Stop flinging statistics

I’ve got more to say than will fit in a Tweet…

My news feed is blowing up with highly distorted references to a “Harvard Study” that allegedly presents a “shocking conclusion” and “pokes a massive hole in Black Lives Matter claims.” I’m not linking to this internet propaganda that masquerades as journalism; if you want to see it plug the quotes into your favorite search engine.

Here’s a better NY Times article on the study.  While the skewed articles are factually correct in their statement that the study found no racial bias in police shootings, they leave out critical findings from the study.  A more accurate summary of the findings, from the study itself (it’s 63 pages, but over half is statistical data and tables, it’s not too difficult of a read, if you’re interested in facts and details):

On non-lethal uses of force, there are racial differences- sometimes quite large– in police use of force, even after accounting for a large set of controls designed to account for important contextual and behavioral factors at the time of the police-civilian interaction.  Interestingly, as the use of force increases from putting hands on a civilian to striking them with a baton, the overall probability of such an incident occurring decreases dramatically but the racial difference remains roughly constant. Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, blacks are 21.3 percent more likely to endure some form of force. Yet, on the most extreme uses of force– officer-involved shootings- we are unable to detect any racial differences in either the raw data or when accounting for controls. (p35, emphasis added)

I could expend another couple of paragraphs detailing how what the report actually says in no way punches holes in the Black Lives Matter argument, or vindicates those who oppose it.  But that’s not the real point of this post.

Significant numbers of the African American community are telling us in multiple different ways, from tweets, blogs, speeches, sermons, and protests, that there is a problem.  When us white folks answer with “All Lives Matter,” or with statistics purporting to tell them that they are wrong, we are totally missing the point.  THERE IS A PROBLEM!!!  We can have a discussion about what the problem is, or how we solve it, or even about whether the problem is one of fact vs. perception, but that requires a willingness to have a dialog first.  If your answer fits in a tweet, or a meme, particularly if it points out how the other party is wrong, or how the problem doesn’t exist, you have failed at dialog before even demonstrating a willingness to participate.

Pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Atlanta made an astute observation in his gathering last Sunday (watch the entire service here–it’s worth your time):

“The further away we are from a problem, the simpler it looks….  Most of us, from where we sit as white people, we are far away from what you’re talking about. We just are.  We believe you, it’s a reality (Greg’s note:  I would argue that this isn’t always accurate), but it’s still so far away and our answers, our emotional response is so simplistic.

“The closer you get to a problem, the more complex it becomes, because the closer you get to any problem there is the actual facts.”

We have to quit throwing out simplistic answers (“just comply”) or statistics and “facts” that deny the problem (see above), or pithy statements that dismiss the problem (“All Lives Matter”).  These do nothing but degrade our African American brothers and sisters.  We need to listen.  We need to lean in.  We need to get closer to the problem, so we start understanding it.  If you don’t think there is a problem, you’re too far away.  Sit down with the mom of an African American teenage boy, and ask her what she fears.  Ask her what she teaches her son about being pulled over by the police.  Listen.

Stop being defensive.  The African American community is not calling you or me an explicit racist.  What they’re trying desperately to tell us is that there is bias in the system, and it’s hurting them, it’s creating fear, and we need to help.  If your solution is a study to prove that the problem doesn’t exist, maybe you need to lean in a little more.

One more thought for my Christian brothers and sisters:  Prayer is vital, and necessary.  I implore you to pray, but not some lame prayer of “Jesus, fix what’s going on in our country.”  He empowered the solution 50 days after his crucifixion.  Jesus’s solution for addressing what’s going on in the world today is, and has been the same for the last 2000 years–the Church.

