Friday, June 17, 2016

Peace in an Age of Fear

Fear. Fear of the future. Fear of where the economy is heading. Fear for how our children will earn their keep someday. Fear of terrorists. Fear of illness. Fear of loss.

I have no way of knowing if this is the way humanity has generally done business, or if something, something related to developments in media and politics and God knows what else, has warped our emotions into such a disfigured state. But I think it's probably always been this way.

I am no psychologist but I, like you, know what it is like to be afraid. At certain points in my youth I felt crippled by vague anxiety for long periods of time. My life was wonderful, my home peaceful. The fear was inside me, not forced upon me.

Here is what I have noticed about fear: fear brings out the worst in us. We are willing to consider actions when afraid that we would generally see as immoral or even cruel (torture, for example). Fear deadens our creativity and our love. Fear awakens our inner animal, and mutes every other voice except the one that roars, "SURVIVE!"

And we all probably realize this, to a degree. I assume very few of us enjoy feeling fearful (is there anything worse?). Anxiety, which is simply chronic fear, is not our preferred state of mind.

But I want to up the ante. We have gone too easy on our fears. We have let them shape our policies, our conversations, our decisions, and our treatment of others far too long. We have accepted our fear as an unpleasant neighbor when we should have treated it as a burglar at our doorstep.

Let me show my cards: I strive to be first and foremost a Christ follower. And that means I fear God. This phrase used to bother me, because my experience of God was that he was a loving Father, more gentle with me and accepting of my faults than any human could ever be. How would I fear the one my soul loves?

But in the language of the ancient world of scripture, to fear an authority meant something other than emotional dread (while to us millennials emotion is 99% of our reality). Fear meant allegiance. It meant obedience. To fear the king was to acknowledge his authority. To not fear him was to be a lawless brigand.

So to fear God is to obey him. And here is where we should start getting uncomfortable. What if the things we feared actually revealed our true gods?

To fear God is to follow Jesus. It is to "take up our cross and follow" him. To fear God is to be (or, more precisely, to be in the process of being) set free from other, lesser fears. By embracing the cross, Jesus walked head first into a living nightmare. The weight of the decision caused him emotional anguish, certainly. Yet he faced it willingly. He faced it lovingly. He inaugurated the kingdom of peace by overcoming fear through obedience.

Peace. Peace is what we were made for. Peace is what is left when the fears are buried where they belong. "My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you. I don't give peace the way the world does. Let not your hearts be troubled, and DO NOT BE AFRAID." (John 14:27 emphasis added).

There you have it, the most frequent command in the Bible. DO NOT BE AFRAID. DO NOT BE AFRAID that you won't be able to provide for yourself (Matthew 6:25). DO NOT BE AFRAID of the violence of people who want to kill you(Matthew 10:28). DO NOT BE AFRAID of the future, because nothing in it can separate you from the glorious love of God revealed in the person of Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). Instead, fear God (read: obey God) and have peace.

You see, if we truly want to follow Jesus, we embark on a journey that is meant to turn our every fear on its head. Instead of fearing what we might lose, we scheme about what we can give. Instead of wringing our hands over how to avoid danger, we plot about how to love the dangerous. 'Can't that sort of thing get you killed?' you might ask. Well, I suppose, given the model we are supposedly emulating, yes it can.

But here is the genius of it. Our fears are rooted in our powerlessness. We fear what might be thrust upon us, the horrors of a world outside our control. When we choose to risk and engage the world with Christ-like love and trust, even if we suffer, we suffer powerfully. Think of MLK. Did he suffer? Yes. But his suffering was imbued with power because he chose to live in a way that overcame fear. His suffering did not amount to loss (which is what we fear our suffering will amount to). His suffering enriched the world.

So that is the long and short of it. Fear is not an unpleasant neighbor-fear is a thief. Fear is not thrust upon us by the scary world-fear lives within us. Christ offers us peace-but peace comes at the price of obedience. Obedience to the God of co-suffering love, of all-giving trust, rather than the idols of prosperity and security (popular idols in Rome and Babylon as well, need I add).

Does the notion terrify you (how ironic, I know)? It does me. And yet, we are not left to face the road to peace alone. We have a companion and a counselor who yearns to whisper to us the way forward-the very Spirit of the living God. Let me close with Paul's words to Timothy, a young man leading communities of Christ followers in an age of persecution and immorality.

"For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind."
2 Timothy 1:7