Fear Factors

The emotion of fear is well documented, and well understood, by modern science.

Fear, at a basic level, is triggered by a perceived threat. It serves as an age-old survival mechanism that signals our bodies to respond to danger. We do that, typically, with a fight or flight response. In ancient times, before peoples and societies formed to what they are now, fear was often an essential part of keeping us safe. Sometimes, but less often, it still is.

In the Flintstones cartoons there’s this great character named Bamm-Bamm Rubble. Bamm-Bamm, even as an infant, almost always carried with him this massive club. Thus his name. When danger came near, Bamm-Bamm had a choice: either swing that club to fight, or drop the club and run.

As a 1960s TV show aired during prime time, as you might guess, most times Bamm-Bamm just started swinging 😊

As fun as that cartoony image is, when people live in constant fear, whether in physical danger, or with threats they perceive, an awful lot is at stake.

Here’s a brief summary of how living in fear can impact us, long term.

Fear Factors
For starters, Fear impacts our thinking. When fear first finds us, our body increases the flow of hormones to an area of the brain known as the amygdala. This causes us to focus closely on the perceived danger and then store it for later.

Once the neural pathways to fear are ramped up the brain reacts in fairly predictable ways. First, the brain short-circuits our ability to make rational decisions. Instead, it immediately responds to signals from the amygdala. And the signals the brain is sending when in a place of fear? The brain perceives events in a largely negative light.

Sometimes referred to as the amygdala highjack, when fear takes root, our brain isn’t functioning at 100%. Once highjacked, our brains regulate emotions rather poorly; how we read non-verbal cues is diminished as well. Fear limits our ability to reflect before acting, making it even more difficult to act ethically. This in turn leaves us prone to intense negative emotions, intense impulsive responses.

We, in many ways, cease to be ourselves.

Danger Will Robinson! The fear effect has begun.

Fear also impacts our memory. When a fear response is triggered the brain stores all sorts of details surrounding the perceived danger, including the sights, the sounds the smells. All senses are on high alert, in data collection mode.

Once this data has been collected, the brain then stores it, referencing back to it later when needed. And when those same sights, sounds and smells return, watch out. Your memory, of that fearful time, whatever it was, may just be triggered again. And you might not even know why. This same cycle can be repeated again, and again, and again. All of which can cause very high levels of anxiety.

These hard-coded memories, when referenced over time, also means fear impacts our mental health. Common consequences of long-term fear include fatigue, clinical depression, even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Double Danger, Will Robinson!

The fear effect might just stay with you for a while.

When our brains experience fear, repeatedly, over time, it affects not just our mental health, but fear impacts our body as well. The impacts, of chronic fear, can be downright hazardous to your health.

Living with chronic fear weakens our immune system and has a myriad of consequences. It can –
• Cause cardiovascular damage, increasing your chances of a heart attack
• Lead to gastrointestinal problems, like ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome aka IBS
• Decrease fertility, making it more difficult for couples to get pregnant
• Accelerate aging
• Lead to premature death

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

Who would want any of *that?*

Scriptural Fear
The emotion of fear is well documented, and well understood, by ancient scripture too.

English translations of the Old Testament have over 100 verses that use some version of the phrases do not be afraid, do not fear, do not worry.

In the New Testament there are another 35 or so of these verses, most of which are spoken by Christ in one of the gospels.

Heck, just in Luke chapter 12 Jesus exhorts us not to fear four different times.

Here’s a brief summary of what we are called to not fear, from this one chapter.

Fear Not
Fear not death (v4). Considered by modern psychologists to be one of five basic fears we all have, Jesus tells us not to. Why not? Because our soul is of so much more import.

Fear not, you’re beloved (v7). Here Christ reminds us not to be afraid because God knows us intimately. And God cares for us deeply, counting the very hairs on our head. God takes care of the sparrows, little things. How much more important are we, to God, then that?

Fear not being shamed before others (v11). With this Jesus speaks to the cultural moment the disciples found themselves in 2,000 years ago. People then were getting brought before the synagogue, rulers or authorities, and asked to defend their words, their actions. In today’s context that’d be getting brought before the church, the government, the police.

Perhaps in this way not much has changed. Our culture of shame remains.