Instead, I ask you to pray the prayer that Andy suggests:

“Prejudice and racism are almost impossible to see in the mirror because it’s hidden in our hearts…. Would you ask God to do for you what he did for Peter (in Acts 10:28)? Would you ask God to show you? Would you say ‘God, I think I’m good with this, I think I’m free and clear.’… Regardless of your experience, would you at least have the courage to say, ‘God, show me. Help me to spot it and despise it the way that you do. Help me to despise it and to stop defending it.  And give me the courage to eradicate it from my heart, rather than keep telling myself that same story over and over and over that justifies it in my heart.’ “

But when you’ve prayed, don’t consider your role finished.  As Christians, we need to act.  Andy’s concluding words:

The church has to be at the epicenter of this.  Only in the church are we taught that I am looking at someone who is made in the image of God….  You cannot mistreat my children and get along with me, and I cannot mistreat you and get along with my Father in Heaven. That is the message of the New Testament, and that is the message of the Cross, and that trumps my experience, and your experience.

Lean in.  Get close to your brothers and sisters–so close that the problem is not “theirs,” but “ours.”  And when your response begins with, “But…” stop and listen again.

A new kind of independence

240 years ago today, a group of brave men staged the first Brexit. I doubt any of them had a clue what they where getting themselves into- in the form of the struggles and tragedy of war against the world’s greatest super power of that day, as well the amazing nation that they were bringing to life.  Nonetheless, these men committed wholeheartedly– pledging “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

The leadership and dedication of those men is noteworthy. It is also unfortunately very much absent from national and world leaders today.  This morning, the leader of the anti-EU party in Britain quit, saying,

“I have never been, and I have never wanted to be, a career politician. My aim in being in politics was to get Britain out of the European Union,” Farage told reporters.

“During the referendum campaign, I said ‘I want my country back’. What I’m saying today, is, ‘I want my life back,’ and it begins right now.” -Nigel Farage

That’s it.  He got what he wanted, and now he’s leaving the mess for someone else to clean up.

Lest we think such boorishness is confined to our British friends, we should examine the political leaders in our own country.  How many of them are willing to forego their own personal resources, ambitions, and very lives to advance the cause of their nation?  In this age of super PACs and national parties funding multi-billion dollar campaigns, I don’t see a lot of leadership that has “skin in the game.”

Backing up one step further, though, I find myself asking whether the investment of our leaders reflects the investment of their constituency (meaning us)?  Just about every pundit with a voice, and every citizen with a social media account is bemoaning the demise of our nation/world, regardless of their personal political bent.  But is that possibly because our interests have shifted from the good of the many, to the good of me? Maybe we need a new “revolution” where we begin by putting our self interests a half-step behind the interests of our fellow citizen and fellow man?

Just an Independence Day thought.

Happy Birthday, USA!

Orlando, part 2: Seeing the people

One of the things I observed in Orlando on Monday, a little more than 24 hours after the Pulse shooting, was the people. The feeling was different. Even in the restaurant where we ate lunch, about a mile away, the staff was waiting tables, but you could tell their minds were distant… numb. The traffic was horrendous, as a main arterial through the middle of the city was closed for several blocks, yet people were patient. Courteous, even.

I was struck by who was there.

The first people I noticed were the locals. People who had this occur, in some cases literally in their back yard. Most of the time, catastrophic news happens in a place on TV. It’s not a real place; it could be a movie set in Hollywood as far as we know. But for these people, this was in their neighborhood, their place of work, at the Subway where they buy their lunch every day. It is their home. And it had been invaded, not just by a gunman, but by the world.

The next group of people I noticed were the media. Satellite trucks were everywhere. Miles of cables strung through the streets. Power inverters hooked to the batteries of rental cars for blocks in every direction. Enough pop-up tents to equip the infield of a NASCAR race. I’d already seen the Facebook posts about the “truth” that the media is keeping from us. You know, those plastic-faced souls who are trying to brainwash you into believing their version of America? Lies. All of it. Am I biased? You could argue that, since my son is one of them. Or, you could consider that maybe, since I know one of them, I have a better perspective on reality than most people. As I watched these reporters, producers, photographers, and others work and sweat, trying to make sure every detail was correct, to uncover truth and provide accurate details without spreading inaccuracies, I was struck by their determination. In horrific conditions, they were sweating it out, suppressing personal emotions, sleep deprivation, and technical frustrations. They weren’t doing it to control minds, nor to get rich. They were doing it because presenting the truth is important to them. Hear me on this one: The media plays an important role in our free nation, and these professionals perform their duty with the same gravity as law enforcement or military does. We owe them respect, and the benefit of the doubt.

