Lenten Reflections – Christine Parker

Lenten Reflections

by Christine Parker

I gave up fear and cheese for lent.

Giving up the cheese was surprisingly easy.

The fear, not so much.

Have you ever noticed that when you pray to God for help in something, say patience, that what you get are opportunities to practice patience? You know, you say please God help me to be more patient, and you find yourself facing traffic jams, frustrating people, a pot of spaghetti water that won’t boil, interminable lines at the DMV.

I think this is where the term ‘be careful what you pray for’ came from.

When I asked God what he wanted me to work on for Lent, what I heard Him say was, “Be Not Afraid.”

As my Jewish friends would say, “Oy!”

Of course this made sense to me.  I’ve been having a lot of practice at ‘Being Not Afraid’ in my recent spiritual journey. Several years ago God gave me an incredible opportunity in the form of personal disaster.  In the course of a six month period my life came apart. The world as I knew it, and MY expectations of what my life would be, evaporated in a firestorm of loss, shattering disillusionment and pain.

By the Grace of God, and the help of good and loving people, I am now in a place in my life where I can see the gift of this. At 52 years of age I am starting over, working consciously to find the life that God intends for me to lead, rebuilding who I am, seeking my true purpose in life. It is a fascinating journey, but it’s often a slow time. A waiting time that sometimes feels like wading through a bog, of doing nothing but quietly pressing on.  Then when there is movement, it’s usually a shift in some uncharted area, full of uncertainty that requires stepping out in faith.

I am sure that there are those of you hearing this who can relate to this feeling.

Disasters aside, I have been fortunate in my life, and am basically a pretty joyful, positive person. Let me give you a little background.

I am the product of a mixed marriage. My Presbyterian mother married a ‘Papist’.  Both of my parents are deeply spiritual and while they are not sticklers on the dogmas of the religions they grew up in, they  take Jesus commandment to “love one another” seriously and that was the beacon that guided my growing up.  I learned to believe that God loves us—all of us– that we are children of God living in a world filled with wonder, and that self-discipline and putting others first is the way to live a happy and worthwhile life.

Both of my parents have a scientific bent (Mom was a nurse, Dad a fighter pilot, commercial pilot and trained engineer) so they were open to experiment on the best way to provide a religious education for their four children.  Consequently, I was baptized Catholic, confirmed Episcopalian, and went to Lutheran Sunday school. I also grew up in a highly intuitive family with a history of what I would call ‘faith based extrasensory encounters’ For example, I grew up with this story.

My father was a fighter pilot.  One time he was getting into his plane when a voice he associates with God told him that the plane would fail and how.  He said a prayer and thanked God, got in, took off, managed to handle the problem and later safely land the plane. I asked him why he didn’t refuse to fly a plane he KNEW could kill him. Weren’t you afraid?  He said “How could I give that plane to some other pilot? At least I knew what was going to go wrong.”

I grew up confident in this kind of direct link to God, and a pretty broad acceptance of what was God’s will– like my psychic link with my mother, having a faith healer great-grandfather, and a sister that talks to dead people. We saw these as gifts from God and part of God’s world, to be treated with respect, and otherwise pretty much not a big deal. Of course God can make stuff like this possible. He’s GOD.

The net result was that while I did not have a lot of formal religious beliefs, I felt a deep personal link to God, a belief that life is good, an acceptance of people as they were, and an ability to see the best in others and the world around me.

As an adult, I learned about Buddhism, meditation, paganism and Judaism. I was fascinated and energized to see recurring themes in these very different religious approaches that were so similar, and reinforcing of what I had learned growing up.  God was big enough to be present in all of these beliefs.  All of these belief systems were means to access the truth, and God. I would also still attend church occasionally but if I’m honest, most of the time it felt more like some archaic self-soothing ritual than something relevant that linked me to my God, and His intentions for me.

And then, ‘The Disaster’ created an urgency in me to actively seek a way to grow my relationship with God on a daily basis. In the work I was doing, only so much of it could be done alone. The rest required practical application, and the strength that comes from numbers of like-minded people.

