Last week’s topic was fear; I guess this week’s topic will be fear as well. You see, I start with the scriptures for this week out of the lectionary (which guides the scripture readings and preaching in most mainline denominations) and the majority of them deal with fear.
I am a counselor, and I am forever telling people not to judge their emotions. There is nothing wrong with fear…as long as fear doesn’t become the thing that drives you.
Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, and a powerful motivator. This is why torture is so effective. Not only are you consumed by pain when your captors are harming you, but you are consumed by fear of what they are capable of doing next when they are with you, consumed with fear that you will be killed before they are done, and when they finally leave you alone in your cell, you are consumed with fear of what they will do when they return.
Lest you think I am overstating the case, let me remind you of what fear does to ordinary people in everyday situations. Fear of being alone is what keeps people in bad relationships, even relationships where there is violence. Fear of harm is what causes parents to become overprotective. Fear that their child will fail at life is what drives helicopter parents. Fear of failure is what keeps so many people from trying anything new. Fear of looking stupid keeps people from speaking up. Fear of disease often keeps men away from the doctor (not that they won’t have a disease if they don’t go to the doctor, but they won’t know that they have the disease.) Finally, fear drives codependents to save their beloved addicts over and over and over despite the growing evidence of the damage caused by the addiction.
Fear. I’m a counselor and you can trust me when I say that I spend a lot of time dealing with fear and how it drives people to unhealthy behaviors. I remember my mother telling me that a little healthy fear was a good thing and that it would keep me from doing stupid things…and then telling me in the same breath that too much fear was destructive and would keep me from enjoying my own life.
The thing that many people don’t know about fear is that it drives another emotion: anger. You see, anger is a secondary emotion, in other words, it is an emotion that arises to help us take action when we are confronted with emotions that can leave us feeling helpless, emotions like fear, sorrow, and pain. We often can’t do anything to eliminate the things that cause us legitimate fear, like disease, or the threat of loss. Nor can we eliminate the things in life that cause us sorrow and pain, like losing a loved one. Most of the time we just deal with our fear, sorrow and pain and skip using anger to help us, since a little time spent processing our fear, sorrow, and pain can actually alleviate the fear, sorrow, or pain entirely.
Not that I want to bad-mouth anger: anger comes in handy when we need to take action. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was created by a mom who lost her daughter to a drunk driver who had four prior DUIs. She knew that very little was being done to prevent repeat drunk driving offenses, and she allowed her sorrow and pain to become anger…and she let her anger spur her into productive action. The National Institute of Health states that “Since its inception, MADD has been successful in the enactment of more than 1000 new laws at both the local and national levels, including minimum drinking age, server liability laws and sobriety check points. A particularly effective measure was the production and dissemination of a widely published, annual comparative legislative “Rating of the States/Provinces”. In fact, MADD appears to have exhibited a stronger influence than the Breathalyzer legislation in reducing drinking-driver fatalities.” This is what anger is for: to get us moving, to make us change things, to help us turn our fear, sorrow, and pain into something productive and good. This is effective anger; it is anger worth having and worth using.
However, fear can lead to other kinds of anger that aren’t productive at all, like racism. Fear leads us into the kind of anger that causes Donald Trump to proclaim that he wants to bar Muslims from entering the country and that he wants to register the Muslims that are already here. Trump will tell you that Muslims want to harm people in the US. But we’ve thought like this before about other people who scared us…and we were wrong then too.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum states that “In late 1938, 125,000 applicants lined up outside US consulates hoping to obtain 27,000 visas under the existing immigration quota. By June 1939, the number of applicants had increased to over 300,000. Most visa applicants were unsuccessful.” The US turned away the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees; later 288 of the passengers died in the German death camps; of the 620 who did not die in the Holocaust, only 366 survived the war itself. Six million Jews died in the Nazi Concentration Camps; what did we have to fear from those people? Yet it was our fear that caused us to turn them away and let them die.
