I’ve often commented (not entirely in jest) that when God wants to get my attention, he has to hit me over the head with a 2×4 soaked in motor oil. I don’t have a burning bush, I’ve never had a donkey speak to me and I’ve never looked up from the dinner table to see a disembodied hand writing on the wall (pretty grateful for that last one, actually). This being the case, I often don’t sense God at work until well after the fact; I find it to be the case that I most often spot the hand of God in my rearview mirror.
There are times, however, when God seems to nudge me just enough for me to get the message. Something that I think constitutes one of those nudges has happened over the last couple of days. Sunday evening, as part of confirmation class, we gathered with a group of middle school students in silence for prayer. A single candle, representing the light of Christ and which burns in our midst when we gather for class every month, burned in the middle of our circle as we sat on the floor of a darkened church sanctuary. After a time of silence, we listened to a recording of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. We were then invited to light an additional candle or two, one for our hopes and one for our fears, as we approach again the birth of Christ. We then sat in silence again (or as much silence as seven middle school students can manage), with a little more light now, reflecting again on our hopes and fears. After a short time, one of the students asked if the hymn could be played again, and again we heard the promise that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”.
It was a powerful moment, at least for me, and one I was grateful for. But with the start of a new week Monday morning, it got pushed onto the back burner. Then Monday evening while watching television I heard a quote from Eddie Rickenbacker, the leading American air ace of World War I and a Medal of Honor recipient. Rickenbacker was quoted as saying, “Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” Hmm. Fear again. Might be a nudge from God. Maybe. But maybe just a coincidence. No big deal.
Then today, God nudged again, this time in the person of a friend reflecting on Jimmy Buffet’s cover of John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”, specifically the refrain:
A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear
Again with the fear. Hmm.
And then, as if to make sure I didn’t miss the point, I stumbled across this article written by the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin Prison in California. His “parish” includes the largest Death Row in America, and possibly the world, and he’s pretty sure he’s the only Jesuit priest who routinely celebrates Mass in a Kevlar vest. I can almost hear the divine 2×4 whistling through the air.
I have done a lot of reflecting on fear as it relates to the spiritual life in the last three years. I could say a lot (and have said a lot) about fear in this blog. Fear, I think, is both a universal human experience and an integral part of life with God. Time and again in Scripture, we read of humans encountering God and finding fear in the midst of that encounter (Genesis 3:10, Exodus 3:6, Isaiah 6:5, Matthew 14:26, 30 to name just a few). It’s no accident, I think, that when the angel of the Lord shows up to talk to Zechariah, Mary and Joseph in the run-up to Jesus’ birth, all three times it is with the words, “Do not be afraid”.
One of the great truths of my spiritual life, though, is that I have a really good forgetter. It’s easy to talk about how to cope with fear when I’m not afraid, but remembering those coping mechanisms when I am afraid is another matter. It is also easy, in this season of hope and anticipation and expectant waiting (and all of the craziness that goes with getting ready for Christmas) to forget that it is the hopes and fears of all the years that are met in that manger. It’s easy to forget, whether in the hubbub of the secular Christmas season or the expectant hopefulness of the church’s Advent preparations, that there are those in our midst for whom this is also a time of fear.
One of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever heard began with the preacher asking two questions: “Are you afraid?” and “What are you afraid of?” Perhaps in this Advent season of watching and waiting, we need to invite people (including ourselves) to engage those questions. Perhaps we would do well to invite our neighbors to tell us their fears, and to listen, really listen, to them, and to sit with them in the midst of them.
If we do that, though, we have to admit our own fears. Our fear of not having all the answers. Our fear that maybe there are no answers at all. Too often, proclaiming the truth that the hopes and fears of all the years were met in a manger in Bethlehem a couple of millennia ago turns into meeting our neighbors’ admissions of fear with a pat, plastic, “buck up, little camper, ‘cuz Jesus is gonna make it all okay” kind of message. Anyone who has ever experienced real, gut-wrenching, knee-knocking, elephant-sitting-on-your-chest fear would be perfectly justified in stuffing an Advent candle up our noses for such pitiful proclamation.
The truth of that meeting in the dark streets of that little town all those years ago should, if anything, set us free to just sit with our neighbor in the midst of the fear. Knowing we don’t have all the answers. Scared stiff ourselves but hanging in there anyway. Waiting and watching for the hopes and fears of all the years to be met again.