"And the angel said to her, `Do not be afraid, Mary.'" In a dream, an angel whispered the same thing to her husband-to-be, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid." And then to the shepherds busy flock-abiding by night, "Be not afraid." That's how the story of Jesus begins, according to Luke and Matthew -- with angels speaking to the fear of those in whom God is longing to do a new thing.
This is a season where astonishment, joy and fear collide. One minute we're stringing Christmas lights in the blue spruce out front of the house and the next we are drunk with awe at the stars in the night sky and our own insignificant particularity. One minute we're racing around shopping for signs of love to give our children and the next the hair on the back of our necks is standing on end with the miraculous, impossible, responsibility of that love. One minute we're rolling out the dough for shortbread cookies and the next we are weeping for the world's gnawing hunger for justice. One day we're driving home from work and we hear poetry on CBC radio that strikes at the very heart of our reason for living."
Could we ever be the same if we truly heard the fear-full questions of this season?
It's frightening, what these brief shining moments ask of us. Could it be that God is asking us to dream a bigger dream for ourselves, for our church, for our world? Asking us to reject the innumerable less-holy fears that urge us to pare down God's dream in us and settle for something smaller than the birth that is longing to take place in the world?
Fear is ultimately what stands between us and hearing and living God's dream -- as individuals and as a people. In the church we are afraid about money, about numbers, about appearing foolish or being inefficient or irrelevant, about the chaos that necessarily precedes creativity, about the losses change demands.
Next month, at annual meetings across the country, countless decisions will be made and actions not taken out of fear. Maybe the first item on the agenda should be: "What would we be doing if we weren't afraid?"
We live in a world shaped by fear: of scarcity, of the stranger, of death in its many guises and manifestations. Cautious trepidation is so deeply rooted in our bodies that we hardly notice the way it shapes our lives and robs our freedom. The most extreme expression of our fear is, of course, the cult of terrorism to which we daily sacrifice justice, freedom and hope. But fear did not begin to shape our world on Sept. 11, 2001.
Fifteen years ago, we were slapping "No Fear" stickers on our Impalas and T-Shirts. Who were we trying to convince? Fear has always been the tool the powers and principalities use to rob us of freedom, true community and vision. Fear tells the dream it's too dangerous, don't be crazy.
Our answer to fear is mostly more security. When King Herod heard from the Magi of the birth of a messiah, "he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him" (Matthew 2:3). Herod declared war on his terror and called for a security crackdown. Wails of grief and horror rose in the little town of Bethlehem. Wars are prosecuted and human rights are trampled in the name of security. In the church we cling to orderliness and bricks. In relationships we allow ourselves to be satisfied by safe superficiality. But still, we are afraid.
I remember as an undergraduate student reading about an experiment done in New York City. The researchers chose two nearly identical apartment buildings in the same rough neighborhood. They offered a free dead-bolt installation to the residents of one of the buildings. Later, they polled the residents of both buildings. They asked, among other things, about how fearful they were of a break-in. The folks with dead-bolts were more afraid than those without the additional locks.
Increased security cannot really address our fear. The answer to fear is courage. As Mark Twain so famously put it: "Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it." John Wayne paraphrased him when he said: "Courage is being scared to death -- and saddling up anyway."
That word, courage, shares its origins with the French word coeur, heart. To have courage is to find one's heart. Maybe that is why the author of 1 John says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment" (1 John 4.18). Fear is about punishment, about security, about violence. Courage, on the other hand, is a work of the good heart, a manifestation of love that is greater than the heart of fear. Six centuries before Jesus lived, Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, wrote: "Being deeply loved gives one strength, while loving someone deeply gives one courage." When we love God and each other, we find courage.
The Gospels begin with angels singing "Fear not" into the hearts of those who would bear the God-child to the world. And again at the end of the story, beside an empty tomb, the angels are saying, "Don't be afraid." In between the word appears nearly 1,000 times. From the first stirrings in Mary's womb to bewildered joy beyond the tomb, we hear those words again and again.
Most biblical scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark, the first recorded, originally ended with the words, "And they ran away and told no one because they were afraid." Imagine if that was where the story ended. Imagine if Mary -- instead of "Let it be with me as you have said" -- had said, "That's not possible, don't be ridiculous, it's against the rules, besides, we've never done it that way before." Or if Joseph had said, "That's the last time I eat garlic before bed" and quietly divorced Mary. Imagine.
Yet somehow Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and then the disciples and the women at the tomb and thousands since, found courage. First, it changed them. Then, it changed the world.
The world needs people of faith. It needs us to find our courage, to hear the heart of God beating among us. We need to fashion our lives together and our gifts to the world, not with anxious fear, but with courageous love.
The angels are singing, "Be not afraid, for I bring you tidings of great joy. For unto you is born a Saviour." Hearing it, our hearts begin to flutter with intimations of courage, stirring in our bodies, the womb of God's dream.
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