Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Opposite of Fear

Psalm 27:1-4, 11
Romans 12:9-21

The pastor of a medium sized church not too far outside of Omaha, Nebraska, a friend of mine from seminary, as well as other pastors across the US, received this e-mail this week from their church insurance company.
Millions of people will mark the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks during worship services this Sunday. Given the Department of Homeland Security's encouragement to be on alert for suspicious activity, what could your church do to improve safety for members and guests?

XXXXXX Insurance Company offers these suggestions:
1. Station extra people at entrances — Ask additional volunteers to serve as ushers and greeters this Sunday. Encourage them to be alert for anyone who appears out of place. It might be a person wearing a heavy coat on a hot day; someone who avoids greeters, looks nervous or agitated, or an unfamiliar person walking toward the building with a duffel bag or backpack.

2. Put someone in charge — Who would be in charge of responding to a safety incident? If you don’t have someone to oversee church safety and security, appoint a staff member or volunteer to fill this role on Sunday, and begin to look for a person to assume this duty on a regular basis. Be prepared to contact law enforcement immediately if any security threat is observed.

3. Have a first-aid kit handy — If you own one, check to make sure that it’s easily available, fully stocked, and contains up-to-date supplies. If you don’t have one, purchase a kit large enough to serve the number of people who regularly attend your church.

I’m encouraging you to be informed, not alarmed. Because the Department of Homeland Security has urged law enforcement to be on alert this weekend, I wanted you to have some simple, tangible steps you can take to improve safety for your church members and guests.

For more information on church safety, visit the resources section of

Best regards,
The Team at Church Insurance
My friend's comment when he shard this letter was this "Just received an email from a
Christian insurance company concerning 'three things you can do to live in fear'...I mean 'improve church safety this Sunday.'" I sort of got the same impression he did when I read the text of the whole letter. While awareness of where we are and what is going on doesn't seem like a bad idea in the church, around the community, or anywhere really the use of worlds like "alert," "security threat," and "suspicious activity" as well as invoking the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Department of Homeland Security, was in his opinion (and in mine) going a bit over board. After commenting on the various suggestions my friend then wrote, "Don't get me wrong, I love the people I pastor, and I don't ever want anything bad to happen to them, especially this Sunday. But I also want us to realize that when God said 'Do not be afraid' over 300 times in the Bible, he meant it for stuff like this, too."

This letter, whether fully intentionally or not, was written to induce a certain level of anxiety, a certain level of fear in the pastor or church member who received it. Fully consciously or not, the sender of this note wanted to impress upon the church leadership at least enough fear to take the suggestions seriously, to get ready, to be prepared, to make people safe.

Here we are ten years after one of the most shocking national events of my lifetime and the lifetimes of many others - - one of very few foreign attacks on this nation's soil - - and even now sometimes I wonder if we have made much progress in our collective reaction and response from where we were in those first few weeks and months after it occurred. Here we are ten years later and still an appeal to our fear is assumed to be an effective way to motivate the general public - - not even just the general public, but the church-going, assumedly faithful people of our country.

Are we really still there? Are we really still in the same mindset that we were in that pulled this country and others into difficult wars around the globe that we're still fighting 10 years later? Are we really still carrying those same fearful emotions that pull us into ourselves, away from the same strangers, the same outcasts, the same friendless neighbors that Jesus chose to sit with at table and break bread? Are we really still that fearful?

I don't discount fear as a normal reaction not just to the events that are drawn to mind from ten years ago, but to the events we face on a smaller more intimate scale - - to the relationships that we count on that are ending, to the loss of a spouse, a parent, or a child, to illness that threatens life, bullies who threaten safety, an economy that threatens financial stability. Fear is certainly normal, but time and time again, over 300 times in fact my friend declared this week, God in Scripture, through messengers, and in the person of Jesus the Christ declares to us "Do not be afraid." Do not live your life out of fear.

