The Fear that Fuels Us

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I don’t have the sort of nightmares that most other people have. Instead of my dreams containing the horrors of monsters and murderers, my nightmares contain the dreadful terror of running late for a plane flight and showing up to a class not realizing that it’s the day of a midterm. A lot of my life is riddled with mundane fears and the anxiety of a certain loss of control.

Fear is a strange emotion. Unlike happiness or sadness, it is an emotion we often feel over something that has yet to even happen. I once read that “terror” is the anticipation of what we fear whereas “horror” is a result of what we fear, and both can seem to work in tandem. I have found that it can be easy to live in a vicious cycle of fear, caught in the vortex of anxiously trying to avoid what I am terrified of and reacting to the horrors of what I have already seen happen.

Fear can do weird things to us. It can cause us to live in a state of perpetual avoidance and anxiety. It can cause us to be chronically suspicious of certain people or groups. It can cause us to lose sleep, to act defensively, and to shut our doors. And it can also drive us to reactively rage against anything that may seem to be a potential threat to us, our family, or our tribe.

I’m convinced a large part of why we live in a culture of outrage is because we are deeply, deeply afraid.

We take to social media with our arguments and heated opinions because sometimes we find ourselves afraid that others don’t agree with the future we see to be the best. Other times, we take to it out of a fear of our own loneliness. We want retweets to know our voice means something. We want likes to know we are being heard because the alternative is too hard to stomach. What if we really are all alone and our voice doesn’t really matter?

We see it in our homes and without. A fear that we won’t be or aren’t loved. A fear that the outside world will corrupt us or hurt us. A fear that we won’t be able to provide for ourselves or our families. A fear that we are losing power or balance. A fear that we are insignificant. A fear that we will die alone. A fear that we have no control.

So many of these chronic fears breed anxiety and paranoia. Sometimes we may find ourselves afraid when we have no reason to be, or at very least we seek out something to dread because we’ve gotten so used to it. We are drawn to sensational news headlines and hit-pieces like a moth to flame because often times it fuels us or legitimizes our anxieties.

Sometimes our fears are reasonable, and other times they are not. Sometimes our fears are helpful for our own safety, and other times they are not.

If you’ve read this blog before you may know that I like particular sorts of horror films. As I watch them, I’ve begun to realize that the best horror films in the last couple years have been the ones which force you to sit in terror rather than constantly bombard you with horror. So often these films force you to feel the weight of everything the characters are experiencing in a way that often makes you forget the anxieties you are currently experiencing in reality. There is a build-up which is often met with a horrifying climax in the final sequences of the film. In this final moment of terror (and perhaps catharsis), all of your attention is directed at one thing. All of your senses and thoughts are forced to interact with one thing which so immediately presents itself and forces you to have to address it. All the mundane fears I have going on in the back of my mind seem to lose focus on the greater fear before me during those films.

Of course this doesn’t rid horror-goers of fear. All of us leave that self-contained place of approaching fear and go back home to the mundane and existential fears that tend to breath down our necks. A life without fear seems like an impossibility even for those who try to confront it.

John’s vision of Jesus in the book of Revelation (1:9-18) and the Transfiguration account in Matthew (17:1-12) have intrigued me lately. I’ve been curious to see how those present with Jesus react to him in his glorified state. In the Revelation account John sees a vision of Jesus beaming, radiant, and powerful, and as a response John collapses “as though dead.” Peter, James and John similarly see Jesus transfigured and then hear the voice of God and subsequently “fell on their faces” in fear.

We’ve been tuned to think that only things that are evil or destructive are things that we should fear. Despite knowing Jesus, John still fell in fear of him. He knows he is wholly good, that he is not evil at all… but he still collapses. In that moment, all of his attention was on him and he was overwhelmed by his holiness and power. In a moment of horror, he collapsed before someone infinitely more powerful and good than him.

Yet in that moment we see Jesus (unlike the axe-murderer or xenomorph or demon showing its ugly head and striking down a character in a horror film), in all his glory and power, reach down and touch him in kindness. Unlike H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters which drive humans to despair and insanity simply by being in their presence, we see Jesus touch his friends in their moment of ultimate horror and proceeds to tell them told not to fear.

