I Assume the Worst

It is so easy for me to assume the worst. And it is frightening.

An unexpected event happened the other day. I was at work and my wife and 3 daughters were at the house. It was a rather normal day; somewhat cold yet warm enough for a winter’s rainstorm. At this point in the day it hadn’t begun raining too much, however.

2:30 in the afternoon at our house is a time of waking up or still being awake after neglecting to nap. Activities of playing, coloring, or reading are in full swing as laughter and the occasional bickering fill the house. This day, however, would be different.

My wife called me to alert me to a man – probably in his early 20’s or so – walking around our house. We live on a corner making access to viewing our house quite easy. He walked around to the front of the house and then back to the side with enough pause to gain a keen eye to the details of our house. As my wife insistingly beckoned my girls away from our back door, he began to walk up alongside our van and towards the door. My wife had been watching him from within the house, far enough from the windows that he couldn’t see her or the girls.

Yet as he walked up towards the house, he stopped and left. I told my wife to get off the phone with me and to call 911. Was he trying to break in? Was he going to steal our belongings? Could my family have been in grave danger and I would hear the whole thing over the phone and 30 minutes away? Was he leaving our house for another one down the street?

My wife kept me on the phone as she walked back towards the rear door. As she got closer, she noticed a package and a note left from the delivery man. This man walking around the house wasn’t the delivery man; he seemed to be eyeing the package and inspecting for life in the house. “No one home,” he must have thought, making the package his. What made him stop short? I’ll never know.

A few cops showed up and scoped out our neighborhood. My brother came over to check out everything. All in all, nothing much had actually occurred and my wife handled things much, much better than I. She wasn’t worked up or over-anxious about the acts of that day.

I couldn’t shake the images running through my head. Not only of my wife and children in a precarious situation at best and life threatening at worst, but what I would have/could have done had I been home. Part of my worry was if this man would return and the fact I wouldn’t be home that night till 11pm. I was – in some ways – stuck being 30-45 minutes away from home and there might be danger lurking and waiting for opportunity to strike.

I arrived at home that night just before 11. And it was now that things changed. My wife was already in bed awaiting my return. The kids were in bed sleeping soundly. Seeing them safe made real what had been foggily imagined in my head. My wife and I caught up on the day as we reviewed what had taken place. “He walked around the house…the package…the girls…” Her calm lucidity eased my troubled mind and heart.

Then she changed the whole situation. “What if he was trying to help? What if he saw the package on the back porch getting wet and wondered if he could put it on the front porch?” See our back patio/porch doesn’t have anything keeping the rain at bay. The front does. What if he wasn’t trying to steal the package but keep it safe for us? From the inside of the house the package wasn’t visible; you could only see it from the outside. What if as he walked closer, he heard the girls or saw my wife and realized it would get picked up?

What if instead of a threat he was a help? What if he was offering us hospitality instead of hostility?

It was at this point where Henri Nouwen began to echo in me.

In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it…Our heart might desire to help others: to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners and offer a shelter to travelers; but meanwhile we have surrounded ourselves with a wall of fear and hostile feelings, instinctively avoiding people and places where we might be reminded of our good intentions. (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p.69)

I had decidedly reacted in a manner where this man was the threat. The situation dictated this…right? The funny thing is that this Nouwen quote and the book it is taken from is something I’ve been teaching on for awhile now. In fact, this exact passage was something I honed in on specifically. I even wrote about it here.

These simple questions and wondering from my wife expose the reality of the situation: it is easier to teach than to live. Certainly, I have turned my hostility into hospitality towards others in different areas of my life, but as is the case with everything in life, I need to constantly repent and believe as I come to grips with my own blind spots. Learning to love isn’t a one time experience; it takes a life time.

Why did I automatically respond the way I did? What are my underlying assumptions? Why do they bend towards the worst and not something else? What do I actually value and believe? How do I honor the safety of my family without resorting to the violence I so easily assumed? What areas of my own life am I living out of fear and loneliness?

Questions like these force themselves to the forefront in moments like this. They teach me more about myself than I am sometimes willing to confront.

The more I ponder this whole situation the more I come to this conclusion: While he had the potential to steal our property, I had done worse: I had stolen his humanity. Even if it was only in my own head, this is what I had done. And this is what fear does. It keeps people at arm’s length and assumes the worst. It made me see him as a threat and not as a human being. In short, it keeps love caged up as my own possession for those whom I deem human, not those who actually are. In the end, it allows me to dehumanize myself.

