Monday, August 16, 2004

Morning Meditation

The following is based on the Monday morning devotional for standard support missionaries which I was privileged to lead …

This is the point in training when the knot in the pit of the stomach starts to grow. Halfway through advice about writing newsletters and determining evacuation standards comes a growing sense of dread, a gathering storm of fear.

I haven’t signed the official Letter of Agreement, so there’s always time to turn back …

In Sunday’s sermon at Trinity UMC in Hackettstown, Rev. Frank Fowler spoke of a recent canoe trip in which he crossed a large lake. As he reached the far shore, he noticed a rapidly-approaching thunderstorm. Instead of returning the quickest way – straight across the lake – he chose to hug the shoreline, in case the storm hit and he could quickly get onto dry land. It took twice as long, but he was physically safe and secure.

Rev. Fowler used this example to point out that God regularly calls us to leave the security of the coastline to go in faith across the large waters of risk and danger. All of us here in training have already made the fateful decision to leave the shore. We have all committed to big moves and sacrificial lifestyles.

The question now comes, “Just what do I do if the storm hits while I’m out in the middle of the ocean? What then?”

The story of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man in Luke 8:26-36 helps us take a fresh look at the way to deal with anxiety. The Gerasene demoniac is a prototype of a fear-ridden person. The Scripture tells us that he lived in a graveyard, one of the most fearful places in any human society. He was often chained hand and foot for fear of what he might do.

The first thing Jesus says upon meeting the demoniac, however, is to ask him his name.
His answer is legendary. “Legion,” he replied, “because many demons had gone into him.” It is not hard to imagine that the man was riddled with insecurity, terror, paranoia.

Jesus’ question was not innocent or coincidental, however. Jesus was employing a wise strategy to deal with fear. The first step in dealing with our anxiety is to name it, to get it out in the open, to give a label to it.

The question for all of us who are about to embark on mission service, then, is, “What exactly is it that you are afraid of? Name your fear!”

I fear many things as I think about my mission assignment. For example, I fear failure. I fear that the preparation, the expenditure of money and time and effort, will come to naught in Cameroon. I fear that my wife or children might come to physical harm, and there will not be adequate medical care to save them. I fear that my colleagues in the North Texas Conference will forget me, and that there will be no place for me to return. I fear that something will happen to our parents while we’re gone.

But there … it’s out. I have named my fear.

And upon naming it and identifying it for what it is, I hand over my fears and anxieties to Jesus. When that happens, Jesus takes over.

I imagine Jesus turning and throwing – no, casting -- the legion of demons away from the bedraggled man into a herd of squealing pigs. It is a violent gesture, to be sure, but appropriate. The word of Jesus delivers us from fear, subservience, and cowering attitudes.

I cannot help but think of John Wesley when I weigh my own anxiety regarding mission service. Wesley crossed the Atlantic Ocean in order to be a missionary to the colony at Georgia. The storms he encountered at sea caused him such great distress that, during his travels home, he wrote, “I went to America, to convert the Indians. But oh, who shall convert me? Who, what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself while no danger is near. But let death look me in the face and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, ‘To die is gain!’”

Most Wesley scholars believe that this was the beginning of a crucial phase in his faith journey, one in which he began to finally understand the sufficiency of God’s grace. Not long after returning home, Wesley experienced the assurance of his salvation, and a victory over the fear of death, while at the meeting on Aldersgate Street.

The day after Wesley’s famed heart-warming experience, he recorded in his journal that “the enemy” continued to attack him with the question, “If you really do believe now, then why isn’t there a more obvious and visible change?” Wesley’s response is memorable: “That I do not know. But this I know, I now have peace with God. And I do not sin today, and Jesus my Master has forbid me to take thought for the morrow.”

I claim that answer for myself. There’s a lot I don’t know about my missionary future. But this I know, I have peace with God … right now. And Jesus won’t let me worry about tomorrow …

Good night, Rachel, Chloe, and Mallory.