To be met with kindness by someone with more power than ourselves is an unusual thing to our human sensibilities.

On one hand I think many of us moderns want to not have to fear anything because we want to be in control of as much as we can. But here it seems to me that Jesus is saying, “have no fear,” because he has ultimate control and power. As he proceeds to say, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” 

Often we tend to fear that which is out of our control or that which has more power than us. And sometimes we attempt to acquire control and power so that we can avoid the very fears that plague us. But here Jesus is saying that he has ultimate power and ultimate control, and thus deserves to be feared, yet, unlike so many of the things and people we meet in this world with a lot of power, he meets us with a gentle and merciful touch.

We can attempt to find enough control in our lives to suppress our fears, but we will always find ourselves fearful when the cracks over our own illusions of control begin to show. We can’t make our fears disappear completely on our own. Rather, in a paradoxical sort of way, the only resolution to our fears is by surrendering control over to one who has infinitely more power than us.

Fear doesn’t cast out fear because a bigger fear will always replace a lesser fear. Thankfully for us, the greatest thing we could possibly fear shows us that he loves us and tells us not to fear.

Best Friends and Bottle Dumps

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It was right around my sophomore year of college when I started going with one of my best friends and spiritual mentors, Ande, on regular visits to a bottle-dump. If you know me, you probably know I’m not really one for this sort of thing. Digging through mud and fecal-like substances in the Florida heat with only the hopes of finding rare, old bottles feels kinda drab and honestly rather sweaty to me. But as I look back on it now, these adventures are among some of my most beloved memories.

College was a particularly turbulent time of my life.  Many days during those years I found myself angry for reasons I couldn’t articulate, and other days I found myself uncontrollably sad and frozen in the fetal position for (what felt like) days. All the while, my Christian faith had slowly started to become something I realized I actually required— I needed it in a way I had never needed it before. It felt like I was awakening from a stupor I had been in for many, many years, and it was overwhelming. Fear and faith seemed to have reawakened within me in conjunction.

I have never been very good at letting myself exist in the present. I’m always thinking about the natural outcome of things that are occurring in my life and where I will or won’t be in the future. I can so naturally turn towards cynicism to help me understand and cope with reality. At the time, not only was I consumed with the realization that I had felt alone for so much of my life, but I was also consumed by the fear that I would be alone throughout the rest of it. Loneliness on a microscopic scale scares me just as much as loneliness on a grand scale. Being awakened to this existential kind of loneliness concerned me that perhaps the best sort of living was the kind where I slipped back into a life of compulsive distraction and superficiality. I found myself scraping at the question: “Is there really life to find, and if so, was finding life really worth the effort of digging through all the crap of my life?”

I vividly recall certain days in college when I would be texting Ande about my frustrations and melancholy, and he would sometimes so kindly and pastorally respond by inviting me bottle-hunting. It’s comical thinking back on it because what I wanted was a logical and well-reasoned response to make me feel better, but instead what I often received was an invitation to put on my worst pair of jeans, a raggedy t-shirt, and head off to a bottle-dump. We’d put on our gloves, gather our shovels, and hike through long-grass to find our spot which we would then spend hours looking for valuable bottles. Sometimes we would spot something promising and pull it out only to realize that an incredibly valuable bottle was shattered at its mid-line. Other times we would spend the whole time searching and not coming away with much of anything except for maybe some sand-spurs on our jeans and a few average-quality bottles.

Much like my own life at the time, I had begun to wonder if the search was worth it. Was there anything lasting and meaningful to be found? Would the search ultimately end with a broken bottle?

The conversations we had during those times at the dump I won’t ever forget. We talked about so many different things, some serious, some trivial. Being at a bottle-dump seemed to allow us to talk about anything and everything. Hiding behind pretense doesn’t work well in a bottle graveyard. We told stories about our lives. We approached the scary questions I had about life. We talked about loneliness and friendship, sex and sadness, family and football, Jesus and glory. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those times together helped open my heart to hope and my eyes to beauty. The immobilizing questions of life I had seemed to lose a bit of their bite in my trips to the dump.

