When my daughter was a little girl she went through a fearful period when she would wake in the night, and come into our bedroom and stand quietly quivering next to our bed, typically on my wife’s side, where there was considerably more sympathy to be had, and where she was sometimes invited to stay under our covers until she fell back asleep.
It was actually kind of eerie. She would just stand there like an apparition until one or both of us awoke, and we would ask her what was the matter, and she would say in a little trembling voice, “I’m scared.”
And I would invariably say in a big Dad voice, “There is nothing to be afraid of, go back to bed.” It happened frequently enough for long enough to become a family story.
I was reminded of this last September, for during her very first week at Yale Divinity School, there was a well-publicized murder of a young woman in a Yale lab on what was supposed to be her wedding day.
My daughter’s new apartment is not far from the lab, where the victim’s body was eventually found hidden inside a wall, and the night her body was found, the dean at Yale e-mailed all the students warning them to be extra vigilant, as there might be a dangerous person in the vicinity. It turned out that the murder suspect was a colleague of the victim’s from work, and that allayed some of our fears that a random serial killer might be rampaging through the streets of New Haven.
But before we knew that, and on the night she received the e-mail from the dean, my now very confident 25 year-old daughter, who is tall and imposing, and graduated from Wellesley, where they teach the women that they can conquer the world and many of them do, called me on the phone, and her first words, in that same trembling little voice from long ago, were, “I’m scared.”
And I, of course, said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” and she started giggling. Then I told the truth and said, “I’m scared, too,” for I had indeed been worrying about her.
And, in fact, when she was a little girl, my reassurance that there was nothing to be afraid of was only a half-truth, the kind we parents must tell our children for a time. It was true that she was safe and sound in our big parsonage, with all the doors securely locked and with us present, and that is all I was trying to convey to her.
But the larger truth that you don’t tell a small child is that there is plenty to be afraid of in our world, and all of us learn that sooner or later.
And not too much later in her young life, we had some very real events to make a child, or an adult for that matter, afraid. First, we had an arsonist setting fires on people’s back porches while they were sleeping, right in our immediate neighborhood, and I worked patrolling shifts for our newly formed neighborhood watch organization.
Then we actually had a serial killer who kidnapped and eventually murdered several children, one of whom played in Little League with the son of some good friends of ours. The man was eventually caught when he tried to snatch a girl off the main street of Pittsfield just a few hundred feet from the church where I served. She wisely wriggled out of her back-pack and ran away, and an alert driver behind them wrote down his license plate.
So not long ago she reminded me of all these things and said, “Dad, no wonder I was a fearful child, there were dangerous people in our neighborhood. I should have been afraid.”
Our world has plenty to be afraid of, no only from disturbed people, but from earthquakes like the ones in Chile and Haiti, and hurricanes like Katrina, and droughts and famines and other natural disaster, as well “the evil men do to one another.”
But it is also a wonderful world, as Louis Armstrong sang long ago, and I love to hike in it and bike in it and watch its sunsets and listen to its birdsong.
It is, in the larger Christian story, a world made good by God, but fallen. And fear is part of its fallen-ness.
In one of the darker chapters of human history, the poet W. H. Auden captured our plight the way that sometimes only a poet can. In his poem September 1, 1939, as the Nazi tanks rolled into the Low Countries to begin the war that would engulf the world in flames and blood, he sat at a bar in New York City, and described the human condition thus. We are, he wrote:
“Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.”
The story we will be hearing again in the next weeks is the story of God’s rescue mission to this fallen and fearful world through the work of the man Jesus of Nazareth. It is itself a fearful story, even for those of us who know the glorious outcome, but we have miles to go before we get there.
Psalm 27 talks about fear. Here the Psalmist, who from now on I will call “David,” moves back and forth from declarations of great confidence like the opening to lists of all the many things he has every right to be afraid of.
And I really like this, because I believe that faith lives in the midst of our fears.