But Jesus tells us not to worry about such things. Why not? Because, in that hour, when asked to defend yourself, the Holy Spirit will teach you what to say.

Continuing in this section of fear not, we’re also reminded that God provides for our food and clothing as well. The basic necessities of life. God’s got our back, and puts clothes on that back too.

Luke 12 also contains some financial advice, in v33, that’s paired with another fear not claim in the previous verse. Here Christ admonishes us to sell our stuff, giving much to the poor. Why? Because where your treasure is, there is your heart. And that can be on earthly things, or heavenly rewards.

The takeaway is this: your money, in and of itself, isn’t helping you live without fear.
Don’t expect to hear *that* from your financial advisor.

Heck, when preparing this part of the message my computer mysteriously crashed, leaving me staring at an empty, black screen. I found myself worrying the message text had been lost, yikes! These are pastor fears what with weekend worship on the horizon 😊

Taken together, these four verses – and a message that came together despite a computer crash – offer a great synapsis of what not to worry about.

We are called not to worry about:
• Our finances,
• Whether we’re loved,
• Attempts to shame us,
• Our next meal,
• The clothes on our back,
• Even death itself.

You’re Covered
Which kind of makes you wonder what an alternative lifestyle, to our culture of fear, would look like.

Luckily verse 32 covers this nicely.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you (nothing less) than the kingdom.

What a promise.

God’s giving us the whole ball of wax.

This is a not-so-subtle reminder, that we are ultimately dependent on the very care, and protection, that God provides.

It’s hard to believe you’re about to hear another reference to the original Greek, from this particular pastor – my aptitude for learning new languages is anything but stellar. But this is news way too good not to share.

In the original Greek the verb expressing divine pleasure used in this verse is eudokesen. That word is in the aorist tense, a tense that doesn’t exist in Engligh, which indicates a completed action in the past. Aka God’s delightful decision, to give you the kingdom, to care for all your needs as a loving Father, has already been made.

The kingdom is yours, beloved child of God.

And it has been, your whole life long.

Still Hurting
Yet that imperative, to fear not, that God cares for us, and covers all our needs, it doesn’t seem to have caught on all that well.

All the time, energy, and money spent managing our fear issues suggests, as a people, we still haven’t figured this out yet.

The most common mental health disorder in the US continues to be anxiety; 18% of adults here are diagnosed with it, with another 7% diagnosed with major depression.

Irritable bowel syndrome affects between 10 and 15 percent of the population.

Over 600,000 people in the US die each year of heart disease – that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.

Each of these issues is triggered by, or made worse by, the existence of chronic fear.

This isn’t just clinical diagnoses impacting only some. I’d suggest that fear impacts each of us, on some level, most every day.

And it isn’t just us that fear hurts.

When in a state of fear others get hurt too. We’re –
• More likely to respond to others in anger
• Less likely to respond with compassion
• More likely to withdraw from this world that God so loves

Thank God for modern medicine. Thank God for modern social sciences. These are God-given gifts that can heal, that we can, and should rely on.

But the impacts of fear, and our need for relief from it, suggests there are still internal, unmet needs deep within us that are still at play. And that’s a deeply spiritual issue.

We –
• Struggle to trust God provides all;
• Struggle to believe the life, death and resurrection of Christ ensures us God’s promises are kept;
• Struggle to follow the winds of the Spirit, there to guide us for all our days.

The effects of fear are all around us, and are easy enough to spot.

You need only examine your news feeds.
You need only examine your hearts.

Fear affects us all.

We, as a people, are still hurting.

We struggle at times, so deeply, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Instead we often find ourselves stuck, in the muck, of fear.

And God wishes, so very much, it wasn’t so.

Close
While the fear response of fight or flight is as old as time itself, Luke 12, and all of scripture call us to something more. Fear not.

Oh Christ got angry, and threw a few tables once. But not too often. And Christ fled more than a few towns, usually when his life was in danger. His time, after all, had not yet come.

But in between those extremes, of fight or flight, was the bulk of Christ’s ministry. And in that ministry he walked, and talked, taught, and listened, and cared, and loved, and engaged, and healed. He built relationship with all who would have him.

And he did so, without fear.

In this way Christ asks that we evolve, away from the simplicity of fight or flight. Away from the negative consequences of fear.

