The popular psychologist Jesse Lair wrote a book years ago entitled I Ain’t Well, But I Sure Am Better. In many ways, these words could be the testimony of my life. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve come a long way, too. Just ask my wife.
To show you where I used to be, I’ll tell you about something that happened before I was married and while I was at seminary. A friend of mine, also named Ron, came to my room to share a quote he had read and probably thought I needed to hear: “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. There was no one there.” Of course, the intended meaning was that what we fear can be met by faith, and in that encounter our fears melt away. But my interpretation was different – neurotically different. I thought it was saying that faith answered the door and found no one – not God, not a friend, not an answer, not even a ray of hope. So, I said to my friend, “Ron, that’s cruel to say that not even God is there!” To which he threw up his hands and exclaimed, “Good grief, Zorn. You’re hopeless!” and left.
But I was not as hopeless as my friend thought. Slowly, gradually, and redemptively, I began to move from a neurotic fear and pessimistic evaluation of life to a more realistic one. Now, I don’t think I’ll ever be an optimist. I’m not sure I even want to be one. But I am more of a realist, and I have learned to hope. I can now see the truth in that quote.
Sometimes what we fear doesn’t even exist. We imagine it in our minds. We assume the worst, and quite honestly, life does not usually deal us the worst. But our anxious imaginations and neurotic expectations look for the worst. We have what is called unhealthy dread, and we experience anticipatory pain. The irony is that in our ungrounded fear we suffer as much, and perhaps more, than if what we feared had actually happened. Here’s an example from my childhood. I had an unhealthy fear of injections. I was ill the day the polio vaccine was scheduled to be given in the elementary school I attended. Because I missed the school inoculation, my mother told me that I had to go to my pediatrician to receive the vaccine. I cried and begged, but to no avail. There were two nurses in that doctor’s office. One was sweet and gentle, and the other was mean and rough. Sure enough, the mean and rough nurse came in to give me the vaccine. I closed my eyes and braced for the worst pain I could imagine. The nurse told me to open my mouth. I thought, “Surely she’s not going to stick a needle in my tongue! Not even she would be that mean.” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the vaccine was administered in a pink sugar cube. And like almost all kids, I loved sugar. I had spent days dreading and crying over receiving an injection which never happened. Funny, isn’t it? But I bet I’m not the only one out there who has suffered from anticipatory pain and unfounded dread. And the pain we can suffer is far more serious than a child’s fear of a hypodermic needle.
But what happens when fear knocks and there is someone there? Catastrophes do occur. Diseases do afflict and consume the body and the mind. Tragic accidents do happen. Evil and sadistic people do hurt others. Pandemics do spread. Some of you have literally heard the knock at the door, and the news given from the other side has been devastating. So, I think it’s important to note that our quote did not say, “Catastrophes, diseases, accidents, and evil deeds knocked, and no one was there.” These things do happen. What the quote said is, “Fear knocked, faith answered, and no one was there.”
Fear can paralyze the soul. Fear turns every horizon into a dead end, every hurdle into an unclimbable mountain. Fear blows every problem, every pain, and every loss all out of proportion until all we see is the problem, the pain, or the loss. We can’t see around it or through it, and so we assume that there is nothing more about life that can be said, hoped for, or enjoyed because of what has happened or what we dread happening.
But when faith answers the door, it sees fear for what it is – a grossly exaggerated and very partial understanding of what has happened or what may happen. Faith does not ignore fear, tragedy or pain, but it does whittle them down to the right size so that we can see around them and through them to the alternatives, the future, and the Divine Presence that are surely there.
John Claypool in a sermon over forty years ago mentioned the child psychologist Hugh Millildine who wrote that babies experience basically three kinds of fear: the fear of falling, the fear of loud noises, and the fear of being abandoned. Claypool suggested that these three fears are translated into more sophisticated forms in adults.
The fear of falling translates into a fear of failing, such as the loss of a job, financial ruin, a failed marriage, or loss of esteem in the eyes of others. When these things happen to us, we even say that we feel as though the “bottom has dropped out of our lives.”
The fear of loud noises becomes the fear of unexpected tragedies and catastrophes for which we are unprepared, such as the car accident, the telephone call in the middle of the night, the unexpected doctor’s report, or the current crisis of a pandemic. We all face an unknown future, and only the most naive will assume that these will not touch them.
The fear of abandonment translates into the fear of losing the resources that support us and give our lives meaning and joy. In losing our loved ones, talents, creativity, vocation, health or strength, we fear we will be left alone.
How might faith help us answer the door when these three fears knock?
- When the fear of falling/failing knocks, faith sees that the only value system that ultimately matters is God’s value system. Faith understands that if we are loved by God (which we are), and if we are one of God’s precious, irreplaceable children (which we are), and if we are destined to an eternal pilgrimage with the Creator of this universe (which we are), then there can be no final failing. All the defeats, setbacks, and losses of esteem we may experience can be final only if we let them be final. We are God’s children both now and forever, and in the words of that 1960s poem, “God don’t make no junk.” The fear of failing can be answered with God’s eternal” yes” to all of life’s temporary “nos.”