During WWII, the United States relocated and imprisoned between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. These people were forced out of their homes in the Pacific states and relocated into crowded camps in the interior of the US. Many of these people lost their homes, possessions, and businesses when they were forced to relocate. The interred Japanese people were often forced to live in squalor, living in buildings formerly used to house livestock. The Commission on Wartime Relocation of Civilians (1997) stated that “The forced relocation and incarceration has been determined to have resulted more from racism and discrimination among people on the West Coast, rather than any military danger posed by the Japanese Americans.” These same people eventually were released; they moved into communities all over the US and there is no history of violent action by them against US citizens either before or after the war. What did we have to fear from these people? Yet our fear caused us to take away their freedom and treat them as our enemy.
In the years since these two actions, most US citizens have realized that our fear-driven actions were not only unnecessary, but that they were unkind and that our actions did not reflect the values that our country supposedly espouses, values like compassion and cooperation.
So…what does this have to do with you and what does this have to do with God?
It must have something to do with God, or the lectionary scriptures for this week wouldn’t all seem to focused in the same direction.
“The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. “
This directly says that when God is in our midst we should not fear disaster, that our God will remove disaster from us and we will not bear reproach for what disasters have happened in our past. God also promises to deal with our oppressors. Surely God is greater than ISIS, isn’t He? At least, my God is greater than ISIS, greater than the evil they can do, greater than their rhetoric of hatred. If your God is not, may my God bless you richly until you don’t fear ISIS anymore, for all things are in my God’s hands.
“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
You might say “It’s easy for you not to fear—you haven’t lost anyone to terrorism.” You are correct, I have not lost anyone to terrorism. But I have a daughter who was addicted to drugs when she was only 15, and I could only put her in treatment—I couldn’t save her and I couldn’t guarantee that she would become sober and stay sober. I have helped several parents bury their children after an overdose ended years of addiction. When my daughter was addicted, I didn’t lie to myself about what was possible. All I could do was rely on God to take care of my family and ask God to guide my actions. It’s not terrorism, but if you’ve ever had a child lost in the grip of drugs, you know how terrifying it is. I understand fear; I understand helplessness. I also understand that my God is still bigger than anything I might be facing and I trust Him to lead me in the ways of peace.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
When the Apostle Paul talks about the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, he is not talking about the peace that comes when you have an arsenal of guns to protect your family. He is not talking about the peace that secure finances and retirement funds can provide. Paul is not talking about the peace that comes when your country is barring the scary immigrants from entering the country and taking up arms against people in other countries. The peace of God that surpasses all understanding occurs when none of those things are present, when all indications say that you should be consumed by fear, when everything in front of you screams ‘Duck and cover!’ That is a peace that passes all understanding, and nothing you or I can do will create a peace like that. It only comes from God and is granted when you place your requests before the Lord with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving. The peace that passes all understanding comes from placing your trust in the only thing that does not fail. This peace is not easily achieved and often must be granted again and again as petty (and not so petty) fears drive our peace away.
Luke 3:7-11, 18
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
The peace that passes all understanding also demands that you share what good you have with others who have none. We can’t share what we have until we have no fear. No one gives away the very things they have worked so hard to get when they fear that they do not have enough to care for their own family. Charitable giving, inviting refugees into your country, helping others…all of these things spring from an attitude of gratitude and the awareness that we have more than enough to share. If your heart is filled with fear there will be very little space for gratitude and even less space for a sense of abundance.
In case that wasn’t enough Scripture for one day, let me add a little more:
Matthew 8:26 “And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm.”
Regarding a demon that the disciples just could not conquer…sound like ISIS to you??
Matthew 17:18-20 “And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
There are a million other examples, but it all boils down to this:
When your God is big enough to conquer anything, you have nothing to fear. So, if you are afraid of ISIS…if you are afraid of the Syrian refugees…if you are afraid that Obama is coming to take your guns and you won’t be able to protect your family…if you are AFRAID, ask yourself:
When did the God I say I worship become so small and powerless?
When did my God get so small?