Fear

You Might Be Next

By Rev. Tabitha Isner

I heard on Minnesota Public Radio today that Americans just aren’t giving money for Ebola the way they do for natural disasters. Following the earthquake in Haiti, a disaster which took the lives of over 200,000 people, charities received over $1.4 billion.  In contrast, the Ebola virus will likely kill more than that number in the next six months, but very few charities are reporting significant donations. 

So why do we donate for natural disasters but not for outbreaks? I think the answer has to do with fear.

When a natural disaster happens, the damage is largely done by the time we hear about it. The fact that an earthquake happened in Haiti is terrible, but it is not a threat to us here. It’s sad, but it’s not scary.

The Ebola outbreak is different. There isn’t a day on which it “happened.” And because there’s not a date when we can say it started, there’s also not a date on which it ended. It is still happening. The damage is far from being done. Instead, it is growing, expanding, deepening by the day… and you might be next.  

When terrible things happen to other people, but we continue to feel safe, it awakens our sympathy. We feel grateful for the blessing that it wasn’t us, and we become generous givers.

When terrible things happen to other people and we might be next, it awakens our anxiety. We feel sorry for the people who have been victims, but our fear keeps us focused on protecting ourselves rather than on helping those who have already been affected.

A few years ago I would have made this observation and then concluded that it’s a crying shame how fear and self-preservation stand in the way of loving your neighbor.  

Today I find that conclusion unsatisfying. 

Let’s say we apply the same “fear makes you selfish” principle to police brutality such as that seen in the Ferguson shootings. As a white woman, the shootings in Ferguson and surrounding areas seem to me analogous to the earthquake in Haiti. The fact that it happened is terrible, but it’s not a threat to my personal safety. The fact that it happened to those young men means nothing at all about what will happen to me.  But to a young black man (or the parents of a young black man), this spate of police shootings may sound a whole lot more like Ebola. Not only did it happen to those young men, but it’s possible that I might be next. 

But contrary to the “fear makes you selfish” notion, the fear that those young black men face is not a barrier to their compassion. Their fear is what makes them truly able to empathize. And when they stand up to this injustice, it is extraordinary precisely because they are afraid. Precisely because they have good reason to be afraid.

In contrast, if I attend a protest, raise my arms, and shout “don’t shoot,” my actions don’t reflect my selflessness. They reflect my privilege. I can afford to do that because I know it’s highly unlikely there will be any real consequences for me.

So what am I to do when faced with a tragedy and protected by privilege? (I’m not entirely sure – this idea is new to me!) But here’s what I’m going to try..

1) I am going to admit that my privilege results in my inability to fully empathize or understand. And because my personal experience isn’t relevant, I am going to commit to reading, listening, and asking for the stories of those who have experienced what I have not and likely will not ever face.

2) With those stories in hand, I am going to try to imagine that I might be next. I’m going to let it play out fully in my imagination. The idea that this could happen to me, to my family. I’m going to let it overwhelm me, terrify me, paralyze and outrage me. I’m going to let that fear loose on my gut and my nerves. 

3) And having felt just a small portion of that fear, I am going to remind myself that it is someone else for whom this nightmare is a reality. And that it’s unreasonable to ask someone in that state to take sole responsibility for righting this wrong. So I had better put that privilege to good use.

If you have good ideas for how to develop compassion in the face of privilege, send your ideas along. I’d love to hear them!


Tabitha Isner is a government bureaucrat by day and a church consultant when she can talk someone into it.  She confesses to a long-standing habit of practicing theology, feminism, and statistical analyses.

A Word upon a Death by Suicide

By Derek Penwell

D___ N___ died two days ago, and the world—our worlds—will never be the same.  How does one begin to capture the complexity and richness of a single life in the course of a short homily?  How do we say what needs to be said about the life of such and interesting and lovely human being?  I wish had more answers than questions, but I don't.  I'm just as confused and saddened and angry about this as most of you.  

I suppose that all I can offer are some words about how D___ affected me—about what kind of person I thought he had every right to claim to be—and about what I think are the questions that arise in the wake of his death.  I wish he were here to set me straight where I get it wrong.