It was impossible not to notice the law enforcement presence. What was most surprising was the number, and the variety. Local, county, and state police, but that was just the beginning. Federal agents from multiple agencies, mobile crime labs and command trailers from cities hundreds of miles away, some of which made no sense for them to be there, until you consider the enormity of the task. Again, I was impressed by their professionalism in horrific circumstances and in incredibly difficult conditions. The heat and humidity were brutal. Cops controlling closed roads who had to answer the same insistent plea to go down that street, from a different person every three minutes, for whatever brutal length of time their shift covered. Men and women who had spent hours working through the carnage of a crime scene that can’t be comprehended. All with a calm, patient presence that concealed their exhaustion, tension, and …pain. These men and women were there to “protect and serve.” The law enforcement profession has been battered lately in the public eye. But they deserve our respect and appreciation for their work on this day. All of them face death on a daily basis, much more often than most of us ever realize.

Then there were the volunteers. Christ Church Orlando  is just 5 doors down the street from Pulse. They opened their doors in the first hours after the shooting, providing a needed respite for the first responders and law enforcement, offering A/C, food, water, and a place to rest, 24 hours a day. As a general rule, Christians haven’t done the best job loving the type of people who frequented Pulse, but Pastor Paul impressed me with one thing he said: Since starting the church, they have always stayed true to their call to remain in the heart of the city. I didn’t get the impression that they had much of a connection to Pulse or its customers, but they were there, and they went to work, ministering to their community the best way they knew how.

If your news feed has an evangelical Christian channel to it, you’ve seen the posts about the Chick-Fil-A that opened on a Sunday to feed the first responders. If you don’t know, this is a big deal, first because Chick-Fil-A never opens on Sunday, because their owners are Christians who make it a corporate policy to allow all employees to have Sunday to be with their families (and go to church, if they choose). Chick-Fil-A has received bad press in the past on LGBT issues, so Christians are trumpeting it from the rooftops that no one has heard about this act (often with an air of self-righteousness because it’s not being reported by the biased media). Here’s the thing: It’s probably not making the news for several more legitimate reasons:

  • I get the impression they didn’t do it for publicity, but because they were serving a need in their community
  • EVERYONE was serving. Businesses were donating whatever they could to help out. The Target store just a few blocks away gave pallets of bottled water. Grocery stores were donating food. Restaurants were donating meals. Chick-Fil-A was just one business among many. ALL deserve to be appreciated for their selflessness, yet no one was doing it for appreciation. People needed to serve one another, to put their love into action.

I saw thousands of people. Straight and LGBT; community leaders and the impoverished; multiple ethnicities, and most likely multiple political parties. People who want to abolish guns, and 2nd Amendment loyalists. There were rednecks and illegals. Muslims, Christians, and atheists. But on this day, something was different:   There was a respect being shown, by everyone, to everyone. Suddenly, we were once again aware of the humanity of each one, even those who were different. It felt much the same as the feeling I had in DC, near the Pentagon, in the days after 9/11.

That day, no one was a them. Every person I encountered was a we. Someone who mattered, who hurt, who was a son or daughter, a sibling, a friend, a spouse… Most importantly, EVERY person there was a PERSON, with intrinsic value, which I believe is because they are first and foremost an image-bearer of God. God gives every person value, and no one has the right or authority to take that value away. On that day, in Orlando, each saw the value of the lives around them. My prayer is that we will all be changed by this event… that we will see that value for the rest of our lives, and even in those that we dislike, disagree with; and that we will think and act differently.

