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I KNOW FEAR!

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. –Franklin D. Roosevelt

I know fear!  Fear is a main actor in my life.  At this moment I can see fear patiently waiting off-stage, smiling that certain smile, waiting for the cue to step forward onto the center stage that is my heart and soul.  We both know the cues that will summon fear; we both know that I will offer the cue; we both know that fear will not miss the cue.  I know, have learned, the many reasons why fear and I have been teamed up for this life-play called ‘Richard.’

‘The Book,’ especially the New Testament, reveals to me that God’s most persistent command is not about sex or even violence; it is about fear.  ‘Be not afraid!’ is the single line most repeated in the Gospels.  How many people in the Gospels are told ‘Be not afraid!’ — almost all of them (at least it feels this way to me).  Mary is told, ‘Do not be afraid. . .’; Joseph is told, ‘Do not be afraid. . .’; Zacharias is told, ‘Do not be afraid. . .’; Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, announces that God is visiting his people so that we ‘might serve him without fear’; The shepherds are told, ‘Do not be afraid. . .’; my list could go on.

Their fear, like my fear, is the most daunting obstacle to these good people carrying out God’s will.  In fact, no other obstacle is mentioned; none seems to fit the situation like fear does.  By the by, the examples I just mentioned above all occur within the first two chapters of the Gospels.

When I act with fear in my heart and soul the effects are quite painful – for me and for others.  The Gospels also relate to us some of the effects of fear.  Here are a few of them: Fear keeps Herod from rejoicing in the newborn Savior; Fear keeps Nicodemus from following Jesus in the light of day; Fear keeps the Pharisees from dealing openly with Jesus; Fear keeps the disciples from recognizing Jesus as he walks on the water; Fear keeps Peter from continuing his walk on water; Fear leads the apostles to abandon Jesus when he is arrested; Fear keeps Peter from affirming his relationship with Jesus.

Don DeLillo asks: How is it no ones sees how deeply afraid we were last night, this morning?  Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent?

 Far more than I would like to admit, Fear is the motivation behind my actions.  I am fearful of losing friends; I am fearful of not having enough income producing work; I am afraid of disappointing others – especially my close friends and my children; I am fearful of looking ignorant.  The different types of folks I have been fearful of would fill this page.  Most of all, I fear myself.  I fear my anger and rage.  I fear my being alone.  I fear dying a bitter man.  I fear my lack of will and at the same time I fear my will.  I fear the darkness, the evil that resides deep within me – and that at times pokes its head out (or its tongue).  Oddly, I do not feel hopeless.  The fact that the Gospels (to say nothing of the other scripture writings) are crammed full of fear-full people; and the fact that, over and over again, the admonishment of ‘Be not afraid!’ is stated so clearly gives me pause and hope.

When I call fear into my heart and soul from off-stage I know that I am not open to God’s guidance – at times, I call fear forth because I do not want to hear or be open to God’s guidance.  I am also aware that my anger is a cover for my fear; when I reflect upon why I was angry I generally identify the root as being one of fear.

Not all fears, of course, are ‘bad.’  Healthy fear enables me to lock the door to my apartment at night.  Healthy fear enables me to ‘keep my mouth shut and my tongue silent’ in certain situations.  Joseph’s fear of taking Mary as his wife was well-founded given the context of the times – he had good reason to be afraid.  This reminds me that sometimes God calls me to engage something that is truly fear-full.  But with God’s guidance and grace I can choose not to be led or fed by that fear; I can choose to act as if God knows what God is about.  Ahhh….this is so difficult for me to do.

Even as I type these words I can see fear, standing off-stage, smiling that smile, waiting for the cue to enter the stage of my heart and soul….Not so fast, sparky!  Not right now!  I turn and take a step away.

Be not afraid! –God

God is the friend of silence. –Mother Teresa

At times, my ‘prayer-time’ requires that I am in solitude and silence.  When I am in solitude and silence I have the opportunity to be in the presence of the One who is Silent.  To encounter one who is silent is to experience the power of silence.  During my adult life I have been in many situations where I was with a group of talkative folk and in our midst was one who remained silent.  The one who was silent listened – intently and receptively – in order to understand all voices.  Often the one who was silent exerted more influence on the group than the most talkative ones did.

Jane Addams knew what the presence of one who is silent did to one.  It has been said that when she went out to give a talk about Hull House she would often take with her a woman of the neighborhood; a woman who knew what Hull House was all about – what it was doing and not doing.  The woman only sat silently throughout Jane’s presentation AND in doing so she was a powerful reminder to Jane of what was most important.