It is so easy for me to assume the worst. And it is frightening.

A or B?: A Few Thoughts on Discernment and Decision Making

“A good journey begins with knowing where we are and being willing to go somewhere else.” – Richard Rohr

For several months now, my wife and I have been praying, thinking, and discussing with friends and family regarding a potential shift. Not only the possibility of a move in geography and locale, but one of occupation as well. It has been a long, developing set of circumstances filled with doubt and frustration, joy and laughter, bewilderment and irony. This past week brought some conclusion to this time as I have accepted a position with a company here in Syracuse.

While traversing this time in liminal land, we have had to deal with times of disorientation as we wondered what was around each corner. For us as a family, it was a much deeper and concerning time as we now are not only responsible for ourselves as a married couple, but also for our 3 children. In many ways, the decisions we were facing had the potential to alter the trajectory and direction our family has been headed. For us, it is imperative to filter our own longings through the interrelated grids of community, incarnation, and mission.

Through it all, we knew discernment had to permeate all we did. This wasn’t a task we took lightly as it had/has enough inherent force to change how things play out in the future.

We are by no means experts in any of these things, but I’d like to share a few lessons we’ve come across and implemented through this particular season.

Discernment

Community Discussion

We knew through it all we could not and should not pretend we could make it alone. The lie of autonomy is exactly that: a lie. We have been taught in many ways that independence is a higher value and aspiration than interdepedence. Whether it be engrained in us implicitly or explicitly, the modern imagination has been shaped by power, prestige, and self-importance. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with the illusion of autonomy and the good life it purports. The interdependent life sees these and names them as antithetical to its very existence. Postures of humility, mutuality, and vulnerability are the hallmarks of interdependency and run counter-intuitive to our individualistic mindsets.

So, we tried our best to incorporate not only our thoughts on things along with the thoughts and feelings of others. We began with our family and closest friends, along with co-workers and neighbors. Knowing our decisions would have effects on people beyond ourselves, we deemed it necessary to include the voices of those we are tethered to. Through their input, we were able to discern gifts, talents, possibilities, and the ripple effects of potential decisions. For this we are/were extremely grateful.

The next step, however, was to begin to talk with those outside of our closest circles. In many ways, those who are not too familiar with the ins and outs of our existence can give us eyes to things we don’t see. Those closest to us are invaluable, but there are communal blind-spots we share that an outside perspective illuminates. As I began to talk with friends across the country, I was able to gain insights I wouldn’t have gained otherwise. They poked and prodded in ways our friends and family here couldn’t.

If you can, I suggest you look at both of these circles in your own life and ask how they can open your eyes to things you may not even be aware are present.

Stage of life

Discerning our stage in life was vital. We have been married for 7.5 years and have attempted to live as simply as we can. In some seasons this has been easy; in others, a bit more difficult. I was 24 when we were married, 25 when I started my Masters, and by 26 we had our first daughter. Those first two years of marriage we were both working full-time and had plenty of time, money, and energy. However, the past 5 years has given us 3 daughters and time, money, and energy have been found wanting.

Dreams and aspirations change as the seasons of our life change. The things I was chasing after have taken drastic twists and turns. With each new child, those potential endeavors and passions have changed as life has become more about family and less about Scott. Even within the past 5 years of having children, each successive child brought new challenges and opportunities. What I saw as necessary when I was 25, I now have been able to bury in the ground. Paradoxically, life has still emerged and emerged all the more beautifully.

So, for us, determining what stage of life we were in was a must as we came to decisions. There is a whole new set of questions we have to be asking as we form answers to what directions things might move in. They are different for everyone, but I suggest you prayerfully reflect upon them and your current stage of life.

Prayer

I know. For many, this is a given. Still, for many others, it is a given in thought, not in reality. I was certainly in the latter camp for a long, long time. It is interesting – and somewhat embarrassing – that it takes tough times to truly turn to God. Desperation has a funny way of tearing down our arrogance and providing the framework necessary to realize our finiteness. God is a being of participation, rather it be small or large decision. As Ruth Haley Barton says,

As strange as it may sound, desperation is a really good thing in the spiritual life. Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for. Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity, for they know that their life depends on it. (Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p. 30)

The longer we prayed about our potential change, the more we became open to whatever God had for us. As the Richard Rohr quote above states, we were becoming ever-increasingly willing to go somewhere else. Rather ironically, our “going somewhere else” will take place in our staying put geographically.