I’m not asking that each of us hold hands with a Muslim, or a transgender person, or an NRA Life Member, and sing Kumbaya. Start with your next door neighbor. Or the jerk that just cut you off in the grocery store parking lot. How about just changing your political rhetoric–not your opinions, but the words you use to state your opinions? Because, like it or not, Hillary, Donald, and Barack are people too. Once we start dehumanizing them, we are well on our way to hating them. And as I wrote a few days ago, that hatred is the evil that resides in each one of us, that is the root cause of this tragedy.

For my readers who aren’t followers of Jesus, you can jump out here.  The rest of this post is a family talk with my brothers and sisters.

In Luke 6:27-49 Jesus issues what is arguably the most difficult commands in all of his teachings.  He tells us to love everybody–not just those who are loveable, or who are in our circle and meet our standards.  Because everybody does that.  His followers are to be different, and to show that difference by loving those who hate them.  And he’s not commanding us to have warm feelings from afar–he’s talking about real, sacrificial action, without expecting anything in return.  Then he puts some teeth in his teaching:  in v 35 he tells us that in doing so, “then (we) will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (including me).  He goes on to tell us that we will be judged, condemned, and forgiven with the measure we use to judge, condemn, or forgive others.  We get this backwards.  We want God to forgive us as we forgive ourselves, and judge others the way we judge others.  He talks about the fruit in our lives coming from what is stored up in our hearts, either good or evil.

He then drives the point to a non-negotiable conclusion with his parable of the wise and foolish builders.  He starts in v 46 with a question that should cut each of us to the bone: “Why do you call me , ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

The answer is, “because we don’t want to, Jesus.”  We want to do things our way, with your blessing, so we parse and interpret the words of this passage and others like it, to give ourselves loopholes to avoid doing what he plainly says.  But looking back at the logical implication of v 35 above, if we are children of the Most High if we obey him, then when we choose not to obey, or twist his words to make his commands more suitable to our liking, then the converse is true–v 49 tells us that like the house without a foundation, we will collapse, and our destruction will be complete.

Love.  It’s how we’re known as his disciples.

Orlando

My wife and I spent Monday in Orlando, on Orange Street, looking for ways to help in the aftermath of the Pulse tragedy. The day was emotional, exhausting, and difficult to process. I tried to take everything in… the people, the emotion, the activity. I spent much of Tuesday writing, and trying to distill what I sensed, and what I’m feeling. Most of those words will probably not leave my notebook. There are several blog articles that I’m not certain if I’ll ever publish. Some because I just needed to get my thoughts down on the page, and some because, well, I’m not sure they will mean anything to others. I’m also hesitant because so much has already been said, and I can’t seem to write fast enough to not be rehashing the thoughts of others.

I have to publish this one. I’ve been wrestling with it since Sunday. My (small) audience covers a really broad spectrum politically, philosophically, and theologically. I can bet that all of you disagree with me on something, which is OK, because there are some issues that I have trouble finding consensus with myself on. I work to write in a way that doesn’t compromise my deeply held beliefs, but at the same time encourages constructive dialog, or at least meaningful thought, even in those who hold core values that differ fundamentally from my own. But today I am writing from an unabashedly Christian viewpoint, yet with the same desire to cultivate meaningful dialog or thought amongst those who might disagree.

Much has been written to attempt to explain why. Hundreds of investigators are interviewing thousands of connections, exploring terabytes of data, all for clues as to what motivated the shooter. Some want to blame religion. Or hatred of homosexuals. Or repressed sexuality. Or ethnicity, mental health, or some other cause that we can find reprehensible. Donald Trump wants to blame Muslims and Syrian refugees. Hillary wants to blame guns. Some want to blame the FBI for not recognizing “warning signs” that are only perceivable after the fact. The reality is we all want to blame something. We’re looking for an external cause, a them, or a that, which we can then abolish, hate, or kill to make this stop.