I am deeply moved by Dostoevsky’s writings.  In his Brothers Karamazov there is the scene with the Grand Inquisitor.  This scene captures for me the power of the One who is Silent.

Once again, Jesus appears; he is standing before the great cathedral in Seville.  The very bricks in the plaza are still hot from the burning of a hundred heretics to the glory of God the day before.  Once more Jesus begins to heal.  He instantly becomes the center of attention as a rejoicing throng of common folk recognize Him.  The cardinal who is the Grand Inquisitor is passing nearby, hears the commotion and enters the plaza.  He immediately also knows that He has arrived.  The cardinal has Jesus arrested.

Later that night the cardinal enters Jesus’ cell.  Before the cardinal the One who is Silent sits.  The cardinal is rage-full: Why have you come now?  Why are you hindering the work of the church?  You had your chance fifteen hundred years ago and you blew it.  You might have turned stones into bread and fed all.  You might have flung yourself from the top of the temple and your angels would have protected you.  You might have assumed all power and authority and brought the kingdom of God to the world.  AND people would have followed you; no question about it.  But you didn’t and you blew it.  Why?  Because you only wanted free persons to come follow you.  You asked too much of them.  They did not want this freedom [An aside: see Eric Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom].  They rejected it.  The result: an institution sprang up, the church, and this institution supplied the miracle and mystery and authority, and the people were satisfied.  Now, why have you come to hinder the work of the church?

The cardinal paused and reflected that as a young man he too had dreamed of the freedom that Jesus had offered; the freedom that all are called to embrace.  But he learned that this was a mistake – an illusion – a non-reality.  He came to truly understand humankind.  The cardinal goes round and round; he talks and talks.  Jesus sits in silence and listens.  Finally the cardinal cannot bear to look upon that peaceful, silent, love-full gaze.  He knew how to deal with anger; he did not know how to deal with love – the love he saw in Jesus’ eyes was too powerful for him to hold, to embrace, to accept.  Go and come no more!  Come not at all, never, never, never!

Jesus slowly and silently rises.  He crosses the floor of the cell and he gently kisses the lips of the pale, dead-full, cardinal.  He then departs to be seen no more.

Yet I know in prayer He remains.  If any one leaves it is I who leaves.  I leave because I am not ready to surrender to His love.  I leave because I am not ready to embrace the freedom He offers.  I do know – and this gives me hope when I am near despair – that I may return to Him at any time, day or night.  I know that all I have to do is turn a bit and He, the One who waits in Silence, will be standing there.  His love-full, grace-full gaze will wash over me.  He is waiting in love for me to turn.  I have freedom – what will I freely choose today?  The One who is Silent waits. 

The One Who IS Silent, Waits.

Gentle Reader, once again, I have decided to offer you my annual re-post.  I re-post in order to remind myself of the power of ‘one step’ taken.  ‘One step’ can, indeed, make all the difference.

I opened my eyes. The room was dark, my soul was darker still – darker than the dark night of the soul. I could not see my hand nor my future. I paused. I turned on the lamp that was on the table next to my bed. I looked at the alarm clock – 1:30am on 21 February, 1965.

I was in the second semester of my sophomore year at the university. I had just switched majors for the third time; it was a symbol of my wandering around in the darkness. I was beyond depression; I was numb.

During the winter months, one of the favorite ways for students to kill themselves at this university was to over-dress, walk to one end of the two lakes on campus (the one that always had a small part open due to the warm water being piped into it from the student laundry) and then to step into the water and allow the weight of the clothes to help drag you to the bottom.

I dressed slowly. I layered two pair of pants and covered these with a pair of sweat pants. I put on my heaviest winter boots. I covered my upper body in four layers of shirts and sweat shirts and topped it all off with my heavy winter coat, fur lined gloves and covered my head with a hat which was covered with a ski cap.

I slowly waddled my way down the steps; I opened the door. I paused. I stepped into the darkness. I had to walk around the first lake – the frozen lake – in order to reach the small opening at the end of the other lake.

On 21 February, 2010 I wrote a poem that captured what followed once I reached the opening in the lake. The poem follows. Following the poem is a photo of that lake.

 Memory

I stood in the dark night of winter
peering into the water that seemed
so inviting. Like a polar bear, I
was covered in layers of warm clothing.

Like a polar bear I was there to take a swim
in the cold winter water. Unlike the polar
bear I was not there to seek nourishment but
relief.

The dark night of my own winter had
become unbearable and so I stood
contemplating one final step into the deep

that would provide relief.  One step.

I pondered. . . I paused. . . One step.

In the wintery silence of my soul I heard a
whisper; a tiny voice struggled to be heard
amidst the noise of my silence.

