Thursday, December 13, 2012

Open Letter to my Children, on Fear and Love

To my dear children:
A while back I wrote a letter to you, with the hope that one day you would read it when you are older.  I have been thinking lately that this is something I should do more of, and perhaps one day it will be good for me, as well, to look back and see how things have changed.  A lot has been on my mind lately as life changes – the most obvious of changes in our family’s life being related to the birth of Evelyn.  And this brings up the first lesson I hope to impart to you in this letter, and I hope that I can word this eloquently and clearly as it will be tricky:

As you face difficulties, remember the blessings of the past, and look forward to the blessings to come

Your mother’s pregnancy with Evelyn was…difficult.  She was sick and uncomfortable; I was frustrated from seeing her that way, frustrated with having to take up additional responsibilities, frustrated by the worries of how life would change and how difficult that would be.  But all that melted away the moment I met Evelyn – the love that filled my heart trumped all worries and all the frustration of the last 9 months were all but forgotten.  I wish I could’ve kept a sound mind during the pregnancy and realized this is how things would be, remembering that this is how it was with Logan and Lilly, but my mind invented new worries, such as “how are we going to manage when we (your parents) are now outnumbered?”  Your mother was much better at dealing with this and repeatedly stated how much she was looking forward to meeting Evelyn, and you could hear the expectation and eagerness in her voice as she said it.  Well, I hope you will take more of her optimistic view than my often pessimistic viewpoint.  But I came around.

Now, to move on to the other lessons I am pondering and hoping to impart to you, I need to give you a little background.  We have just finished a presidential election, one in which President Barack Obama was re-elected.  I have to admit that I really don’t remember many details of the elections that happened when I was growing up beyond who the candidates were and bits and pieces of what I was told by the people around me.  And this is only the fourth presidential election for which I was old enough to vote, and thus had a personal interest in.  But it seems to me that the politics of this election were especially negative – more so than other elections I remember – and it seems that many people I knew have been very afraid of what the outcome of this election would be.  Not only that, but I saw a lot of despair after the results of this election, and it was disheartening to see how afraid people were.  There is a quote from a man named Henry Louis Mencken I like, which applies to this election:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” 

Mr. Mencken lived from 1880 to 1956, so it is quite apparent that fear in politics is nothing new.  But it is surprising, to some extent, that in this day and age where the common man can easily direct their computer to certain websites, type in a word or phrase to search for, and find a wealth of information, that people would be so filled with fear over so many things which are so easily disproven.  How is this possible?  There is a psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias, according to which people will sympathetically interpret evidence that supports their beliefs and be highly critical of evidence that does not.  In one study, participants were shown fictional studies about the deterrent effect of the death penalty.  Those who supported the death penalty were quick to be skeptical of the studies that challenged the deterrent effect, while being quick to accept the studies that supported it.  Likewise, those who opposed the death penalty were quick to judge the studies that supported the deterrent effect.  What does this mean for us?  How can we be sure of anything, knowing our tendency to hold fast to bias?  Fortunately for us, as Christians, we have a guide to help us sort things out – the Bible.  So how does the Bible say we should conduct ourselves in this world?  Well, this brings us to the next lesson I’d like to impart:

