Do Not Be Afraid

I realize that I’m probably losing more than half of you when I confess this, but preachers should take risks from time to time, right? Here’s my risk: I confess that I really like tattoos. Not all tattoos. But a lot of them. I especially like tattoos that are meaningful, that tell a story. I love the tree that a friend had inked on her back last year; it’s a blossoming oak that represents healing and hope. Years ago, while going through a terrible divorce, a colleague had the Hebrew word for “beloved” tattooed on her ankle. She needed a permanent reminder that despite her grief and loss, she was indeed loved by God. At one point, before having children put a serious wrinkle in my ability to play couch potato on my days off, I was hooked on a reality television show about a tattoo parlor. I was amazed by the artistry, but even more drawn in by the reasons people would choose to have something painfully and indelibly committed to flesh. Men and women alike often described what they wanted through tears, and not a few customers wept with joy as their new tattoos were revealed. They aren’t for everyone, but tattoos are for many a visual language of self-expression and meaning.

I really like tattoos, but I don’t have one. I’ve always said that I don’t have one because I’ve never been able to think of something that I am completely sure I’d want on my skin for the rest of my life.

But a while ago it hit me. I know exactly what I want tattooed on my ankle, or perhaps my wrist. It is the most commonly repeated phrase in the Bible – in both the New and Old Testaments.

Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid.

And yet, I still don’t have a tattoo. I can no longer claim that I don’t know what I’d want. I’m forced to admit that the reason I do not have my “do not be afraid” tattoo is because I am just that. Afraid.

Now, most of you probably just joined my mother in a great big sigh of relief. You don’t like tattoos and aren’t especially pleased that they’ve become so mainstream. Gone are the days that only sailors, bikers, and punks frequent tattoo parlors. Seventeen of you were probably planning to tell me later that you think I should most definitely NOT get a tattoo. And maybe I shouldn’t.

Still, I can’t help but marvel over the irony that the reason I want to have “do not be afraid” inscribed on my arm is the very same reason I will likely never do it: I’m a chicken.

A chicken, a scaredy-cat, a worrywart, a hand-wringer. My fearfulness is not limited to needles. I am capable of cultivating anxiety about nearly anything. I do, however, have specialties. Motherhood opened up a whole new set of fears, fears too terrible to name.

It is no wonder that I love that line – that often repeated line – Do not be afraid. It’s a message I need to hear, time and time again. Perhaps someday it will sink in. Perhaps someday it will finally get under my skin.

Not long ago, a terrible thing happened to my sister. It wasn’t the worst terrible thing, but it was awful nonetheless. She stepped out to run an errand, and forty-five minutes later she returned to a ransacked house.

Family heirlooms, computers, and the cameras she uses as a professional photographer – all gone. Worst of all, the thief also took off with her hard drives – the hard drives on which she stored every photograph she’s taken, professionally and personally. All gone. When I lifted this up during joys and concerns the week it happened, I named why this loss was so painful: it was just stuff, but it was the stuff that mattered the most to her.

Between the insurance money and contributions from friends and strangers alike, she has new equipment. She is back behind the camera again, recording the ordinary and extraordinary moments in her family’s life together. She is reshooting client photos that were lost, and scheduling new photo shoots every weekend. But she’s still sad. She wants her photos and our grandmother’s ring back, desperately, but they have yet to be recovered. And she’s still scared. They’re getting a security system installed.

I helped her out in some practical ways, but felt called to give her something that isn’t practical at all. I wanted to fight back against the ugliness of the robbery with something lovely – with art. I commissioned a small painting from an artist friend, Suzanne Vinson. I asked her to include a Frederick Buechner quote – “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.”
There is a quote within the quote, of course. Buechner echoes the words whispered to terrified souls throughout holy scripture. Do not be afraid, God says to Abraham, to Hagar, to Joseph, to Moses. Do not be afraid, Moses says to the Hebrew people. Do not be afraid, the angel says to Zecharaiah, to Mary, to Joseph. Do not be afraid, Jesus says to his disciples – more times than you can count on both hands.

I love that Buechner quote, but I also despise it. I love the promise that beautiful things will happen. I hate the reminder that terrible things will happen.

If it were up to me, it would go like this: Here is the world. Nothing bad will ever happen to you. Do not be afraid. That makes more sense, right? That the reason we need not fear is because there’s nothing to be afraid of.

But that’s pretty much the exact opposite of what Buechner means, and what the bible means.

Consider the Romans text. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

The answer is no, of course. None of these things will separate us from the love of Christ. But neither will the love of Christ separate us from these things.

There is absolutely no promise that we will be spared hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword.

I really wish we had that promise. Don’t you?

We wish for that promise as we lament that the earth quakes and thousands of men, women, and children are injured and killed in the rubble.

We wish for that promise as we lament that violence is still tearing apart cities and families, and that racism and economic disparity continue to leave legacies of despair, from generation to generation. We wish for that promise when a tragedy irreparably breaks hearts and irrevocably changes lives.

Yet no matter how desperately we wish for that promise, we don’t have it.

The promise we do have is this:  Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.

The promise we do have is this: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The reason we are charged not to be afraid some three hundred and sixty five times in the Bible is not because we won’t suffer. We will. Some more, some less. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, and probably trying to sell you something.

The reason we are charged not to be afraid is because we live in the presence of God. We are awash in the love of God. Nothing can remove us from God’s presence. Nothing can rob us of God’s love.

The scriptures also testify that perfect love casts out fear. I am still waiting for that to happen. I know that God is trying really, really hard to convince me to trade in my terror for trust. 

It dawns on me that “Fear not” is a perfectly good translation of the same text, and would require a lot less ink.

In the meantime, I ordered an extra print of the Buechner art. It will be on my wall, reminding me and everyone who comes into my office to talk or weep or pray with me:

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.

<<<  Preached at First Congregational Church of Western Springs, May 17, 2015  >>>

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