Don't Be Afraid
In 1933, a newly elected US President stood up to give his First Inaugural Address. And he gave us a phrase that would echo through the years – “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”1. To a nation in the depths of the Great Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt offered words of hope and challenge. He reminded them that they could overcome the difficulty they were facing. But first he reminded them that fear – “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” -- could get in the way of that recovery.
At first glance FDR's words make no sense. In 1933 people had no work, and no prospects of work. People were losing houses, land, hope. People had no way to provide for their families. And remember that in the US (and in Canada) at the time there was little to no social safety net. Certainly there were many things that people had to fear.
But on another level FDR was very right. Fear is a powerful thing. In fact many suggest that the two primal motivators in human life are fear and love. In times of change and upheaval fear gets into our psyches and freezes us in our anxiety. Fear leads us to lose hope. Fear leads us to depression. Fear leads us to give up. This is why Roosevelt was right. Fear gets in the way of change and therefore blocks recovery.
God tends to tell us the same thing.
In the first 2 chapters of the Gospel according to Luke there are 3 Angel visitations. And each time the first thing the angel says is “Do not be afraid”. This tells me two things. One is that angels are, apparently, terrifying. The other is that we can not embrace God's possibilities if we give in to fear.
God's possibilities, God's hope for the world are based on love. Love of God, love of God's world, love of neighbour, love of self. 21 years ago a counsellor suggested to me that the opposite of love was not anger or hatred but fear. Fear gets in the way of us being able to love. (Several years later it clicked in that he was in fact telling me that fear was getting in my way and I should stop being so afraid. Sometimes I can be a slow learner.)
There are lots of voices across the country and around the globe telling us to be afraid. We are told to be afraid of the stranger walking down the block – he might steal our car or invade our house. We are told to be afraid of economic collapse. We are told it is not safe to let our children walk to school. We are told that terrorists lurk in our midst. What have you been taught to be afraid of?
My worry is that we are listening. My worry is that we are becoming fearful and that the fear is changing who we are as communities. Maybe it shows up as xenophobia in the face of immigration and refugee issues. Maybe it is aimed at specific religious groups. Maybe it show up in people afraid to answer the door because the person ringing the bell looks “odd”. Maybe it shows up in us retreating into silos of the comfortable and the known rather than taking risks and seeking new experiences.
And so we need to listen to God's words to the prophet Isaiah (43:1-2):
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
In the United Church Creed we affirm that “We are not alone”. In the face of people trying to make us afraid we can remind ourselves that we are not alone. And so we do not need to live lives of fear because we are held in the arms of love by the One who calls us to put love ahead of fear.
We have a choice. We may not choose what happens around us but we choose how we react. My hope is that we will not choose fear. I hope we choose love. Risky, challenging, vulnerable love. That is the path God calls us to follow. This is the path of hope and growth. So listen to the angel voice. Do not be afraid.
1The text of FDR's First Inaugural Address is found at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057/