Faith and Fear/Fear and Faith

This is a presentation I made to our adult education class, which is a six-week series based loosely on a 2007 book by Dr. Scott Beder-Saye called Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. The first part of the presentation last week was by a clinical psychologist on fear - how it works and manifests itself in our bodies and our minds. We do have things to fear but often our fears are well out of proportion with the actual dangers. My part was to talk about the Christian response to fear.

Back in the 16th Century, Thomas Hobbes said that “fear is the glue that holds us (as a society) together.”

Well before that, God said to Moses, fear not, for I am with you. And the prophet Isaiah said to all the people, fear not, for God is with you.  And the angel said to Mary, fear not, for God is with you.  And Jesus said, so, don’t worry about your stuff or even your life. Jesus says, leave things behind. Jesus says, be like the good Samaritan. 

Jesus breaks all kinds of rules established by the world and breaks through barriers set up by the world in order to BE God’s healing and reconciling love in the world. And he knows there are consequences of this: Jesus said, take up your cross and follow me. He suffered consequences and so will we.

He didn’t say, I know the world is scary, so go build yourself a shelter and hunker down. He didn’t praise the levite and the priest who fearfully passed by the man lying, beaten, beside the road or the man who built barns to secure his big harvest. 

But the world is scary. There are things to be afraid of.

Following Jesus then entails figuring out how to find the courage to act faithfully despite our fears so that we can live fully into the Gospel imperative.

The author of the book we based this class upon, Scott Beder-Saye, has three suggestions about how to deal with our fears.

The first is to trust in Providence.

The second is to build and belong to a community.

The third is to learn, in light of these first two points, to be a people who take risks.

So. Providence. Belief in Providence (the belief that God is in control of all events) is not so popular these days, mostly due to the questions that flow from the classic idea of Providence:  if God is directing all the activity in the world, then what about the Holocaust? What about the disasters? What about tragedy and death? Is God making all these things happen for some reason? Is God punishing us? Is God arbitrary and mean?

But if we reframe how we look at God’s activity in the world based on what we know about God through the person and story of Jesus of Nazareth (which is what we do as Christians), then we have to see resurrection at the center of God’s activity. God is about resurrection. But there is no resurrection without death, which in Jesus’ case, is brought about through fear. The Romans and the Jewish religious leadership were afraid of Jesus and they put him to death. That was not God’s doing. 

But the resurrection WAS God’s doing. God is not about causing disaster, but God is always working to redeem disaster, to redeem death, to redeem brokenness and bring about something good. 

Example: Joseph and his brothers. They sold him into slavery, but Joseph rose to prominence and was able to save his family and thus the whole future of the Jewish people during the famine. You meant it for evil, Joseph told his brothers, but God made it good.

So belief in providence means that even if something awful happens, God is working to bring new life out of that awfulness. God is the Lord of History but that history is still and always being made through God’s continual calling out goodness.

Second, build up a community of hope. Community is the antidote to fear because fear feeds on isolation (unless the community becomes a mob, which is why I said community of HOPE). Community says: we are there for you if the thing you fear happens. We will be there for you if you try something and aren’t successful. We are here to cheer you on; we are here to support you; you are not alone. We believe God’s promises. This gives us courage.

Story: when I had cancer. The community was there to help me with medical info; to accompany me and my husband through it all; to help us take care of our children; to bring us food for weeks and even months later. 

The support we received helped me see that even if something happened to me (even death) the community would be there for my family. This helped me not be afraid, it helped me hold on to my family a little more loosely and with less fear, so that we could all live into what we believed God made us to be. Being embedded in a hopeful community has given my husband and me and our children confidence to step out into the world to live out our various callings. 

Third, learn to be a people who take risks: If you believe that God will redeem even the worst thing that could happen; if you are embedded in a community of hope that will be there for you; then you can take risks. 

This is not about being stupid but it is about living into the story that says there are things worth dying for, that love is as strong as death, that we are called to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, that we are called to embody love in a very broken and desperate world in ways that are not padded with self-protection. We cannot truly love if we cannot allow ourselves to be vulnerable. A life focused on safety is not much of a life. There is nothing compelling about a story that says if love gets risky you should back off.

Many of us have loved the Chronicles of Narnia books. In those books, the Pevensie children learn that the Jesus figure, Aslan the lion, is not a tame lion. He isn’t safe. But he is good and he can be trusted to bring about good, even in the midst of disaster.Yes, they died in the end. But they are brought to a beautiful place where there is no more violence and suffering.The promise was fulfilled.

An example in our parish of taking risks is the winter shelter. Many of us had to really push through some fears about safety, about vulnerability, about our ability to deal with people we thought might be scary. But the risk paid off in a big way for us as a parish, for many of us as individuals, for our shelter guests, and for the Williamsburg community.

Jesus, who asks us to take up our cross and follow him, calls us into goodness, not into safety. 
We live in a world that tries to convince us that we must pursue safety first or else we are bad parents or bad children or bad teachers or bad spouses. 

But the world is not safe and we can never ever eliminate all risk. Bad stuff is going to happen despite all our efforts.  And, believe it or not, good will somehow be brought out of it.

And the risks we take by living out love instead of hiding behind our fears will be worth it because God is with us.


Bill Bynum said…
A cogent, meaningful essay. The last sentence says it all. In the not too distant past, while I was trying to decide if God had always been there and I had refused to pay attention, I wasn't sure that I could believe in a God who would allow something like the Holocaust to happen, but God eventually helped me to understand. Humankind, not God, allowed the Holocaust to happen. Examples abound. In particular, FDR arranged a conference in 1938 at Evian, France with 33 nations to discuss what to do about the 600,000 Jews who were in Germany at that time. Not ONE of those 33 nations agreed to accept any German Jewish refugees, either out of fear (their language and culture are different from ours and we're in the Great Depression) or simply antisemitism. The Nazis were exultant -- 33 countries had agreed with them, time to get on with their program. Eventually, the world responded to the Nazi menace, the Holocaust finally ended and God brought the world a measure of redemption. Again the last sentence of your essay covers it all. No matter how scary the Call to Discipleship in the Gospels seems to be, God promises to be there if we try to meet it.
Thanks, Bill. There were a few who stood up to the Nazis, and some of them, like Bonhoeffer, paid for it with their lives. Today is the birthday of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who said, among other things, human beings must be held accountable. Leave God alone - he has enough problems.