Be suspicious of anything that comes from fear
Now, how can I be sure that we ought to be suspicious of anything that comes from fear?  Aren’t there times for which fear is a proper response?  Well, to be sure there are often valid reasons to be afraid.  But the Bible tells us in 2 Tim. 1:7 that “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”  Notice here that the Bible contrasts the characteristics we should not possess with the characteristics we should, and pay especially close attention to the fact that it mentions love as one of these characteristics – the Bible is so full of references to love being the chief characteristic of God and, consequently, being the chief characteristic that those who follow him should strive for.  And in 1 John 4, we are given detailed instructions on loving one another, an explanation of how God mapped out for us what love is, and then we are told in verse 18 that “love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear.”  The implications of this are that, even if our reasons for fearing are valid and reasonable (let’s be clear: most often they are not), we still should not fear!  God knows we are not perfect, and may fall to fear, and this is why he has very liberally sprinkled throughout the Bible verses like Isaiah 41:10, which says “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.  Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you.  I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.”  Now, as I mentioned before, politicians and pundits will try to convince us of a myriad of fearful, apocalyptic scenarios that will inevitably be brought about by the evil agendas of their opponents.  But I would encourage you to be immediately skeptical of any such logic that is based on fear.  As Yoda said, “fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.”  There is a lot of truth in that statement, and as I pointed out before, the Bible shows us that our primary goal is to characterize love, and there is no fear in love.  History is full of examples where fearful stories have been told to cloud people’s judgment: outrageous stories have been told of various mysterious groups and their immense power in order to convince people that laws meant to prevent discrimination and hate crimes were actually part of an evil agenda to wipe Christianity out.  Why is this?  The answer is somewhat simple: it is too obvious of a lie to hate our fellow man outwardly – in order to convince us to hate our fellow man, we must first be convinced to fear him.  And then we convince ourselves that he hates us, which, therefore, justifies our own hatred.  Are there forces out there that are trying to harm Christians?  Absolutely!  But we know that often, these forces do not resort to the most obvious means, but - rather than attacking Christians directly - will instead try to convince Christians themselves of lies in order to lead us away from God, and anything not rooted in love ought to be immediately suspect.  I believe that our goal in life ought to be to love fearlessly and freely, to extend that love to all we come near, regardless of race, orientation, or class; without preconditions, accepting the individuals we come into contact with, with all their faults included.

Now, inevitably, you will yourself fall prey to a lie – don’t fool yourself into believing that you know all truth.  So this brings us to my next lesson:

Don’t be afraid of disagreements, but face them fearlessly with love in your heart
Too often, I think, we have a tendency to avoid anyone who disagrees with us – we run away before ever engaging our imagined adversaries.  But this attitude does not lend itself to making progress, but instead affords us the luxury of never having to face the possibility that we might be wrong.  And this is a prideful attitude, and one which will cause us to be held captive to the lies we believe at the worst, or at best - if we are the ones in the right - it means that we are selfishly allowing those around us to be held captive by the lies they believe.  So I believe we should not be afraid to confront each other and have difficult discussions.  However, we need to be very careful in how we go about conducting these confrontations.  As I said, we need to face our disagreements with love in our hearts.  One of the ways to do this is:

Do not define your opponent, but give them a chance to define themselves – or the Rocky and Bullwinkle title would be: don’t name call
If we come with love in our hearts to face those we disagree with, the first thing we will strive to do is to understand their side of the story – where they are coming from.  What this means is that we cannot fall into the trap of name calling.  There has been so much of this in the last two presidential elections – calling people socialists, and traitors who want to destroy our country, idiots, and secret conspirators with evil groups who have terrible agendas. But this is not productive! 
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with someone who I had overheard bashing President Obama with much zeal before the election.  I asked him if Romney was such a great alternative, and his answer was “no, but Romney doesn’t want to kill babies.”  Now, I must stop here and point out that at this point in my life, I consider myself “Pro-Life”.  However, I must also ponder this: abortion has been legal in our nation for quite a while, as Roe V. Wade happened in 1973, and there have been Pro-Life presidents in office since then.  So why is it that we’ve been losing this battle for so long?  I would propose that one of the reasons we have been is because of the offensive way we’ve fought the battle.  We’ve turned anyone who is Pro-Choice into a monster, and when you do that - rather than striving to understand why those you disagree with feel the way they do, and being diplomatic about finding a solution to the problem – you turn those you disagree with into your enemies and a war ensues, rather than a productive discussion.
In order to solve the problems we face, we cannot resort to the rhetoric of persecution, but instead we need to realize that often those we disagree with have the same goals, but have different methods for achieving them.  And when we realize this, maybe we will be able to solve some of the problems we face together.  But along with name calling, there is one other tactic we must be very wary of, and steer far clear of:

