Fear and Fearlessness: The Spiritual Disciplines, then Gratitude, Breathing and Kindness

January 5th, 2014

Preacher: Diana Bender

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Before Christmas, Doyt preached several times about ‘living large’- living to the full potential of our gifts and closing the gap between what we can do alone and what we can achieve with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  When we stop pretending we are our own superhero, magically in control of everything in our lives, and instead rely on God’s help to close that gap between our human gifts and God’s intention for us then, we can indeed do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

If we believe in the facts of God:  that God loves us, that God forgives us, that God is ready to guide and empower us through the Holy Spirit, if we can hold these to be true OR at least act as if we do, then there is nothing that can stop us from living large.

But this stopped me (at least briefly)- because while I do believe in these facts of God, I began thinking about fear and how fear so easily destroys trust.  Fear is at the root of many of the ways that keep us from living into the promise God holds for us. And we certainly hear this in our gospel this morning, especially in the person of Herod!

Really, in the end, this is quite an exotic and romantic story. Herod plays his role well as the evil king while the Magi star as the Good kings.  In fact, the story of the Magi has been embellished quite a bit as it was handed down through the centuries. Now, they’re not just Magi or wise ones, they are Kings. Specifically, they are 3 Kings on three camels – kind of a trio of lone rangers winding their way through the desert to find a baby beneath a portentous star, as several ancient prophecies are realized  Then, mysterious dreams redirect the action as the story concludes.

Very mythical, but is it all myth?  Many scholars have concluded that the Magi were wise ones from the royal house in Babylon These highly esteemed people, drawn from around the world, were appointed to their office due to their great wisdom and skill, placed in their posts because of their competence, not their birthright. This order of Magi included women, and in a forthcoming book, New Testament Scholar Thomas Viviano lays out a clear and compelling argument about why the Magi who visited Jesus likely included some women. These men and women turned their gifts to the great Babylonian tradition of studying the stars.

And there were in fact some very unusual astronomical events around the time of the birth of Christ that would have drawn their close attention.

First, Haley’s comet passed by earth around this time, recorded by the Chinese- but it was probably too early to be the Bethlehem star. A second popular theory is that it was a supernova- but it too was a bit early. Nearer to Jesus’ estimated birth was a close conjunction of planets and stars. There were actually seven unusual conjunctions in that time frame.

The most likely candidate for the Bethlehem ‘star’ was 2 bright planets and a star all immediately next to each other: Jupiter, Venus and Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo the lion. It certainly would have looked quite remarkable. In fact in 2000, NASA recorded a similar conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter crossing Orion and it was pretty amazing to look at.

And so the Magi were travelling to try to interpret this astral event, which everyone at the time thought was connected to earthly matters such as the birth of a new King. One of the seven conjunctions of stars and planets was Saturn (connected with Israel) and Jupiter (connected with royalty) making Jerusalem a logical destination to look first for a new king.

But it’s highly unlikely that they were just 3 guys on 3 camels. Not only was at least one of them probably a woman, but with their status and power, they most certainly would have come with a pretty large contingent, perhaps looking like an army.

This would definitely have unsettled Herod and all of Jerusalem, who would have feared a possible invasion.

So, it’s fun to look back at astronomy and historical documentation to piece together independent verification of this powerful story in the Christian canon. But I think the story holds the most meaning for us in its symbols. First, Jesus- born to Mary- a poor teenage girl from a minor village but so willing to turn her life upside down to follow God. She certainly had no trouble living large!

Following the birth, the angels go to the poorest of the poor- the shepherds. The first to announce the birth of Christ had the lowest status in the culture: marking the beginning of Jesus’ framework where ideas of status or power were tossed out, replaced with a hierarchy of love.

And yet, this birth was also noticed by the powerful and wise: the Magi. In other words, God can be known by everyone regardless of wealth or education. And these wise ones were Gentiles. So, from the very start, Jesus was profoundly moving- to Jews and Gentiles alike.

But what I am most struck by is the fear. And this brings me back to the sermons from before Christmas and how fear holds us back from living large.

I think fear is present in us all- at least to some degree. We might mask it or channel towards anger, or maybe despair, but, as the primary currency of evil (as opposed to the divine currency of love, in the Kingdom of God) fear persists.

Sometimes I can rest in the truth of God. Sometimes I do feel the fearlessness that comes from those truths when I face difficult change or bad news.

