Dr. Angela Jackson
Me and My Fear by Francesca Sanna:
“I have always had a secret. A tiny friend called Fear.
“Fear has always looked after me and kept me safe. Together we have explored new things and stuck by each other.
“But since we came to this new country, Fear isn’t so little anymore. She keeps growing and growing.
“I want to go outside and discover my neighborhood… but Fear won’t move.
“And when I have to go to school, Fear doesn’t want me to go. Fear hates my new school. When the teacher says my name wrong, she grows angry… even though I know it was just an accident.
“At break time, Fear keeps me all to herself.
“I don’t understand anyone, and they don’t understand me.
“When school is over, Fear can’t wait to go home. And at dinner, Fear eats all the food she can.
“At night in my room, Fear dreams so loudly that I can’t sleep.
“I feel more and more lonely every day. Fear says it’s because no one likes me. Well, I don’t like it here.
“But what’s this? A boy in my class wants to show me something. Soon we begin to draw and paint together.
“At break time, I want to go outside and play with the boy.
“As we run through the playground, suddenly a dog barks at us through the fence. AAARGH! The boy screams and hides quickly behind something strange and small.
“He has a secret fear like me!
“I thought I was the only one to have one.
“Fear is getting smaller each day. And school is not so difficult anymore. It’s still not easy to understand everything, but I’ve started to notice that everyone else has a fear, too…
“and sometimes we all play together.”
Throughout the Advent season, the Scripture reminded us that God beckons us not to be afraid. Do not be afraid, even if like Zechariah you’ve been longing and praying and waiting for such a long time that you’ve lost hope in an answer to your prayers. Do not be afraid, even if like Mary your life takes a dramatic and unanticipated turn that leaves you with only sketchy details and a skeptical betrothed. Do not be afraid, even when like Joseph your best-laid plans and perfect future and stellar reputation falls apart and you’re called to take the high road.
Do not be afraid.
In today’s gospel reading, fear makes an appearance once again. Though, this time it’s different. In those prior situations, God was doing something mysterious and wonderful and beyond human understanding. God’s word in those situations was indeed “do not be afraid.”
But today, there is no such word. Rather, this fear that Joseph felt in his bones was the result of human evil and unspeakable violence. Joseph and Mary knew the absolute terror of living in a world where unstable men wielded their power recklessly and where innocent children were slaughtered mercilessly. And in the face of this fear, bless God, there were no platitudes to simply trust or admonishments to have no fear. In this situation, it seems that God affirms their fear and thus makes another way for their family, a way of living with and through the very real presence of fear. God seems to be saying, “it’s okay to be afraid.”
It’s okay to be afraid when the world is going mad.
According to the text—
A whole village of babies died for Jesus before he could die for them… And a whole village of mothers wept and mourned inconsolably for their own murdered children while Mary who escaped Herod’s wrath held the Living God in her arms.
This horrific incident is part of the Christmas narrative.
So, where was God-with-us in this fearsome story?
And where is God-with-us when we’re afraid?
When I consider these questions in conversation with the biblical text and our storybook, I can’t help but see the beauty and the promise and the mystery of Christmas, the Incarnation. God is surely with us in these stories and in our lives.
God-with-us is in the human responses to fear.
God was one of the voices—weeping, wailing, and mourning—refusing to be comforted in the biblical narrative. God agonizes over every kind of atrocity, every miscarriage of justice, and every lack of love. God mourns over every tragedy and every sinful choice that brings pain and suffering to humanity and creation.
God-with-us is in the Spirit that works through fear to protect.
Fear sent the holy family to a different region and village to shelter them. It kept them safe and cautious while they lived their lives.
In the storybook, fear looked after the girl and protected her. Even when she tried new things, fear kept her company while she was cautiously and slowly experiencing and exploring.
God-with-us is embodied and present in the communities where people bring their fears.
The holy family would have relied on neighbors and others as they fled to Egypt, while they resided there, and once again as they returned to Israel. For them to settle in Nazareth, they needed supportive relationships—Mary, other young mothers who were managing households and nursing children and older, experienced mothers to mentor her—Joseph, other men who were laboring to support families and men who could connect him to merchants, farmers, landlords, and bankers. God most certainly watched over and cared for Jesus in and through the other people who nurtured his family.
When the girl discovered that the boy and everyone else she encountered had fear, too, she found a community, and she was set free to live and play.
We know the fears of Joseph.
Our own world is fraught with violence and human tragedy. What with children sick and dying separated from their parents at the border, children injured and dying in record school shootings, inner city gun violence, serial bombings and terror attacks, extreme and violent weather caused by climate change—no wonder we’re often afraid. Everywhere we turn there are examples of the violence that humans do to each other and to our earth.
We also know the fears of the little girl.
We experience very real personal fears about our messy relationships, our rocky finances, our ability to cope with life, our physical health, our children’s behavior or choices, our recurring addictions, and all the other myriad things that we fret about. Not to mention the very real violence we do to ourselves when we pretend like we have no fears, like we feel no pain, like we’ve got our lives altogether. We perfect; we compare; we worry and ruminate; we work too much; we lay awake; we isolate; we eat or drink or shop too much. All of these are self-inflicted violence born out of fear…the fear of not being enough.
Where is God-with-us in these times of fear? violence on the outside? voices on the inside?
God-with-us knows our emotional and physical responses to fear.
If we believe what the scripture tells us of the incarnation and Jesus’ human experience, then we can be assured that God is present in our racing heart rates, our sweaty palms, our nausea, our insomnia, our cries, our grief, our anger, and all the rest. This is indeed a great mystery and a great consolation.
God-with-us in the midst of our fear can serve to protect and shelter us.
God doesn’t leave us alone with our fears. And sometimes God uses those fears to keep us safe. Right-sized fear may slow us down, make us cautious, and give us perspective on our situation or surroundings. Right-sized fear may enable us to more accurately read people and their motives. Right-sized fear may heighten our awareness and offer us insight. These are a gift of God in the presence of the Spirit.
Sometimes, though, fear outgrows its usefulness.
Then, God-with-us resides in a community of others to strengthen us for addressing or overcoming fear that is no longer working for us.
A community can uphold us toward doing hard things, facing both external and internal fears, and really living in spite of all that frightens us. When we bring our fears into a loving and supportive community, we will most certainly discover that everyone is afraid of something.
If like Joseph your fears are external concerns about the world—whether gun violence, unjust policies, climate change, sex trafficking, or something else—take those fears to a community that shares your concern. Get involved in action to bring about change and put your fear to use. God-with-us accompanies you.
If like the little girl you struggle with fear of the internal variety—like perfectionism, addiction, anxiety, and others such as these—find a community wherein you can speak this truth. Tell someone or a group of someones your story. And let God-with-us accompany you in that community as you face your fears.
This is the great hope of Christmastide.
God is with us even (and especially) in times of fear.
“It’s still not easy… but I’ve started to notice that everyone else has a fear, too…and sometimes we all play, [share, work, change the world, and change ourselves] together.”
May it be so. Amen.