic and creative talents through Art and Soul. Art and Soul provides beauty, joy, and a respite from the idleness and despair of the streets. There is even a kiln on the fifth floor where pottery is fired.

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Diva D found out about Art and Soul when she was living in a shelter and her roommate was serving lunch at NOAH. Already an artist, Diva D came to NOAH one day and saw that there was a great arts and crafts shelter. She learned how to paint with acrylics, ceramics, and watercolor, and said that Art and Soul saved her life. Diva D even came to First UMC a few months ago along with other artists from Art and Soul. She sold a water color, a cloth doll with bendable arms and legs, and note cards. Diva D said to me, “By the way, a dentist from your church volunteered to take out my teeth that were rotting, and I put those teeth on a collage that is upstairs. It was part of ArtPrize in Grand Rapids in 2011.”

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The truth about Detroit is that the interminable delay of emergency services will not deter the faithful and consistent ministry of Central UMC, its many volunteers, and thousands of Detroit metro residents who reach out to their neighbors in need. On the day that we visited the NOAH project, not only was Art and Soul in operation, but another First UMC outreach group, StreeThreads, made the bag lunches, complete with fresh fruit, and distributed clothing and toiletries, including new socks and underwear. Lunch for the destitute and homeless has been served continuously at Central UMC since 1976. During the intense cold this winter, hours were expanded and sixty more people a day came into the building just to keep warm.

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Central UMC, organized in 1810, is one of the oldest Protestant congregations in Michigan. The congregation says about itself: “We are Central Church, a servant community working for a world of peace and justice. We are a voice speaking out from within our city, like a conscience speaks to the person to whom it belongs, and whose life it shares. Counting on the rock of our faith in Christ, we proclaim, follow, and worship a God who calls us to create a faith-powered, justice-seeking, reconciling, and peace-loving world for all people.”

Rev. Ed Rowe, Central UMC pastor, who has served this congregation since 1994, says,
“The truth about Detroit is that my city is not bankrupt. Rather it’s being attacked by a bankrupt system. Detroit is full of alive and well people who work their hearts out to rehab houses, create medical centers, promote education, speak out against racism, feed hungry people, and fight to keep neighborhoods from being regentrified. We are urban pioneers who have no money but have the courage to work for social justice. There is an attitude that ‘we will not be moved.’ We will win our city back.”

Much of the funding for Central UMC’s programs comes from a parking lot located right next to Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. Over $120,000 a year is generated from parking fees and the sale of peanuts.

Before I leave, Papa Smurf wants to show me one of his poems, entitled For Those who Believe All is Possible.

There are no miracles for those who doubt their
Possibilities …
But for those who believe –
Truly believe –
All is possible.
Whatever you may have believed
Whatever you may have done
And whatever you may be in your life –
It’s not too late to change course and begin anew.
A fresh start, a bright future, the wonderful peace that
Passes are yours for the taking.
Now and forever more.

The truth about Detroit? It’s being written every day by those who are living it. The truth about Detroit is that it’s not too late to change course and begin anew. For those who believe in Detroit, all things are possible when the Holy Spirit begins to move. A fresh start and a bright future is Detroit’s for the taking. Take it from Elvis, Papa Smurf, Diva D, and Ed Rowe. They’ve all been there.

Blessings,
Laurie