Beyond the Threshold of Fear

posted Nov 26, 2012, 3:24 PM by Phil Clark   [ updated Aug 27, 2015, 12:16 PM by Sonrise Lightmyway ]
When I think of dark, lonely, scary places, two things come to mind.  Border towns in Mexico and crawl spaces under houses.  In my mind, one place crawls with lawless drug dealers looking to kidnap and murder innocent travelers and the other crawls with huge hairy spiders looking to jump on you and bite you with their venomous fangs.  I've noticed over the years that I burn a ton of emotional energy when I think about having to go through customs in Nogales or Juarez on mission trips or business trips or when I have to pass through the spider web strewn opening to go under the houses I've owned to make repairs.   Fear gets the better of me.    I've also noticed that once I pass through the thresholds into those places, it turns out that the threshold was scarier than the destination, and that it was not as bad inside as it seemed to be from the outside looking in.  Mexico is a beautiful country with wonderful people.  The crawl space under my home is way roomier than it looks from the outside once you are under the house crawling around.   I've never been bitten or even had contact with a spider there.   Fear can be a powerful deterrent to discovery and blessing and in most cases is birthed from a limited understanding of what lies beyond the opening.  The worst part of the journey seems to be getting beyond the threshold where all our fears rest.

When I was invited to come and to serve at Light My Way, I had those same threshold feelings.  To me, Light My Way was another one of those dark, lonely, scary places from the outside looking in.  In my imagination, I saw ex-cons, sex offenders, smelly homeless people, sociopaths, swindlers, thieves, murderers, whores, messed up people all trying to get my wallet or get at my family or take more of my time than I wanted to give.  On a challenge from a good friend and an invitation to help out, I decided to push past those feelings.    I have to admit, I was nervous that first Sunday afternoon I attended.  It actually occurred to me to leave my wallet in the car.  Seriously!  The thought of entering the lives of people who were in recovery at Light My Way burned a lot of emotional energy up front.   Once I began attending, and once I began engaging with those who attended, I was surprised by how different being there was than what I expected and how much they were like me on the inside, despite how many of them looked on the outside.  Fear melted away and I experienced joy as I began connecting with the group and entering the lives of individuals in recovery.  I was rebuked in my heart for letting fear take so much energy from me.

Our friend Patti, who serves in a pastoral care role for women here in Oregon, and who is a cancer survivor, said once in a message at Light My Way that "today's prisoners are tomorrow's pastors".  I believe that now.  There are some Godly men and women at Light My Way whose lives are full of grace and truth, who were shaped into who they are now by their past mistakes.  I came to minister to broken people there, and instead was reminded both that God cannot be out-given and that broken individuals who, in the poverty of their consequences and in submission to their Savior, were giving back to me unknowingly in greater measure as I served along side them.  My wife and I invited them into our home with our children for summer barbeques and holidays and became as family to many of them.   After 4 years of ministry at Light My Way,  I laugh at myself when I think about all the misconceptions I had about those who are in recovery.   Compassion won out over fear and a judgemental attitude.  The view from the inside looking out was indeed different than what I had expected.   I found out quickly that they are like me and I them, except that many of them had disadvantaged upbringings and I didn't.  They didn't have a father figure in their lives growing up and I did.  Many got involved in substance abuse early on in life and dropped out of school, or simply got caught and prosecuted for the very same crime committed against them in their childhood.  I never had trouble with the law.   Aside from those differences, their day to day life and existence was not too different from mine.  Albeit tougher life circumstances for them with limited housing options, limited job opportunities and the labels they bore (felon, S.O., convict, homeless, etc.), in their heart they were much like me.   Their day to day existence was much as my life is.  Getting enough sleep, eating right, making enough money to pay the bills, finding joy in healthy ways, being available for friends in need, working out what it means to walk with Jesus day after day, all activities that characterize my life.

We serve the God of the impossible who changes hearts and lives miraculously.  I have seen it.  The New Testament book of Philemon instructs us in the matter.   The Apostle Paul says to Philemon, " I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.   Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. "  These men and women with labels at Light My Way are useful for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If you believe in Jesus Christ, then they are your brothers and sisters in Christ.   They are bringing redemption and social justice to a marginalized population in the Washington County Restitution Center and to others in our community and have faithfully done so without incident for several years now.  Perhaps the biggest miracle is not that Onesimus, the runaway slave, was changed and served Paul faithfully in prison. Perhaps the miracle is that Paul, a murderer and persecutor of the The Way, who was imprisoned for his association with the very group he once persecuted, who was now encouraging Philemon, his brother on the outside, to rethink his relationship with his slave Onesimus in the context of the grace and forgiveness that Paul showed Philemon.  Interesting that we named a New Testament book after Philemon and not Onesimus, since we don't really know if Philemon ever took Paul's exhortation to heart.

How easy it is to put a label on someone, de-humanize them and then treat them like objects that can be discarded without our consciences bothering us.  We don't know for sure, but it seems that maybe word got back to Paul that Philemon had an attitude about Onesimus and did not think of him as a brother in Christ.  Did Philemon label Onesimus a "slave", thereby waiving his rights as a brother in Christ?   By way of confession, my wife and I refer to other human beings as "people" when we want to label them and think of them in non-human terms.  "People" cut us off in traffic.  "People" do stupid things or say stupid things to us.  We say, "those people", did this or that.    Other labels like "Jew", "Blacks", "Whites", "Elderly", "Retarded","Fetus", "Felon", "Gay", "Slave", have made it convenient for societies to think of unwanted individuals in terms of objects rather than in terms of human beings.  Some would argue that labeling "Felons" is different because they committed a crime and deserve the label.  They further justify that labeling by saying they must live with the consequences of their crime.  If that were true, we should be up front with felons when we sentence them and tell them that they are serving a life sentence for a crime that can never be forgiven by society.   Having the label "felon" is, for all purposes, a life sentence.    Having the label "sex offender" is even worse in terms of the social ramifications.   I have observed that the basis for that kind of labeling is usually rooted in fear of the unknown by those doing the labeling, and that in most cases, those who use that label "sex offender" do not know a "sex offender" personally.  It seems that those who are label makers and label users have not crossed the threshold of fear.

God has not called followers of Jesus Christ to a spirit of fear and timidity.  Perfect love casts out fear.  We can move past the threshold of fear and into a place where knowledge and truth prevail.    We can choose love over fear,  because the God of the universe dwells in our hearts, and has overcome all things.  We can be strong and courageous because the Lord of Hosts is on our side.  We can live in forgiveness and not bitterness, because we are forgiven and called to peace.    Let's get beyond the threshold of fear.   Let's keep the labels on the products we buy and off of the individuals who are working hard to recover so they can be productive members of our society.