October 27, 2020

Another Look: If you are not afraid…

Note from CM: I wrote this post in 2013. I don’t recall off the top of my head what prompted it, but I do know why it speaks to me today.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, indeed as it continues to surge here in the U.S. without any signs of abating, I have never felt so unsure of the future as I do now. I find myself increasingly bored, depressed, and anxious. I feel an unrelenting sense of anger at those not taking matters seriously, along with despair regarding political “leadership” that seems intent on engendering our own self-destruction, and utter helplessness knowing there is nowhere to escape, nothing to do but wait and hope for something to change.

And then I feel guilty. Oh God, how many people have felt this way in much more dire circumstances over centuries, without ever enjoying even a small percentage of the freedoms and blessings I enjoy!

But it doesn’t stop the aching fear.

• • •

Another Look: If you are not afraid…

Hello. My name is Mike, and I am afraid.

I am afraid of life, and I am afraid of life’s end. I am afraid of being alone, and I am afraid of being with people. I am afraid of hatred and I am afraid of love. Truth and beauty frighten me even as I delight in them. I especially fear pain, loss, unbearable sorrow, and death itself.

It has taken me years to realize how afraid I am, and I’m sure I still don’t know.

I do not always feel this fear, mind you. It is not as though I am consciously obsessed with it or paralyzed by it.

But the fear is there and I know it. Every once in awhile, it pokes its head around the corner and startles me.

I fear my past. There is a reason the psalmist prayed, “Remember not the sins of my youth.” At certain moments, mine haunt me, even though I believe I am forgiven in Christ. I am not afraid of God’s judgment, but I do fear the corrosive effects of regret, guilt feelings, and unprofitable preoccupations.

And then, here I am, six decades and more into my life, and I am still afraid I will disappoint my parents.

The older I get, the more I see that I have an interpretation of my life. It is generally favorable and approving, but my own understanding is limited and skewed. Occasionally, one of my children or an old friend or even a stranger makes a comment that opens my eyes. They see me differently. They have an interpretation too, and it is not always as flattering as my own. I fear my mirror lies. I fear I may be looking at a stranger when I think I am seeing someone I know deeply.

I fear things present. I fear the beautiful and terrible things of life. My current vocation finds me in companionship with those who are dying. I have learned that life surprises, and not always in happy ways. I have shaken my head and said, “I wish I had answers, but I don’t” more times than I can count.

I fear chaos. Crippling accidents. Losing a job. Making bad, life-altering decisions. Being the chance victim of crime. The death of a child. Missing opportunities to love. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hearing that most unwanted diagnosis. Speaking words I can never retrieve.

The profound beauty of life frightens me. The beloved ocean. The austere mountains. The night sky. Billions of light-years and space we cannot fathom, and an entire unseen quantum world besides. And I, a speck of dust — I fear absolute anonymity.

I have been able to fool myself for many years, having known so much good fortune. My health and that of my family has been extraordinarily good. We have never truly suffered material loss or devastating circumstances. In my saner moments I realize that there are storm clouds on the horizon and that the wind may blow them our way at any time.

As I visit with older folks, I hear the stories of veterans, and marvel that any of us have survived such human cruelty. I read the news and weep to know that the drumbeat of war goes on. I fear for my children and my children’s children.

I am realistic enough to know that every human being leaves this world with unfinished business. I am also foolish enough to imagine that I could be the first to buck the trend. But I won’t be, and the best I can hope for is that I can whittle my unfinished business pile down to something those who come after me will find manageable. Will I have time?

I don’t want to die. At least not for twenty or thirty more years. I don’t want to lose my parents or others I love. I’m afraid family members are going to ask me to officiate their funerals, and I’m afraid to say yes or no. It is a dreadful task to tell a life’s story, to attempt to summarize something so wondrous with words few and poor.

One of the things Michael Spencer wrote that drew me to him as a kindred spirit was his article, “Death, the Road that Must Be Traveled”

Near number one on my list of things I don’t like about Christians is the suggestion I should have a happy and excited attitude about dying. “Uncle Joe got cancer and died in a month. Glory hallelujah. He’s in a better place and if you love the Lord that’s where you want to be right now. When the doctor says your time has come, you ought to shout praises to the Lord.” Or this one. “I’d rather be in heaven. Wouldn’t you? This earth is not my home. I’d rather be with Jesus and Mama and Peter and Abraham than spend one more day in this world of woe.”

