Living with Fear and Anxiety

Living with fear and anxiety

I’ve been trying and failing to come up with any analogous time period in my life to what we are currently living through. I was twenty-one when September 11th happened, and for a time things felt strange and uncertain, but it seemed that people rapidly got back to normal for the most part, and adjusted to the new normal that was living with constant war that is now stretching into its 19th year. There was fear and speculation the year before that about what would happen at the turn of the century. People were stockpiling for the Y2K breakdown of civilization. I had just turned twenty at that point.

Perhaps it was being a young adult that made all of that seem unlikely. I’ve never really felt invincible per se but I definitely feel more vulnerable now. And while we’ve lived through outbreaks and things before, none of them have in our lifetime approached the scale of what we are dealing with right now.

There’s no road map, no place we can build a web of understanding, no idea of how long it will take for things to go back to normal. I can feel the anxiety in my chest, like a weight around my heart.

Like a good Episcopalian I turned to the prayer book for solace and then remembered there is no prayer for mass sickness, I already looked like last week. My husband was over here last night helping draft responses for our region to the pandemic and he remarked he’d had to look to the 1928 prayer book for a prayer that fits our situation.

That prayer book, or course, was finalized just a decade after the 1918 “spanish” flu pandemic. It seems the drafters of the 1979 prayer book thought we were past pandemics when they left out a version for that.

I was talking with my aunt yesterday about family history. Apparently the women on my grandmother’s side (several of whom were named Anna, yay!), for multiple generations kept family records and as my aunt was going through them, she was struck by how close death had touched all of them. Of course it touches all of us, but not as often as it did. Most of them lost babies. Many of them had mothers who had died in childbirth, husbands who had died young, and so on. We’ve made so many medical advances and progress with vaccines that I think it’s easy to forget just how recently in human progress the mortality rates were much higher just on a regular basis, never mind in a time of great sickness.

Reading history is one thing, living through it with no firm end date is something completely different.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes read spoilers for tense television shows or movies or read the ends of books really fast if I can’t handle the tension of not knowing how the story turns out. I’ve done that less lately, but I’ve definitely not traditionally been good with suspense.

And in this moment we are living in, the suspense is unable to be mitigated and I feel the anxiety rising, I hear the fear that people are masking.

And the temptation is to go pull a verse from the Bible that is comforting. Perhaps a verse like Romans 8:28 “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

But there’s not much consolation there because we all know people who love God and things haven’t worked out for good no matter how many contortions you pull to try to make it seem so. Taking that verse out of its context is like trying to put a band-aid on a stab wound when it comes to stemming the tide of fear in this moment. Rather I think comfort comes from that context where after describing all manner of hardships: “…distress or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” the writer goes on to say, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).

The call, friends, is to go deeper. Not to try to convince ourselves or anyone else that it will all be “okay” simply because “God is on the throne.” But to go deeper and say even when really terrible things happen, nothing can separate us from the love of God. No matter what happens, God is holding on to you even when you can’t always feel God’s presence.

And if God is promising the gift of presence in our darkest hour, I think we have our marching orders. We are to be present for each other through this. We are to hold on to one another (from our separate quarantines of course), and listen to whatever fear or anxiety needs to be named. Pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away nor does trying to carry it all on one’s own.

It’s strange, but even if you and I are both carrying similar loads, helping each other with them makes them both seem lighter.

Perhaps this time too in the middle of Lent we find comfort in the remembrance that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But we’re dust that’s held in God’s hand. And in this there is comfort.

And remember to breathe. It’s strange, but sometimes we forget. Our shoulders get all hunched up, and our breathing gets shortened. It helps to physically straighten up, relax our shoulders, close our eyes and concentrate on our breath. Feel it going in and out, all the way to the bottom of our lungs. These breaths are all gifts, receive them.

In Time of Great Sickness and Mortality.
O MOST mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succour. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(BCP 1928)

Instructions for Living in Exile

Instructions for Living in Exile

I once had dinner with an evangelical friend, one I doubt will even see this as he has since “unfriended” me in the wake of that sieve which 2016 election has turned out to be. He was mocking the environmental conservation movement and said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s all gonna burn anyway.” Needless to say I was shocked and I believe I came back with thoughts on stewardship meaning care of creation but my recent meditation on Jeremiah 29:11 highlighted this conversation anew.

For those of you lucky enough to not have grown up with this, there’s this idea–more than idea, almost core theology as there are sermons and songs a-plenty around this–that we are only passing through “this world.” Somehow our status as Christians means we are now no longer residents of this world and therefore removed from it in a way that Scripture never really intended.

