Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.
These are the words of pastor and writer Frederick Beuchner …..
He didn’t make it up on his own….the bible says countless times…do not be afraid.
When the angel comes to Mary to tell she will bare a child who will be Jesus… he tells her “Do not be afraid
Moses tells Joshua…Be strong, be courageous…do not be afraid before he goes into battle.
The prophet Isaiah speaks for God when he says…Do not fear…I have called you by name…I am with you.
And the gospel of Matthew tells us…do not worry about tomorrow…
Do not be afraid appears countless times in scripture and the gist is always no matter what… God is with you.
Still I couldn’t help but wonder if you tell a friend that you’re afraid and they reply “do not be afraid” is it helpful? do you feel any better? I know I wouldn’t! I struggled this week with Jesus’ words to his disciples. Here they are in a boat the wind is strong the waves are coming into the boat…they’re sinking and he says….Why are you afraid? Don’t you have any faith?
It seems rather harsh to me! And let’s be clear….sometimes Jesus is harsh…we like to paint a picture of Jesus meek and mild…always loving and compassionate but the truth is sometimes he’s rough around the edges, sometimes he’s very demanding, sometimes he’s blunt.
I much more relate to the disciples in this story…scared to death because the waves are high, water is coming into the boat, they are about to perish any minute…and Jesus is right there in the boat…asleep!
How many storms have you encountered in your life when you cried out “How long God? How long?” And it seemed like God was no where around?
Could it be that God was there all along but we were so gripped by fear we didn’t see?
Fear is an interesting emotion because on the one hand it can keep us safe and be a warning something bad is going to happen….We want our children to be a little afraid of strange dogs…or crossing the street alone right? On the other hand fear can paralyze us. It can prevent us from making changes in our lives, it can prevent us from taking necessary risks, and when it’s severe enough it can prevent us from ever leaving our home. Fear causes us to judge those who are different than we are, and before you know it we are building walls of separation when we are called to live in love. It traps us and prevents us from seeing the beautiful part of life that Frederick Buechner spoke of. Fear can suck the life out of us and make us ill. It’s not good for the body to stay in a state of constant panic it strains our heart and nervous system, compromises our immune system.
But we all experience fear…we’re human. Still sometimes we get carried away, haven’t you had the experience of letting fear get the best of you and then when whatever you were fearing passes you realize what an incredible waste of time and energy you used being fearful? (I know I have) What beauty might you have passed by while you were stuck in fear? What opportunities might you have missed?
Still, I struggled hard with scripture this week as the words “Do not be afraid” spun round and round inside of me. Just trust in God. It sounds too much like a platitude to me.
But maybe when scripture says do not be afraid it means something more like….feel the fear and do it anyway. Isn’t that what it means to trust God? We put one foot in front of the other trusting that life is unfolding and God is present in all of it.
The late Henri Nouwen, priest and prolific writer says the remedy for fear is love, he writes, “The invitation of Christ is the invitation to move out of the house of fear and into the house of love; to move out of that place of imprisonment and into a place of freedom” And he goes on to call all those places in scripture that say do not be afraid…a reassuring voice! He says, “The reassuring voice, which repeats over and over again, “Do not be afraid, have no fear,” is the voice we most need to hear. The voice uttering these words…fear not…sounds all through history as the voice of God’s messengers, be it angels or saints or Christ himself. It is a voice that announces a whole new way of being…A way of living in the house of love.”
When I read these words it was an Aha moment… I was given a whole new way of hearing Do not be afraid….Suddenly the tone in Jesus’ voice changed. He’s not saying stuff your feelings way down deep….but here is an invitation to live in love! It’s not a reprimand Stop being afraid! But a gentle loving voice that says, ” now, now, don’t be afraid I am here. “
Nouwen writes that when Jesus says do not be afraid what he is saying is…I am the Lord of love, who invites you to receive gifts of joy and peace and gratitude.
It seems like there is a lot of fear floating around these days…it feels like it’s in the air…in the water…certainly on the news. The only way we can address this fear is to live in love.
Remember after the tragic shootings in Newton the mantra became Love Wins…because that community that had experienced deep loss and fear did not want fear to win but love. They did not want to respond to the tragedy based on fear but on love. In as much as they could they wanted love to transform their fear and loss.
Notice in today’s scripture there is a line that says….Let us go across to the other side….the other side of fear is love. Perhaps that was really the invitation of Jesus to the disciples…come to a different way of living. But they were afraid…they let their fear get the best of them.
How do we get to the other side of fear?
The only way I know is through prayer and specifically silent prayer. Fear is not soothed by telling God what to do or by making our requests known but by being in God’s presence and allowing God to love us and sometimes that love will spill out and our fear will subside as we practice again and again. In our wordy United Church of Christ tradition silence is not very popular but it is still very powerful.
I practice centering prayer, which is a form of Christian meditation. It’s a simple practice. At its core the intention is simply to bask in God’s love and be receptive to God. There is not much to do…and that’s what makes it so hard. You simply sit in your chair in silence using a simple word that keeps bringing you back to God when your mind wonders. And it will wonder all the time, it will race thoughts round and round at record speed and sometimes you’ll want to bolt out of that chair. But practice often enough…like everyday sometimes twice a day in 20 minute sittings and gradually on some days you’ll notice a shift from fear to love. You’ll notice that even when you are inclined to hate and build walls and be angry, there is a voice that whispers…do not be afraid…and now you might begin to listen deeper… and now you might slowly begin to live in new ways. Centering Prayer is a practice that makes your mind more spacious and your heart more open. But you’ll slip up over and over and go back to your gripping fear but if you keep coming back to the chair, to the silence, to basking in God’s love, little by little God shapes you…you notice the beautiful as much as the terrible…you remember that the last time you were afraid somehow you got through to the other side and that perhaps that “somehow” was God’s presence carrying you through.
The longer I live the more I understand Paul’s encouragement to “pray without ceasing” it’s a life- line. Whatever your prayer practice is, let it be a practice that opens your mind and heart wide to receive God’s love and then go out and spread that love around.
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. (Frederick Buechner)