Speaking the same language

Our family attended Come From Away at the Washington Pavilion last month. This award-winning Broadway musical tells the story of 7,000 people stranded in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, after all flights into the US were grounded on September 11, 2001. We were surprised at how exhilarating and heartwarming it was – it packed an emotional punch as we felt the confusion and fear in the residents of Gander and the people stranded far from home. But it also had hilarious moments, and it exuded hope in the power of kindness and hospitality even in our darkest moments.

I had forgotten how quickly distrust between people mounted after 9/11. With the dust of 20 years blanketing my memories, I thought it had taken weeks or even months for people of different ethnic backgrounds to experience hostility against them. Come From Away blew off that dust when it showed a crowd of angry people yelling at Ali, the Middle Eastern chef from Egypt. Only a day or two into being stranded in Gander, Ali was speaking Arabic to his family back home when people in line to use the phone started accusing him: “Are you celebrating this?” “Why doesn’t he speak English?” “Are you telling your Muslim friends where to bomb next?” “Go back where you came from!”

This production did not ignore the uglier reactions people had in response to 9/11.

But it also showed equally powerfully people’s ability to respond with decency and compassion. Balancing the scene where Ali encountered hatred, there’s a scene where Garth, a bus driver from Gander, was driving Muhumuza and other passengers on a flight from Africa to one of the shelters for those who were stranded. None of Garth’s passengers could speak English and, in the darkness of night, Muhumuza and the others mistook the Salvation Army camp for a military complex. They were terrified and refused to get off the bus. How would Garth explain to them that they were safe and would be cared for there?

While trying to figure out how to put his passengers at ease, Garth noticed Muhumuza’s wife was clutching a Bible and asked to see it. Although he couldn’t read Swahili, Garth knew their Bible would have the same number system as his English Bible. Finding the spot he was looking for, Garth gave the Bible back to Muhumuza and his wife, pointing and saying, “Look! Philippians 4:6! ‘Be anxious for nothing. Be anxious for nothing.’”

And that’s how Garth and Muhumuza started speaking the same language.

It was a beautiful scene of one person finding a creative way to care for another person very different than himself, someone with a foreign culture and language. And, perhaps completely unintentional on the part of the writers, it was a beautiful reminder of the Gospel’s ongoing power to unite people and dispel fear even in the darkest moments.

I wrote this for this week’s Perspectives column
in The Rock Valley Bee.

Fear not

If you research what the most basic emotions are, you get a whole bunch of different answers. Some psychologists say it’s just fear, love, and rage, and that each of our other emotions is a subcategory under one of those three. Other psychologists have a much longer list of what comprises our most basic emotions. But for the majority of Image of fear found via Googlepsychologists, fear is prominent on their list.

Some of our fears are external: We’re afraid of circumstances on the horizon that will be out of our control. We fear being personally assaulted or getting caught up in a terrorist attack on our city. Or maybe at the moment we’re only afraid of what the boss or teacher will say about our project not getting done on time.

A lot of our fears are internal. We’re afraid of not having enough money, of not keeping up with the Joneses. We fear what other people think of us and our material possessions. We have fears connected with intimacy, life purpose, physical appearances, health, and change.

What aren’t we afraid of? Our hearts and minds are filled with fear!

This time of year, we’re once again integrating the Christmas story into our fear-filled lives. It struck me afresh these past few weeks how often the command “Fear not” appears in the Bible texts connected with Christmas. The angel says to Zechariah: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.”  The same angel says to Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” To the shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, the angel says: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” I especially like the angel’s words to Joseph: “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

It’s appropriate to hear God’s messengers comfort people in the Christmas story because at Christmas we’re celebrating the arrival of the One who says most convincingly, “Do not be afraid.” To use Jesus’ actual words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

We receive and experience Jesus’ peace as His Holy Spirit works in us. The angel said to Joseph that “what is conceived in [Mary] is Happy New Year 2014 image found via Googlefrom the Holy Spirit.” I think that’s part of the Christmas and New Year’s message for us, too: What is conceived in you and me this season and for 2014 is from the Holy Spirit. What have we to fear? The Spirit is present and will be at work in you and me all year long.

PS: Shout out to Leah! Thanks for your encouragement!

Fearless

My daughter, son, wife and I have travelled on airplanes literally more times than we can remember.  Although our children don’t, Monica and I remember flying prior to 9/11.  Going through security was a quicker process, even on international flights.  We recall when we had to begin taking our off our footwear after the “Shoe Bomber” incident.  Then water bottles were outlawed when the British police uncovered a terrorist plot involving liquid explosives.  Now the latest thing is seeing the body scanners, though no one in our family has had the pleasure of taking one for a spin yet.

Countless security enhancements later and people still fear flying.  (Some complain that they are now more frightened by the loss of freedom and the invasiveness of current security procedures than they are of terrorist threats!)  Will enforcing more scanning, screenings, and scrutiny ever get us back to a place where we flew without much worry prior to 9/11?

I continue ruminating on words that Wayne Boldt spoke (“The Day the World Changed”) at Moose Jaw Alliance Church a few weeks ago.  He said:

“9/11 reminded us that the illusions we have of security in this world are just that – illusions.”

I’m not about to advocate for foolish naïveté, but I wonder how much of our attempts at security only reveal how tightly we’re holding on to things of this world.  Moreover, when do our security measures cross the line from being prudent to becoming an indicator that we’re not putting our trust in God?  Would we be less obsessed with feeling secure if we remembered more often that we’re always held in our heavenly Father’s hands?  No, that doesn’t keep bad things from happening from us, but it gives us confidence and peace in knowing that when those bad things happen, we are not alone.