Isaiah 41:13 says, ‘For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.’

And as part of that help, I believe that God led me to Central Congregational Church.

The first time I walked in, I felt at home.  Yes the building is gorgeous and soothing; yes the choir is heartbreakingly good. But what reached into the deepest need in me was the acceptance, love, gratitude and caring I saw demonstrated by this group of people. When Rebecca or Kat or Claudia speak they not only inspire you, they create the link to practical action that will bring you closer to God. Congregation members reached out to me and I was included. I saw children ecstatically racing to Sunday school. (This was not MY memory of response to Sunday school!) I saw love cheerfully demonstrated in local and global mission work. I could not believe this anointed group of people actually existed, and they’d been here all the time, waiting for me to find them.

Their example gives me hope and energy and encouragement that I can do likewise. I believe being a member of this loving and inspiring Congregation is part of finding my life’s true purpose.

So let’s get back to my Lenten quest to ‘Be Not Afraid’.

Basically, I pray at God’s direction to ‘Be Not Afraid’, and he sends me scary stuff to practice on.

Have you ever noticed that when you try to NOT do something what you often end up doing is thinking about nothing but whatever IT is? So I began my search for what to do to combat fear by asking what is the opposite of fear? Thinking I could do THAT instead when fear crowded my thoughts and intentions.

As you now know from my spiritual journey, I have pretty broad parameters for where God lives, and where Godly direction can come from.  So you probably won’t be surprised to learn that one of the sources of my answer to this question is found in modern neuroscience.

I remembered some research that I had encountered years ago that gave me an anti-fear tool for my arsenal. In his book, What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life For The Better, psychologist and life coach Dan Baker wrote about recent discoveries in neuroscience, specifically how the brain works, that shed some light on the fear issue.  For those of you who are scientists, my apologies in advance, but I am going to give my Readers Digest version.

Basically the oldest part of our brains, the amygdala or ‘lizard brain’ governs fear, specifically by triggering our most primal fears of the fight or flight type.  This was really important ages ago for our survival as a species when danger lurked behind every bush, but its action can be debilitating in modern life when it kicks in as stress or anxiety over perceived or imagined threats.

Fortunately, the newest center of our brain, the neocortex offers a powerful override capability.  It is the center of intellect, creativity, intuition and spirituality. And here’s the key: brain scans show that when one of these parts of the brain is active, the other shows little or no activity, like it’s turned off.  Better yet, we can actually choose to toggle back and forth!

For instance, if there’s a fire, and your amygdala is screaming ‘Fire! Run!” your neocortex is silent, and all your focus is on running, as it should be if there’s a fire!  But when you are praying or creating or showing gratitude or love to someone, you are using your neocortex, and your lizard brain–along with its fear-mongering– is quiet.

So in the absence of real danger, we can CHOOSE to activate the neocortex, and silence the scary thoughts emanating from our lizard brain by choosing thoughts of love, and gratitude and creativity and rational problem solving.  Even in the presence of real danger we can ALSO choose to activate the neocortex and suppress our primal fear, which is why parents in a burning house can ignore their own danger to save a child.

I found what I was looking for. What I needed to do to ‘Be Not Afraid’.  I needed to Love more.  And it works! Try it yourself sometime, when you are feeling afraid of a person or circumstance. Choose to think lovingly or with gratitude about the person or event, looking for how you can love more, or help or learn.  Then note: you are no longer afraid.

Love silences Fear.

Isn’t God great? He built an antidote for fear right into our brains. It’s the choice to love.

And to my mind, God and science agree. Here is how His word puts it in First John 4:18 in my amplified Bible:

There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror! For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].

So to give up Fear for Lent, I am committing to Love, and working toward that ‘full maturity of love”. That’s where I am on my spiritual journey now.  With the help of my Church, and you good people, and the designs of God, I am ‘Being Not Afraid’ by doing what Jesus instructed us to do,” Love one another.”


Posted in Lenten Reflections.