When I first met D___, it came in the context of church.  He started coming to First Christian back about 12 years ago or so.  D___ struck me as intelligent and committed, a wry sense of humor.  He eventually became an elder and a Sunday School teacher.  If there were something to be done and you asked D___ to do it, he'd say yes if he could and no if he couldn't—which doesn't sound remarkable until you stop to realize that most people are reluctant to speak frankly for fear of causing discomfort; they'd rather be kind than honest.  

D___ N___, on the other hand, believed that honesty is the greatest kindness—that there is no peace in the absence of truth.  In all the people I've worked with over the course of my career in the church, D___ is one of my top two or three favorite people.  If I were putting together a team to start a church to change the world, D___ N___ would be a first round draft-pick.  

And while he wasn't perfect—a fact which he would be the first to rush to the front of the line to tell you before anyone else could—he embodied that rare blend of integrity and mercy that stands at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Because while he viewed himself most critically, he had an amazing capacity to offer to others the benefit of the doubt—which, although it's not listed in First Corinthians—seems to me to be a spiritual gift (and a rather rare one at that).  He had an amazing capacity to forgive those who had brought him harm; unfortunately, he never perfected the art of offering that same forgiveness to himself—who probably deserved it more than most.

D___ loved his family.  He loved being a father, a brother, an uncle, a friend.  (In fact, he was that rare big brother who made room for his kid brother to tag along.)  He loved watching E___ play football, loved taking the boys to watch football, loved football—period.  He played wide-out on the 1974 state runner-up team.  Indeed, he caught the winning touchdown in the semi-final game—a fact that, as his brother K___ pointed out—he regularly shrugged off when it was mentioned . . . in pure D___ fashion.  

But that was D___; he could put more meaning into one shake of the head than most people can put into a short novel.  I remember asking K___ one time what D___ thought about something—politics, or religion, or the state of the mullet as a postmodern ironic fashion statement—I don't remember.  But I do remember what K___ said, which was: "D___ N___ is inscrutable."  He played his cards close to the vest, which meant that if you had something confidential you needed to unburden yourself of—D___ was the man.  He was, in short, trustworthy.  He was a good man—a fact we ought not lose sight of in the cataclysmic and evil nature of his death.

In times like these we seek refuge—if refuge is to be found—in words.  Unfortunately, I find words difficult to come by just now—as, I suspect, do you.  We've experienced in the death of D___ N___ the clutching hand of death; and we find it hard to know what to do now—what to say next.  Our first inclination is to turn our eyes to the heavens with that soul-crushing word on our lips, “Why?”  

Why, D___?  Why, God?  Why now?   Why this way?  Why?

What answers are there to be found in such a time as this?  Certain things we'll never know.  We won’t know what led D___ to walk down this path.  We won’t know what thoughts prompted D___ to decide he could no longer walk upright under the weight of his burdens.  We may never know what it was that acted as the final straw he felt could no longer bear.  D___ fought on battlefields that, thankfully, none of us will ever have to fight on.  He died in a rearguard action in his own private civil war.  The sadness of this death outstrips my efforts to find words to speak about it.

And yet, we’re gathered here to find some words to offer up in the face of our sadness.  Unfortunately, no words exist that we can employ as an incantation to make the sorrow disappear, no reassuring bromides that will dispel the darkness.  

The only word I have to offer is the Word that was in the beginning, that became flesh and dwelt among us.  That Word walked before us into the darkness and absorbed the power of the evil that confronts us all in a world where a beautiful man can die such a heartbreaking death.  For the death that that Word died destroyed the claim of death upon us—and that includes death’s claim on D___ N___.

The tendency for those of us who loved D___ is to ask, “Should I have seen this coming?”  We’re prone to believe that “if I’d only done, or said, or not done, or not said ____________, then maybe none of this would have happened.”  

And though we might not ever say it out loud, some of us are thinking, “If he truly loved me, he wouldn’t have done this to me.  He would have found a way to hang on.”  We must be honest about the fact that one of the first things to strike us when someone dies by suicide is not only sadness, but anger.  It’s like springing a leak in a water pipe, going down to the bank, withdrawing all your money, and trying to shove it in the hole to stop the leak.  You may fix the leak, but at what cost?  Inevitably, you create exponentially more problems than you solve.  

