It is difficult to live in our world and not feel constantly afraid.
Fear is a topic which is constantly addressed in scripture. A quick investigation using an online concordance (http://www.biblestudytools.com) reveals that in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible there are 292 verses with the word “fear” and 186 verses with the word “afraid” in them. I checked; 80 of those verses have the phrase “the fear of the Lord,” which many have described as awe, humility and respect for God, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that if we stood before God it would be more of the “fear and trembling” kind (7 verses use that phrase).
Fear is a big part of our lives. It shapes our decision-making. It drives us to do certain things. It keeps us from doing the right thing. It enters our relationships. It causes rifts between us. It isolates us even when others are trying to help. Much of our news media is fear-driven; causing us all to be suspicious of one another and the world around us.
Think about how fear calls us to cling to the things we know as potential things we could lose and see one another as enemies.
On Sunday we did something new. Sometimes new things cause fear. I may have looked calm, cool and collected, but in the preparation – I was afraid, wondering if people would participate or not, and I didn’t want to look the fool. None of us want to look the fool. For a few fleeting moments I thought about scrapping it and doing what I knew to work, but after the assurance of some friends, some prayer, and a long deep breath on Sunday morning we tried a “question and answer” sermon.
I had people ask some questions ahead of time about God, faith, life or church with the thought of taking them up together. The advice of a friend helped – having people write their responses either alone or in groups seemed to calm the fear in others, since nobody was then put on the spot. People’s responses were great: open, honest, and clear. I left feeling affirmed, not only that I didn’t look like an idiot, but also that people wanted to engage each other and talk about their faith. We need to do more of this kind of thing as churches – but we need to feel comfortable to be able to do it. Some congregations are so full of fear that retreat and fortitude are the only responses. It is difficult to be a “mouth house” (the way Luther described the church) when we are too afraid to speak.
A big learning for me was the consensus around how to respond to the question, “How do we live our faith at work/school/in retirement?” The answers were varied of course, but the overall themes were – not hiding who we are as followers of Jesus, doing the right thing, and treating others with dignity and respect. Wow! That takes a lot of guts not only to say openly among peers, but to also try to live on a daily basis (knowing we will fail on a frequent basis). The opportunity to look foolish in the world’s eyes could be overwhelming. Yet every day, each of you are out there in the world as living witnesses to this truth, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). You reveal that power – not by physical strength, coercion or sheer personal will, but by following Jesus to love others as he loves you (1 Peter 4:19). When we trust Jesus, we discover that we have nothing to be afraid of, no matter how difficult the situation seems. Fear is the question that often causes us to keep our heads down and forget our calling to “be bold and courageous, for the Lord your God is with you” (Joshua 1:9). Thanks for preaching that sermon to me on Sunday. It is one I will not soon forget; especially when I feel like cowering.
The next step for all of us is to encourage each other not to succumb to our fears.
What are you afraid of?
How can we strengthen each other, equip each other, and encourage each other to face our fears and take necessary risks?
Where and when can we reflect on our experiences of both perceived success and failure?
Who else can we bring into the conversation so we can better live our holy calling as witnesses in the world?
Fear holds us back from the risks we know we need to take. But who do we think is judging us, and why should we let those voices intimidate us? If God is leading us where we are supposed to go, then we have nothing to fear at all. Faith gives us the courage to face our fears. Foolishness, at least as it is lived in community with one another can give us the confidence that we are never on our own. So what if we look foolish? Let’s laugh and play and pick each other up. To be holy doesn’t mean we have to be so serious, or take ourselves so seriously. Grace, mercy, love and kindness – remember those? On Sunday you named them as what it means to live your faith in the world – calling us to a whole new way of being, inviting, learning, serving and pointing always to Jesus and the cross.
Be not afraid. Better yet, keep your head up…and smile.
You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:9b-10)