Staring Fear in the Face: Part One

Hannah Montgomery shares from her own journey with fear some keys to not being overcome by it. This will be a three part series, with one post this week and two posts next week.
We hope you find it as helpful as we did!

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry has a ‘regroup’ moment with his friend Professor Lupin. Trying to get to the bottom of why a particular magical creature always turned into a ‘dementor’ for him, Lupin suggests this might be because ‘what you fear most of all, is fear itself.’ And then he adds – ‘This is very wise.

I’ve thought about it a bit, and I reckon in most part, I agree. Wisdom from JK Rowling actually peppers itself through all the series. The truth is that fear is a formidable opponent. It can squash even the strongest, fiercest, most resilient individual. Nobody is beyond its reach. And if we have not already, many of us will make acquaintance with fear in these days. Fear is a human condition, a normal physiological response to threat. The fact you have a ‘fear’ based emotional response shows that you’re actually engaging with rather than burying the reality of the situation we face.

But left unchecked – allowed to wander and multiply, mutate and move into our neighbourhood – fear will take over. Fear will dictate our decisions, our relationships, our future. Fear will not lead us to good places. This is what Lupin foresaw. And fundamentally important to this article – I think Jesus foresaw it first. Possibly this is why ‘do not fear’ occurs as a phrase in the Bible 365 times – more than any other command.

Many of us will make acquaintance with fear in these days. But we do not need to befriend it. ‘Do not fear’ does not have to be a hard to follow command that offers no help in your hour of need. Allow me to level with you – these are a few of my hard-won gleanings from some of my own grapples with fear.

Feel your fear
That anxious knot churning in your stomach. The slightly nauseous throat. The lack of moisture in your mouth. The thumping in your chest. It’s easy (oh believe me I know it!) to be swept up by our physical response to fear, conscious or unconscious. But we need to move from physically feeling our fear to really feeling our fear.

If you’re more of a thinking type than a feeling person… stick with me here. There is good science behind this. Firstly, accept that this is how you’re feeling. Fear is a normal and natural response to what is happening in the world right now.

Secondly, we need to learn to ‘feel’ our way all the way down to the pain that fear so often sits on top of. What I mean is – try to talk it out. Verbalise your fear. De-root it, pull it up, examine it for what it really is. What are you afraid of? Why? What other pains does that fear pull up with it? What memories does it bring up? The pain needs to be felt, to be heard, to be listened to – and then it will quieten down. (It’s ok to cry.)

I really rate Pete Scazzero and his ministry Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He has talked for years about our need to recover a more healthy theology of grief and loss in the church. We need to relearn that Jesus was a man just like us who suffered and knew pain, and this wasn’t an embarrassment to him – he embraced his vulnerability and fear before the Father as a model for us to follow after.

This pandemic is a big loss – we don’t have to have lost somebody to the virus to be experiencing loss. The truth is you still have lost your basic concept of freedom, your ability to walk down the street carefree and unconsciously present. Many of us have lost jobs, or the ability to do our jobs the way we normally would. Finances. Stability. We’ve lost our normal state of connection, our ability to hug, to reach out and touch a friend, to physically respond to other people’s needs and pains and joys. We’ve lost what we thought we had but actually never did – control. We are so clearly not in control. (We never were, but we like to live with this illusion in the west. I think that some of our most painful realisation in this pandemic will be how vulnerable we truly are.)

Losses need grieving. Grieving takes time, and guts, and courage. Feel your fear – feel it all the way down because only when you’ve done that have you really grieved what you’ve lost and are losing. Don’t be afraid to stare fear in the face, it’s the only way through. We’ve been pretty good as a culture at papering over the loss, putting on the brave face, putting our heads into the metaphorical sand – you pick your image. This isn’t what we see Jesus do in the gospels. He felt his emotions, he lived his story, he loved people deeply and so he therefore felt pain. The pain served a purpose – it led him to a cross, a grave, and ultimately out again. Don’t be afraid to walk with him into the crucifixion. Resurrection always happens afterwards.

My one caveat here is that there are points when it’s not a good idea to feel your fear. Believe me when I tell you that trying to turn off my inner catastrophising is far easier at midday than midnight. There is something that happens for me about the hours of 9pm where my rational thinking takes a vacation till daylight breaks again the next morning. So as much as you can, (and I know it’s not always that easy), avoid letting your brain go off down horrendous rabbit holes after dark. Wait until the morning to seriously consider and work through the fear or worry that your brain has just conceived.

Hannah Montgomery is wife to Tom, mother to Charlie and Grace, mentor, friend, leader… But most importantly, she is a woman who seeks to know personally the deep heart of God. Her pilgrimage into that deep heart of God has not always been easy, but along the way she has discovered some beautiful truths that provide nourishment to others on their journeys.

