Fear, Death, and Love

(remarks from recipient of the Mary Morris Award, Lipscomb University: Brett Flener)

Hearing people speak about the kind of person Mary Morris was in her time at Lipscomb is a humbling experience.  In my time, I hope to cultivate only a portion of the spirit she spread among her peers and students.  James Brown, a good friend of mine, and co-worker of Mary Morris told me countless stories about the kindness she practiced so regularly.  Specifically, he mentioned his experience of a dinner party that Mary invited him to.  It was at that dinner party that James fully experienced Mary’s way of making everyone she encountered feel valued and appreciated regardless of socioeconomic level or position in society.  So, I would like to first thank Mary’s parents for raising such a wonderful woman and sharing her with the community here at Lipscomb.

I would also like to thank my parents who have taught me more about hospitality than they will ever know.  I cannot remember a time in my life when the door hasn’t been open to whomever I decided to bring home.  Be it best friends from university or a chronically ill individual whose residence was the streets of Nashville- there was always a place at our table.  I cannot thank them enough for all of the support they have given me over the past few years.

I would also like to mention past recipients of this award, Andrew and Lindsey Krinks, both of whom have been instrumental in forming and sustaining the person I am today.

1 John talks a lot about fear, death, and love.

We know that we have left death and come over into life; we know it because we love others. Those who do not love are still under the power of death. –1 John 3.14

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. –1 John 3.18

Who in this room fears death?

As biological creatures we are driven by our instincts for self-preservation. And given that pleasure and pain regulate our actions we often become selfish and hedonistic.  Further, given that self-preservation is the ethic of being mortal we can see how we can become enslaved to death. Mortality fears constantly push and pull on us, manipulating our animal instincts for survival and self-preservation.

The battle we all face is the battle between fear and love. Between self-interest and self-giving.  Obviously, selfish, envious, prideful, and violent people are going to have a hard time loving others. Such are the psychological and behavioral expressions of a life enslaved to the fear of death.

Resurrection, or living in freedom, is victory over this fear in the concrete expression of love toward others.  Living a life marked by Resurrection is the willingness to undergo a diminishment of the self and the ego to give life to others. Resurrection is perfect love casting out fear.

The Christian tradition provides no clear consensus on where boundaries should be set when it comes to sacrificing for others.  Jesus has certainly offered little consolation in this regard- by sacrificing his interests for the interests of others- to the logical conclusion of the cross.  When we look at those who have tried in his wake however, I think it is clear that the saints and the gospels prophetically encourage us to adjust our current boundaries, to say Yes more to others and No more to the self. It’s the journey of learning to love more and more that seems most critical.

Richard Beck, a behavioral psychologist and ad-hoc theologian at Abilene Christian University (who I have been ripping off for the past two paragraphs) offers us some insight on how to serve: Give up the striving after self-esteem and significance. How? Do good work. Enjoy the work for itself. Don’t turn work into a self-esteem project. Don’t serve that power. Put aside the anxiety of chasing self-esteem and significance and learn to enjoy the day. Notice the simple gifts of food and drink. Be present with your loved ones. Cherish and cultivate friendships. Don’t turn religion into a self-esteem project. Don’t be too righteous. Yet don’t be foolish either. Seek wisdom over violence and war. Avoid the propaganda of nations and fools. Spend the day doing good.

Though I’m not sure how far we should go in some ultimate or absolute sense, I am fairly certain that most of us can do more. That’s what I’m asking us all to consider.

William James, a great pragmatist of the 20th century observed: “When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits.”

His point is simply this: Despite our feelings to the contrary, from the time we wake in the morning to the time we go back to sleep most, if not all, of our actions are deeply set in the grooves of habit. It follows, then, that much of our happiness and virtue, or misery or vice, is due to the kinds of habits we have acquired over the years. Our goal, therefore, is to learn to cultivate habits that lead to virtue and self-giving towards others.

When I met Chris Ferguson in January of 2010, he had recently been released from prison.  I was serving at one of the many warming shelters in the city that had been organized by Amos House Community church.  Chris and I shared stories until the early hours of the morning and exchanged contact information.  The relationship forged in that place still exists until today.

Chris had been a truck driver for the last 23 years of his life.  During his 2 years in prison- his trucking license expired.  This left him without an occupation or means to thrive in his new circumstances.  I introduced Chris to a group of my friends and we made it a point to spend time together on a regular basis.  Shortly after this, we began to pull money together to put down a deposit on an apartment for Chris.  If Lipscomb Security had the resources they do today, I’m sure there would have been an interrogation into suspicious activities.  During these times, it would be regular for me to send out a text in the morning and subsequently collect money for the entirety of the day in what- to the common observer- would look like an open air drug transaction than good deeds being practiced in secret.  There was a certain camaraderie between the individuals who were giving in secret throughout the hallways of Lipscomb.  It was something most of us had never experienced before.  After talking to Chris face to face and knowing him as a person, it was easy for our group of friends to tear down stereotypes of the other and practice compassion.

It was simple.  We had more than we needed.  Chris did not have what he needed.  It was common sense that we should fast from weekend activities, or for some people, from food, so that someone else could have the physical necessities and opportunity to move past their unfavorable circumstances.  It made sense that some of us should skip class to drive 8 hours roundtrip to Georgia so Chris could reinstate his license.  And when the church that offered him family and community held its services on Sunday nights, but the shelter doors closed at 5, it made sense that we offer him a bed in the dorm.  I feel confident speaking for myself and these friends who walked with Chris when I say we are forever changed in light of that experience.

I talked to Chris yesterday, he is doing well, on the road in Georgia to pick up a load.  Every-time I call, he never fails to proclaim his love and gratitude for the small sacrifices we decided to make on his behalf.  And unfailingly he asks if there is anything he can do for me.  On my better days, I return the thanks, acknowledging that he played a significant part in liberating my friends and I from our own oppression of selfish decisions and materialism and introducing us to the life that can be found in service.

Revisiting William James-the great pragmatist- we remember his observation that human beings are a bundle of habits.  Consequently, to make this world a better place, we will have to practice our beliefs about service consistently to make it a part of who we are.  If I had one piece of advice for individuals today, it would be to get out there and develop relationships with people doing significant work today.  Pursue your passion to serve and the rest will fall in place.

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