I pondered. . . I paused. . . One step.

I listened. The whisper grew in intensity
and clarity. I listened. Why don’t you
go and talk with somebody?

I pondered. . . I paused. . . One step.

I listened. The question held a bit of
light in the form of a small hope.

I pondered. . . I paused. . . One step.

I turned, I took the One Step, not into
the water of relief but into the dark
that held out a small light of hope. –Richard W Smith, 21 February 2010

  ‘The Lake’ where I paused – then took that one step.

The Lake Where I Paused

 

Wisdom, compassion and courage are the three moral qualities of men. –Confucius

The third and final difference is, it seems to me, to be the most significant.  Generally, philosophy has tended to present ethics-morality as the response to What & Why: What should we do?  Why should we do it?  These are important, if not crucial questions.  And (remember, Gentle Reader, there is always an ‘AND’), there is a third question that history teaches us (if we are good students, that is) is the most important question (it is certainly ‘the’ ethical-moral question of the 21st Century): What does it take to make people religious-ethical-moral given all of the distractions, obsessions, addictions, temptations and alternatives that our complex human natures constantly offer us? 

If religion-ethics-morality were as simple as they are portrayed by the experts – empathy, sympathy, the objective spectator, doing your duty, obeying universal rules, loving your neighbor, maximizing beneficial consequences, feeding the poor, healing the sick-wounded – then how is it that we continue to embrace corruption, injustice, deceit, exploitation, violence (toward self and toward our ‘neighbor’) and war?  If religion-ethics-morality are so easy then how do they always turn out to be so difficult-challenging-over whelming (dare I say, ‘defeated’)?

The simple is NOT simplistic!

There is nothing inevitable about human virtue!

For thousands of years the sages have reminded us  — continue to remind us – that there are dark forces at work (Think: ‘Star Wars’ was more than just a western adventure set in space): conflicts of interest, conflicts of core values, competition for scarce resources, hoarding of ‘stuff,’ latent and generational hostilities, envy, etc. continue to run amok among us.

The ‘light’ (the antidote to ‘darkness’) is a flame that, at best, flickers in a strong wind – hard to light and easy to extinguish.  Any treatise on religion-ethics-morality is as helpful as a text book on being healthy is.  We know (at least I believe that we know) that being healthy is less about what we know than it is about how we live (how we care for our P.I.E.S.S.).  Knowledge is crucial.  Knowledge without discipline is useless.  Practice, of course, does not make perfect; practice simply makes permanent.  So we need knowledge, we need discipline, and we need ‘right-practice.’  Religion-ethics-morality provide us with the guidance we need.

Consider that a (if not ‘the’) fundamental task of religion-ethics-morality is not only to help us ‘know the good’ but they help us integrate the good into our very beings.  One great value of ‘Scripture’ is that it provides us with the guidelines and commands that enable us to live a life that resides more in the ‘light’ than in the ‘darkness.’  ‘Scripture’ supports the habits of the heart.

We become religious-ethical-moral by integrating a combination of ‘knowledge’ and ‘discipline-practice.’  Here are two simple commands; commands that exists in all faith-traditions, in all humanistic traditions and in many philosophic traditions: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself!’  ‘Love the stranger!’

When we separate religion-ethics-morality all suffer.  When the holy and the good become disconnected we become disconnected from one another and are more likely to move into ‘darkness.’  We do not love our neighbor nor do we love the stranger – at our worst we guilt-free shun them or kill them.

The ‘call’ of the sages was not ‘Be Religious!’ nor was it ‘Be Ethical-Moral!’  It was ‘Be Religious by Being Ethical-Moral AND Be Ethical-Moral by Being Religious!’ 

The ‘holy’ leads us to the ‘good’ and the ‘good’ leads us to the ‘holy.’  The juxtaposition of these two (Religion & Ethics-Morality) creates moral energy and when we disconnect them we lose moral energy.  Rabbi Jonathan Sachs puts it quite well: The holy is where we enter the ideal; the good is how we make it real.

The great moral powers of the soul are faith, hope and love. –Ellen G. White

Show Up!  Pay Attention! –Lakota Shaman

The second difference is that the existence of God transforms the moral equation even if one assumes that God empowers us to be partners in the work of being, ourselves, wounded healers.

The paradox: God alters the equation without being altered.  We humans do not own this world.  We have been entrusted with its care – we are stewards and care-takers of this world.  We have been charged by God to hold this world in trust for God.

Our scriptures – the ‘Word of God’ – reminds us, over and over and over again, that we have been entrusted AND we will be held accountable.  We are visitors to God’s creation, we are not the owners.  God has invited us into a covenant which means that we have agreed to specific conditions and our faith traditions clearly define these conditions.  For example: the laws of God trump the laws of man.