Not me. Not by a long shot. I like this world of woe, and I really don’t want to leave it.

That’s why I love Michael. He wrote things that few other Christians have the honesty to say out loud. But then, Michael died. May he rest in the peace that knows no fear.

I am afraid of the kind of “faith” that won’t acknowledge fear. This is the reason I write at Internet Monk. I hope to honor Michael’s legacy by refusing to settle for the life-evading, truth-denying, Polyanna BS that too often gets passed off as “Christianity” in our day. No amount of shouting, “Perfect love casts out fear!” can change the fact that human beings live with the daily reality of being afraid. No triumphalist trumpeting of victory and “overcoming” can eradicate the gnawing anxiety that besets us all.

Yes, there is hope. Yes, Jesus has risen. Yes, in the end nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ. The reason I need these great and precious promises every day of my life is because every day has its fears. Accepting the Gospel does not inoculate me from being afraid. It helps me. It encourages me. It braces me. It does not eradicate my humanity.

Perhaps seminaries ought to require every person who wants to become a pastor or minister of the church to memorize and internalize the Book of Psalms. Here is the complex reality of the utterly human life of faith:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1)

Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. (Ps. 55:5)

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (Ps. 56:3)

If you are not afraid, I doubt if you are awake, or maybe even human. For all our talk of “conquering our fears,” we remain captives. Can we just admit it? Can we just be real? Can we just stop pretending we’re past that?

I am afraid that few will listen.

And then the end will come.

Comments

  1. Christiane says

    photos from the film ‘Melancholia’ . . . powerful images for this context, yes

  2. Susan Dumbrell says

    I was today watching the recorded Mass from last Sunday at St Mary’s, Times Square.
    This a regular place that I visit. I relate to their style of worship.Their church now has restricted opening hours and services.

    Last Sunday’s Gospel was Jesus saying ‘take my yoke upon you…….for my yoke is easy and my burden is light’.

    I found tears running down my cheeks as I considered the current world situation,
    The state of American politics as it impacts the rest of the world. Gross.
    You folk in USA are not on your own in this Covid19 pandemic. The US press we see makes out that you are.
    The second wave of Covid19 happening in Australia.
    Churches in Aust are still closed or under very strict opening. Our little church is too tiny to comply with opening restrictions.
    …and my lack of meaningful contact with John.

    A number of burdens I list are but few of my burdens, but I have doubts as to how I place any of these on Jesus shoulders when prayer seems so ineffectual.
    Doubting Susan

    • Robert F says

      I don’t know what Jesus meant by yoke-easy/burden-light. Maybe that’s for the most conscientious disciples, which I’m definitely not; maybe we will know it to be true when we transcend the end of this life’s journey, and look back over the terrain he’s carried us through, seeing it from an eschatological perspective. But for now, when my wife and I pray it as part of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer compline many nights, I neither feel nor understand it, but pray as best I can with an attitude of naked faith.

    • Christiane says

      Dear Susan,

      we are still in the midst of the ‘first wave’ of the virus, but we haven’t done at all well coping with it and I think at the heart of the problem was the wish of one autocrat to ‘stop doing so much testing’. . . . so he discouraged testing and made it hard for ‘turn around time’ to get results so that the results are not worth much if delayed time is too lengthy;

      and then he began to preach that the testing CAUSED the virus, which seems to have been something this autocrat got from an extremist radio host,

      and the autocrats minions rallied around him and refuse to wear masks, etc, etc. preferring something they call ‘their freedom’ to protecting their neighbors who are vulnerable. (????????) No, I don’t get it either, Susan, and I am discouraged also;

      but November is coming in our country and maybe, with it, a return to sanity in government and help and protection for innocent people who are at risk now . . . . . oh, ‘trumpism’ will go on, but now we know it for what it is and we will have to acknowledge that the right-wing ‘deal with the devil’ enabled them to get their ‘perfect politics’ only at the cost of innocent suffering, something that Christian people cannot in conscience accept once they are ‘aware’ of what the deal cost them in pain to innocents and death to the vulnerable. . .

      Susan, I’m sorry to ‘rant’ but I get it what causes our frustration with this strange plague . . . . I don’t think we can give up hope for better days, though.