Setting Up Camp in the Wilderness

Our good friend Ciara shares her own journey in the wilderness and what she has been learning there.

We often refer to times of struggle as “desert” or “wilderness”. Although these times tend to be seasons of deep growth, it can be hard to fully see all the ways that God is meeting with us, is present with us and teaching us, until we look back

And it’s even harder to see these things when you’ve been in the desert longer than “40 days and 40 nights” and the wasteland appears never-ending ( I like to use the word ‘desert’ because if you are dyslexic like me you can easily read it as ‘dessert’. And who wouldn’t want to imagine a metaphor where you’re wandering around a giant trifle or layers of cheeky gateau?! ).

My current wilderness feels never-ending. It is a wilderness of physical, chronic pain that I’ve been carrying with me for sixteen years. The nature of it is degenerative so it has progressed and has taken over my life more and more in recent years until what was abnormal for me has now become normality.
Where is God in these times? Can I see what God is teaching me right in this moment, in the now of this wilderness?

What I have come to realise is that it is hard to see what God is teaching me in the wilderness while I’m always moving. Pausing to take a breath, to rest a while, is something I’ve found to be of immense help.
There is a reason that those who live in the desert are often nomadic. They have to keep moving in order to find what they need to survive. But then periodically, they set up camp for a while to rest.

The necessity of setting up camp in the midst of my desert is a lesson I have learned reluctantly. But it is an important part of the wilderness journey. It is space to sit with the pain, to take time to mourn, to lament the loss, to heal a little, to listen, to feel nothing yet feel everything ; to shout in anger, to dance even when there’s no reason, to eat well, to sleep well, to let others look after you ; to relent, to deal with what you’ve been avoiding ; to seek depth, to speak with God.

And what God has been showing me is that these times of “setting up camp” are not a contradiction of who we are and who He is, but confirmation. They confirm that we are wildly complex, beautiful beings who need times of rest, of pausing, to know who we really are, who God is and to learn how to navigate the pain and suffering. ‘You formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb. I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex! Everything you do is marvellously breathtaking. It simply amazes me to think about it! How thoroughly you know me, Lord!’ Psalm 139:13-14 The Passion Translation

We are mysteriously complex and God’s work in us is marvellously breathtaking. Things that are complex and breathtaking need time to be shaped and formed. Time for discovery and understanding and process.
We like to keep moving. To deal with things only one at time and then move on, not come back to it, done and dusted. We like to feel in control – control feels less messy, less vulnerable, less overwhelming.
But what if we relinquish control, allow God to pull us aside to set up camp for a while where there is the space and time to explore with Him the places within that we have avoided? Yes, it can feel undignified, raw, messy – but it is real, it is good and it is necessary.

‘And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.”  And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.’ 1 Kings 19:5-8

What I am discovering in my years of wilderness wanderings is that these “encampments” are my nourishment for the rest of the wilderness journey. They are not the promised land but they are an oasis. But for me to experience this and benefit from the nourishment, I have to relent, to stop and make camp for a while.

Ciara Menzies is a freelance photographer and creative with a passion for visual story-telling. You will often find her most recent book, The Coorie Home, gracing the shelves of your local bookstore or gift shop. Ciara comes originally from Perthshire but now resides in Edinburgh.

A Call to the Frontlines

We are at war.

Those words would have stirred similar emotions in the hearts of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as were stirred in our hearts last night the moment the Prime Minister announced “lockdown.”

Fear. Anxiety. Helplessness. Frustration. Even anger. So many questions, confusion, lack of clarity. Quiet resignation as we brace ourselves for the coming weeks, potentially months. Depending on who we are, we all would have experienced at least one, if not all, of these feelings and internal responses. It’s only natural. We are human, after all.

Yet, as the Church, as disciples and followers of Jesus, what is to be our response in this time? Many sermons around this exact question have been preached in recent weeks by far better communicators than I; so I will not attempt to add to what has already been spoken many times over. I just want to share my own personal thoughts and reflections and hope that they offer some hope and encouragement.

I awoke some time just after 4am this morning, as if something had jolted me awake. Yet there was only silence. And an urge to pray. As I was meant to be up at 5am for my slot in the “Virtual 24-7 Prayer Room” anyway, I answered the call to prayer. As I lay there in the dark praying, I found myself asking God, “I am here, in this nation, at this time. Why? Maybe it is only coincidence. But with You, I think not. So what is my role? What part do You want me to play in this time?”