What does it mean to live life outside the shackles of fear?

This spiritual evolution –
Demands we put down our Flintstones-era Bamm Bamm big club.
Begs us not to run away,
But instead to walk toward.

It requires us to –
Trust God;
Model Christ;
Let the Spirit lead.

For it is in those faith-led steps that –
You will be healed;
You will be made whole;
And the world, finally, will be at peace.

Just as God intends. Amen.

The Audacity of Prayer

The kids’ bedtime routine, at chez Arnold, over the summer, is a fairly simple affair. It’s a shortened form of the school-year version, which results in these three, brief bedtime todos:

– Pajamas
– Toothbrushing
– Blessing

Pajamas now on, teeth now clean, our two children, Hannah and Graham, ages nine and five, then approach Kathi and I for the evening blessing.

“Jesus Loves you, and so do I,” we’ll say, as we mark the sign of the cross on each forehead.

We share a hug. We share a kiss. Our kids then dutifully march right upstairs to their bedrooms. And then quickly fall asleep. Perhaps visions of sugarplums dance in their heads, too, guiding them to arise, fully rested, the next morning.

All this gives Kathi and I few precious hours each night to relax on the couch, watch a show or two on the telly, and plan for the upcoming day.

The bedtime process is quick, effective, and works like a charm. Every single night.

It is predictable. It is perfect.

And it is one more thing. It is 100% completely, and entirely, NOT TRUE 😊

Reality
Oh, the ideals are there. Pajamas, teeth, blessing, bed.

But the reality? That’s more complicated.

Sometimes a quick wardrobe change turns into 15 or 20 minutes.

Sometimes teeth, post brush, still smell like dinner. Try one more time, sweetie.

Most times the routine feels like a Columbo episode – that’s the 1970s murder mystery show starring Peter Falk. Don’t worry, no one dies during bedtime. But our two favorite leading characters do take a page from Peter Falk, with their grand entrances back into the scene. We watch as they walk back downstairs, pop their head in the living room, and give their version of “just one more thing.”

Their requests center on trying to meet their needs. Or at least perceived needs.

• Mommy, I’ve heard this bedtime story podcast. Can you pick another?
• Mommy, where are the colored pencils? I’d like to draw.
• Daddy, I can’t sleep. Any suggestions?
• Mommy, can I have a glass of warm milk?
• Mommy, I’d like to have an extremely long chat about baby sloths. And it just can.not.wait.

Graham has asked this, well beyond bedtime, LITERALLY, the past two nights.

Also, notice who gets most of the questions. Hint: it ain’t dad.

I submit that reality to you, without comment. 😊

After hearing all these “just one more things,” Kathi and I then do our best to wade through the requests, trying to keep their best interests – and our sanity – in mind.

Bedtime story podcasts, yes.
Colored pencils, maybe.
Sleep suggestions, always.
Glass of warm milk? Not if you’re still trying to stay dry at night.
Baby sloth chatter? Let’s talk in the morning.

And before you know it the 8pm bedtime can turn into 9pm, or 10pm, or later.

Sometimes we get these parenting moments right. At least I hope we do. Other times I’m sure we don’t. And that’s ok. We are only human, after all.

Requests
In today’s text, from Luke 11, the disciples ask Jesus how to pray. He responds by sharing the Lord’s prayer, albeit a shorter version than the one you’re familiar with. To drive home the point, of how we are to pray, Christ then tells a story, he’s so good at that. This time it’s the parable of the Friend at Night.

Similar to our family bedtime routines that often go haywire, this text also features a late-night disruption that doesn’t go according to plan.

Imagine this scene. A man and his children are all nestled in bed for the night. It’s a one-room home, typical for this culture. The door is locked. It’s midnight.

By then this family’s bedtime routine – however that looked – was already now complete. Perhaps visions of ancient sugar plums danced in the children’s heads. Perhaps the parents had blissfully entered REM sleep. Perhaps, in this moment, all seemed as it should be.

And then, what-do-you-know, there’s a knock at the door.

A midnight door knock may not be all that relatable these days, it’s never happened to me at least. Nighttime disruptions from outside our home more frequently come from phones. And if the phone rings, when most people know you’re asleep, well, that just can’t be good.