Do not become trapped in “The Blame Game”
There is a disturbing trend that has been very visible in the political environment of today where the persecuted have been painted as the persecutors.  Perhaps the best example of this comes in the form of the Matthew Shepard Act.  On October 7, 1998, Shepard was robbed, pistol whipped, and tortured, tied to a fence post and left for dead.  He was not dead, however, but was in a coma, which was a result of the injuries he had sustained in the attack.  He was left tied to the fence post for 18 hours before he was discovered by a biker who initially mistook him for a scarecrow, most likely due to the fact that he had been so brutally beaten that he was no longer recognizable as human from a distance.  This was largely publicized because of Shepard’s sexual orientation – he was homosexual – and because the defense employed what has become known as a gay panic defense: they proposed that the murderers had been in a state of panic because Shepard had propositioned them, and thus were in a state of temporary insanity.  The previously mentioned act sought to expand the hate-crimes prevention act to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.  Now, it is hard for me to imagine a world in which this would be a bad thing – clearly what was done to Shepard was awful, and we should be moved to want to prevent such things from happening.  The purpose of the bill was to allow the government to track such crimes, and fund investigations of them, but somehow it was twisted in the minds of many as being part of a “Gay Agenda” to "muzzle people of faith who dare to express their moral and biblical concerns about homosexuality."  How does such a bill become twisted in this way?  I think, to find the answer, we can go back to the fall of man in the Garden of Eden: the first sign of the fall was that Adam and Eve engaged in “The Blame Game.”  Rather than accepting their own blame, Adam and Eve looked for scapegoats to justify their sin.  So how is it that I believe this applies to the Matthew Shepard Act?  There is a Freudian theory of Psychology by which people, rather than face the uncomfortable fact that they harbor undesirable and ugly feelings, will displace their feelings and project them upon those towards whom they harbor these feelings.  Thus, when faced with the fact that they harbor discriminatory feelings towards homosexuals, rather than facing this uncomfortable fact, opponents of the bill would spin an elaborate conspiracy theory of a “Gay Agenda” to take over America and outlaw Christianity – this removed any guilt they had, because they felt that they were then justified in hating Homosexuals: after all, the Homosexuals hated them first, according to the subconscious dialogue.  But this is not the only example of such psychology at work – the persecuted becomes the persecutor in many dialogues involving race, class, nationality, and political stance.  There are many stories of secret agendas and plots to discriminate, and often when you look at the evidence and know your history you will find that the ones supposedly involved in such plots are actually the ones who have been persecuted.  Therein lies the awful power of playing “The Blame Game” – we use it to justify our own sinful feelings, and the horrifying result of this is that often when we play this game our feelings are then translated into actions.  We justify those feelings we are uncomfortable with using “The Blame Game” and then act on them out of the fear we have manufactured for ourselves.  We turn ourselves into the holy soldiers fighting a righteous war against those who would discriminate against ourselves and those like us.  But this is not what Jesus taught!  Jesus exemplified and extorted us to live a life based on love that reaches out towards the least, the lost, and the lonely in a way that placed no preconditions on such love and showed no limits to how far he would go to display it.  Fighting secret agendas was not how Jesus showed us to live our lives – he taught us to love unconditionally! 
There is a movie, based on a book, called “I Am Legend”.  It is a terrible movie, in my opinion, because it changed the original ending of the book and lost the entire point.  The story is about a post zombie apocalyptic world, and follows the main character as he lives his life, hunting down and killing zombies along the way.  At the end of the book, he comes to a realization that is horrifying to him as he witnesses one of the zombies caring for a young zombie, and realizes that these are not mindless creatures without emotions – they have thought processes and emotions, and what’s more: none of them have ever harmed him.  He realizes that the whole time he was hunting them, they were afraid of him and that is the meaning of the title “I Am Legend” – he realizes that he is their legend, their Dracula, their mythical monster that has been hunting down the innocent and helpless of their society.  The danger in painting those we disagree with as being fearful beings who are trying to destroy our way of life is that we may inevitably become Legend, and we need to avoid such language in our discourse.  I believe that Jesus modeled being a peacemaker in the way he reasoned – he made his points carefully and thoughtfully, and did not paint those who disagreed with him as being monsters who were trying to destroy his way of life.  We need to reason as Jesus did: out of a spirit of love, we need to be peacemakers; reasoning with people diplomatically and calmly.  The purpose of the Christian life is not to fight Holy Wars against those who oppress us, but if we do have oppressors (and we do, but often they are not the people we think are our oppressors – too often they come in the form of those who pretend to be “on our side”), we need to face them with love.  Because that is the goal of the Christian life: to love God, and love people.