I can only recognize it now, but it rarely happens that when you go looking for something unique and meaningful that you find in it a single moment or in a single object. I recall that we didn’t usually come away with many rewarding finds from the dump, but that never really concerned us. I didn’t find a one-line answer to the concerns I had for my life during that time, but in hindsight, those times contributed to me discovering a deep sense of peace in Jesus and a recognition of the echos this world still has of Eden despite it often feeling like a dump.

Ande made it a habit of bringing bottles back with him. He would clean them and make them shine, even if they weren’t particularly special. He and his wife eventually arrayed them in such a way to create a beautiful mosaic-like shelving. Out of nothing particularly special, they had made something quite wonderful, and I can’t help but consider that Jesus does a similar thing in restoring and redeeming his people and arraying us in a beautiful way. He’s certainly in the business of entering into our grime, bloodying his hands of healing on our jagged edges, and bringing us— his friends—home.

This whole process of bottle-hunting and its resulting mosaic helped me understand something about the nature of friendship. Particularly, that most of the growth of friendship occurs in the mundane. It grows as we spend time together, doing simple things together, facing disappointments together, eating together, and telling stories together. Most of the big moments of friendship only happen because of the myriad of other little moments we’ve had with them. And while we may have some very valuable and intimate moments with those we care most deeply about, it’s often an ordinary but faithful routine with another that makes up the beautiful mosaic we share with them.

Looking back on it, it’s interesting to see how God has used friendships like these to alleviate some of my deepest concerns about life. Through human hands and the kind words of friends, I’ve grown to believe the promises of God more and have begun to see more clearly how he provides for us in both divine and human ways. I didn’t get an answer that instantaneously relieved my biggest doubts and fears at that time, but in Jesus, by his friendship with me and the friendship he granted to me in others, I discovered a beautiful and transcendent mosaic which birthed a hope I never expected to find while digging through a bottle dump.

 

The Long Defeat

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“Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass… Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.” – Samwise Gamgee


I’m often tempted to think that all the good things we fight for and try to hold onto are simply a fool’s errand. Like Samwise said, “how could the end be happy?” especially when it seems that despite our best attempts, evil and death still seem to have the upper hand. Sometimes we experience victory, but often those victories seem to be like a flickering candle in an otherwise overwhelming darkness. Faced with impossible situations, conditions, and relationships, we either give in to the darkness or keep holding on in hope.

The Long Defeat is a reoccurring theme in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, and it’s one that we might all be familiar with. When one evil dies, another seems to always inevitably take its place. When one tragedy is avoided, another always seems to loom on the edge. We’ve trained ourselves to think that if one door closes that another one must open, but sometimes we are simply stuck in a room with no more exits. Sometimes when a bad thing happens a good thing doesn’t come to fill in the gaps of our losses and heartaches and disappointments. Often we feel like Frodo and Sam during their journey to Mount Doom, pushing forward with only a flicker of hope on an exhausting path in a dark and decaying land.

We’re left wondering: when will the evil and suffering that surrounds us be finally and totally stamped out? When will we see good finally put evil in its permanent grave?

I hope soon.

As Sam goes on to say, “there’s some good in this world… And it’s worth fighting for.” Even in a long chain of lost battles, the darkness can’t squelch the fire we carry. The road may be battered and beaten and may seem to indicate it’s not even taking us anywhere, but still we go on fighting that good fight. We endure knowing that evil won’t always win, and that there is still good to fight for. As Tolkien said, “We all long for [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’.” And that exile will not always last, and that darkness will someday pass.

But still we go on waiting and holding on for the day when Jesus will come with healing in his wings and a sword from his mouth to bring restoration and justice to this sad, broken world. And I hope and pray for that moment when this long defeat of ours is at last met with a glorious and permanent victory.