Questions
Here’s a few questions that might race through your head when groggily answering an unexpected midnight call:

– What’s the emergency?
– Did someone die?
– Could this wait until morning?

Perhaps the man in this parable found himself in a similar state of mind.

Regardless, the man gets up, goes to the door, and listens as his friend makes an unexpected request.

“Could I borrow a few loaves of bread?” the door knocker asks. “One of my friends just arrived from out of town and I don’t have anything to feed them.”

Now if I’d gone to the door and heard this request, at midnight, I’d still have some questions.

That’s the emergency?
– No one died?
– Couldn’t this wait until morning?

The man in this parable presents similar objections, saying –

– Don’t bother me
– The door’s locked
– Kids are asleep
– I can’t give you anything

Can’t say I blame the guy. While middle of night phone calls may make you anxious, midnight door knocks may make you more annoyed. But, despite these very human objections, the man of interrupted sleep gives the man of midnight knocking the bread.

Why?

Christ tells us in verse 8 it’s because of the man’s persistence. Because of that the sleepy father gives the midnight knocker anything he needs.

Tho the NRSV translation uses the term persistence, it’s really more than that. After all the man only asks for bread once. The original Greek word anaideia is arguably better rendered as “shamelessness.”

Other synonyms for shameless that explain why this man was given the midnight meal are – audacity, brazenness, gall, nerve, and chutzpah.

This isn’t language typically associated with prayer.

Yet it is exactly the mindset Christ wants us to have when approaching our heavenly Father.

Good Gifts
Christ then closes out this prayer passage with a notion of what we can expect.

Parents, if your kids asks for fish, would you give them a snake?
And if they request an egg, would you give them a scorpion?

The rhetorical questions answer themselves.

Even we imperfect, flawed, sometimes impatient human parents know how to give our kids good gifts. And if even we, can do that, how much more will our heavenly Father give, to us, through the Holy Spirit? We need only ask.

Cliff Notes
This passage yields answers to many, many questions on the nature of prayer.

First, how then shall we pray?

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed by thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever. Amen.

And when then shall we pray?

Any time of day,
or night,
even when the world seems otherwise preoccupied;
especially when most are deep in sleep.

And how then shall we approach prayer?

Without shame;
with audacity, brazenness, and some chutzpah.
By being, in short, BOLD.

Finally, what then shall we expect?

Good gifts,
from the Father,
for those who boldly ask.

Close
I like to think that we humans are, well, less than convenient for God to try and parent. Maybe that’s just the nature of youth. Particularly when growing up with, and looking up to, a divine role model of –

infinite experience,
infinite wisdom,
infinite love.

Reflecting back on the chez Arnold bedtime shenanigans, I can’t help but appreciate the tenacity of our kids. They ask for what they need most every night. They do so without shame, with audacity, and with some chutzpah. They are bold. Even if it drives mom and dad, at times, a bit batty.

My hope is our two kids continue to approach us for their needs, for a very very long time to come. Even when, or perhaps especially when, the timing of their requests is less than ideal.

Live is messy. God knows.

As we consider the nature of prayer, may we look at it with the faith, and boldness, of a child. We may grow old, tho may we never truly grow up. May we continue to petition God the Father, or perhaps God the Mother, our whole lives long. May we always use Christ’s words as our guide.

May our prayers be audacious, with nary a hint of shame. For we are called to converse with our great God-parent, any time of day, any time of night, under any kind of circumstance. When we but ask, boldly, we stake claim to an eternal relationship with our creator; the giver of nothing but good, good gifts.

For it is in those moments we find our peace, our joy, our purpose. And it is in those moments where we can proclaim, with confidence, not my will, but thy will, be done. Amen.

My Neighbor

A reflection on two weeks in Tanzania, Africa.  

Who is my neighbor?

My neighbor lives a ways away – 8,489 miles away from Ames Iowa to be precise. My neighbor is easiest to see in person via plane, tho that’s a full 24 hours of travel and isn’t cheap. But thanks to the internet, and email and social media, I can talk to them most any time.

Many of my neighbors are farmers. And commonly use animals in their daily work.  At least in the areas we visited. Many of my TZ neighbors are also landowners, owning property that spans back many, many, many generations of family.

