Monday, November 20, 2017

Fruitfulness and Fear

Do you know God’s first commandment in bible and Jesus’ last commandment are the same?  Long before the 10 Commandments, God’s first commandment to Adam and Eve is this: “Be fruitful and multiply.”  Jesus’ last words to his disciples and his final command is, “Go forth into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  Be fruitful! 

Have you ever noticed how important being fruitful is in Scripture?  John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness, “Repent, for the ax is laid to the root of every tree that does not bear fruit.”  When someone approaches Jesus to learn how to discern authentic religion from inauthentic, Jesus says, “You can judge people by the fruit they bear.”  Some time later he teaches his disciples, “By this my father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and thereby prove to be my disciples.”  How many of Jesus’ parables revolve around seeds that grow and produce a hundred-fold harvest?  St. Paul writes to the Galatians that the Spirit’s presence in our life produces the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  While we tend to measure people based on what they possess, God is interested in what we produce.

Today, we hear Jesus tell a story about a master who entrusts riches to three servants.  Two take what is given to them and use it to create more wealth for their master.  They are fruitful.  But one servant buries what the master gives him and hands it back upon his return.  Because the servant produces nothing, he incurs the full wrath of his master’s judgment, “You wicked servant.”  Weeping and dental distress follows.

In telling his story, Jesus gives us a window into the thought process of the wicked servant.  He fails to be fruitful not because he is lazy and not because he is incompetent, but because he is afraid.  Fear can be lethal to fruitfulness.

Through their studies, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have determined human beings exhibit what they call “loss aversion”.  We feel the pain of loss more acutely than we feel the pleasure of gain.  They demonstrate this in a classroom setting with a coin toss.  Kahneman says he is going to flip a coin and if it comes up tails whoever is willing to participate will lose $10.  He then asks students how much they would have to gain from winning in order to take up the challenge.  The typical answer, he says, is $20.  Protecting the $10 is more important to us than taking a risk to earn more.  Each of us, to one degree or another, has an aversion to loss.  We hang on to stuff we don’t need, stay with the tried and true, and hold back so we don’t get overextended.  It is not entirely a bad thing, but when we are riddled with fear this natural inclination can become debilitating. 

And right now, we are living in a society choked with fear.  A recent study surveying 1,500 people revealed our greatest fears revolve around…     

Corruption of government officials


Corporate tracking of personal information

Terrorist attacks

I suspect your own personal list is similar.  Anxiety, which is worrying about what might happen, fills the air the way a fish’s life is filled with water.  In our day, it is the medium in which we attempt to live our lives. 

Chronic anxiety actually alters the brain’s functioning.  Studies show how over time the portion of the brain responsible for critical thinking and memory begins to shrink, while the part responsible for the ancient fight or flight response grows.  If unchecked, chronic anxiety causes our thought process to slow down and our decision-making ability to be impaired.  Eventually the brain begins to make false correlations, perceiving as threats things that are not (not every person from the Middle East speaking Arabic into a cell phone is plotting a terrorist attack).

In his book The Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner, the president of Lewis & Clark College, contends most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in history.  In fact, The Atlantic magazine, citing the global rise in household wealth, longevity, and education, accompanied with a decrease in violent crime and extreme poverty, declared 2015 “the best year in history for the average human being.”

If this is accurate, why do so many of us feel so anxious?  Glassner says in spite of all that is good in our world, we are also living in the era of the worst fear-mongering in human history.  A lot of people gain a lot of power by whipping up our fears and proclaiming only they can save us.  A lot of corporations make a lot of money by making us feel threatened and then providing us with a means of safety.

Fear-mongering works because many operate on a sense of “probability neglect” – a term coined by Cass Sunstein, a former White House advisor.  Probability neglect describes what happens when we are stirred emotionally by a terrible world event and begin to imagine how the same thing might happen to us: a gunman spraying down bullets on a public event, a lone terrorist driving a rented vehicle into a cluster of bicyclists, a worshipping community decimated by an armed assailant.  While these things happen, the reality is they are the exception, not the rule.  Still, they make us feel fragile and vulnerable and afraid. 

And Jesus tells a brilliant story to highlight how when we are afraid we are challenged to be who we are created to be and struggle to do what we are created to do.  Here is how the fearful servant looks at life:

· My master is a harsh person (or, we might say, “this is a dangerous world”).

· My master expects much from me.

· The talent I have been given is a burden.

· I am not sure if I am up to this task.

· Above all else, I must not fail so I will disengage from risk and keep myself safe.

The other two servants live and move and have their being in the exact same context, but they view the world very differently:

· My master is an incredibly generous person (or, we might say, “there is abundant goodness and opportunity in this world).

· My master has expressed confidence in me.

· Being given these talents is the opportunity of a lifetime.

· I now have the chance to pursue my dream.

· I am going to make the most of what I have been given and I can’t wait to show my master what I have been able to accomplish.

Which perspective do you think engenders fruitfulness?

Here are some things you can do to lower the anxiety you feel:

· Stop listening to cable news and talk radio.

· Limit the amount of time you attend to the day’s news.

· Foster a diverse group of friends.  Studies show when like-minded people discuss current events they actually become more anxious – the echo chamber effect.

· Do something for yourself.  Go for a walk, listen to music, paint, write, whatever.

· Do something for someone else.  One of the best things I do for me each week is serving in St. Paul’s Food Pantry. 

· Do something real: put your hands in dirt and plant something, use ingredients to make a dinner, tackle that renovation project.

· Develop a manageable spiritual discipline; perhaps a simple prayer at the transition points of your day.

God’s great gift to each one of us is the gift of life.  What we do with our lives is our gift back to God.  What will you do with what God has given to you?  What will you do to be fruitful?  What that us holding you back needs to be shed?