A Universal Wound

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It is hard to ignore the volume of people in the Bible with wounds which were used for some end. God uses all sorts of people with all sorts of physical or spiritual maladies—people with limps in their legs , barren wombs, tragic diseases, and thorns in their sides. Similarly, look through the lives of Christians in the past and you are bound to discover wounds that never stopped bleeding in them. Flannery O’Connor had her lupus, Charles Spurgeon had his melancholy, Henri Nouwen had his loneliness, Samuel Rutherford had his grief. We each have particular wounds, but perhaps there is a wound that is common to us all.

I am (ideally) a quarter of my life through, and I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Why does it seem like there is no relief to certain longings of mine? Why is it that in my most meaningful and rich conversations with friends that I still find myself nostalgic over a conversation that was so recent? Why does loneliness exist in me even with really good friends at my side? Why do some days I feel immense joy in the mundane while others I feel an echoing emptiness? Why does it feel like there is a festering wound in my chest that on my worst days feels unbearable and on my best days simply dormant?

Kierkegaard and the writer of Ecclesiastes probably would have combined to say that this was the part of me that was aware of eternity but is constrained to the temporal, in other words: everything ends but I feel in the details of my life that I  was intended for something more… a life without ends. Friends go in and out of our lives. Work sometimes feels satisfying and then sometimes feels devoid of any meaning. And even after the most joyous moments in our lives we often begin to feel the melancholy of no longer existing in those moments. As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes said, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…” We look to the sky for heaven, a thing everlasting, and look back down to see that in everything else there is a beginning and an end. We look back with nostalgia on Eden while waiting eagerly for the New Jerusalem descending from the heavens in which in Jesus we will reside eternally.

This tension is like a wound in all of us, and all other wounds whisper of it. All pain, all death, all loneliness, all sadness feels abnormal to us. It is the way it should not be rather than the way it should. Rarely do we ask the question “Why did this have to happen?” in response to something good. As Timothy Keller once said, “how can we consider the world abnormal unless there is some standard above nature?” Similarly  Tolkien in one of his letters wrote:

“Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.”

We experience this sense of exile because we were once intended for something far greater than the sadness we currently experience. We long for the eternal intimacy with God and others that we once had. It is a wound we have all been dealt. But it is God who continues to use our wounds. To ignore them, to deny this great wound, is in a way to ignore the God that has entered into the tragedy of our condition to bring us back to the Tree of Life.

We are often so fixated on relieving this wound on our own that we attempt to try to numb it with all sorts of remedies that were never intended to fix a gash of such depth. An obsession with money, success, sex, romance, status, whatever it may be, we all try in different ways to alleviate the pain of what we once had. The rich young ruler inquired of Jesus what he might do to inherit eternal life and walked away with sadness at being told to give away all he had. The way to eternal life in Jesus was at odds with his own attempts at addressing his wound. It would have required the painful removal of the self-sutures already in place for a deeper healing to occur. It was Jesus who was frequently around those who had no way to ignore their infirmities: the lepers, the prostitutes, the lonely, the lame, the sinners. Those who knew their sickness all too clearly were the ones who often saw the permanent healing the Physician had to offer.

I imagine Kierkegaard (a quite wealthy man) may have had something like this on his mind when he said, “Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic if it is pulled out I shall die.” For him, this great melancholy within him forced him to wrestle with eternity. It rattled him and inclined him to imagine a life outside the bounds of the one he lived. He noticed the wound and realized his attempts at solving it on his own were futile to bring any serious healing. His great wisdom, his great wealth, none of it could bring satiety, and his wound reminded him of that. But rather than leading us to despair this wound can remind us that, as Paul said, “…this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

For Jesus to bring the healing of eternal life it took nothing less than bearing the horrible conclusion of this great tragedy and terrible wound.  George Herbert in “The Sacrifice” communicates this conclusion with Jesus speaking from the cross, “All ye who pass by, behold and see; Man stole the fruit, now I must climb the tree; A tree of life for all, but only me. Was ever grief like mine?” God uses our particular wounds for certain reasons, some which we may never know, but He used the wounding of his Son to bring healing to this festering, eternal wound of ours. At an infinite cost to Himself, this wound finally found its cure— though we still wait eagerly for that eternal weight of glory. In Him, this universal disease will not have the last word, and like Aragorn said after absorbing the wounds of his friends to rid them of their afflictions, “I came in time, and I have called him back… His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart…” 