Donkey, at the Ngorogoro crater

My neighbors, for the most part, have enough food to eat. This was confirmed with the pastors I spoke to. And it really surprised me. My neighbors provide for their family, food-insecurity isn’t a huge problem for them. Who knew?

Speaking of food, my neighbors know how to cook! Our group ate, and ate, and ate, between 5 and 7 meals a day. My neighbors, where we visited, eat local, almost exclusively. Whether it came from the ground, or tree, or bush or animal, it was generally fair game.

Sharing a meal at a house blessing in Shighatini

My neighbors know how to throw a party! We were warmly welcomed where-ever we went. My neighbors smile and chat, and pray in ways that had a calming effect on each of us. We knew, at all times, our neighbor cared for us.

Speaking of parties, holy cow do my neighbors know how to worship! Whether it’s in Swahili or the Pare dialect, or the language of the Masai – we heard each in worship – my neighbors know how to live it up, in praise of their Creator, on a Sunday morn.

Worship at the Hedaru Parish, full of song, dance, laughter and life.

My neighbors like to laugh, and dance, and sing, and bang drums and cymbals and laugh and dance and sing in ways and quantities that surprised us. My neighbors know how to celebrate their faith, LOUD AND PROUD. I can learn much, very much, about joyful worship, from my neighbor.

My neighbor has less money than I, less electricity, less internet, less stuff. But more time. And more joy. And more community. To these western eyes my neighbor lives life more fully, and completely, than I do most every day. To be honest the time, and joy and community my neighbor has available to them, in such large quantities, I am very, very jealous of.

This is my confession.

Roadside market, near Shighatini

My neighbor has skin so much darker than my own. So much darker than many of you. As the trip went on this difference seemed to matter less, and less and less. Until by the end of the trip this difference was hardly worth mentioning at all.

That was truly a gift. And it only happened by spending some time, a lot of time, with my neighbor.

My neighbor could use some help from me and the people in my town.  But in different ways than perhaps I’d first assumed. My neighbor already knows how to farm. But they could use some wisdom from ag science here, and sometimes some equipment and training too. My neighbor could use help with processing and packaging their food products, to help get them to a larger market.

This is something I hadn’t thought much on before.

My neighbor has access to water. But it could almost always be better access.

My neighbor has access to education, and values it. Tho my neighbor values having access to even better education. Their goal? To help their people thrive even more.

In this way I am very much like my neighbor.

My neighbor is a beloved child of God.
As am I.
As are you.

Because of this my neighbor shares a common ancestry, common purpose, and common destination to us all.

I really miss my newfound neighbor.

But mostly now I just call them friend.

And I can’t wait to spend time with my new friends, in person, once again.

Boy, outside the Hedaru hotel, using a handmade toy

Graveyards

I have a rather odd interest; I love traipsing around old cemeteries. It isn’t quite a hobby like video games or jogging. And it doesn’t produce the same sense of euphoria as writing sometimes can. And I don’t find myself cemetery traipsing nearly as much as those other pursuits either.

But yeah, put me in a cemetery setting and odds are I’ll tend to linger some. Likely more than most 😊

Spots
When visiting Jamestown Virginia in high school, as part of a nearby family reunion, I remember being fascinated walking through mostly wooded areas, learning about the early settlers buried there in 1607.

When Kathi and I honeymooned in Key West Florida, home to the southernmost point in the US, you can be sure we spent some time at their cemetery. Lined with palm trees and blue skies it’s a picturesque tropical setting, nestled in the middle of a residential area, practically begging to be explored.

While at a work conference in Savannah Georgia fifteen years ago Kathi and I tacked on some trip time to explore this serene, historic city. We went to two Savannah cemeteries if memory serves, maybe more. Each were lined with Southern Live Oak trees, complete with drooping, curvaceous branches, often draped in Spanish moss that sometimes reaches the ground. It’s gorgeous.

Bird Girl, Bonaventure Cemetery; Savannah, GA

And I almost got to the Vienna Central Cemetery while on business trip in Europe. One weekend a couple of coworkers and I took a train, from Budapest, to visit Vienna. But I couldn’t quite convince them one of the largest cemeteries in the world, with over 300,000 graves and 3 million internments, was worth the time. I mean come on, Ludwig Von Beethoven is buried there! Perhaps one day.

