Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Two Wolves

Philippians 4:8 “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

In the last few days of 2008, media of all types and all ideologies spent time looking back over the year. Everybody had their top ten lists and the re-hashing of both the presidential campaigns and the economic meltdown. After watching one such recitation I heard one news pundit say to another, “Personally, I have never seen a year filled with such huge yet equal amounts of both hope and fear. It’s like they’re battling and we don’t know which one will win.”

When I heard that, it reminded me of an old story, usually attributed to Native American sources, about two wolves. You may well have heard it before. The general story goes that a tribal elder is speaking to a young boy. “My son, there are two wolves who are fighting within every person’s heart: love and hate. You can hear them snarling if you lie very still and when one isn’t looking the other will pounce. It is a great and terrible battle and the outcome will determine who you become.” The young boy’s eyes grow wide as he asks, “But which wolf will win?” The old man answers, “The one you feed.”

I doubt that story ever actually happened, but it is a “true” story nonetheless. And the same truth is reflected in Paul’s letter to the Philippians as he reminds a church facing persecution to focus on the positive—to feed the good wolf, if you will. Remember that Paul is writing this letter from prison, facing execution. The circumstances for both Paul and the church in Philippi are dire. The bad wolves are circling in both cases. But, even so, Paul encourages the church to think on the good, in order to give life to what is honorable, just, and pure even in the midst of great turmoil and evil.

I think the news pundit was exactly right about our contemporary situation. Hope and fear circle each other like two wolves seeking dominance. Right now they are of equal strength and stamina. It will be up to us to decide which wolf to feed and that, in turn, will decide the battle. I think Paul would tell us to feed the hope. The hope wolf may still sustain some wounds in the fight, but if hope goes in better fed and cared for, it will win in the long run.

What Paul advocates is not easy, especially when you are in dire circumstances, but I think Paul gained his strength from exactly that sort of practice. Remember this was the guy that early on in his ministry was found singing hymns in his dungeon cell. He learned to feed the good wolf and it became strong enough to guard against despair, even when starting his own execution in the face.

Welcome to 2009. Hope and fear are on the prowl, looking for food to sustain them in battle. Which one will you feed?

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Sunday, October 26, 2008


Joshua 1:7 “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.”

I was watching a news anchor during one of the days in the past couple of weeks that the Dow was falling off the face of the earth. It was after the congressional rescue package had been passed and the commentators were asking each other why that seemed to have little effect on the market. One person noted that it was fear that had gotten out of control. The anchor then asked a question that hit me between the eyes, “How do you turn around fear?” she asked.

The question hit me because it illustrated that, like with the issue of the greed that got us here, we have left the realm of policy discussion. “How do you turn around fear?” is a psychological and theological question. Once fear takes hold, you can’t legislate your way out of it. Fear moves behavior out of the purely rational realm and into the realm of spirit. In biblical terms, we have “sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7) and now the whirlwind is pretty scary. “How do you turn around fear?”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since hearing the question, and my mind naturally jumped to one of my favorite biblical passages: 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” That’s the short answer. Fear is a gaping hole that threatens to suck us into its vacuum. We eliminate it, not by trying to hang on to other things in order to resist the pull, but by picking up a shovel and filling the hole with love. The trouble with the short answer is that it’s pretty vague and easily misunderstood. How do you love the Dow Jones? What does it mean to love in an economic meltdown? That’s where I think Joshua comes in.

Rev. Peter Gomes in his new book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus says, “The opposite of fear is not courage, but compassion.” He then references the same 1 John passage above. I basically agree, but I would like to tweak that a bit more. I think courage actually is compassion. I think courage is the form love takes in the face of fear. Courage happens when someone stops running from a threat and turns to face it for the sake of love. Courage happens when a father runs back into a burning building to save his child. Courage happens when a Marine goes into enemy territory for the love of country or to retrieve the body of a comrade. Courage happened when Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat for the love of justice. Courage happened when Bobby Kennedy ignored law enforcement advice the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination and spoke to the African Americans of Indianapolis for the love of peace. Courage happens when a woman faces down breast cancer for the love of life or when anyone faces death filled with the love for family and friends and looking to the love of God in that great unknown. When we meet fear with compassion, we call it courage.

So what does that look like in our economic crisis? Think about it. Greed is often a form of fear. We hoard money or possessions when at some level we fear that we will not have enough. Greed is also a lack of compassion for others. When we keep more than our share of wealth (which is one way to look at debt), we fence off God’s resources from others. The prophet Micah says this quite plainly, “Will you rob God?” Our greed over decades has robbed God and God’s poorer children and now, in the end, it is robbing us as well.

Now is the time for courage, which means living the economy of God for the love of God and humanity. It means living within our means and giving excess to others—not because it is forced on us, but out of compassion. In times when our fear tells us to close our fists tightly, we open them and honestly look at what’s there. In Massachusetts we are about to vote on a ballot provision to eliminate the state income tax. Our economic fears make that sound appealing, but the movement in the churches calls for compassion for those whose services will be eliminated without that revenue: the elderly, the disabled, the children, the poor. The church calls for courage in the vote…to eliminate the fear of taxes by arousing loving compassion for others.

Joshua cautioned the Israelites that it would take courage to act in accordance with the Law of Moses (which had huge economic implications), but that such courage would lead to success. It is no different now. Taking the courageous steps to show compassion for others in hard economic times will turn around the fear and restore hope. When economists say we are sinking because of fear, that is a challenge that people and communities of faith are uniquely suited to address. May we have the courage to do so.

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