 

 

Stargazing and the Dark Night of Dostoevsky

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I finished Crime and Punishment this last year, and although it took me a little less than an eternity to actually get through it, I’ve got to say, I haven’t appreciated a book like it in a long time. I was intrigued by the dread of sitting inside the mind of a neurotic. I was startled at how well the human heart was conveyed. I loved the slow but realistic redemption that takes place over the book’s pages and the lingering grace and loyalty of a certain character. But all in all, I ultimately loved that I could come to understand Fyodor Dostoevsky through the dialogue and content of the book. Here’s two of my favorite lines:

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

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“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

If you’re anything like me, then you will know that I tend to enjoy books once I understand a little of the author’s own life. If I can relate to them, chances are I will resonate with their books, so it’s a treat for me in the event that I read a book and feel as though the author has bled his own personal narrative into the words and pages of that novel. Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment is one of those instances.

Having read it, I was intrigued into what kind of life Dostoevsky must’ve had. I’m sure it wasn’t a pleasant one, but I knew the novel didn’t end in despair so maybe his life hadn’t. What I found between the book and his own life were some stark similarities in theme. Both contain extreme anguish, doubt, suffering but also, however ironically, a glimmer of hope.

His life didn’t kickoff pleasantly. Dostoevsky was son to a cruel father and to a mother who died of tuberculosis while he was young. In the two years following his mother’s death, his father passed away due to an apoplectic stroke. Also around that time, Dostoevsky’s first signs of epilepsy, that would plague him his entire life, had appeared.

In the following decade, amidst his declining health, eventual resignation from the military, and his pursuit of a life of writing, Dostoevsky was imprisoned and exiled for political reasons. It seems like something straight out of one his novels, but there came a moment that Dostoevsky was lined up in front of a firing squad which was stopped by a command from the Tsar apparently moments before the execution.

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After this point, Dostoevsky spent about another half-decade as an exile in a prison camp in torturous conditions without anything but his copy of the New Testament. Between all that’s been said already, the death of his first wife, the loss of his firstborn to his second wife, and his eventual agonizing death to epilepsy, Dostoevsky’s life seems to me nothing short of a nightmare.

But what I’ve found so interesting is not just the darkness of Dostoevsky’s life. No not at all. Though, I do think what is remarkable wouldn’t be as remarkable as it is without the darkened backdrop.

What’s truly intriguing to me is Dostoevsky’s clutching to the light of the stars amidst all the horrible darkness *. While doing some research on him, I stumbled on this quote which has resonated with me in more than a few ways:

“I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.

I don’t know if I’ve heard of such honesty and such faith in the words of a man, words that seem reminiscent of the man in Mark 9 who declared “I believe Lord, help my unbelief”.

Two things strike me in Dostoevsky’s words. One is his immense doubt that would lead him to declare that he would die “longing for faith”, and yet still he finds moments of peace in which “I love and believe that I am loved” – a statement which implicitly assumes great faith. And second, he doesn’t trust his own faith, but the one in whom his faith takes hold. The man seems captivated in these words. Christ has captured his greatest desires, “nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect”. It seems his head and heart are torn. When the rational doubts pull him one way, he knows on a desiring level that “there could be no one [else]”.  As Saint Augustine once said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” I’d like to think Dostoevsky tasted that rest and knew he’d never find it in anything else again, as much as his doubts nagged him otherwise.

I’m not surprised that the bold portion of that passage came last. Between the reasonable doubts that plague us because of the suffering, death, anguish, and darkness in this world and the faith granted to us that sets our eyes upon the beauty of Christ even in it all, Dostoevsky decidedly found rest in the latter. Like looking upon a midnight sky to discover the stars shine brighter only when the night is darker, Christ meets us in the darkness with his penetrating vibrancy, which had turned out for Dostoevsky [and myself] far more true and far more captivating than the darkness itself.

* Apparently, Dostoevsky would literally stargaze to combat his doubts.