And this leads me to perhaps the weightiest part of this all.

Decision Making

I’ll be with you regardless.

There is a strong idea, perhaps even a doctrine, embedded within many Christian communities regarding God’s will. It has several variations, but essentially goes something like this: “God has a wonderful plan for your life and as long as you’re in the center of God’s will, you will be blessed.” Have you heard this before?

I have had numerous conversations with people who have heard this. They were facing decisions with tectonic shift-like power and were ruminating on some permutation of the aforementioned Christian axiom.

Now, hear me: I’m not saying this statement is inherently evil nor are those who perpetuate it. I have said it, believed it, encouraged it, and acted upon it. However, as of late, I have come to the conclusion that I have no idea what it means.

Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s my inexperience. Maybe it’s my faith.

Regardless, my worry is that it has created more confusion than clarity. For those whom I have spoken with who were wrestling with the ramifications of “being in God’s will” there was a paralysis brought upon them by this belief. It’s as if there is either A or B and you must choose and choose wisely or else. There is no “both” because they are typically seen as mutually exclusive and singular in their pathways. As such, there is a visceral fear of making the wrong choice in regards to God’s will and finding God is blatantly absent from our lives due to it. (Obviously, there are decisions we make that are outside of the life and kingdom Jesus beckons us into. The thought here is central to decisions decidedly not of that nature.)

In place of this fear, we have found freedom in finding God’s presence in both A and B. Recently, we were reminded, “God made humans, not robots.” Again, it is one thing to understand this; it is another to embody it. Yet, the beauty of God’s love is its allowance for choice.

God is infinitely patient. He will not push himself into our lives. He knows the greatest thing he has given us is our freedom. If we want habitually, even exclusively, to operate from the level of our own reason, he will respectfully keep silent. We can fill ourselves with our own thoughts, ideas, images, and feelings. He will not interfere. But if we invite him with attention, opening the inner spaces with silence, he will speak to our souls, not in words or concepts, but in the mysterious way that Love expresses itself – by presence. – M. Basil Pennington

I firmly believe we would do well to crack the illusion of both God’s non-involvement in our lives and God’s commandeering of our wills. We have certainly found the grace of God in the tension of earnestly praying for his will to be done all the while knowing it was our decision to make. As we have decided, we have rested in his promise of “I’ll be with you regardless.”

What about you? What has aided you in discernment and decision making?

There is a lot more to be said. What am I missing?

I’d love to hear your story.

Love Your Neighbor: It Isn’t Hate; It’s Fear.

https://i1.wp.com/www.folkart-crafts.org/images/neighbors.gif

There has been a push happening for awhile now. For many, the perpetuation of isolated people, anonymously living their lives next door to one another needs to end. This push back into the neighborhood has come due to the cultural insistence on privacy, individualism, and overall autonomy (among others). Where estrangement has flourished, many are seeking to replace it with intimacy and interconnectedness.

Over the past several years, I have wondered if our tendencies toward isolation and individualism stem from fear not hatred. I say fear because for the most part, I don’t find too many who actually hate their neighbor. If they do, it seems this hatred is an outcome of fear. In other words, they hate because they fear, not the other way around.

Fear of our norm being interrupted. Fear of having to be vulnerable. Fear of the unknown. Fear of finding an unknown ally. The list goes on.

Fear is an interesting thing. Many of our fears are steeped in cultural stories; things we have deemed the normative “big” things to be fearful of. Thieves, rapists, car accidents, muggings, and the like plague and dominate our imaginations. Perhaps we have become a culture marked by fear because we are primarily marketed at in fear. Oddly enough, studies have shown that crime rates have actually declined, yet the reporting of crime has steeply ascended. This paradox has given credence to our efforts in self-protection while allowing us to remain hostile towards others.

As Nouwen says, “In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it.” It seems we have allowed our fears of the “big” things to permeate our views of the neighbor, coworker, and stranger featured in our everyday occurrences. This isn’t necessarily a cognizant reaction, yet when our imaginations are shaped by stories of threat and danger carried out by strangers, it is easy to carry these attitudes and practices over into our neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places.