And the problems that are created by this death are ones that will have to be cleaned up by others—and unfortunately, often by those with the fewest resources to do so.  Anger comes easily in a situation like this.

Let me just say, anger is understandable.  D___ took something from us he can never give back.  However, let me suggest that of all the things D___ N___ might have been, self-absorbed wasn’t among them.  Whatever pain he bore that he finally found too great to bear, I am convinced he believed he was sparing not just himself, but you from it.  

He was wrong.  He should have trusted you more, trusted himself more.  

But in the end, D___ was a man who felt like he was on fire.  That he chose the worst possible way to put out the fire should not distract us from the truth that, twisted as it might sound, he thought he was sparing you from being consumed by that which was consuming him.  I expect that there were many times in D___’s life that E___, M___, D___, K___, J___, J___—you were the only thing that gave him the strength to hang on a bit longer.  So your anger is appropriate—just don’t let it define your understanding of who he was.

After the sadness and the anger, I suspect that many of us feel the creeping edges of fear blurring the periphery of our thoughts.  Most obviously, we’re afraid of a world without D___ N___.  He provided such a calming presence—a sense that if D___ were around, things could never get so out of hand that they couldn’t be fixed with a quick raise of his eyebrows and a shake of his head.  He seemed so in control that the thought of his absence makes the world seem a less gentle, a less safe place.   

But perhaps as pressing for some are the fearful questions about whether God’s love is sure enough to chase D___ down the black hole into which he's fallen.  Can the grace of God overcome this evil?  Has D___, by his suicide, moved beyond the reach of the outstretched arms of God?  To this question, let me defer to Paul.  I take Paul at this word when he says that nothing can separate from the love of Christ— neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  I firmly believe with Paul that there is no power so great that it can separate Christ from his own—not even the power of suicide.  Because D___was one of Christ’s own.

We're good at avoiding it, but we know, don’t we?  Death is the enemy from which there is no escape.  It’s always been that way.  Isaiah knew it.  He writes in chapter 24, “Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!  Whoever flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit; and whoever climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare” (Isa. 24:17-18a).  

That’s the way the world works.  You come to terms with it, or you don’t — but that’s how it goes.  You’re born, you live a little, then you die.  A pretty dim vision we’re left with: Funerals, in the final analysis, await us all.  

The Church, by and large, has been guilty of avoiding this topic.  Death makes us squeamish.  Somehow it doesn’t seem polite.  No, we, like the rest of the world, have almost successfully avoided ever speaking seriously about the fact that we are going to die.  

“Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!” is how Isaiah says it.  In our Old Testament lesson for today (25:6-9), Isaiah sees a world that's covered by a burial shroud: “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.”  

“In the midst of life, we are in death,” is how The Book of Common Prayer says it.  We are, you and I, on a collision course with the grim reaper.

The bottom line, of course, is that walls have been erected that are too high to climb over, and too thick to topple.  Death has mastered us, and the tears we shed, we shed as much because we know there is no escape in the end for any of us, as because we shed them for the sadness of the occasion and the losses we suffer.  “Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!” Isaiah says, cutting to the heart of the matter.

But, Isaiah seems to think there’s more to the story.  We've had a vision of reality that includes the clutching, grasping, irresistible pursuit of death.  But Isaiah sees more.  Isaiah envisions a world where God reigns on a holy mountain.  And on this mountain death will not have the last word.  

In the flat lands hunger and thirst gather at the gates screaming with the voices of children who die in the cold darkness.  But on this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.  

In the flat lands funerals mark the end of the string of days, piled one on top of the other without meaning or moment, wrapped in the clothes of death.  But on this mountain God will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.

In the flat lands death has ravaged us like a wild animal.  But on this mountain, the Lord will swallow up death forever.

In the flat lands our tears inched down our faces and evaporated in the dust.  But on this mountain the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.

In the flat lands funerals are the final destination.  But on this mountain they are the first step toward the throne of God.

In the flat lands a man is beaten, mocked, spit upon and nailed to a tree.  But on this mountain the bloody cross becomes the tree of life.

“It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.  This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.  For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.”

