“…Be strong and courageous;
do not be frightened or dismayed,
for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’
Lent – Reclaiming a Fear-Fighting Witness
And so the most thought-provoking journey of the Christian calendar begins – from our reminder on Ash Wednesday of the nature of our finite human condition to the whispers of dis-ease, the sounds of unrest coming from temples and palaces, the shadows lurking through the meandering streets of Jerusalem, the wilderness temptations of the one from Nazareth, the agony of a prayer, the coming together or secular and religious powers, the betrayal and denial of followers, the mockery of a trial, the hammering of nails, the cry of deliverance, the silence, the despair….. – the emptiness of the tomb – and the unexpected resurrection that would change humanity’s hope forever.
Lent has become for me that spiritual space where I am challenged once again to remember the reality and temptations of my own faith journey. It is a time when we are invited to reflect on what it is that gets in our way of fully embracing our identity as a people of Jesus. As I think back on the journey 2,000 years ago and I consider our journey today, the word that keeps coming to me is “fear.” The emotion of fear played a significant role in the crucifixion of Jesus. It was fear that made its way into the hearts of the political forces – fear of losing a way of life along with the comforts and assumptions that came with that life. It was fear that made its way into the hearts of the religious forces – fear of needing to reframe their understanding of what was required of them as a people of God. Fear is a powerful force and motivator that taps into our most primal survival instincts. And when fear is combined with self-righteousness, it becomes a deadly combination – one that allows us to justify and rationalize actions that could even be unthinkable – consider the cross of Jesus.
The truth is that fear continues to be alive and well today. One does not need to look very far to see and hear the use of fear as a kind of rhetoric to express positions or vilify others. I am deeply disturbed by how fear and self-righteousness have become a tool in our public discourse. This is not about one political party or another. It is about a climate that knowingly uses the places where we are most vulnerable; places where we experience anxiety and concern – as a way of galvanizing support – for whatever cause, candidate or agenda is out there. It is a clever (and very ancient) tactic used to manipulate our emotions and thoughts. In essence, it is a marketing strategy. It is easy for any of us to become afraid when we are concerned for the welfare of our children and our futures. But it does not take much research to understand that our worst human actions have been when humanity – as individuals or as larger communities –made decisions based on fear and self-righteousness. Unbridled fear leads to anger and resentment. Unbridled fear leads to isolation and hate.
I share the story of the Fearful Hoarders by Henri Nouwen – it speaks to what happens when unbridled fear frames our decisions and actions.
“Once there was a group of people who surveyed the resources of the world and said to each other: “How can we be sure that we have enough in hard times? We want to survive whatever happens. Let us start collecting food and knowledge so that we are safe and secure when a crisis occurs.” So they started hoarding, so much and so eagerly that other people protested and said; “You have much more than you need, while we don’t have enough to survive. Give us part of your wealth!” But the fearful hoarders said; “no, no, we need to keep this in case of an emergency, in case things go bad for us too, in case our lives are threated.” But the others said” “We are dying now; please give us food and materials and knowledge to survive. We can’t wait, we need it now!” Then the fearful hoarders became even more fearful, since they became afraid that the poor and hungry would attack them. So they said to one another: “Let us build walls around our wealth so that no stranger can take it from us.” They started erecting walls so high that they could not even see anymore whether there were enemies outside the walls or not! As their fear increased they told each other: “Our enemies have become so numerous that they may be able to tear down our walls. Our walls are not strong enough to keep them away. We need to put explosives and barbed wire on top of the walls so that nobody will dare to even come close to us.’ But instead of feeling safe and secure behind their armed walls they found themselves trapped in the prison they had built with their own fear.” (From Fear to Love)
Fear traps us unto ourselves as it leads us away from our call to love neighbor. Fear leads us away from God. It is no wonder the biblical narrative reminds us of God’s continual cry to us – to not be afraid (more than 300 times). God understands what our acting out of fear can and will lead to.
The good news is that in spite of our temptations – you and I are not called to be a people of fear. We are called to be a people of hope. We are not called to lose our identity to our fears because of the hyperbole of others. We are called to remember we are a people of the resurrection. We are not called to be a people unto ourselves – separate from the world. We are called to be a people who provide food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, hope for the imprisoned; shelter for the stranger in our midst. And I get it – sometimes being a people of faith can be scary. After all, we are called to model the heart of Jesus in all we do – and sometimes, that just feels impossible. But we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a voice that fights fear in this world.
If ever the world needs our fear-fighting witness, it is now! So as we enter Lent, I invite us to consider how fear gets in our way of the message of incarnational hope – at home with our relationships; at church with our possibilities; and with our neighbors in the world. May we carry those fears – whatever they are – to the foot of the cross, trusting the promises of our Creator God. May we use this season of Lent to echo the proclamations of angels, prophets and Jesus – “Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 28) –because of one thing we are certain, “the Lord our God is with us wherever we go” (adapted Joshua 1:9).