There is one final lesson I’d like to impart:

Hold your treasures with an open hand
In Matthew 19:16-29, there is a story of a rich man who asks Jesus what deed he should do in order to have eternal life.  Jesus lays out some of the basic commandments, and when the rich man responds that he has followed these perfectly, Jesus finally tells him that he must sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.  Now the moral of the story is not that we can get into heaven by doing this – on the contrary, if you keep reading, Jesus says, when his disciples ask who can be saved: “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”  But there is another moral to this story, and I believe that it is this: what you hold onto with a tight fist is what makes you a prisoner.  The rich man in the story believes that he can gain access to heaven through his deeds.  And I think that the way Jesus responds to him points out two mistakes this man is making:
1)    The rich man in the story believes that he has followed the commandments perfectly.  Jesus tells the man that he must not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, he must honor his father and mother (or, those who are in authority to him), and love his neighbor as himself.  The rich man’s reply?  “Oh yeah, I’ve done all that.”  But if you know anything about the teachings of Jesus, you should know how silly this response is – Jesus repeatedly points out that it is not the letter of the law that matters, but the spirit.  He extends the law against murder by pointing out that if you call someone an insulting name in anger you have murdered them in spirit.  If you lust after a woman who is not your wife, you have committed adultery, and so on.  This should make it painfully obvious to us that we can never obey the law perfectly as long as we inhabit this earth – our only hope is in the redemption provided by the only one who ever has.
2)    When Jesus tells the man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, I think that this statement does more than point out the dangers of treasuring money.  Jesus is pointing out that there is a commandment the man has not obeyed – the commandment to have no other gods before God, and to make no idols.  I think that in the context of the whole story, this could be extended to the preceding section of the conversation to imply that if you treasure legalism, you have made the same mistake of creating an idol out of it. 

The point I’m trying to make is that our legal system is not perfect – it never will be, because our world is imperfect!  No matter what laws we impose, there will be suffering and pain and hatred and warfare.  Should this stop us from trying to improve our legal system?  By all means: no!  But if we fight these battles in such a way that we are making an idol out of legality, we have already lost!  That which you treasure most is what makes you a prisoner.  But if you open your hand, and let God decide what happens with those things, you will be free, because He is the only ruler who rules justly – He is the only “Good Shepherd”.  And I would ask those who fight these battles to “protect our rights as Christians” a serious question: are these battles making us free, or are they rather making us prisoners to fear and hatred in the way that we are fighting them? 

In conclusion, my dear children, I will admit that I am a horrible example of how to live by the lessons I have just outlined.  I know this full well, but I hope that by remembering these lessons and seeking to live by them, I will come closer to becoming the child of God that I ought to be.  And I hope that you will do better than I have – I hope you will be able to avoid the traps we so often fall into, and will live in love, the way Jesus taught us to do.  But no matter what happens, know that our God is a God of redemption – he can redeem the worst of the worst, and nothing we do can separate us from His love.  Likewise, know that I will always love you.

Your Daddy

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