And because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can say with some certainty that the hand of the Lord rests today on D___ N___.  Thanks be to God.  Thanks be to God.

-Amen.

Making the Time to Be Scared of More Interesting Things

Make sure to read the other articles in this series on church organization: Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church OrganizationKilling the Whispers and Other Reflections on Church Decision-Making,  Crack Addiction and Church Transformation,  On Neediness, Dating, and Congregational Transformation, and Death of a Salesman . . . Please?

The Chihuahua Brain Revisited

I was listening to Merlin Mann the other day (someone you should really check out if you haven’t yet). He mentioned that his big goal in life right now centers on “making the time to be scared of more interesting things.” I love that.

What does that mean?

We humans–having only recently (at least by the standards of evolutionary time) reached a period where we don’t constantly have to be on the lookout for saber-toothed tigers–still carry around in the oldest parts of our brains a vestigial, reactive fear mechanism. I’ve written about this before, calling it “the chihuahua brain.” Basically, we have highly sensitive threat sensing detectors that are tripped much more frequently than the true danger in our environment warrants. Fight or flight is a helpful response in the face of rampaging mastodons, but not so much when confronting a job interview or a contentious committee meeting.

When this fear manifests itself, it’s like a little siren in our systems that ceaselessly directs attention to the possible fall-out from facing the threat, leaving decision-making in a simple binary format–fight or flight.[1] When we’re afraid, creativity takes a vacation. Your imagination, when your body tells you it’s in danger, extends only to a preoccupation with what you taste like to something larger than you are.

But most of us don’t live in mortal danger. Consequently, our reaction to perceived threats is almost always disproportionate to the actual peril we face to our lives. Having someone annoyed with you (no matter the extensive level of aggravation) is not the same as having someone poised to kill you–yet your limbic system responds much the same way in both instances.

But often our fear is even less immediately threatening to us than another person’s actual annoyance. Much of the time, we spend our lives afraid at the prospect of annoying someone else.

I hope you see the widening separation. Being afraid of annoying someone is at least two removes from being afraid of death or bodily harm. But, the amygdala is a blunt instrument, incapable of the fine granularity necessary for nuanced problem solving–it pumps the bellows of fear indiscriminately.

So, whether you’re about to get hit by a truck or whether you’ve just realized that you are supposed to be at an important meeting, the process your brain goes through to warn you of danger is virtually the same.

Since we have these threat detectors so indiscriminately tuned, it pays us to work to try to reprogram them.[2] But, the process of reprogramming is not what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to suggest, following Merlin Mann, that if fear is an inevitable part of our lives, we would do well to find more interesting things to be scared of … in particular, in the church.

Like what, for instance?

Pounding Nails for Jesus

  • Why not be scared of the fact that there are innumerable kinds of great, creative, meaningful, reign-of-God kind of work out there needing to be done, rather than expending inordinate amounts of energy worrying about whether your church organizational model has a good enough flow chart, or about whether to “jazz” up the worship service?

Should we have committees or teams? Should we use hymn books or a projector?

Make a decision and do something. These are tools. They don’t do any work by themselves. If you spend all your time hand-wringing about the tools, you’re not doing ministry. A cheap lousy hammer will pound more nails than an expensive slick hammer that only gets discussed in meetings.

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The point?

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Talking about hammering isn’t hammering unless it results in actual nails being pounded.

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  • Why not be scared of the reality that there are all kinds of opportunities to offer your church as a gift to your community that are being missed, instead of being afraid that if you do let strangers become a part of your church’s life somebody’s going to leave the gym lights on, or cook stinky cabbage in the kitchen and forget to clean it up, or skateboard in the parking lot?

Give your building away. No, I’m not necessarily talking about selling the place and giving the money to the poor (though I can think of plenty of theologically compelling arguments why you might want to do that–like this for instance). I’m talking about seeing your building as a gift that you can share with the community, not as an heirloom to be covered in plastic and stored in mothballs. Church buildings are hammers–if they’re not being used to pound nails, they’re just decorations in a lovely toolshed.

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The point?

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If your church building is a tool, and if you spend more time polishing and oiling the stuff in your toolbox than actually making things–it is altogether appropriate to wonder whether you are a carpenter or merely a tool collector.