Being faithful to our Covenant with God and being faithful to God’s Laws protects us from our dark-side – the side that wants to dominate, the side that wants to tyrannize, and the side that wants to de-humanize the other.

God helps us by providing us with Prophets (not profits).  Prophets are charged with reminding us of our Covenant with God.  Prophets are charged with reminding us that we are ‘care-takers’ we are not ‘the owners’ of our world.  We don’t like the Prophet for we don’t like to be reminded of our Covenant with God – in our arrogance we even go so far as to say that there are no more Prophets – our arrogance limits God.  Today, among other ‘charges,’ the Prophet is charged with speaking truth – especially speaking truth to power.

If God IS Love then I am (‘You’ are & ‘We’ are) charged with loving the ‘other.’  Simple enough.  ‘We’ are charged with considering other people’s interests and needs.  All faith-traditions remind us in many ways that we will be held accountable for how we treat the ‘other.’  God transforms morality into ‘What is Best for Us?’ – for ALL OF US!  For God, partisanship is abnormal.

All faith traditions employ a metaphor: ‘God is Father!’  This means, of course, that all human beings are my siblings.  We are, indeed, one family.  As a family when we are at our best we are a living paradox – we are capable of great good and great evil.  We choose the good and we choose the evil.  Because ‘God IS Love’ we have also been given the gifts of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.  We are truly Wounded Healers.

Friedrich Hayek coined the term ‘the fatal conceit.’  ‘The fatal conceit’ leads us to believe that ‘man is able to shape the world around him according to his wishes.’  What his belief unleashes is the law of unintended consequences.  We really don’t get what we desire for we really cannot shape the world as we wish (history reminds us of this over and over and over and yet we arrogant human beings still do not learn).

Hayek called himself a ‘professed agnostic’ and yet he recognized that ‘monotheistic imagination transforms humanity.’  The God of Love, the God of All, challenges us to consider ALL, especially to consider those we are prone to marginalize or dehumanize (the Parable of the Good Samaritan is the model for us).

God does transform our human condition without being transformed – this is crucial for we can, if we choose, trust that God IS Love AND that God’s Love is Truly Abiding Love.   

The most important crisis of our time is spiritual. –Henri Nouwen

 

Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart…learn to love the questions themselves… Live the questions. –Rainer Maria Rilke

Good morning Gentle Reader.  If you have read my postings these past eight years you know that I love questions.  There are questions that we are to respond to immediately; there are questions that we are to reflect upon and then respond to later and then there are questions that we are invited to hold and, as Rilke reminds us, to love and to live.

Here is a question that I have been holding for some time: What difference does religion make to the moral life even if we concede that we don’t have to be religious to be moral?  A few weeks ago I began to put pen to paper and see what would emerge if I began to write a response to this question.  What emerged thus far is three differences that religion makes.  I have decided to share these three with you – one post for each difference.  I also invite you to hold this question and see what, over time, emerges for you.

The first difference is hope.  As far as I am able to discern there is no logical grounds to believe that tomorrow will be better than today.  The reality is that tomorrow could be much worse is consistent with history.

Now, Gentle Reader, you might recall that I am a member of The People of the Book.  There are three faith traditions that claim ‘Abraham’ as their founding father – Abraham was chosen by Yahweh-God-Allah.  If we just stick with the early narratives of failure – Adam, Cain, the generation of the Flood, the Tower of Babel – we learn that God does not despair; God embraces hope.  God does not give up on us.  Actually, sitting here this morning I am thinking of the Holocaust.  I find it astonishing that after all the catastrophes of the past – after the Holocaust – that the Jews did not despair.  Talk about hope!

Hope!  What an interesting and intriguing concept.  Where does it come from?  It is not like pleasure, pain, aggression, or fear – all mammals (and some other life-forms) experience these.  We humans are the only beings to experience hope.

It seems that hope is the tap root of a number of specific seeds (we call these seeds beliefs).  Yahweh-God-Allah is not deaf to our prayers; we are not alone; we exist because the Creator willed us into existence; we exist in order to love (Yahwah-God-Allah is love).

The Creator did not construct a universe that is inherently hate-full, violence-full, war-full, nor blood-lust-full.  The Creator’s gift was love and free will – this is crucial.  The Creator unconditionally loves; the Creator is love.  We humans are loved so much that we have been endowed with free will.  We have choice.  We can choose to love or not.  I imagine that Yahweh-God-Allah is a risk-taker too – the risk: The ‘Creations of Love’ (we human beings) will not choose to Love.  One time the Creator got fed up with us and almost did us in (sadly, we seem determined to do ourselves in).