And that gives me a peace of mind that even the most sophisticated security system can never match.

Conspiracy theory

While on holidays in Abbotsford, I joined my dad, my brother, a friend of my brother’s, and my future nephew-in-law on a fishing trip.  We plied the waters of the Fraser River between Mission and Chilliwack, north of Sumas Mountain, our lines baited for sturgeon.  We even caught (and released) a few – and that’s no fish story!

While waiting for fish to take the bait, we talked about conspiracy theories – the big ones like those that allege the manned flights to the moon were a hoax and that 9/11 was an inside job.  I wrote about the death of Osama Bin Laden the other day; his burial at sea has now sparked a whole new batch of conspiracy theories.  Some people will tell you that Bin Laden is actually hiding in plain sight somewhere in the US, working at a fast food restaurant or corner store!

Call me naïve, but I think conspiracy theories are just overgrown fish stories perpetuated by peoples’ fears of secretive things that exist just beyond their comprehension.  As Dal Tackett once observed, these fears isolate people because they can trust no one; everyone is a suspect for being part of the conspiracy!  In worst case scenarios, these paranoid fears can be debilitating, preventing people from leaving their homes and living normal lives.


I can think of at least one preferable alternative to holding on to fear-filled conspiracy theories.

In one of the better episodes of Star Trek: Voyager called “The Voyager Conspiracy,” Seven of Nine becomes convinced that the starship Voyager was stranded in the faraway Delta Quadrant as part of a huge conspiracy.  Her evidence is compelling, and her crewmates begin suspecting one another of treason.  When Capt. Janeway discovers the errors in Seven’s conclusions, the captain is finally able to convince Seven of the truth not by presenting yet more evidence, but by appealing to the trust that has been building in their relationship.
I prefer trust over fear.

Yes, I realize that there are sinister people in the world hatching sinister plots and we ought not to be careless.  But that doesn’t mean I have to question the motives or results of every single action taken by the government or the local police or my friends or my family.  I’d rather assume I can trust the people and institutions I know and occasionally be disappointed when I find out they lied to me than assume I cannot trust anyone and be occasionally surprised when I’ve been told the truth about a matter.

After all, if I cannot trust anyone or anything, then I’ll be ruled by fear.  And if there’s one command that is often repeated in the Bible, it’s “Do not fear.”  To quote Dal Tackett:

God’s people are not to fear the world or the things in the world, including the flesh or the Enemy.  The only One we are to fear is God.  And for the child of God, this is a healthy fear… a comforting fear.  For He is our Father… our good and loving Father, who will bring us through all of the trials and tribulations and troubles of this world to a home that He has prepared for us.

If that doesn’t convince you, consider these words, straight from the prophet Isaiah as found in Scripture:

The LORD spoke to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people.
He said:
Do not call conspiracy everything that
—– these people call conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear, 
—– and do not dread it.
The LORD Almighty is the One you are to
—– regard as holy,
He is the one you are to fear,
—– He is the one you are to dread,
—– and He will be a sanctuary…”

And if that doesn’t convince you, I’m not sure what else to do except to leave you with your fish stories.

Credit:
The cartoon above was found via a Google images search for “conspiracy theory cartoon.”

Fear and change

I spoke about our fears this past Easter Sunday and how Jesus’ victory over death puts our fears in perspective, especially our fear of dying.  The next day, this was the reading in Forward Day by Day based on Matthew 28:9-15

I once conducted a service of worship shortly after Easter for the patients of a mental hospital. I began by asking the congregation, mostly patients, what they thought the first words spoken by Jesus when he returned to the disciples might have been. They answered, “Do not be afraid.”

Those who are ill in the way that those patients were know with a certain instinct what the words of life are. When the struggle for existence has defeated you, you withdraw into fear: fear of enemies in the far distance; fear of “them;” even fear of yourself. Life is lived in terms of suspicion, never of trust.

We all exist on a continuum, I think, with those patients; we are all somewhat ill. Jesus comes and wipes away our fear. For many of us it is the fear of being wrong, the fear that we will be less than we thought we were, the fear that we will fail and our dreams come to nothing. If we will hear his words and trust him, then we can start again, this time on the basis of a sure hope, never again because we are afraid.

Jesus comes and wipes away our fears.  The result: We should expect to be changed.  And that connects with something Neil deKoning writes at the CRC’s Network I just read…

…The [Good Friday and Easter] story we tell was not intended to simply give us a wonderful celebration 2000 years later. Jesus came to bring change. Forgiveness, reconciliation, new life, and the power of resurrection are descriptions of change. The way of the cross is a description of change. We believe that in this way God brings redemption into our lives…

What does this mean for our ministry? What change ought we be praying for – not in general but in the particulars of our members and in our community? If Jesus said the way to transform lives and communities is through the power of the cross and the victory of the resurrection, what impact ought that have on the way we do ministry among the members?

Just asking the questions forces us to consider our ministry. Do we have a vision of change that is born out of our understanding of work of Jesus? Do we believe that confession and forgiveness, that self-sacrificial love, that the Emmaus Bible study (Luke 24), that obedient suffering are in fact transformational practices of the Christian life? Do we believe that communities bound in unity to Christ serving Christ can deeply impact community life?

Change is not easy. I look at the trouble of our communities and the struggles of community development and I see countless obstacles. But I notice that God in his ministry of changing the world went to the cross. It was the only way. If this is what God did, there is wisdom in seeking to follow that path…

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”  How does that change you?  How will that change the way you interact with your family and neighbours?