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  • Why not be scared of the fact that there are loads of people who don’t want to have anything to do with the church anymore because they’ve been turned off or hurt through the church’s ham-fistedness (or, in many cases worse, the church’s silence) on issues like openness to and affirmation of LGBTQ people, rather than being afraid that if you accept and celebrate gay people, somebody’s going to leave your church and walk down the street to the other church that has a praise team and catchy bumper-stickers?

Love the people Jesus loves. Of course, someone might object here that Jesus loved everyone, but that he had definite ethical standards he expected people to live up to.

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My response: Exactly! But it is instructive to remember that Jesus loved those who’d been God’s gatekeepers in the religious arena by repeatedly calling them hypocrites and whitewashed sepulchers (in the case of the Chief Priest, the Elders, and the Pharisees) and chuckle-heads and point-missers (in the case of his own disciples)–while, on the other hand, loving those who’d been dismissed or forgotten by the the religious folks (i.e., the blind, the lame, the prostitutes, tax-collectors, and lepers) with tenderness and compassion. The church needs to figure out how to love the latter without becoming the former. Then, like Jesus, we can worry about doing our jobs as a vocation given us by God, rather than worrying about how many people like us.

Ministry is the work. Loving people is the nail-pounding the church needs to use all its fancy tools to do.

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The point?

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If you make decisions about justice based more on who you’re going to lose to the church up the road than on who you’re going to make room for, you need to seriously ask yourself whether it’s ministry or maintenance you care most about; which is to say, are you more concerned about pounding nails or forming a carpenter support group?

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If you’re going to be scared, why not make time to be scared of more interesting things?


  1. “Playing possum” is another possibility, I suppose. Even so, the range of options is necessarily limited, because the sheer processing power it takes to run all the cognitive options takes both too much time and too many of the body’s resources (blood, oxygen, etc.). By the time you’ve run down the check-list of possibilities, you’re already on the way to being lunch.  ↩
  2. Talk therapy, etc.  ↩

Kegger at Jesus'!

When I was in high school, I lived for someone's parents to leave and for the house party to go off. I was part of that group that played the music or threw the parties. I was not musically inclined outside of the random hardcore and punk groups I got to front. I was a really big fella. So, I got to bounce all the parties. When someone's parents were planning that weekend getaway, we were playing that weekend's kegger.

I get butterflies just writing about it now. So and so would inform someone that their parents were going out of town and that they would be left 'home alone!" That someone would call another person and soon the bands were organized, the kegs procured and the buzz spread. This was how our emerging suburban Los Angeles scene flowed.

That Friday after school we would show up to the "abandoned" house with sound equipment. We would set up and do a sort of silent sound check. Folks would arrive with the kegs (The funny part is that we used to buy Near Beer cause it was cheaper and we made more money from it. Nobody knew the difference.) The kegs would be iced and we would set a perimeter for security.

Then as evening approached the car loads of teenage boys and girls would park and walk up to the party. I would collect money from them and mark their hands with a marker. We could make a couple thousand of dollars from the five-buck admission we charged for Near Beer and "decent" angry youth music. Every once and a while I would let a cute girl in, hoping that would better my chance of her thinking I was cool and I could ask her out.

The backyard would fill up. Every nook and cranny would be filled and they all awaited the stage to light up and the band to play. We were kings of our little fiefdom fueled by punk and hardcore, all of us looking for something to be angry about or someone to listen to our anger.

The band would take the stage and unleash a massive wave of shock and awe upon the Near Beer soaked crowd of kissy-faced teens and macho shirtless, mohawked man-boys. We would storm our anger in to the pit and smash each others faces as we fought the changing world around us. Gone was the safety of Big Wheels and comic books. This was the post-Reagan era in an area roughed up by cuts to the Military Industrial Complex. We knew a few of us had a future; we just were not sure of who those few were. Our dream was to graduate high school and maybe get a job at SEARS fixing washer and dryers. We might be considering college as a way to escape the uncertainty but tonight we had the "pit."