Carey Nieuwhof is a Canadian pastor who teaches about leadership in the church. He wrote a blog Monday morning that contained a thought that rattled me. He offered up several thoughts on how churches should respond in this “age of terror,” and point #2 gave me trouble. He talks about the importance of confession and humility, two Christian staples that may have lost some of their importance in our Western church culture. In that discussion, he made a statement that I flat disagreed with, when I first read it. He said,

“The opposite of confession is blame…and that’s an instinctive reaction most of us have.”

I don’t disagree with the “instinctive reaction” part–we all are good at blame, and it comes from deep inside, without effort or conscious thought. My issue was with the “opposite” part. I have a fundamental issue with people creating dichotomies  and this one seemed to be stretching quite a bit. I read enough stuff that I disagree with that I didn’t dwell there much, but as I thought and pondered throughout the days, it kept bubbling back to the surface. And I started to consider the significant truth packaged there: Blame is an attempt to ascribe cause to the other… Confession is the admission that “I did it.” Not “I did it because…” or the original casting of blame that followed the original sin, in Genesis 3, where Adam blames Eve (“The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” See how he did that, not only was it Eve’s fault, but it was God’s fault for putting her there!).

But, what do I have to confess? I didn’t shoot anyone. As I considered all the different angles being explored as we all seek a satisfying answer to the question “Why?”, I crashed into this confession thought again. Because the Christian concept of confession starts to point to the answer to the question. There is one common denominator to all of the tragic events that have dominated our news in recent years (and all of history, for that matter). It’s not religion, race, ethnicity, or weapon. It crosses every boundary. It is most often a silent killer, destroying from the inside out. It is a blackness of the human soul called evil.

We can all agree that the actions of the shooter in Orlando were evil. Our desire to blame is simply looking for an external locus for that evil. What made him evil? Was it his religion? Was it his upbringing? Was it defective brain chemistry? Repressed sexual urges? Any one of those causes can be a viable explanation, so long as we don’t share that same defect.   That last phrase is important. As long as it was them, we can accept an explanation. But when the explanation includes us, we react with vehemence. I am not in any way blaming this tragedy on guns, but observe the response of gun owners: When the expected call to in some way blame guns for this tragedy came, the shouted challenges and impassioned memes exploded across the ether. In this case, I have to agree: guns didn’t cause this, and banning guns won’t stop it. Because guns aren’t the problem.

Many want to blame religion, or Middle Eastern culture as the source of the evil we see, but that explanation doesn’t fly in the case of the Charleston shootings. Guns can’t explain away Timothy McVeigh’s actions. The Bible tells us the problem lies within each of us. Evil is inherent in the hearts of men and women. We don’t like to hear that, and mankind has pursued multiple philosophies to refute this claim. My purpose today is not to defend the claim, so much as to encourage us to consider it. We don’t want to, because if the shooter’s motivation was evil, and evil is inherent, then the logical implication is… we are all capable of similar atrocities.

I cannot prove this statement to be correct, but the more I consider it, the more I believe it is true. I suspect that each of us, if we were bold enough to take the time and consider the deeper recesses of our souls, would come to a similar realization. I’m not blaming here, I am confessing. I am capable of incredible evil. I wouldn’t shoot up a gay nightclub, because that’s not where the objects of my hate are found. But there is hatred in my heart, and it can cause me to consider unthinkable actions against my fellow man. I would humbly submit, based on both my knowledge of people and my study of the Bible, that we all have that same capacity. I further submit that if you haven’t seen that level of hate in your own soul, it’s because you haven’t met the object yet, not because you don’t have the capacity.

This post could become book-length, and not exhaust the consideration of this thought. My goal isn’t debate. Today, all I want to do is confess. I am capable of hating, and that hatred has the potential to judge a person bearing the image of God as a sub-human that I have the right to destroy. I believe that is the essence of the shooter’s action, whether his target is eventually determined to be because the victims were gay, or because they were Americans complicit in the bombing of his claimed country, or some other reason that we will probably never know.