When I arose, I discovered I had not been alone in my early hours of the morning call to prayer. A number of people across Scotland had awoke around 4am as well with the urge to pray.

So though I am still reflecting on and praying into that question I asked the Father this morning around what He has me for in this time, one thing I am certain of – we are at war.

This is something I have been sensing for a few weeks but was struggling to put words to until last week I heard Mark Sayers of Rebuilders Church talk on a podcast about “wartime leadership.”

But this war is different from most any war we have fought as a global unit. Our frontline army is not made up of those trained to kill, but those trained to protect, care for, save and bring life. Including all those making it possible to feed ourselves and our families in the midst of this.

And I think this is where much of the fear, frustration and anger really come in. We feel helpless. Powerless. Our enemy can not be seen, can not be stopped with bullets or anything the majority of us can understand. And on top of that, our default response of activity and even activism have been stripped from us.
And we are left feeling helpless, vulnerable and lost.

Even for us as the Church, our default response of activity and service in the ways we are used to have been largely stripped from us.

So how do we fight an enemy we can’t see and support an army that the majority of us are not equipped to join?

Paul tells us clearly in Ephesians 6: ‘For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ He goes on to instruct (in The Message ), ‘Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.’

We may not be able to join our NHS or our key workers on the physical frontlines, but we can on the spiritual. And further, I would say that we can even advance “behind enemy lines” when we go in the spiritual.

Friends, we have everything we need to fight this battle – as Paul shows us in Ephesians – in God and in one another.

Never has the time been more appropriate or more urgent that we fulfil the dream and prayer in Jesus’ heart and come together as ONE Church, one Body and fight through prayer and through loving connection, even in the present isolation.

So a whole lot of us have joined hands and are now inviting you to join a Scottish 24/7 army. We have created a Scotland “Virtual” 24-7 Prayer Room where you can “enlist” to join this battle. As well as a “Virtual Creative Wall” on Facebook where we can share encouraging words and stories to “keep each other’s spirits up.

Will you join us?

Click here for the Virtual Prayer Room sign-up and if possible, put your name and where in Scotland you are praying from.

And click here for the Creative Wall

Cooried In

I am so grateful for the diverse streams of the Church of Jesus, and the the richness to be experienced in that diversity.

Over recent years I have begun to learn more about contemplative prayer, as well as the beauty and value of simply being in the presence of God with no need for words.

Coming from a very evangelical background, being introduced to contemplative prayer has brought me a new freedom, rest and delight in prayer. And it has also had a profound impact on those times that invariably come where my head, and even my heart and soul, are such a swirling mess that I find it difficult to formulate words. I have now learned/am learning to bring all of that into God’s presence, and when I can’t find the words to not even try. I simply sit with it all in His presence, giving it over to Him, maybe with palms open (unless I happen to be walking out in nature) and breathe Him in. Then slowly everything within me begins to settle.

I recently went on retreat at the beautiful Sannox Centre on the Isle of Arran. I arrived on the island only a little before ‘Storm Ciara’ so my plans were slightly delayed and my retreat extended by a few days but it turned out to be the best thing for me.

I arrived at Sannox in a similar state to what I describe above – my head and heart and soul swirling with tired thoughts, questions, concerns, tentative hopes and, if I’m honest, some underlying anxiety.
I had been counting down the days until the retreat and when I was finally there, I went into prayer as quickly as possible, desperate to talk with God about it all, desperate for Him to speak.
That first evening was difficult. My internal world would not settle and I kept pushing for words – words from me and words from Him.

But only silence.

And then I let go, stopped pushing. I remembered what I am learning about simply being in His presence. In my heart I heard, “It will come. I will speak. But for now, draw breath, relax, let go… and linger.

Linger.

How often do we linger in God’s presence when we aren’t hearing anything, simply content to sit in companionable silence? Yeh, me neither.

So I lingered.

The next morning I wrote this:

Last night
the storm was in my heart and mind,
swirling in my soul.
This morning
the storm rages outside.
Wind and rain beat at the windows.
But I am cooried in.
Cooried in next to the fire of Your love.
Cooried in under the blanket of Your peace.
Candle flames flicker and dance,
like the gentle presence of Your Spirit.
The wind howls,
the trees swish and creak,
yet inside,
deep quiet.
A heart content,
content to rest at the hearthside of You love.
“Not in the fire, the tremor or the wind”
But in the deep quiet I listen,
content to wait
for the gentle whisper  
that brings forth life.

If you can relate to that sense of your internal world resembling the storm in the external world and would like to learn some helpful prayer practices, such as contemplative prayer, we would really recommend How to Pray by Pete Greig, the 24-7 Prayer Prayer Course and Prayer:Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard J. Foster.