What are you afraid of?
Are you afraid of dying? Are you afraid you’ll never find meaningful work? Are you afraid because you don’t have the power to help someone you love?
Fear is something we all experience. If we are observing Lenten practices, we become even more open to fear, as we strip away the things in life that soothe us and face the reality of our thoughts and spirits.
This week in the magazine the Christian Century, Peter Steinke reminds us of the theologian Paul Tillich’s work with human anxiety. Tillich believed there were three kinds of anxiety that all humans face. First, the anxiety of non being (which is a fancy name for the fear of death). Second, the anxiety of meaninglessness. Third, the anxiety of fate.
We are all too familiar with the anxiety of non-being, the anxiety of death. We exercise, go to the doctor regularly, watch our cholesterol, get plastic surgery: all attempts to delay our inevitable meeting with death.
The anxiety of meaninglessness is more subtle. The phenomenon of the mid-life and quarter-life crisis come from this anxiety-the anxiety that we are not fulfilling our destiny, that our lives lack import and consequence. Moms who struggle with whether to work or to stay home are dealing with this anxiety. College graduates who have not quite found their way are looking to ease this anxiety with work that is fulfilling and financially prudent. Those who struggle with this anxiety often end up at church, seeking deeper meaning for their life.
Finally, the anxiety of fate. We can only control so much of our lives. We don’t know how long we’ll be in our job, or whether our children will succeed in life, whether we’ll always be healthy, whether our country will always be secure, and this week-whether the stock market was going to recover from Tuesday’s crash. This finitude, this inability to predict or shape so much of our lives causes us great worry!
In our scripture readings today: Abraham, the Psalmist, and Jesus each faced anxiety, and illustrate different ways of dealing with anxiety.
We meet with Abraham as he encounters the presence of God. Previously, God has told Abraham that he and his elderly wife Sarah will conceive a child, but this event has not yet occurred. So, God meets with Abraham and makes a profound covenant with him-promising Abraham will have as many descendents as there are stars in the sky. Well, Abraham and Sarah have a serious case of anxiety about their fate and take matters into their own hands. Immediately after this profound spiritual experience, Abraham rushes home and lets his wife talk him into having their servant, Hagar, carry their child!
Abraham faced the challenge so many of us face: letting go. How many of us, five minutes after relinquishing a problem to God in prayer, immediately begin trying to solve the problem using our own intelligence or creativity.
Our psalmist, on the other hand, seems to have such a deep understanding of God’s love and provision for him that he is able to say, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” The Psalmist comes to this conclusion as he meditates on his fear of death from his enemies’ hands. Even as they surround him and he cannot control their movements he finds the place deep inside himself where he can wait on God patiently. He writes,
O tarry and await the LORD’S pleasure;
be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; *
wait patiently for the LORD.
The Psalmist has a profound understanding that God’s timing and provision is mysterious but reliable. I, for one, am much more likely to tell God exactly what he’s supposed to do, rather than being patient and waiting on God.
Our gospel passage today is a really unusual reading, in that the Pharisees, who usually give Jesus such a hard time, actually warn Jesus that Herod is after him. The want Jesus to run away and protect himself. However, Jesus, being God, shows absolutely no fear. He moves beyond even the Psalmist’s faith-telling the Pharisees that there is no way that Herod could be a threat to him, for Jesus knows he is not supposed to die until he reaches Jerusalem. Phew! I cannot imagine the kind of faith that is required to disregard a death threat so casually. Jesus’ response was not a denial of his ultimate death-in fact, he fully acknowledged that his own death was imminent, but seems totally calm about this fact that would have most of us shaking in our boots! Jesus knows that God is with him.
One of my favorite gospel hymns comes from our psalm today, “The Lord is my Light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” I am always moved that a group of people who had so much to fear-slaves-were able to sing this hymn as a meditation, as a cry for hope, as a testimony to their faith. Like the psalmist, like Jesus those who sang this hymn were able to claim God’s presence in a very powerful way.
We, too, can claim the hymn’s promises.
As Americans, we are famously independent. We are supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and succeed through commitment and hard work. While these are fine principles, what ends up happening is that we mistakenly come to believe that we are completely in charge of our destiny. Recently a video of motivational speakers called, “The Secret” was published. The thesis is basically this: The energy you send out into the world will come back to you. Focus on what you really want on life and it will come to you. Well, positive thinking is well and good, but positive thinking will not cure infertility or make the stock market bounce back or protect us from floods or terrorist attacks. When we start putting our faith into positive thinking, putting faith into ourselves, we deny the reality that part of life is pain, part of life is suffering.
What the psalmist is not saying is that God will rescue us from suffering. What the psalmist is saying is that God will be with us in suffering. We do not have to fear because God will be with us in the midst of both our joyous celebrations and our deepest grief. God is with those we cannot protect or control. God is even working somewhere deep inside people who torment us.
So whatever it is that makes you anxious, makes you afraid, I invite you to meditate with the words of our psalm today:
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
God is with you. Thanks be to God.