Then, just as we really started getting in to it and that cute girl I let in for free was going to give me her number the COPS showed up. A neighbor had called the police and demanded they break up the party. There was a mass exodus from the backyard. Sweaty mohawked teens jumped fences carrying their teenaged angst with them. The "drunken" teen girls sat dazed and confused, only to be pulled up by their friends and make a mad dash to the other door. The police, almost lovingly, flashed their flashlights on the exiting crowds making sure they dumped out the beers and walked home.

The band tried to pack up really quickly so their gear would not get confiscated. The someone whose house it was cried inside as they saw their social life waver. I was gone when we saw the police pull up and shouted out to the others, "POLICE!" We were already a block over before the mohawked kids jumped the fence.

The parents are called and the someone is reprimanded. That someone has the potential to be legend. The parental fears are stoked and they never go on another vacation again.

I fear that the church looks at the younger generations with this kind of dread. "If we leave, they will mess it all up." True, we are excited and do not look at the world with the same kind of eyes. We are uniquely ourselves. We have different values. We have different priorities. We have different dreams and hopes for our lives. We have different pressures and woes. We are different.

Almost 20 years later, if left with an empty house I am more likely to got to bed early than throw a kegger. My youth is fleeting. I am nearer to 40 than I am to 30. In my youthful sunset I hear "We need young families/young adults/youth in the church" a lot. It seems to be all over the church profiles out there.

Every church is looking for a 30-something pastor. He is white, tall with a nice build. He has a beautiful wife that studied music in college and they have three lovely, well behaved children that angelically glide around church without a sound.

He is great with youth, can preach like Craddock, tell stories like Hemingway, is the best counselor, can fundraise blood from a turnip and will get butts in the seats to continue the ministry of the church just as it always has been.

The problem is that that guy no longer exists. No one can do everything.

There are countless folks out there searching for a place to serve. Every year we graduate another class of hopeful ministers in to a system with no room for them to serve. As the church wrestles with what to do many creative, young ministers leave ministry for "a job." They leave the church.

These are folks that our institutions have invested time, money and hope over a three to four year period. We have encouraged them to follow a discernment process towards a vocation that may or may not be able to embrace them. Our system is broken.

The brokenness of our church institutions and the slow moving process towards change has disabled our efforts to be the pioneering voice we once were. We exist primarily for ourselves. If your operating budget exceeds your mission budget you are inward focused. Jesus calls us to go out in to the world and make Disciples.

Have we abandoned this work? I hear "I love your ideas but we don't have any money." as much as I hear "We need to do something." What are we going to do? The angry, punker inside me demands more for this community I have aligned myself with.

You promised to walk with me in community and support when I took my vows of ordination. When I was baptized you as the church promised to raise me in the ways of Christ. I am weary of the inward focus. Who will stand up and be evangelized by the Millennials? Who will answer the call to receive the missionaries from Gen X?

There is a better way to be "church" in this world. The brick and mortar spaces we lovingly tend to may be hedging us in. How do we liberate ourselves from yesterday that we may die and be born again for tomorrow?

Who will join the party? Our parents are out of town and there is a raging party set to go off! Who is going to be there? All are invited. All are welcome. You just have to show up, be willing to rage and clean up afterwards.

Taming the Chihuahua Brain

As I sat at the kitchen table yesterday, reading the paper, I heard one of our dogs barking outside on the deck. We have five dogs, so hearing a dog barking just outside the kitchen is not particularly noteworthy. Our dogs are so sensitive, they bark at cross-eyed gnats. It is, however, annoying to the neighbors. I got up to let the dog in, so he’d stop ruining everyone’s leisurely Saturday morning. As I opened the door, though, I noticed a man I didn’t recognize walking away from our neighbor’s garage. I found our six-pound chihuahua delivering, what I’m sure he intended to be, a bracing message of warning. The strange man, looked back over his shoulder at me, and hurried down the driveway. Something didn’t feel quite right about the stranger’s presence.

As I walked back into house, I remember observing, “Well, maybe the dogs get it right once in awhile.” I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

The whole thing got me to thinking, though. Evolution has honed canine senses to acute levels[1]. They are so sensitive, in fact, that they respond to any new stimulus as a threat. And they can sniff out a threat a mile away. Living in the wild, constant vigilance against natural enemies is evolutionarily advantageous. Living in a suburban home, on the other hand, where the fiercest threat is the neighbor’s dachshund three yards over, constant vigilance is maladaptive behavior.