- When fear of loud noises/unexpected tragedies knocks, faith understands that catastrophes can do only so much harm and evil to us, and that no matter how tragic or catastrophic the circumstance, it will pass. Sometimes the most helpful words in the Bible are “and it came to pass.” Things do pass, and when they do (and sometimes even before they do), if we have a vibrant faith we realize that we still have much life around us – much to fill our days, minds, and hearts if we will. Not long ago I read about an elderly woman who had lost her husband. They had been married for 45 years. She was devastated and depressed, went into a shell, and would not answer the phone. But then she became involved in a program where senior citizens help even older senior citizens with companionship and daily tasks. She said, “I wake up with a smile on my face, and a purpose for my day; and I go to bed each night with a prayer of thanksgiving!” Faith can see potential and thus can answer the fear of loud noises/catastrophes by reaching out toward the overflowing options life can bring by God’s grace and goodness.
- And when the fear of abandonment knocks, faith can see that life is a series of stages, journeys, and transitions. And at each of these we must give up something. But there is always something else (usually better) to take its place. At 71, I must give up some of the stamina and physical activity I could enjoy at 25 when I played handball. But at 71 I have far more of a sense of who I am and far more contentment with who I am than I ever had at 25. I must let go of one and be willing to lay hold of the other. Again, as with faith’s answer to the fear of catastrophe, there are always more options than we can ever explore – always more possibilities for the taking if we will just do it. But we must be willing to look and expect these new possibilities. And we must be willing to let go of some things that were precious to us in order to receive the newness that is now possible. Such a letting go can be scary. Initially, we might feel a strange vertigo similar to what I would imagine trapeze artists feel the first few times they must let go of one bar to grab hold of another. We must trust that the next bar will be there. At some point we must come to realize that if we do not reach for that next “bar,” we are stuck in our sadness, nostalgia, anger, inertia, or emotional paralysis.
Of course, behind all this faith and behind all these possibilities is a Presence. Faith knows that we are not alone – that God is light in whom there is no darkness – that God is love, perfect love, whose presence can drive away all destructive fear. This Presence can transform situations by helping us to see what is as well as what is not. This Presence can enable us to endure without being ultimately destroyed. And this Presence can help us start another journey when the one we are on has failed or ended. Of course, this kind of transition takes time. We must give ourselves the time and space to heal and hope again. But our God of infinite love and compassion is patient and trustworthy. The Abba of Jesus will accompany us through all the deep valleys and dark shadows of life, always ready to help us begin life again when the time is ripe. Contrary to much popular religion, God never promised us a rose garden, but we are promised an enduring Presence of love, light and life.
John Claypool ended his sermon with a reference to Eugene O’Neill’s play Lazarus Laughed. In that play we find a description of what life was like for Lazarus after Jesus called him from the grave. The main difference in him was that he was not afraid anymore. He had experienced the worst, and it had not destroyed him or swept him from God’s hand. So, his message to anyone who would listen was this: “Don’t be afraid. There is only life. There is always God. There is nothing ultimately to fear.”
May we who walk in that love, life, and light know such freedom.
A shepherd with a speech impediment was called by God to deliver Hebrew slaves from the oppressive hand of the pharaoh of Egypt. Moses in fear protested, “Who am I to go before pharaoh and demand such a thing?” And God responded, “Moses, I will be with you.”
A teenage boy was called by God to be a prophet during the most difficult time of Judah’s history. And this boy named Jeremiah also protested. “I am only a youth. Such a calling is too much for me to bear.” But once again, God said, “I will be with you.”
A teenage Jewish girl was visited by an angel and told that something would happen to her body that would make tongues wag and keep gossipers busy. But the first words Gabriel spoke to Mary before that announcement were, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. . . Do not be afraid.”
In calling us to be the Body of Christ, God makes the same promise to us: “And, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In the bread and wine, God is with us and sojourns in our midst. And fed by the sustenance of that enduring and transforming presence, no matter what we face and no matter what life may do to us, “I am with you” is God’s perpetual and dependable promise. And the testimony of the saints is that God’s enduring presence is enough – more than enough – for abundant living and deep joy.
Like Moses, Jeremiah, and Mary, we are sent to transform our world in God’s image. That is an awesome task. But God makes the same promise to us that was made to those ancient pilgrims: “I will be with you.” And those of us on this side of the cross and empty tomb will experience the all-sufficiency of that promise. So, let us depart with a mission sent from God’s own heart, thankful that God is with us both now and forever. Amen
Depart now in the fellowship of God’s abiding Spirit.
May love free you to dance in the light and the shadows of life;
May joy bear you up on eagle’s wings as you soar with your God in hope and ecstasy.
And may gratitude lighten your load as you walk the pilgrim’s path with Jesus by your side. Amen.