Confronting our fears
Anxiety breeds anxiety.
Many of you know that in just over a week I’ll be heading to Israel, and in preparation for the trip, the participants and leaders have had several meetings online to connect and prepare for the experiences that await us.
I’ve shared with some of you, that in that first meeting, we were to share our hopes and concerns. As each participant shared their lifelong yearning to explore the ground upon which Jesus walked, you could feel the anxious snowball rolling downhill as one voice after another named the concern that they’re afraid for their personal safety.
As Eckhart Tolle once said,
People tend to dwell more on negative things than on good things. So the mind then becomes obsessed with negative things, with judgments, guilt and anxiety produced by thoughts about the future and so on.
It was hard not to get caught up caught up in the building anxiety…in my naiveté I looked up the Government of Canada travel advisory page which said quite clearly in red ink, DO NOT TRAVEL TO ISRAEL/PALESTINE…and by the time it came to me to share hopes and concerns, I really hesitated…should I be afraid for my personal safety? In the meetings that followed, as we rehearsed border interactions, and discussed the itinerary, that feeling of anxiety hasn’t subsided.
While I’m profoundly excited to see the Holy Land, to experience Bethlehem and Galilee and Jericho, to possibly have a chance at renewing my baptismal faith in the waters of the Jordan, and explore places that I remember from my Sunday School days with those felt cut out disciples following Jesus around the countryside… on my trip, where we’re going is far from soft and fuzzy.
The reality of the struggles in the Holy Land is one of the important reasons why I am looking forward to this trip. Because as much as I have anxiety over a ten day visit, I realized that this is such a first-world-problem. People in this region (and even more around the world) live surrounded by anxiety every day. Survival has replaced any notion of thriving, with conflict generations (and centuries) old. Conflict has become second nature and assumed. How can this be the “birthplace” of faith – such a holy (divided) place.
Some anxiety is externally influenced – famines, wars, governments; living with uncertainty and anxiety is like living in a city with smog – you know it’s killing you but you’re not quite sure how to escape it. Others are faced with internal anxiety – stress they cannot blame on “out there” forces, but in the chemicals pumping and surging in their brains, and those afflicted are left wondering if God leaned a little too heavily on the fear button, when they were fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139 v14).
We all learn different ways of dealing with anxiety.
I tend to fall back on humour – which isn’t always helpful. When I shared with Jennifer, the comments of concern from my group, I followed it up with, but don’t worry…my life insurance is all paid up. That was the wrong answer. I know that now. It wasn’t as funny as I thought it was.
How then are we to deal with anxiety?
Jesus, in this Gospel of John, meets his disciples in the midst of their anxiety. Instead of cracking jokes, he enters their fear and reassures his disciples that he would always be with them, as the bearer of the divine only could. In last week’s reading from verses 1-14, we find Philip, Thomas, and the disciples anxiously asking Jesus to see God, to come close to God, to know where Jesus is going and perhaps stick closer to him for fear of losing him. You could hear the worry amongst the words. This reading we began last week, starts Jesus’ long goodbye, his ‘farewell discourse’ found in the fourteenth chapter in John.
Unique to the Gospel of John, these words portray a much different Jesus than the other gospels. While other Gospels yearn for the historicity of Jesus’ life, to try to tell the story as historically accurate as possible, the writer here doesn’t overly concern themselves with such a task. Here instead of Jesus urging his disciples to keep the messianic secret (Mark) to hide who he is, Jesus enters the reality of the disciple’s fear – not to dismiss it – but to remind them that even in the midst of their fear, they are not alone, they are loved. We hear in in these verses (15-21), predicated on love…
If you love me, you will keep my commandments… They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.
Jesus knows, love takes the sting out of fear.
I don’t think it ever takes it away, but think back to those days when I toddled around, when it only took a parent’s or grandparent’s or loved one’s hand to take my own, to remind me that I wasn’t alone. Many of us can think back to the comfort in that outstretched hand. How your heart rate just slowed down. How you found the ability to breathe again. In those moments, nothing mattered more than love.
When we received our packing list, down at the bottom of the list was a reminder to pack photos of loved ones. I thought, oh that’s cute, I always have them on my phone, have them close by if I want to bore someone else with baby photos, but I realized, that in the midst of potentially anxious situations overseas, we’re made a little closer by the love that we remember. In the love that we feel. That sign of love – that reminder that we are not alone – is a reassurance that each of us need. The disciples don’t need to know that everything will be ok. It won’t. They don’t need Jesus to lie to them, and say he’ll be fine, that the nails won’t hurt, or the death won’t matter. Not long after this farewell discourse the disciples will experience the most heartbreaking, faith and hope destroying moment before their very eyes. They need to remember in the midst of that that love…the love of teacher and disciple…friend and follower…that love prevails in the midst of death. Jesus’ voice whispers to each of us, the love of God cannot be destroyed.
When I’ve visited in hospitals, gathered with family around the bedside of a loved one, I’ve encouraged, as much as they’re able, to interact. It might be through the reassurance of voice, or through the touch of hand on hand, of warmth and love transferring from person to person – but that interaction is more than presence. It is the enacting of love. It is the blessing of help and while those struggling would wish for their pains to be taken away, until that day comes, they need to know that it’s not their fight alone.
And so to this anxious world, we go, bearing the love of God.
That’s why I’m looking forward to my trip. To bear the love of God for all those who may have forgotten amongst the anxious systems in which they live. To reveal the love and knowledge that those I meet are beloved as much if not more than me, by a God who yearns for love and life to prevail amongst the human systems of injustice and death. To sing for them the verses of the powerful hymn,
We are Pilgrims written by Richard Gillard,
I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.
This light reveals the God who weeps for creation, sends Christ as sign of love, and the Holy Spirit, the Helper, to remind us that the love which surrounds is inescapable (Psalm 139 – v7 and 8). When we enter into places of fear and anxiety, we are surrounded by the protective love of God. It doesn’t mean that we’re to abandon any notion of personal safety, it just means we cannot let fear prevent us from new opportunities. Fear should not prevent us from sharing this transformative and transcendent love. For in those places of anxiety and fear, God creator shapes and molds us into beings of love, God revealer, entrusts our hands into the wounded hands of Christ, urging us to reach out in love, God the very air we breathe, which surrounds and blesses all living things, will lead us all to new life.
And so, as I prepare for my trip, I will carry the words of the beginning of Psalm 139 on my heart (referred to a few times in this sermon):
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.