I believe for each of us, there is a them. Them are the people that we don’t see as human. It might not start that way. It may just be a disdain for an action, or an origin, or a belief, or a characteristic. As we allow that disdain to separate us from them, the disdain can strengthen. As the chasm grows, their humanity shrinks, and eventually we can quite easily see them as not worthy of… You may not have pursued that thought to the point of being willing to take a life, but I believe we are all capable.

Before you think I’m just making this all up, let me point to someone who most agree was at least a great philosopher/ethicist/teacher. Jesus said that anyone who is angry with another person is subject to judgment the same as one who murders. Without delving into a deep parsing of the Greek word translated as “anger” in Matthew 5:23, he’s not rewriting the Ten Commandments. He’s pointing out that murder starts in our hearts as a judgment of another. John affirms this interpretation in 1 John 3:15 when he says “anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer…”. The rest of that verse tends to answer the next question: “What is the solution?”

John goes on to say “and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” Christians will tell you that Jesus is love, and that having Jesus residing in you provides eternal life. For the sake of time, let me jump a few steps in this logical process–the antidote to the evil and hatred in each of us is LOVE. That’s the ONLY thing that is going to stop the atrocities. Gun bans wont. Walls wont. Bombing the Middle East into a parking lot wont.

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 Love never fails….

 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.- 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13

I’m not asking you to believe–just consider “What if?”

Fewer and fewer people are doing anything outside of their normal Friday routine today.  As the US becomes less bound to the Christian tradition, less of its people recognize that this week is the most important week on the Christian calendar, and that today is known as “Good Friday.”

As a kid, that name boggled my mind.  Now that I’m older and wiser, it still boggles my mind.  Shouldn’t it be “Good Sunday” and “Really Bad Friday?”  Now, before you start going all theological on me, I’m going to ask that you take off your spiritual glasses for a moment, and look at this story like most of the world would.  Jesus, the focal point of the Christian faith, is nailed to a cross (don’t gloss over that, just because you’ve heard it a million times–let it sink in for a minute) and he dies.

How can that be “good?”  As a kid, well-meaning family members and Sunday School teachers explained to me how it was necessary to satisfy God, to make up for all the bad things I had done, for Jesus to die.

“Why?” young Greg asks.

“Because that’s the way the penalty is paid.”

“So the guy who didn’t do anything wrong had to die to make up for me telling lies and stealing cookies?”

“Well, yes…”

“Who made those rules?”

“God did.”

“Jesus’ dad?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s a dumb rule… But Jesus is dead, and that’s why we call it ‘Good Friday?’ ”

“I think I hear your mother calling you…”

Dead Jesus certainly didn’t seem to make sense to 10-year-old Greg.  It didn’t make sense to Peter, James, John, or the rest of Jesus’ followers.  In fact, it was so far from logical, let alone “good” that it had to be the worst day of all of their lives.

Today, no one gives a lot of thought to the execution of Jesus on the cross.  Christians might acknowledge it when they say “Jesus died for me,” but most don’t think about it any more deeply than they do “2+2=4.”  We tend to focus more on the resurrection of Jesus than the death.  Non-Christians probably don’t give it much thought at all.  Most non-Christians, if they take the time to consider the death of Jesus, are apt to write it off as either myth, or a relatively insignificant historical event that’s been blown way out of proportion by the deception of his early followers.

That’s unfortunate.

As Christians, we tend to demonstrate more gratitude to someone who finds and returns our lost wallet (with cash and credit cards intact) than the one who died a horrific death on our behalf.  What if Christians showed their gratitude for Jesus’ death by loving others the way Jesus loved those around him during his life?