Sights
Besides the history and picturesque settings and celebrity status cemeteries often contain there are, of course, the gravestones.

Gravestones represent a marker of a person’s life, a summary of what makes them, well them. Many stones contain religious symbols. A cross for Christians, a star of David for Jews, alongside other religious symbols too countless to name. Each providing clues to what faith the person claimed while with us here on earth.

Other stones immortalize hobbies, vocations, and interests.

Last week I had the chance to preside over a graveside funeral service for Bernard Ortgies at the Ames Municipal Cemetery. Bernard was a member of Bethesda a while ago before moving to Florida in retirement. And I couldn’t help but appreciate the gravestone for he and wife Sharon. Under Bernard’s name is a square and compass, under Sharon’s a book, and between them is Cy the Cyclone. He was an engineer, she a teacher; they both were big ISU sports fans.

And while there I couldn’t help but notice a gravestone with the last name of one of our current members, Kepley. The marker is for Danny Kepley’s parents; mom was buried there in 2016, one day dad will be joined alongside her once again. The Kepley gravestone gets my attention every time – there’s this great image of a tow truck on it. The Kepley’s owned a tow truck company in the area – what a neat way to celebrate that identity. It’s about as cool a marker as there is.

Some markers contain a few final words from the person; some funny, others reflective. The Key West cemetery has both, next to each other.

The marker for Pearl Roberts, a local hypochondriac who died at age 50, reads like this: “I told you I was sick.

And right above that is the headstone for Gloria Russell. It simply says, “I’m just resting my eyes.” Downright poetic.

But for all the beauty and nature and history and symbolism and humor and poetry and earthly finality that cemeteries contain, there is one thing they don’t typically house.

At least when visiting hours are over.

Cemeteries aren’t meant to be a permanent address for the living.

And when the living find themselves taking up residence among the dead, and that happens sometimes, you know something is not quite right.

All of which leads us to today’s gospel.

Unclean Spirits
Luke 8 contains one of the more memorable biblical characters there is. A man who –

Was naked,
lived in tombs,
among the dead,
and likes to shout,
at people he’s just met.

Jesus, entering a new country, one with different religious beliefs, stepping from boat onto land, has this as his first impression.

Now I don’t get out of the US too much. Tho when passing state borders it’s always nice to see a “Welcome to Minnesota” sign or somesuch, and take a few minute break at the first rest stop.

Instead, the welcome sign Jesus got this day, when entering a new land, was a naked homeless shouting dude.

New country,
Different religion,
Naked guy approaches,
Naked guy starts shouting.

I don’t know about you, but if I stepped off a plane bound for a new destination and this were my first experience? I might just turn around.

But Jesus, of course, doesn’t do that.

He doesn’t turn away from the man;
He doesn’t return shouting with shouting;

Instead he engages.

The naked man falls down and shouts – at the top of his voice no less – “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of God? I beg you, do not torment me.”

Jesus then asks the man’s name.

The man responds, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him.

When unclean spirits of this world get a tight hold on us, or on loved ones, sometimes we can’t separate the person –

From the addiction;
From the disease;
From the stigma.

And we really should.

Christ is all about separating us from our demons.
And Christ wants us to help separate others from their demons. All in His name.

These demons then begged Christ to enter into a herd of pigs. A request Jesus granted. The piggy swine, apparently going peacefully about their piggy business beforehand, now go berserk, dash madly over a cliff, and drown.

It’s an absurd scene. I mean who’s ever heard of a swine stampede?
Theologian Patrick Willson concludes this:

“If pigs were runners, our bacon would look different.”

Noodle on that one.

Healing and Home
Separated from his demons, the man, now in his right mind, puts on some clothes. He then begs to go with Jesus and the disciples as they get back on the boat, to head home.

But Jesus had other plans. “Return to your home,” Christ responds. “And declare how much God has done for you.”

This, for a man whose demons had driven him away from others.
This, for a man who’d been living, in isolation, among the dead.

The man then went to his city.
The man then proclaimed all this.
The scene then ends.

Here
Admittedly scriptural talk of demon possession always strikes me as a bit wonky. At least when looking at it through the lens of our modern era.