Besides, what exactly could a six-pound chihuahua save me from anyway?

Noting the highly sensitive threat detection systems that patrol our back yard, people have said, “You’ve got some good watchdogs.”

Usually, I smile and nod my head. What I want to say, however, is: “No, they’re not. They’re horrible watch dogs. If everything makes them bark, then they’re useless as watchdogs.” Fear only works as an effective warning signal if there’s truly something to be afraid of. To walk around in a perpetual state of fear is not only exhausting, but sustained long-term stress is damaging to the body. It releases all sorts of chemicals that are helpful for short term confrontations with genuine threats; but perpetual stress is corrosive. Prolonged stress has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, as well as sexual disfunction. In other words, thinking that everything will kill you … will eventually kill you.

In addition to the physical impairments caused by prolonged stress, the psychological toll can be debilitating. If you’re afraid all the time, you lose perspective about what to be afraid of and when it’s appropriate. It’s possible, in other words, to be afraid of, and react with hostility to, things that are good for you–and inevitably to tune out real threats.

It occurs to me that churches, especially churches experiencing decline, often confront the world with the nervous system of a chihuahua–treating each new change in the environment as a threat. They’ve evolved highly sensitive threat detectors over time. Unfortunately, these threat detectors issue an unacceptable level of false-positives.

If you bought a pregnancy test, for instance, that gave you a false-positive 90% of the time, you’d quit using it. If you had a security system that went off every time the baby cried or the parakeet belched, you’d be on the phone imploring your provider for an emergency service call to recalibrate the sensors. Threat detectors that go off indiscriminately and often are useless (at best), and insanity-inducing (at worst).

Why do churches settle, then, for a life wired to respond to every new thing like a six-pound dog–certain that calamity is behind every bush?

The only way to tame the chihuahua brain is to relinquish control of the future to God. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). In other words, thinking that everything will kill you … will eventually kill you.

It’s God’s church, after all. God’s plenty capable of taking care of God’s stuff. What exactly could I save God from anyway?


  1. It has been called the “lizard brain” or the “triune brain,” but I have more experience observing chihuahuas, so I’ll stick with “chihuahua brain” for the purposes of this post.  ↩

When Whistling a Happy Tune Isn't Enough

Whenever I feel afraid I hold my head erect And whistle a happy tune So no one will suspect I'm afraid.

He was much too young to die.  Only 16 months after we graduated from high school one of my best friends died when the aneurism in his brain blew while he was out with his Navy buddies enjoying an evening of leave.  The doctor said he was dead before he hit the bathroom floor in the Pizza Hut in Jacksonville, Florida.  Our crew of friends gathered on a cold, Indiana October day to say farewell to one of us.  His minister, a nice enough person, told us that if we had faith we would be rejoicing now that Tim was at home with the Lord.  I felt a lot of things in that cold cemetery, but rejoicing was not one of them.  I was scared—scared of the reality of death that was no longer an abstract thing for old people, but had taken my bud Tim.  And even more scary was the possibility that the God I thought I knew wanted me to “whistle a happy tune” instead of being a God who would meet a group of sobbing 19-year olds,  offering us comfort and peace.

Jump ahead 30 plus years, and now I’m scared of some other things.  My doctor says my weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels are all way too high.  One of the elders in the church I serve decided to be proactive and asked me to start walking with him.  We negotiate our schedules and off we go –two middle aged, overweight, out of shape guys out walking around the park.  Quite the sight –especially when we take his two Brittany spaniels with us.  While we walk we talk–talk about all kinds of things.  As we who serve the church are prone to do, I replay those conversations.  And what I keep hearing when I listen to what we really are saying is fear: Fear that the church budget numbers aren’t where they ought to be.  Fear that the ‘worship wars’ might consume us.  Fear that the capital campaign will fall short.  Fear of denominational structures that are no longer the source of strength and stability we thought they were.  Fear about the economy.  And fear about our own mortality.