Fear is more than just being cautious, making an emergency-preparedness plan. Fear is that emotion that can grip our heart, our mind, and our life and trick us into thinking we can block ourselves off from all evil, all disasters, all attacks, all pain the might happen, that could happen, that will happen. Fear is that response to the surprising or unknown that pulls us in, closes us off, and narrows our vision and concern to what is immediately around us, what is our own.

Fear is inherently self-centered - - whether the self is truly our own individual person, or our particular segment of the population, our culture, or nation. When we are afraid our vision is focused and our actions are centered on what will protect ourselves over and against an outside threat, with little to no concern for others around us. Fear cuts us off from our neighbors. Fear cuts us off from God.

"The Lord is my light and my salvation," the psalmist declares. "Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" He goes on to tell us that enemies are at the doorstep, surrounding the camp. Evildoers assail and foes are not far away. This is not a safe situation. There is definitely a security threat! In this or many other passages of scripture God does not romise a completely safe and sanitized existence, but still te psalmist asks, "Whom shall I fear?" How can she say that? How can we?

The opposite of fear, apparently, is not safety. The opposite of fear is not security. The opposite of fear is not happiness. It's not wealth. It's not isolation. It's not uniformity. It's not protection, or knowledge, or comfort, or sanitization, or even preparedness.

The opposite of fear is hope. It's an active belief, an active trust that we belong to God. That even in the worst of times God can weave out of evil, or sadness or despair something good. It's not the belief that God creates the evil we experience or the pain we feel just to teach us something, just to test us or try us, just to have the opportunity to do good. But that out of the wrong that happens in the world or in our lives or even in our bodies, God can still find a way to to bring about something good. Hope is believing that no matter what is going on, God is still present and working for good,even if it's not the good we expect, and then living as if that is true. Hope is allowing the presence of God to fill our lives, fill all the impulses for love and welcome and compassion that have been emptied by fear, so that with God we can move forward in peace.

I want you to find the music insert that was in your bulletin this morning. Turn to the side with the chant called "Nothing Can Trouble." I want you to join me in proclaiming this gospel - - the good news of God's presence and power and not necessarily protection, but promise that we are never alone.

When two planes crashed into skyscrapers, another into the Pentagon, and a fourth into a field in Pennsylvania - -

When the economy threatens our savings, when all thatwe worked for seems to have no value - -
"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting."

When a wife or a husband of 64 years is suddenly gone; a mother or a father is no longer there to hold our hand - -
"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting."

When playground, workplace, and relationship bullies threaten to control us and strip us of our dignity - -
"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting."

When our deepest relationships are crumbling to pieces and we find ourselves questioning what we thought we knew, what we thought we felt, what we thought we believed - -
"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting. Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. God alone fills us."

Let's face no insurance company could recommend a first aid kit big enough to bind all the wounds physical, emotional, and spiritual left behind after a terrorist attack. And acting out of fear isn't going to do anything to prepare us to live in a flawed and sinsick world. But hope is. Trusting in God's promises and the gifts of God's presence in community is.

At our best - - like when we rally after disasters either personal or national, when we set aside our fears of who is different, who is rich or poor, who is black or white, who is gay or straight, who is Christian or Jewish or Muslim or atheist, who is democrat or republican, who is liberal or conservative, who is American or Iraqi or Afghani or Mexican or Egyptian or Saudi Arabian - - we show what it means to live with hope. When we live with love that is genuine, hatred of evil, and holding fast to what is good, we live with hope. We when show one another honor, share our resources with others, welcome strangers among us, we live with hope. When we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, when we persevere in prayer, and associate with all people, we live in hope. When we seek to overcome evil with good, then we are living with hope in Christ who overcame all evil to bring life.

And if it feels too soon for you, if the death is too recent, the emotions too raw, the pain too deep, and even hope still feels far away, that's when we have to hold hope for one another. That's when the church has to trust for those who can't. That's when God's promise to be here with us and among us is made true through the community of faith, the Body of Christ, and we must believe and trust and live in hope for each other.

Friends, brothers and sister in Christ, when we live into this hope, hope in Jesus our Christ, then we will find peace. May it be so, may it be so soon.

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