This is the introduction to a series which will borrow content and structure from Adam Hamilton's latest book, Unafraid. Buy the book - worth the space in your library.
A high school teacher had a policy in his classroom: if any student had in incoming phone call on their mobile phone (this disrupting the class), they had to take the call on speakerphone. One day, a student got a call, and the teacher reminder her of the rule. She answered. It was the local pregnancy resource center calling to inform and congratulate her that she was pregnant! They went on to say that they understood that the father was out of the picture and would be happy to talk about all her options going forward. During this awkward call, the teacher was visibly uncomfortable. Immediately following the call, he publicly apologized for having her take such a private call. She told him it was fine, that she already picked out the name: April for the first name. Fools for the middle… (Watch the video).
Anybody have a fear of getting pranked on this April Fools Day?
What are people afraid of these days in our culture? Crime, race-related issues, terrorism, politics, failure, disappointing others, feeling insignificant, loneliness, apocalypse, change, missing out, finances, aging, illness, dying, God – these represent some pretty major areas that strike fear in the hearts of many. How about you? