Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Letting Go Of Fear

In a letter I received back in the 1960’s, during the Vietnam War, a young soldier friend wrote to me: “I guess the way to survive is to expect the worst and hope for the best.” It’s an oft-repeated expression, drawing on two human emotions or attitudes: fear and faith.

We’ve all experienced the reality of fear at some time in our lives:

As children:
  • fear of the dark; the need to have a light on
  • fear of ghosts or monsters
  • fear of loud noises
  • fear of large animals
  • fear that Dad or Mom will leave us
As young adults:
  • fear of embarrassment or of being made fun of
  • fear of standing out in a crowd
  • fear of being rejected by a boyfriend or girl friend
  • fear of the future, of what’s going to happen in college, or in a new job, etc.
In middle-age:
  • fear of being unsuccessful, of not accomplishing, of not meeting others’ standards
  • fear of whether or not we can remain financially secure
  • fear in raising children: that they’ll learn the right values, that they’ll be safe, that they’ll make good life-choices
  • fear that our spouse no longer loves us
In advancing age:
  • fear for one’s physical health, mental alertness, security
  • fear of being a burden on the family
  • fear of losing our close friends
  • fear of dying
Fear is real, not imaginary. It’s a fact of life, and some of us handle it well; some can’t handle it at all. Even Jesus, as he faced the most critical time of his life, expressed fear and asked that the cup of suffering be removed, if possible. Yet he also prayed: “Father into your hands I commit my spirit, my life.” Notice how often throughout Scripture people are advised not to fear:
  • to Jacob: “Do not be afraid...for I will make you a great nation.” (Genesis 46)
  • Moses to Israel: “Let not your heart faint, do not fear...for the Lord your God is the One who goes with you.” (Deuteronomy 20)
  • the angel Gabriel to Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1)
  • God’s messenger to Joseph: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary for your wife...” (Matthew 1)
  • Luke 12: “Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
  • Acts 27: “Do not be afraid, Paul...
  • Revelation 1: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living One.
  • in the Genesis 15 reading this week: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield, I am your sure reward.
  • in Luke’s Gospel passage (12:32-40): “Do not be afraid, little flock...

As human beings we’re able to deal with fear and overcome it through faith: when God gives us the assurance of God’s Word, and we risk taking God at that Word, setting our heart and everything on it.

To speak of faith is to speak of the Covenant, the promise, God made with the chosen ones, and which God renews with us, the new people of God. Very simply, God tells us: “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7) That’s the promise, God’s Word. Each of Sunday’s liturgical readings expresses that same promise, each in its own unique way:
  • in Genesis 15: “...the Lord reckoned it to him [Abram] as righteousness.
  • in Hebrews 11: “...God is not ashamed to be called their God: indeed, God has prepared a city for them.
  • in Luke 12: “...it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

God’s promise, a unique blend of covenant and hope, is a powerful biblical motif. As our part of the Covenant, God asks only that we trust, that we accept God’s promise, that we have faith. Sunday’s reading from Hebrews (11:1) provides us with, not so much a definition of faith, as a paradoxical description: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Luther translated the first part as “sure confidence”, so that the sense is “Faith is the subjective assurance I have of things hoped for.” Philo and other Hellenistic writers translate it in a more objective way as: “Faith is the reality or substance of goods hoped for, and these by nature have a transcendent quality.” 

In other words, faith makes the future reality present and the unseen presence real. Faith is the confidence of those who live certain that God’s redeeming work, God’s promise, will be done, despite what we see or experience around us. God invites us to believe in the promise despite the fact that we often don’t fully understand “why”, as Abram didn’t; despite the fact that we don’t have any tangible evidence or assurance that those promises are being fulfilled here and now, as many great heroes of faith didn’t; and despite the fact that we do fear, sometimes with reason, that the reign of God may not become a reality for us.

If, like Abraham and others, we can learn to be open to the future, to take God at God’s Word, then fear will begin to disappear from our lives. “Perfect love [which includes faith and hope] casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) What fools we are to settle for fear rather than for trust! Last week’s Gospel spoke about the unmindful, unfeeling, unbelieving rich fool who put all his trust in his grain and goods. Luke’s message is that only a fool, staking his claim to perishables, would allow himself to hope for so little that he was unprepared for the enduring realities which God offered him. This week the fool is the person who chooses to live in fear and immobility, to center one’s focus on this world and its possessions out of fear of losing them, in exchange for trusting God to makes Godself known in the kingdom. Jesus reminds us that “The reign, the Presence, of God is within in you...and where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” God’s promises are fulfilled in the person and presence of Jesus the Christ, in us.

As God calls individuals out of fear into trust, so God calls the Church itself. God invites the people of God to set aside all fearfulness, mistrust, and to set our hearts on the promise of what God can make of them. This calls for continual re-evaluation of our ministry, of our very purpose for being the Church. That can be a frightening thing! Frightening, because it means that we have to drop our defenses and to seriously question and study such things as our theology of the stewardship of creation and of all “things”; our motivations for worshipping as we do; the quality of our evangelism and reaching out to the communities which surround us; the manner in which we choose to form our children, our young people, ourselves through education in God’s Word and the sacred Tradition handed down to us from previous generations; and, finally, the quality of how we address others‘ needs and pastorally care for one another. All of this involves risk, because it requires thoughtful change.

How ready, really, am I to let go of my fear, my insecurities, my prejudices? How willing am I to open myself to God’s promise of the only sure thing I need: God’s reign, God’s Presence, Godself? If we’re willing, as the Church, to journey together in faith, it’s likely that we’ll pick up that pioneer spirit reflected in the “honor roll of faith” mentioned in today’s passage from Hebrews: “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on earth...” and “...that they are seeking a homeland...a better country, that is, a heavenly one. 

The conclusion of the story in the first reading from Genesis is one of the most moving in Scripture: “God brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.‘ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.And Abram believed the Lord...” 

Can you and I do likewise?

No comments: