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Living the Faith

If we are serious about transformation, we have to confront our fear factors

By Keith Howard

When there were only a dozen in the congregation, fear was not a factor.

Then the congregation began to grow. It became a crucible for changed lives and a flickering light of hope in the struggles of many. We cherished the new life, and anxiety grew about our survival.

The more we meant to each other, cared for and leaned on one another, the harder we worked to make the congregation viable and preserve every gain. Fear became a factor.

Whenever conversation emerges in the church about our need to change, whether it be music, worship, ministry with children or the way we reach out to other generations, ethnic groups or First Nations, the old stereotypes of fuddy-duddies with ostrich tendencies get dragged out, inflated and punched.

Often, though, the deepest resistance to change in a congregation or a life flows from positive, even cherished, experiences or yearnings. We see it in the way we talk -- or not -- with our children and others we love.

Often we back away from risky conversations not because we are terrified of conflict but because we do not want to jeopardize the good we already know. If we talk about faith or church with our children, maybe fears and walls will rise and we will see them even less.

If we talk with other loved ones about the impact of their behaviour, we worry that the not-perfect but we-get-along relationship may take a hit that will dent it forever.

We may be afraid for good reason.

The problem is that no situation or relationship that contains breath or spirit remains static. Even at the basic biological level, life requires movement. Lungs move in and out.

If the Spirit barely moves through the church Body, spiritually there is shallowness in our life.

New life does not come through holding our breath. If we are not active in our faith, encountering and meeting challenges, being pushed and pushing back, the circulating lifeblood of theology, service and spirituality slows. Life, relationships and church become constrained and cold.

Truth be told, though, being open to the surprise and transformation of change often sounds better in theory than it feels in practice.

The so-called first, or shorter, ending of the Gospel of Mark finishes with the image of the women disciples fleeing the empty tomb in terror -- the same word used to describe the Roman soldiers' experience of the angel outside the tomb in Matthew. They "fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."(Mark 16:8)

An initial assessment might paint the women as spooked by the combination of heart-rending loss and the astonishing experience of the supernatural. But, on a more basic level, foundational assumptions, beliefs, practices and convictions that had formed their world were battered and shattered. Who would not be afraid?

Many self-help books counsel the simple acceptance of fear as an appropriate emotional response. One does not deny it, just carries it along like a child having a temper tantrum, needing attention but not setting the agenda. Others sound the clarion call to courage.

Courage does not mean you are not afraid; it is about what you do when you are afraid.

Many biblical stories about fear do not end with fear dominating; it becomes transformed.

The "fear not" uttered by the angels is an invitation to put the initial response within a larger context.

Recognition of the presence and movement of God in the moment is crucial for transformation

Many pastors -- ordained or not -- have had the experience of visiting someone in hospital who has recently received a devastating diagnosis. The initial news leaves people, appropriately, in shock.

A visit a few days later reveals a calmer presence. The new calm carries some version of the testimony, "I know I am not alone." Sometimes the "not alone" refers to family and friends. Usually the witness is to a deeper realization that somehow, in a way soaked with surprise and mystery, a divine presence has drawn near, and a transformation has occurred.

All scriptural stories involving fear are not about providing comfort. Sometimes they carry the message: "Heads up. You are right to be afraid because God has started or is going to do something that will put carefully constructed patterns of complacency and flimsy walls of security in the dust." Be afraid -- it is the only rational response.

While this kind of fear can involve knocking knees, the emphasis leans more towards wonder, awe and expectation, "fear of the Lord" in the classic language. Be prepared to be astounded. Our life, our congregation, our church, our culture may be about to be up- ended, but stand back and marvel because, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

And once we catch a glimpse of that movement it's hard to remain silent.

Scripture: Mark 16:1-8
Hymn: 670 (Voices United), Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Author's photo
Rev. Keith Howard is a Victoria writer and executive director of the United Church Emerging Spirit campaign.
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