Mark 9:2-8 – Shining the Light on Our Fears

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“Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him. They went up on a high mountain, where they could be alone. There in front of the disciples, Jesus was completely changed.  And his clothes became much whiter than any bleach on earth could make them.  Then Moses and Elijah were there talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, it is good for us to be here! Let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’  But Peter and the others were terribly frightened, and he did not know what he was talking about.

The shadow of a cloud passed over and covered them. From the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, and I love him. Listen to what he says!’  At once the disciples looked around, but they saw only Jesus.” (Contemporary English Version)

The transfiguration of Christ was a glorious experience on the mountain.  But we are told that Peter, James, and John, the inner circle of Christ’s disciples, were terribly frightened.  Peter, always the extrovert of the group, nervously babbled-on without making any sense because he was so nervous and afraid.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus would take three of his disciples with him to experience such an incredible vision?  Why did Jesus show these men something so otherworldly that they nearly soiled themselves?  I will tell you why I think Jesus put his close disciples in such a position as this:

Because the way to see Jesus as our only hope, we must face our fears, insecurities, and anxieties squarely without hiding.

Jesus did not relieve their anxiety.  He let them feel the full impact of their fear.  His glory shone show brightly that they couldn’t hide from what was happening to them and what was in their minds and hearts.  Only through shining the light on the shadowy place of our fears and insecurities will we accept that we need a savior.  That savior is Jesus, the light of the world, the Lord over fear, anxiety, and discouragement.

The invitation which Jesus extends to us is to move further into our fears so that we can see how desperately we need him.  Nobody seeks a savior when they don’t believe they need deliverance from anything.  But the one who sees what is truly inside of them – the fear of connection; the scary prospect of confrontation; the anxiety of what will happen; or, the discouragement of failure – is the one who is then able to hear the voice of God and listen to Jesus give the answer to our most pressing life issues.

Jesus Christ wants to change us from the inside-out.  He helps us by showing us not to avoid the fears which cause us to be beside ourselves, but through confronting those anxieties with him.  You and I are never alone; we always have the glorious presence of Christ with us as we walk through dark valleys and ascend high mountains.  It is the wonderful existence and omnipresence of God in Christ through the Spirit which makes all the difference.  We were created for connection with the divine, not for separation and loneliness in our fears.

Glorious Christ, you love me with a grace and mercy which always has my best interests in mind.  Help me through my most pressing fears and failures so that I might see your glory, hear your voice, and know your constant presence.  Amen.

Who Ought to Change?

 
 
            Murray Bowen was one of the most influential psychiatrists of the 20thcentury.  His family systems theory, also known as Bowen theory, has largely replaced a great deal of Freudian psychology in the West.  The basic concept of Bowen’s therapeutic approach is that the family (as well as any group of persons) is an emotional unit.  As a unit, a change in any one of the members results in the others members compensating for the emotional functioning that has been altered.  Like touching one part of the spider web, the entire thing shakes.  The contribution, importance, and focus of Bowen’s theory was that rather than trying to change the other person, one can change him/herself without becoming part of the problem.  The theory states that if any family member can change his or her emotional functioning within the system, the whole family will improve its corporate functioning in response to that change.  In other words, we must learn to function in a healthy way within the family system.  Personal transformation becomes the best approach to handling family crises and problems.
 
            Bowen was not thinking of churches when working with his clients, but applying family systems theory to the church is not a stretch.  It almost sounds like Dr. Bowen was fresh off a congregational meeting when he said:  “The human is a narcissistic creature who lives in the present and who is more interested in his own square inch of real estate, and more devoted to fighting for his rights than in the multigenerational meaning of life itself.  As the human throng becomes more violent and unruly, there will be those who survive it all….  I think the differentiation of self (remaining connected to others, yet separate from their problems) may well be one concept that lives into the future.”
 
            In a crisis or presenting problem in society or the church, just as in a family, mounting anxiety moves intensely around unhealthy ways of relating.  Polarized factions take the spotlight and think only of their emotionally based interpretations of the facts.  They fail to see the big picture or look at the welfare of the common good.  All they can see is their angle on the unpleasant situation or person.  Thinking becomes reductionist, and hearts harden.  Everyone ends up looking like a stooge.
 
 
 
            Whatever you think of Bowen’s theory, it is not hard to discern that anxiety plays a major role in many individuals, families, and even churches.  When worry and anxiety take over a person or group of people, things become emotionally charged.  Hence, the church is an emotional unit.  Typically, the response to anything we don’t like is to try and change the other person who is rocking the boat or upsetting the status quo web of relationships.  But maybe the Apostle Paul was onto all this emotional stuff well before the 20th century:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer an petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
 
            Learning to manage our own anxiety and deal with the incessant worry within ourselves is imperative to coping with relational problems in the church.  It is the peace of God, and not the peace of others that makes the difference.  We are people that are all for change – that is, we want others to change so that we do not have to.  But the Christian is to conform to Jesus, and not the other way around.  Because the Lord is near to us, we have a consistent and continual presence to anchor ourselves, no matter whether the circumstances are to my liking, or not.  So, prayer becomes the means of casting anxiety away so that peace can take its place.  Sounds easy – it is anything but.
 