Metaphors of resident aliens and exile abound and yet while many that subscribe to this narrow and damaging worldview cling to Jeremiah 29:11 as a life verse, they seemed to have missed the instructions for exile that are found in the chapter that surround it.

You see as I noted in Life Verses and the End of the World, the context of the future and the hope that is promised in Jeremiah 29:11 is that they will be in exile for seventy years. While this is not good news (this is a safe conclusion as 1) it’s exile and 2) Jeremiah assures them that God does have plans for their future), they are called to build a life, to grow and thrive where they did not want to be planted. And then there’s this: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7 NRSV). Even if you want to subscribe to a strict exile metaphor for the Christian life you can’t say that care for the people and creation around us isn’t part of that exile.

Now, I don’t subscribe to that metaphor as it’s trying to force a historical reality onto a current one as though that story was an allegory and it’s not. Can we learn from it? Yes. Can we force a narrative of Christians as the “new” Israel? No. And we can’t do that for many reasons, the most important being, there is still both a nation of Israel and a Jewish people. That opens up a whole different discussion, but I thought it needed to be noted in this context.

This is yet another example of the dangers of what I’m calling extractive theology. It goes beyond the concept of proof-texting in that I believe it is tied to philosophies and mythologies that have helped create a version of Christianity in America that is more American than in is Christian. From manifest destiny to the prosperity gospel, American Christians have extracted what they thought they had rights to, using scripture as an rationale to take what they wanted: land, people, resources, and so forth with no regard to the consequences on shalom or mutual thriving of people in creation. And sure, you can find words in the Scripture that if you yank them out of context would seem to give one permission to do all those things. That’s why we can’t just take scriptures and try to jam scenarios into our current moment to provide rationales, and this is why it is dangerous to read the Bible both on our own as individuals outside of community and to read just the Bible without any understanding of the context it was in so we can get a feel for the overarching intent.

If an action doesn’t lead to mutual thriving and care of creation, it’s safe to say that the arcs of Scripture don’t support it as they all lead to justice and liberation as we move closer to the Kingdom of God.

Extractive Theology

Extractive Theology

The past 5 weeks or so I’ve been participating in a cross-class dialogue circle lead by Equity Solutions. A few weeks ago, one of our homework assignments was to read a zine called “From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring” that discusses practices of an extractive economy. It looks at the various ways that both people and the planet have been misused in service of making money. From clear-cutting (which turns a renewable resource into a non-renewable resource) to genocide and slavery, an economy that views accumulation (and consolidation of weath) as its end goal will extract whatever it needs to get there. Extractive industries seek deregulation because it allows them to accumulate wealth faster. And by “them” I mean primarily the top executives. Extractive industries like coal extract both from the planet and from the very lives of the people doing the work in a very real and visible way, but many industries are extractive in that they don’t pay their base workers a living wage and people are going without health care and mental health care trying to make ends meet.

In this, these industries are extracting their profits from the very lives of their base employees in order to create and consolidate wealth at the top. And people are trapped within this system because the alternative is starvation and homelessness.

With all this sitting in the back of my mind as I contemplate what economic justice looks like, it occured to me as I look at American Christianity, that the practices that allow people calling themselves followers of Jesus to come to some really bad conclusions are by nature extractive theology.*

Extractive theology allows pastors and congregations to take things not only out of context (proof-texting) and to come to Scripture with their own preconceptions wholly unexamined, looking for a “Biblical” rationale for their beliefs (eisegesis), but it allows them to marry those practices and create an entire pseudo-theological framework that looks on the whole very unlike the savior it claims to follow.

I’ve used this term a few times in tweets and in last week’s blog post, and I’m working on a loose series of posts, some of which are already scheduled. I want to explore both concepts around American Christianity (because this is my context, there are certainly other iterations of this in different places in the world) and my own story coming out of an American Christian background. I’m going to use the two words “American Christianity” together consistently to talk about this brand of Christianity because it crosses some denominational lines and isn’t exactly articulated anywhere, though there are certainly more explicit examples available, but it often lives in the negative space of what is articulated. But just as any large shadow is cast by a large object, sometimes looking at the shadow and where it comes from it absolutely vital.

And if you watch Doctor Who, you know to pay very close attention to the shadows, because if you don’t, the shadows will literally eat you (Silence in the Library).

*I came up with this term as you see above and I hadn’t seen it anywhere before but while I created the hashtag #extractivetheology, I did find a reference where it occurs in a book called Rooted and Grounded: Essays on Land and Christian Discipleship. I think I’ll have to pick that up because the google books preview is incomplete and I don’t know if they mean what I mean by the term, so it’ll be interesting to find out.