Fear is an unwelcome guest in the life experience of each of us. As we put one fear behind us, another often lurking in the background is eager to take its place. Fear can result from health and other threats to our own existence, fear of upcoming surgery, threats to the existence and happiness of loved ones, fear about the existence of the world. From cancer to global warming, to presidential elections fear persists.
Fear is part of life. Animals come into this world with a self-protective instinct in face of fear. They have built in radar to sense something that threatens them and seem to have programmed responses to fight or flee. Plants seem have fear and corresponding self-protective instincts. My grass turns brown if I do not water it. It turns brown to protect itself. We say it is dormant. When watered, the green color returns
Humans learn about fear from the time of birth. Babies cry if frighten by noise. As we approach adulthood the fight or flee instinct in the face of perceived danger gives way to many unhealthy behaviors. A common and unhealthy way to deal with fear is what the psychologists call “repression”. Our bodies have the ability to build fences around our fears so that they do not intrude on our daily existence. But repressed fear can make us sick. And worse, like a computer virus, fear has a way of working behind the scenes to make us unhappy or produce irrational actions.
It is not uncommon for folks to talk about their various fears as “demons in our heads” and they struggle to conquer or defeat them. A demon is that which produces chronic unhappiness or anxiety. We read about demons in the New Testament, and especially with regard to Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was known by his peers as one who could cast out demons. He even taught his disciples to do this. The Gospel of Matthew reports Jesus sending his disciples out two by two to preach the Good News of the dawning of the Kingdom of God. He told them to bring sight to the blind, healing, and to cast out demons. The Gospels agree that the way of life that Jesus advocated had something to do with managing demons or as we know now managing “fear”. A parishioner once asked me why I never preach about the devil. I responded “I do each time I talk about fear.”
It interests me that the records of Jesus’ ministry closely associate him with the calming of human fear. A New Testament story reports Jesus’ preaching in a synagogue. While preaching, someone with a history of violent outbursts heckled Jesus. Jesus recognized the demon in that man and called the demon out of the man. Today we might imagine that this man was controlled by fear. We may conclude that somehow, in the presence of Jesus his fear was calmed. Perhaps that fear was rooted in the message that Jesus was preaching. After all, after all, Jesus was confronting both the political and religious establishments, both the Pharisees and the Roman Empire. Surely that stirred up emotions in many who struggled helplessly to place their trust in the Law or who feared the Empire. People were desperate for hope as they struggled to survive oppression in the Roman Empire. Jesus offered hope in face of great fear. That hope addressed their fear.
When we lay Jesus’ actions to “cast out demons” – that is to calm fears – alongside his message of trust in the goodness of creation and self-sacrificing love for one-another, we may reasonably conclude that the way of life exemplified by Jesus somehow provides the path out of a life of fear. This was summarized in the phrase “eternal life” – that is, a life we can live, starting right now, in which we are not controlled by fear but by hope.
How does that work? Here are a couple of thoughts.
First, trust in the goodness of creation means that in the grand scheme of things work out because that is that is the nature of the universe. The people that I know who are unhappy and consumed by fear typically are unwilling to accept the basic goodness of life. They see little good in the human instinct or little confidence in the ability of humans to do the right thing in the end. But others face frightening circumstances with faith in the good-ness (or “God-ness” for those use religious language) of creation and in the human capacity for goodness. They seem to discover they can master their fears.
Second, love for one-another – truly being other-centered – reminds us that we are not alone in our fears as we encounter the fears in the lives of others. Many of our fears pale compared to the fears in the lives of others. We tend to think that we are the only ones who have fears, or that no fear that others experience can be worse than the ones we experience. In engaging others in love and compassion, we discover fear as universal and we address our own fears by helping others address their fears.
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Recently, I read a blog by an individual who overcame his fear of the DMV – Department of Motor Vehicles.
He talks about how the DMV is his own particular demon. He is haunted by bureaucratic nightmares associated with obtaining a driver’s license to the point of paralysis. His fear has kept him from some of the most daily activities in life: making healthcare appointments, renewing his passport, applying for jobs, using an electronic device or updating financial investments. But the greatest of these is the Department of Motor Vehicles “and any activity associated with this hellish agency”.
Then something changed. He made the difficult decision to buy a car from an individual. He thus was forced to face the fear of bureaucracy by going to the DMV to title, register, inspect, insure, pay taxes on and acquires a parking pass all by himself. And, alas, he did it all by himself: every single, annoying requirement. He said his head did not explode! He says “let us take a moment of silence to honor the demise of the demon!” He says the current score is one demon down, 564,332 other bureaucratic nightmares to face. “Onward now to the next demon. I go armed with confidence in my newfound demon-busting superpower.”
He concludes by asking asks “what fears have you overcome today?”
What a great question! What if we imagine that all of our fears are place in a box labeled “fears.” Open the box. Look at the fears lurking there. Ask yourself, is this a fear because I lack trust and confidence in the goodness of life, others? Then, ask yourself another question: Is this fear controlling my life? Have I become so obsessed with my own fears that I forgot about the life or death fears in the lives of others?
Maybe I need to re-engage with others? Maybe in helping them face their fears, I will be better able to face mine.
This sounds much like the way of life to which Jesus calls us: “Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is interesting that the life he lived caused people to say he cast out demons. Maybe we should try it.
Let us celebrate this power over fear that we find in life of trust in the goodness (God-ness) of creation and in self-giving. What a great way to enter the Christmas season. As I write this our house is filled with the Christmas music of Manheim Steamroller. I find that my own fear is calmed and my trust in the goodness of creation and others is bubbling over. As the hymn writer says, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”