            It is human to want everything and everyone to change when there are problems, adversity, or challenge.  But the change most needed is quite personal, and it is only ourselves that we can change.  Therefore, our focus must be on finding ways to remain connected to God and others without resorting to passive-aggressive tactics, cutting-off relationships altogether, or bullying others into changing with our violent or manipulative words.
 
            When faced with unwanted change and/or difficult circumstances, rather than looking for an alteration from others, try asking yourself one of these questions: 
 
·         What is a small step that I can take to improve my situation?
·         If I were guaranteed not to make the situation worse, what would I be doing differently?
·         Is there a person in my life whose voice and input I haven’t heard in a long time?  What small question could I ask them to help me in my situation?
·         What is one good thing about this situation I find myself in?
·         What is one positive trait I possess that can serve me well in this situation?
 

 

Are there other questions you could ask that would be helpful?  A journey that seems like a thousand miles must begin with one step.  What will that step be?

The Politics of Fear

 
 
            We all have personal fears.  They may be different, all the way from snakes and creepy clowns to public speaking and talking on the phone.  Whatever the fear, being afraid can multiply exponentially when a group of people collectively fear something.  When that happens, the politics of fear takes over and faith is replaced by what a church thinks might happen.  Most church problems and conflicts do not arise out of doctrinal differences, but out of a clash of fears. 
 
Consider just a few scenarios.  One group of people think women should serve in leadership capacities the same as men, and another group believes that women can only serve in limited leadership roles.  The former group fears that if women are not allowed leadership status that the church will wither for lack of fully utilizing the giftedness of half or more of the congregation; they fear the church will not grow.  The latter group is afraid that if women attain leadership roles that the men of the church will become lazy and not serve; it is only, they fear, a slippery slope to an all-female run congregation with no men leading.
 
A more obvious scenario is the so-called “worship wars.”  One group holds to a more traditional and liturgical form of worship with hymns and responsive readings.  They fear that if this form changes it will dilute the true worship of God and degenerate into an unfamiliar form that they will not like; they are afraid of change.  Another group believes that “contemporary” worship (usually understood as praise songs and choruses with a simple sing and speak liturgical model) is the way to go because they fear people will leave the church for another if things do not change.  One group fears change, the other fears not changing.
 
Fear is a reality that all pastors and church leaders must navigate.  And God himself knows it.  This is why the command to not be afraid is common throughout Holy Scripture. We find, as well, that the command to not be afraid is given often to leaders.  The patriarch Isaac was told to not be afraid because God was with him (Genesis 26:24).  The prophet Jeremiah was told to not be afraid because God was with (Jeremiah 1:8).  Jesus was pointed with the synagogue ruler concerning his dead daughter:  “Don’t be afraid; just believe” (Mark 5:36).
 
Non-anxious leaders help congregations deal with fear because their calm presence in the face of competing anxieties creates the environment that everything is going to be okay, that engaging in faith will work out, and that God’s promises and presence trumps all realities.  Before facing the conquest of the Promised Land, the Lord commanded Joshua to be strong and courageous and boldly engage the enemy, with the result that the people acted in faith and took Jericho.  David courageously and confidently faced down Goliath, and later led the people of Israel and Judah as king because he understood that the Lord was his strength, and, so, fear could melt away.  David’s best friend, Jonathan, acted in faith while all his fellow Israelites were hiding in fear from their Philistine enemies.  His courageous stepping out emboldened everyone else to win the battle.
 
Jesus Christ has promised that he will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  We have the promised presence of the Holy Spirit as we engage in Christ’s mission to be witnesses.  God’s steadfast love is with us.  Therefore, we choose to live above the fray of naked fear and trust the kingdom values of humility, meekness, mercy, purity, and peace-making in facing down whatever issues are gripping the church.  God, in his sovereignty, has ordained certain persons to take the lead in recognizing the presence of the Spirit and moving forward in faith, not fear.  Faith and fear cannot co-exist.  “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying not to give in to the politics of fear within the church.
 
So, how will you live?  How will you lead?  In what ways can you bring a non-anxious presence to the people for whom you minister?  How does knowing that God is with us change how you face difficult problems and people?  Can you think the thought that courage is a spiritual discipline?  How will you stretch your faith muscle so that the weakness of fear can take a back seat to your decision making?
 

 

May the power and presence of God’s Spirit fill us all now and always with faith to accomplish God’s will.