For non-Christians, its doubly unfortunate in that their disbelief in the historicity of Jesus’ death, or their dismissal of its significance, causes them to not seriously consider a crucial question:  What if Jesus really did die on a Roman cross in Jerusalem?

The historicity of Jesus’ death on the cross is one of the most accurately established facts in all of history.  Refuting his death as a made up story that was manipulated by his followers into a grand religion has as much credibility as refuting the Apollo moon landings.*  And if his death was so significant that the Roman cross went from being a symbol of oppression, torture, and disgrace to the most recognized religious symbol in the world in a few hundred years, perhaps it is worth more consideration, not just from a historical standpoint, but from a personal one as well.

IF the accounts of Jesus’ death are true, if Jesus and his first followers believed he died for a purpose, and that purpose crosses the boundaries of history and includes you and me today–isn’t it worth at least exploring?

And if you believe, as I do, that the event is not only true, but that it occurred for the reasons Jesus said it would, then shouldn’t his willing sacrifice of life for my eternal benefit, cause me to live differently, as he asked?

 


*I use the analogy of the Apollo program very deliberately.  The writings which became the New Testament are strongly established to have been written within the first 50 years after Jesus’ death.  Today we would quickly dismiss as insane anyone who claims that the Apollo landings didn’t happen (approximately 50 years ago).  There is insurmountable evidence that it happened.  In much the same way, the truth of the death (and life) of Jesus of Nazareth is insurmountable, and is only dismissed by those who choose to consider only the evidence which supports their predetermined conclusion.

Scared? It’s your choice.

No, this is not a political post, although I can see an application in our current political climate.  But I’m not going there today.  I’ve spent the past few days hanging out in a hospital with one of my closest friends who is fighting a fight that would terrify any of us.  So my mind is primarily there, but it is also with many other friends, who are