But many times in my life I have fallen into the trap of fear and my firm faith in God can seem distant or unreal. The question is: how do we get beyond the fear and bring ourselves to truly believe those facts of God, even when they do seem remote or untrue to the current reality of our lives?

The spiritual disciplines usually bring me back- first they help me remember that I want to truly believe in the facts of God. And then, in acting as if I believe, I come closer to actually believing again.

For example, no matter how much I don’t want to get up and out on Sunday morning, I have learned enough times that I ALWAYS feel better and more like my true self having gone to church.

When I do fixed hour prayer every day, such as saying Compline with my family before bed each night, I sleep better.

When, we doubled our tithe a few years ago and at the same time sent our son Tieran to a faith-based high school where we knew his spiritual journey would be honored and deepened, – in other words we took on both a bigger tithe and school tuition even though we weren’t really sure how we could possibly afford it, it has been truly remarkable that every month somehow, it all seemed to worked out. So much so that we increased our tithe again this year, as we aim towards the 10% tithe my grandparents modeled for us

OK, I could go through all seven spiritual disciplines, but I think you get my drift. When I create the space and time to act as if I trust god: praying for guidance and saying thank you in multiple ways at multiple times each day and each week, I am less afraid.

Now sometimes, I fall off the spiritual disciplines wagon- and I begin to believe that I am in charge and all this good stuff in my life is because of my own very wonderful self. Or sometimes my spiritual life becomes dry and I find myself thinking about my to do list instead of really praying. (The truth comes out!)

But then, the power of the practice really comes to the fore. Because the words of the daily prayers do actually mean something to me.  And when I read those words, often I find that some phrase brings to mind an essential solution to a problem I am facing- ie the Holy Spirit helps me.  Our consistent reliance on the spiritual disciplines helps us see the action of God most clearly, because I think a lot of us are like doubting Thomas- we need to see to believe.

So I suggest to you, start looking. Start looking for God in your life- including the unexpected places.  No one thought the Babylonians would be among the first to notice god’s incarnation in the world. Certainly no one thought that shepherds of all people would receive the angels and heavenly host!

Someday let me tell you the story of how I experienced the Holy Spirit in Costco.

I think the best place to start looking is where you experience gratitude and joy (to be clear, this is not Costco for me!).

Gratitude changes our frame- because it becomes clear that we can’t do any of this on our own. Gratitude for moments of beauty, like the sun breaking through the clouds, help us see God, because it’s clear this beauty doesn’t come from something we control.

And then in my kit for the real emergencies, when nothing else works:  breathing then gratitude, then kindness. Because when I am really afraid or worried, if I can get myself to breathe – slowly and intentionally, I usually remember that gratitude helps. And when I bring to mind things I am grateful for, I am reminded of the abundance that God has brought to my life. If I can then can top this off with an act of kindness reminding myself that in the kingdom of god relationship is primary, I can often completely release my fear Through breathing and gratitude and kindness, my fear shrinks enough for me to let it go. Now, this is not usually a one-time-only event. In other words, my emergency kit should really read: breathing, gratitude, kindness, (then, in really big letters- REPEAT).

When my son Tieran had a terrifying cancer scare last fall (no cancer, praise be to God), what emerged for me was the additional importance of the spiritual discipline of attending church each week This was an exceptionally overwhelming fear and in many moments, the prayers of you, my church family, carried me when I couldn’t even remember my emergency kit, much less use it.  The prayers, emails, visits and food carried us when we were unable to carry ourselves. With the spiritual discipline of attending church each week, I had ended up with a church family.

When I was so afraid that I could not think, much less pray, I knew you were praying for us, even if you didn’t know us personally, and this was deeply reassuring. This was truly God- this community became the body of Christ for my family, the hands of God to help carry us through this crisis. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

And as I pray each week for people I don’t know personally, I remember how powerful it was for me.

In one of my darkest moments in September, I could only breathe, and then, slowly, I could remember the love showered upon us by Epiphany and others and then I brought a cup of water to someone else waiting for their loved one in that surgical waiting room.

And I remembered the facts of God and I was less afraid.

Even in our darkest moments even in our driest spells, these facts remain true: God does love us, God does forgive us, God empowers us, God will never leave us – in fact nothing can separate us from the love of God, even our darkest fear.

We just have to practice and practice and practice to remind ourselves into that reality.