We are currently reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine she made this observation: “I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” She went on to say that what it comes down to, in her opinion, is that “fear is an excuse.” That is to say, fear is a frequent excuse for not doing something.
I remember standing in line to try out to play baseball on a local team sponsored by the Lion’s Club of Des Plaines, IL. As I watched my peers march up to the batting cage, I was afraid that I could not hit the ball and would be embarrassed in front of my friends and their parents. So, when I thought no one was looking, I slipped out of the line and went home. I felt terrible. I still remember the ugly feeling, the loss of courage, and the surrender to what I was most afraid of then, failure and embarrassment. Fear has always been a default posture for me, especially when I was young. However, with experience, and even a bit of tenacity, I have overcome a lot of fears.
Today it is amazing how people respond to fear and how our media stirs up and preys upon the fears of our citizens. For example, both ISIS and Ebola become fears in the hearts and minds of people at the thought of it hitting home. By this I mean when a commentator on TV will say, “We will be fighting ISIS next in our streets”, or when they discover a case of Ebola in Texas and Manhattan. After 9/11 people didn’t go into Manhattan for months or take air planes. Broadway was suffering, and so were restaurants and airlines, all because people felt, for some reason, that they were walking into the line of fire when they came to New York City or risked being hijacked by terrorists on an airplane.
They say that, more than death, public speaking is the greatest fear, but let’s just suffice it to say that fear begins to kick in once you move outside your comfort zone. I have listened to people’s fears and, of course, heard my own suppressed fears on many different occasions. People are afraid they will lose their job, they are afraid of retirement. I have known some to be afraid to get married or make a commitment. Other people are afraid of heights, flying airplanes, or – if you are me – you can feel the walls coming in on you when you are claustrophobic.
It’s all very interesting but fear has a way of diminishing us, of holding us back, stopping us from excelling because we move toward safety rather than risk.
Jesus often talked about fear as does the Bible. Time after time, when asked about their favorite passage of the 23rd Psalm, people will say, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.” Put differently, it is not death but the fear of death that the psalmist/poet is talking about. Jesus would often say, “Don’t fear those who can destroy the body but he who can destroy both soul and body.”
Behind so much of our fears is death. I recall waking up many nights fearful for my daughter in Afghanistan and what could possibly happen to her as each day death tolls seemed to mount. I was always fearful that my parents would one day die. However, as I observe my relationship to fear, I also realize that I want control. Somehow I want it my way; in some way I think I can prevent things from happening and fix everything, but that is not how the world works, much to my chagrin. You can’t dictate to the world, and you can’t control other people, let alone some of the circumstances in your own life. In the end, it comes down to trust. You can’t fly the plane, so you have to trust the pilot.
When Martin Luther was asked how to define faith, he simply said, “Trust.” It is not belief, or our knowledge that we have from sermons, Bible Study, and Sunday School. Rather, it is simply being willing to trust that with God’s help things will have a way of turning out OK. By OK I mean, not always the way we want them to, but in a way that will allow us to survive, sometimes even to thrive, but for certain to be able to go on. Even in the most painful of times we can be better for it, learn from it, grow from it, and get beyond it. This is not pollyanna theology, or the theology of prosperity. Jesus didn’t come to make us good or to take away our pain in this existence. He came to show us love, its healing and its empowerment.
In the quiet moments of my life when I may have been dreading my daughter being in Afghanistan, or in the emptiness and aloneness that comes from your father and brother dying within a week of each other, the resource of my faith, the support of others, and the love I know through my faith in God allowed me to get beyond the overwhelming darkness that prevailed in those moments. Luther once said in the face of great fear, ”Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” His context was different but the fear was the same.