While I thought I had decided long ago that ‘whistling a happy tune’ wasn’t the way to find true peace, when I’m honest with myself  I find that’s what I’ve been doing for a long time.  Believing if I thought positively enough, if I prayed hard enough, if I worked enough, I wouldn’t have to be afraid–or at least no one would notice.  Well, guess what?  EVERYONE knows!!!  They know about those things and so many more.  Fear of talking about the inclusion of our GLBTQ brothers and sisters.  Fear of conversations around the issues of war and peace.  Fear of offering a position from a faith perspective about the Federal budget mess that differs from that of the Tea Partiers.

If whistling a happy tune like Anna did in The King and I isn’t the way to go, what else might we try?  Maybe what I believed as a 19-year old.  If I’ll just admit that I’m afraid maybe I’ll hear a voice echoing through the ages telling me to not be afraid for there are tidings of great joy of one who has come who replaces our fear with hope.  Just admitting we’re afraid is the first step to begin to find some peace.  We go about our business, believing that being positive and upbeat is the way to have hope.  Maybe what we need is a hope that’s a little bigger than that.  A hope that remembers our souls are thirsty until that thirst is quenched by the God of the Ages.  Now that’s a tune worth whistling either in cold, October graveyards, or hot and sweaty parks, or maybe even in our sanctuaries!!!

LeBron and Faithfulness

I don't know everything that went on behind the scenes of the LeBron James Decision Day Special this week. I'm not sure of all the things that led up to this (forgive me if you're a fan) Circus. I'd bet a lot of money that a lot of money was made by someone. And I don't know, maybe LeBron, or rather LBJ as he's popularly called, is donating whatever he made on the event to the neediest of the needy. Or maybe he agreed to this -forgive me again - fiasco only after calling sponsors to give what they made for some - what? - greater purpose (For God's sake, anything!). I guess, ultimately, I don't know. But at least on the surface of things and judging by the Twitter commentary (which is clearly the bastion of truthful commentary), it sure appears to be incredibly Me-First.

And maybe that shouldn't be surprising. I also don't know what ultimate commitments LBJ has made in his life that might claim him in some way to be different.

I don't know (actually in this case, I think I do know), something real specific that Jesus said has hit me hard this week right in the middle of the Decision Day Special. The question Jesus asks that has hit me hard this week is this: Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? (Mt 6:25). Hmmm.

It's a question that Jesus asked in the Sermon on the Mount. He asks the question right after teaching about some important things: Giving to the needy, Prayer and Fasting and Storing the right treasure in the right place. It's right after that, as if Jesus knows what we are thinking after hearing this demanding word, that Jesus gets to the topic of Fear, spoken in the tattered tones of worry, anxiety and stress. Jesus' word about Fear is a summary point after all the demanding living he has just called his followers to adopt, living that if we really, really did adopt as the shape of our existence ought to scare the living daylights out of us!

In this way, Jesus pits Faith over against Fear (not Doubt, by the way). And part of what we realize is that Faith releases the floodgates of opportunity whereas fear shuts it all down. I can't help but think the LBJ missed the opportunity with his Decision Day Special, but again, I don't know everything.

One important thing got stirred up in me this week as I reflected on Jesus' question, Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? It's important for us to see LBJ's special like we're looking into a mirror and seeing ourselves, albeit perhaps (and I mean perhaps) to a lesser degree. As I did that this week, what I see reflected back to me when I look into the LBJ mirror is a person named Michael Dunn who is Me-First in so many areas of my life. I mean, more often than not, I cannot even get it right with my family. And my guess is that what's true of me is true of every one of us who gathers at a table in Faith that runs so completely counter to Me-First, a table where the words of Jesus reverberate through the centuries, This is my body...given...for you...whenever...remember what I have done.

Jesus poses a question for us to ponder, I guess, but probably more importantly, for us to answer. LBJ notwithstanding.

By Michael Dunn

Michael Dunn fell unexpectedly into the call of being a pastor that has lasted nearly two decades. He currently finds that God has placed him with the Body of Christ named First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Houston, Texas. He is leading an amazing group of leaders who are deeply committed to the reality that congregational transformation is inextricably bound to personal transformation.  He is married and has four children.