In response, then, we build walls – be they literal or figurative – keeping hostile others out and ourselves in.

Yet, many of us might not believe we live in fear of others. There is no visceral emotion or attitude showing itself as fear. At first glance this may seem true, but taking a look at the actual practices we employ, it doesn’t take long to realize how embedded fear actually is.

There are three aspects of fear I want to point out in particular. Three points that often go unnoticed, but are vital. Vital because if Jesus tells us and shows us how to love our neighbors – and even our enemies – we need to be reflective and aware of how we might be replacing love with fear. Real life is a life of love, not fear; after all, perfect love casts out fear.

1. Fear does not only separate us from others, it allows us to dissect others.

Fear gives us a myopic vision of others where we cut up people into atomized versions of themselves. Rather than seeing others holistically, we pinpoint the qualities we deem necessary to fear them. We don’t see others with both their gifts and problems; we tend to selectively view them for their delinquencies and ills.

Our coworker isn’t a gifted teacher; in fear, she is primarily a gossip. The neighbor across the street isn’t a gracious gardener; in fear, he is the loudmouth who lets everyone know he was out late every Friday night. A spouse isn’t a partner and lover; in fear, he is a prideful manipulator waiting for you to mess up.

In short, fear gets us off the hook of lovingly seeing and participating with whole people. Permission is given to divide them up into the good, bad and ugly while living as if the bad and ugly exist alone. We do this because if others are essentially their most deviant selves – their problems/deficiencies – we don’t have to love them. They are a danger and must be kept at an arm’s length, at best.

In fact, I wonder if we don’t dissect others out of fear of finding ourselves in them. If we can keep the dividing lines alive and well through atomization, there will always be the “us” and “them”, not the “we”. Fear enables us to reject any possibility of finding a like-minded brother or sister. After all, who wants to find a brother and sister in a supposed stranger?

I have seen this over and over again – especially within myself – with those I’m most familiar with. It does happen with the actual stranger, but more often than not, it happens within the relationships that effect my everyday. Focus must be brought to the daily, mundane, humdrum of life for that is where we actually exist.

2. Fear does not only allow us to dissect others, it allows us to blindly deny our own complicity in ugliness and evil.

Fear permits us to lay the blame at the feet of others as we walk away innocent. It allows us to play the victim card in a world full of agitators and thugs. The problems of the neighborhood, workplace, and family are not our own, they are the product of and responsibility of others.

As long as the ailments of our world can be found in others, we will not be accountable for fixing them. Those who need correction are those who are not us. Expectations can be projected across the street or over the cubicle wall as long as they don’t reverberate back on us. Peter Block talks of projection and accountability in his brilliant book Community: The Structure of Belonging

Projection denies the fact that my view of the ‘other’ is my creation, and this is especially true with how we view our communities and the people in them. Most simply, how I view the other is an extension of being accountable. To be accountable is to act as an owner and creator of what exists in the world, including the light and dark corners of my own existence. It is the willingness to focus on what we can do in the face of whatever the world presents to us. Accountability does not project or deny; accountability is the willingness to see the whole picture that resides within, even what is not so pretty. (p 57)

3. Fear does not only keep us from being accountable, it allows for the continuation of the status quo.

If you are like me, you have plenty of grandiose ideas. The problem becomes when they interrupt the established rhythms I’ve created over the years. Behind these walls I’ve built between myself and others lies my comfortable, personal world which has taken years to establish.

This world is full of preoccupations keeping me distant from my neighbors. Nouwen states,

Preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same, and it often seems that we prefer a bad certainty to a good uncertainty. (Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 74)

For many of us, myself included, it is this fear of the unknown, the uncertain, which keeps us holed up in isolation. Our neighbors might interrupt our entertainment plans in front of our big screens; our hurting coworker might stop my efficiency and money producing; my child might steal my sleep.

Rather than reaching out in love, we hide away in fear of our precious timelines, agendas, and show times. The way to change is pushing through these self-imposed comforts and to allow revolutionary breakthroughs to emerge.

So, I ask, how has fear taken root in your life? Are you dissecting others? Have you turned a blind eye to your own ugliness? Do you protect your status quo at all costs?

Or am I way off base? Is it hatred – or something else – not fear?

I’d love to hear your story.

Image: Johnnie Swearingen (Brenham, TX). Neighbors, 1989. (Source)