      You Aussies are a strong people. And in our own DNA, I think we Americans will ‘wake up’ to our own strength against the ‘crazy’ that is being celebrated currently, and if we can send the ‘crazy’ packing in November through a voting process legally, we will have a chance here to BE ‘American’ again. That is my hope.

      Susan, you hang on for a while longer. If my country gets itself into recovery in November, that might encourage you. Pray for us. It breaks my heart that you don’t have meaningful time with your dear John. What I would give for one more day with my husband on this Earth, but I am at peace that he is ‘cared for’ by God and I shelter in that peace and am grateful for it.

      Sending hug.. Stay strong. Good to know Australia is ‘out there’, as some of the ‘good guys’. 🙂

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        but November is coming in our country and maybe, with it, a return to sanity in government and help and protection for innocent people who are at risk now . . . . .

        Assuming a Trump defeat in November doesn’t blow up into a full-honk Armed Uprising “Boogaloo” — excuse me, “Second Amendment Solution to Take Back America from THEM” (and that’s a BEST-case scenario).

  3. Robert F says

    the potted flowers
    that I water each morning
    are on their last legs

  4. Robert F says

    I like this world of woe, and I really don’t want to leave it.

    Unlike Michael, my feelings about this world are ambivalent. I can’t say that I like or love it; there are things I like and love about it, beautiful, deep, evocative, mysterious things that fill me with a longing, not for them or their endless continuation, but for something beyond them, in which they are included and participate, but of which they are not the sum or completion. As things are, those things I like and love about this world are all wrapped up in the sorrow of this world, decaying and finite, bound to be lost, and the loss of the things I like and love about this world will cause me the most suffering. That’s because, as Buddhism teaches, the things I like and love about this world, and my affinity and love for them as well, are illusory, not quite what they seem to me, and must be lost in the end since the world is itself and will not conform to or be conformed by my preferences or affections. Though I’m not among the wise, the voice of the Magus in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi” speaks for me:

    This set down
    This: were we led all that way for
    Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
    We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
    But had thought they were different; this Birth
    Was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
    We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
    But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
    With an alien people clutching their gods.
    I should be glad of another death.

  5. This is a great post. Honest and pointed. The world needs more of that.

  6. Rick Ro. says

    “I am afraid; I will not fear.” Seems like the same kinda mental/emotional/spiritual struggle that the psalmist has in Psalm 22, “I feel forsaken; He has not forsaken me.” It’s the same kinda struggle we all have at times, I guess.

    As someone who has lived with anxiety, worry and fear most of his life and has kinda/sorta gotten to a healthier place through counseling and Jesus, I wince just a bit at “If you are not afraid, I doubt if you are awake, or maybe even human.” These days, I try to work through my fears VERY QUICKLY. I think it is unhealthy to let fear fester and dwell for long; I can’t let it live in me and keep me captive. I have learned a lot through the fears in others during the build-up to the last presidential election, and now through the Trump presidency. Jesus does NOT want us to live in fear, that I am certain of. And I find I need to model that if I’m to call myself a Christian and a Jesus-follower.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      DON’T call yourself “Christian”.

      Christian(TM – i.e. without any denominational adjectives) has now been redefined to mean Trump Worshippers cheering on the Virus, giddy with glee. “MAGA!!!!!”

      • Rick Ro. says

        Thankfully about half the Christians I know are NOT that…LOL. But the other half… are. (sad, frowny face)

    • All of that has made you a sensitive soul in my book. That’s the sort of work and fire that breaks us down and then breaks us free.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I feel an unrelenting sense of anger at those not taking matters seriously, along with despair regarding political “leadership” that seems intent on engendering our own self-destruction…

    With the Evangelicals (excuse me, Real True Christians(TM)) cheering every step of the way.
    “AAAAAAAA-MENNNNNN!!!!!!”

    …and utter helplessness knowing there is nowhere to escape, nothing to do but wait and hope for something to change.

    More like nothing to do except wait to be infected.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    No triumphalist trumpeting of victory and “overcoming” can eradicate the gnawing anxiety that besets us all.

    Remember those churches who replaced funerals with Happy Clappy Joy Joy “Homegoing Celebrations”?

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Hello. My name is Mike, and I am afraid.

    To which the usual response of God’s Speshul Pets is:
    “O Ye of Little FAITH. Tsk. Tsk.”