  • dealing with loved ones battling major health issues,
  • dealing with the too-soon unexpected death of a spouse,
  • facing dramatic career-change and relocations,
  • and many others who are rightfully overwhelmed by the unknown future of family members, close friends, and their own inner struggles.
I was reminded of the phrase “be strong and courageous” from the book of Joshua, and I share it with all of you.  Joshua was the successor to Moses.  If you’ve ever taken a job where the person you are replacing was a legendary figure in the company, you have a little idea what it was like for Joshua.  Moses was the greatest leader they had ever known, and he had led the Israelites to do extraordinary things.  The book of Joshua begins with God talking to Joshua–passing Moses’ leadership mantle to Joshua.  What makes Joshua’s assignment even more daunting is the fact that he’s not merely taking over an organization that is running in a steady state, with the job “not to screw things up.”  Joshua is charged by God to take the nation of Israel to the next level–literally to lead them to take the “Promised Land,” the mission for which Moses had been training them for the past 40 years.
It’s easy to sit here in the luxury of nearly 3500 years of hindsight and underestimate Joshua’s situation.  Because, of course, God “promised” the Israelites this land, so certainly Joshua was going to be successful, so he should have no doubts, right?  Joshua was probably more focused on the fact that Moses was the one God chose to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land, and he died in the desert.  If Moses couldn’t do it, how was he supposed to pull it off?  Joshua had been a faithful second-in-command, but when you become “the guy,” everything changes.  All that to say, Joshua had more than a little reason to be overwhelmed with legitimate fear.
Fear is a messy thing.  Our culture has cast it as a weakness, a thing to be ridiculed, a sign of insufficient confidence or inner strength.  Religious people point to it as a lack of faith, as if it were some sort of character flaw or shortcoming.  Many try to deal with it in a number of unhealthy ways.  People suppress fear and deny it, or at the other end of the spectrum, embrace it as part of “who they are” and allow it to suppress them.  I don’t want to delve too deeply into the psychology of fear, but instead I want to look at this one teaching on it, and see if there’s something in here to help all of us as we grapple with the emotions generated as we contemplate the unknown (or sometimes that which we do know, and are about to encounter again).
God’s charge to Joshua starts brutally bluntly:  “Moses my servant is dead.  Now, you get all these people ready to invade the land that your ancestors have been dreaming about.” (Joshua 1:2, GMW version)  He then goes on in verses 3-5 to tell Joshua about the success God has in store for them.
Then in verse 6 God changes the topic slightly.  In the next 4 verses, God deals with a critical issue:  Joshua’s fear.  Joshua was a confident, courageous leader who had proven himself strong already on multiple occasions.  He is one of the few major biblical characters who has no significant character flaws (the only real negative I can find recorded in Scripture was his failure to consult with God about the Gibeonite treaty–a mistake, to be sure, but primarily because it was so out of character for Joshua).  Joshua was no wimp, no weak man.  But three times in four verses, God encourages Joshua:
  • v6: “Be strong and courageous…”
  • v7: “Be strong and very courageous…”
  • v9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous….”
God didn’t dismiss Joshua’s fears.  Too many times someone who is dealing with fearful situations is told “don’t be afraid” or worse yet, “Why are you afraid?”  Dismissing fear is less than pointless; it’s demeaning.  God doesn’t do that to Joshua.  He offers something better!  He tells him to be strong, to have courage.  That’s easy for God to say, he’s not looking at the situation through my eyeballs!
I left out a lot of text from those four verses, where God gives the details of how Joshua can “be strong and courageous” in the midst of his fearful circumstances.  More on that in a minute.  But first, I want to explore something I hadn’t noticed in that passage before, even though I’ve read it dozens of times.  In verse 9, God starts with “Have I not commanded you?”  I’ve always read that as something akin to that parental breakdown point, when logic and patience fail simultaneously, and the parent screams, “DO IT BECAUSE I SAID SO!!!”  But that’s not what is going on here.  Just as in John 13:34, where Jesus tells his disciples, “a new command I give you:  love one another”, Jesus is not commanding an emotion.  So also God is not commanding Joshua to have an emotion.  Emotions can’t be forced.
In our culture, we don’t fully understand Jesus’s command in John 13, because we think “warm fuzzy feels” when we think “love.”  But Jesus’s command is to an action, rooted in a choice.  In the same way, God commands Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.”  He’s not saying “don’t have an emotion (fear).”  He’s saying, essentially, “Make a choice:  Choose to have strength and courage.”  Just as our culture misunderstands love, we also misunderstand courage.  What most of us think of as courage is more accurately “bravado,” which Oxford defines as “a bold manner or a show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.” 
God’s command to Joshua is something different.  He is commanding an action.  And precluding that action is a decision.  Joshua gets to decide whether he is going to act on his fears, or on something else.  Courage is the act of choosing to persevere despite the conditions that warrant fear.  Courage is focusing on your source of strength, and acting.  Fear is nothing more than empowered doubt.  Courage is choosing to focus on and continuing to work toward the right outcome, despite the risks.
God redirects Joshua’s attention from the obstacles and enormity of the task at hand.  Joshua wasn’t acting on blind wishes.  He’d seen God’s work and knew His strength.  He knew God’s assurances that Joshua would succeed could be trusted, because he knew God.
All of us face fearful circumstances at times in our lives.  Some of us are staring at the impossible, the insurmountable–at monsters so big that the only reasonable response is to curl up in the corner and wait for it to devour us.  But we have another choice.  We can choose to be strong and courageous.  We can choose to focus on the sources of strength in our lives, and to recognize that those strengths can help us press on in the midst of our fears.  When fearful thoughts start washing over us, we can choose to think a new thought!  We can decide to keep going, and not let our fears control us.  They won’t always go away, but they don’t have to dominate.

For followers of YHWH, Joshua’s God, our source of strength is the same assurances that Joshua had:  God is worthy of being trusted, because he has always proven himself to be true.  While verse 9 was not specifically addressed to us, God’s nature is such that we can be assured that we have the same promise:

“Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”