Yahweh-God-Allah, chose Abraham to be our father.  Yahweh-God-Allah entered into a divine covenant with us.  We, the People of the Book, are charged with creating societies in which we humans – regardless of rank, power, or privilege – are loved and are loving.  We are charged with being hope-full.

Hope is not logical – it is, however, transcendent.  Consider this: The history of the ‘family’ of Abraham can easily be turned into Greek Tragedy – without changing a single word of Scripture.  For example, this would happen if the first book of Scripture ended, not after Genesis 50 but after Exodus 1.  The end would be slavery.  Or, the Pentateuch would end, not with Deuteronomy, but with the book of Judges and its closing sentence: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’  The ‘just society’ would not be created; anarchy would run amok.  Despair would rain and reign upon us.

Consider, Gentle Reader that Hope and Despair do not differ about facts but about interpretation and expectation.  There is, indeed, a moral difference here.  Those who embrace Hope, strive to love; those who embrace Despair resign themselves to darkness.  Because we have free will these are, in effect, self-fulfilling prophecies.

A morality of Hope lives in the belief that we humans can change for the better; we can learn to love one another as we are loved by Yahweh-God-Allah.  Hope is rooted in the belief that together we can make the world better for all.  Hope is also fed by the tap root of Courage (heart-healing).  We, the People of the Book, have been given the gift of Hope.  It is our charge to live into and out of this gift.  AND, we have choice!

Hope is the first difference.  What is the second difference?

A definition of faith is the ability to keep our hearts open in the darkness of the unknown. –Dalai Lama

Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world.  For, indeed, that’s all who ever have. –Margaret Mead

On 25 January, 2020 the Chinese welcomed in the New Year.  This is the year of the Rat.  I was born on Friday, 11 February, 1944; it was the year of the Monkey.  According to the Chinese zodiac, Friday’s Child is loving and giving.  My name in Chinese is Shi Rui Kang.  Shi is my surname (Smith) and Rui kang (Richard) is composed of two Chinese characters: Rui = sharp and kang = peaceful, quiet.  At my birth my mother dedicated me to be ‘God’s Servant.’ All of this reflection was stimulated by an email from one of my dear friends in Singapore who reminded me of the New Year that was welcomed and celebrated by the Chinese.

As ‘God’s Servant’ and as ‘Friday’s Child’ I am called to ‘caring’ for. . . In caring, both self and the other are primary – a paradox and a tension.  The growth of both becomes central in caring.  As an educator, for example, I must care for myself and my own growth in order to care for my students and their growth.  I must be responsive and response-able and responsible to both ‘self’ and the ‘other.’

There is another paradox/tension that I experience when it comes to caring.  This is the paradox of ‘selflessness’ and ‘selfishness.’  Selflessness is not ‘loss of self.’  It is more like the selflessness that I experience when I am absorbed in something that is deeply interesting to me that calls me to be ‘more, not less’ of myself.  This type of selflessness includes heightened awareness, greater responsiveness to self and to the other, and a fuller use of my gifts, talents, and abilities so that self and the other have an opportunity to grow [this growth is ‘healthy growth’ and involves the four dimensions of P.I.E.S.].  Paradoxically, in order to be ‘selfless’ I must also be ‘selfish.’  I must be committed to caring for myself – my own P.I.E.S. and I must be committed to allowing myself to be cared for.  To the extent I deplete, not nurture myself, I end up, at minimum, not having the capacity to care for the other and at maximum end up depleting the other.

In caring, while embracing these paradoxes/tensions, both grow more fully and become the persons they are called/meant to be.  As a writer I grow in caring for my ideas; as an educator I grow in caring for my students; as a parent I grow (still do) in caring for my children.  As a writer, I need ideas; as an educator, I need students; as a parent, I need children.  Without these I will not grow; without these I will not serve so that they grow and flourish.  And without these I will not be served; I will not have the opportunity to grow more fully into the person I am called/meant to be.

The paradox here is that I do not serve so that in the end I grow and yet when I serve so that the other grows I also end up growing.  I experience a tension between dependency (I need you; you need me) and interdependency (we are in this together, equally).  We both exist in our own right; we both need the other in order to grow; we both need the other for we are truly ‘in this together as equals.’  ‘Caring’ is a relationship that embraces these paradoxes and tensions AND as always, I-you-we have choice.  What/Who will I choose to care for today?  What/Who will offer to care for me and how will I respond to – or is it react to? – the offer to be cared for today?

Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring and integrity, they think of you. –H. Jackson Brown, Jr.