Exorcisms these days are more likely to be paired with faith traditions that do things like snake handling and walking on hot coals. Which is not something you’ll see in too many Lutheran settings. Certainly not here 😊

Yet this concept of being possessed, being led out of your right mind, and driven by unclean spirits to do some crazy things, that part I get.

Many theologians conclude that the demons of scriptural times are today’s mental health diagnoses, today’s addictions. Illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, addictions like gambling, alcohol, overeating. And when these demons get ahold of us they can do some nasty, destructive things.

They can drive us away from loving friends, loving family, loving community. They can strip us of our worth, leaving a destructive path in their wake. They can lead us, either literally or figuratively, to premature death.

Yet Christ desires, for us, so much more.

And with the help of Christ, present with us through those same loving friends, family, and faith community, and sometimes counselors and modern medicine as well, we too can often find healing from these divisive demons.

I have a backstory that includes a clinical diagnosis of major depressive disorder. And looking back it really felt like death; life had lost all meaning. If you’re struggling with depression the door is always open. At least let someone know; there are good resources out there that can help you.

Others of you may have experience with addictions of various sorts. Let me encourage you to talk about your challenges with others, whether you’re knee deep in the demons now or solidly along the road to recovery. The more we share the more help we get. The more help we get the more we heal. The more we heal the more help we can eventually give to others.

Close
Cemeteries can be beautiful places. I’ll likely not stop enjoying them any time soon. Especially when hip tow truck gravestones are nearby 😊

But cemeteries and graves and tombs aren’t made for the living. They are relics of the past, monuments of what once was, markers of time now complete.

It is in these places Christ meets us where we’re at. The naked, shouting cemetery dwellers that we all sometimes can be. Christ then restores our mind, clothes our bodies, and sends us away from our own personal places of darkness. Sends us back to the city.

A city filled with friends, and family, and faith.
A city filled with Christ-followers, all seeking to be whole.
A city where you belong.
A city of light.
A city of life.

When you get back home, to your city, remember his one request.
Proclaim, my friends, throughout that city, how much Christ has done, for you. Amen.

Big Data

As you may know, my first career – prior to pursing a pastoral path – was in market research. I worked for the Nielsen Company for a dozen years. Nielsen is the largest market research company in the world, by far, in terms of employees and revenue.

The company thinks that’s a big deal. These days I’m kinda meh on it.

While there I managed large, syndicated surveys for most my tenure, helping banks, insurance companies and restaurants better market their warez. If you can figure out the who, what, when, where and why of consumer purchase behavior, and then predict that behavior with some level of accuracy, well, big bucks are in your future.

Tho given my shift in vocation it’s safe to say that any notion of big bucks, personally speaking, is decidedly in the past 😊

The surveys I managed at Nielsen had enviable sample sizes, at least when it comes to survey research. A small study was 10,000 completes a year, a larger study closer to 100,000 annually. And with those big numbers you could do big number crunching, segmenting people into all sorts of demographics and groups, all to better predict who would buy what.

Big Data
Admittedly having specific information on 100,000 people these days isn’t all that big a deal. Companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix and Apple collect data, passively, through our many devices, and boast databases of information about millions, sometimes billions of people.

How many devices? One study predicts that by next year, 2020, more than 50 billion smart devices on our planet will be turned on at any given time. All equipped to gather, analyze, and share data across the globe.

50 Billion smart devices.
In a planet of only 7.7 Billion people.

The implications of all this, in terms of utility, are fairly clear: more knowledge, more information, more pretty much everything.

Now we just have to figure out what to do with it.

This massive data explosion is fairly new. Studies suggest more than 90% of data in the world has been created in the last three years.

Which makes the concept of big data, and what we do with all these learnings somewhat uncharted territory.

Today’s gospel text, from John 16:12-15, as you may have guessed, is not about big data. 😊

Truth
But it is about truth. And where truth comes from. And how we acquire it. Which has implications about what we do with truth once acquired.

Sometimes I think we confuse the notion of information, data, and knowledge and even education and facts and options, we confuse all of that with an understanding of truth.

I still have many things to say to you,” Christ begins, “but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus, speaking to the twelve, in his farewell discourse, was about to be arrested in the garden. And was giving the disciples some wisdom before his fate, and theirs would forever change.