John Calvin writes about this passage: “When David declares, “My heart shall not fear,’ this does not imply that he would be entirely devoid of fear, — for that would have been more worthy of the name of insensibility than of virtue.”
In other words, David had every right be afraid of the army encamped about him. Imagine it. He sees their campfires every night, he can hear their trumpets, and he knows they can attack him at any time. I’d be afraid, too.
And Calvin goes on to say: “Under the terms, camps and armies, [David] includes whatever is most formidable in the world.”
So though the names and faces of the powerful who hold the world in thrall will change, the truth of the Psalm remains: “Although all men should conspire for my destruction, I will disregard their violence, because the power of God, which I know is on my side, is far above theirs.”
The Good News here is that the principalities and powers of this age, and any age, are ultimately subordinate to the power of God, though as the rest of Psalm 27 amply shows, they manage through their subordinates (in this case “the army encamped about David”) to give both David and, with the necessary changes, us, plenty about which to be afraid, at least in the short run.
This faith in the power of God, as Calvin writes, is not the complete absence of fear, as in a more Eastern religious calm through meditation and detachment. No, the fears are quite real.
So faith always lives in the midst of our fears, but it is that same faith that knows “when the trial comes, our faith will prove invincible, because it relies on the power of God.”
And the final power of God will finally be made manifest in weakness, on a Roman cross. This Jesus knows, and this is why he must go to Jerusalem.
So there are two kinds of fears, and they are quite different, though it is often hard to distinguish between them, because they get all wrapped up in each other.
First, there are the real fears, as when David has an enemy encamped around him, or when we had an arsonist, and then a serial killer in our neighborhood. Or when someone ties to blow up the airplane you are on with explosives in his jockey shorts. These are real fears.
But there is also a kind of fear that is not real. It holds some kind of power over us, and it is not attached to a specific threat. This kind of generalized fear is not good for us. It makes us less than who God wants us to be. It robs us of dignity and courage, and makes us act in ways that are not worthy of us.
And I am convinced that some of the nastiness in our public discourse right now is based on exactly that kind of fear.
The Great Recession we are in, or have just gone through, depending on who you believe, is something that most of us have never known in our lifetime. It has stirred up a lot of the second kind of fear, the unnamed and unknown fears about our future, and the future of our country. It is true that there are real things to fear from it, like losing our jobs or our homes or our pensions. That is real fear,
But the second kind is different; the general pervasive kind of fear that takes on a larger life of its own. It begins to eat us up, and attaches itself to every part of life. I call it 4 o’clock in the morning fear.
Do you know what I am talking about? Do you know that kind of fear? I suspect you do.
I know I do. I know it all too well. And there is just enough reality in our fears to give them some credibility, but their power over us is larger than they deserve.
And I know that these are the kind of fears that can debilitate one’s life, and in some real way, they are the very opposite of faith, and so they must be dealt with.
So here we are in Lent, the season of self-examination and repentance.
My Lenten admonition to you all, both as individuals and as a congregation, is to figure out those fears that keep you from being who God has made you to be. Identify them, name them, and call their bluff, because they really have no actual power over you that you don’t give them.
That is the Good News on which we can stand secure. Because in that final trip to Jerusalem that Jesus was waiting to make, and ultimately did make, he defeated the powers that threaten us, including our unreal fears, along with some other big things “that go bump in the night,” like death and sin.
Oh, we still sin, and we still die, and we will still be afraid, but the power has gone out of them. Because Jesus took them all to the cross with him, and there they died with him. And believing that is a good part of what makes us Christians.
For the real power in the world is the power of the living God, that we are called to live out of day by day, even in those fearful times when we can’t see it or feel it.
So as I used to say my daughter, “There is nothing to be afraid of.” And this time I really mean it.
“The LORD is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?” Amen.
(This is excerpted from a sermon entitled “Whom Shall I Fear?” that I preached at Charlemont Federated Church, Charlemont, MA, on February 27, 2010)