“When the Spirit of truth comes they will guide you into all truth,” Christ continues. “The Spirit will declare to you things to come; taking what is mine, and declaring it to you. All the Father has, is mine. And the Spirit will take what is mine, and declare it, to you.”

It’s a beautiful description of the Trinity. The Godhead, three in one.

But it’s more than that. This text also describes the nature of divine truth and the conduit it flows through.

All divine truth comes –

From the Father,
To the Son,
And is declared,
by the Spirit,
to you.

It’s the Spirit, the active presence of God in our world, that keeps our faith traditions from getting stale. Otherwise we’d be talking about Jesus as just a historical character, a distant deity that lived 2,000 some odd years ago.

And that would kinda be that.

But Christ still has many things to say. To the disciples then, and to us now. And that happens, through the declarations, of the Spirit of truth.

Could the implications of big data, and the many things it says, be part of that? And if so, how would we know?

Big Data
Big data, and the researchers and scientific minds behind it can solve all sorts of real-world problems. And evolve our world in some amazing, jaw-dropping, potentially very positive ways.

Big data is being used to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS, and will likely one day find a cure for it. Thank God for medical advances past, present and future. But big data won’t put those live-saving treatments into the hands of millions that can’t afford them, both here and abroad. The energy for that initiative comes from elsewhere.

Big data is lowering food and water costs across the globe. But big data can’t explain why placing jugs of water, canned beans and blankets, in the Arizona desert, left for migrants that might otherwise die without them. Big can’t explain why providing that basic humanitarian aid, in the US, is increasingly being treated as a crime.

Big data is being used to better understand our exploding prison population. It just keeps on going up and up and up, doesn’t it? Big data has, fortunately, identified solutions that would reverse this trend. Two of the best predictors of lowering prisoner headcounts it turns out are 1) visiting inmates, and 2) providing mental health services to high-risk populations. But big data, and all the 1s and 0s that make it up can’t, in isolation, implement change. It can’t force us to care.

To address challenges like these that big data can’t solve alone we need another source. An older source. A timeless source. A God source.

We need, in short, God data.

God Data
The best source for God data, within our Christian context, is, of course, scripture.

Talk of healthcare, and food and water and prisoners and people from other lands is covered really, really well in our ancient texts.

Consider Matthew 25:35-40

For I was hungry, you gave food;
I was thirsty, you provided drink;
I was a stranger, you welcomed me;
I was naked, you gave clothing;
I was sick, you cared for me;
I was in prison, you visited.

The disciples then asked, Lord, when was it that we saw you in need like this? When was it that we did these things for you?

Christ then replied, truly I tell you, whatever you have done to one of the least of these, who are all members of my family, you have done to me.

This one scriptural text, this one nugget of God data, provides pretty clear direction on what we, as Christ-followers, are to be about. God data gives a faith-based lens to apply the learnings of big data. It gives us the direction and resolve to address real-world problems, faithfully, in ways big data, on its own, simply can’t.

Big Bomb
Parker Palmer’s book, To Know As We Are Known, begins with a reflection on the film documentary The Day After Trinity. The film is about the team of American scientists who produced the first atomic bomb. “Trinity” was the ironic code name for that original explosion. Even more ironic is to be talking about it, in the context of a church festival today, referred to as Trinity Sunday.

The film reveals that it was only on the day *after* this original massive explosion that the scientists stopped to analyze, and agonize, on the implications of their work. We still live with the implications of this earlier form of big data, daily.

American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who helped develop the atomic bomb, in his post-Hiroshima pronouncement, concludes, “the physicists have known sin.”

That’s worth pondering.

Close
Let me encourage you, fellow children of God, to be on the look-out for the Spirit of truth. She blows in the winds of change, seeking to improve the lives of all of God’s children. She represents an evolution of progress. One we can experience personally. And she wants nothing less than to include you, and make you a vital part, of her sacred work.

I still have many things to say to you, Christ proclaims. The Spirit of truth will declare them to you, he reminds. Some of those things may just reveal themselves through the efforts of big data. Other results of big data have nothing to do with the Spirit at all. Or even run counter to the Spirit.

And to know, to really know, which is which, let me encourage you, fellow children of God, to do some fact-checking. And then proceed faithfully, seeking to follow the Spirit of truth wherever she goes. To do that, make sure you check all data, by referencing the original Source. Amen.

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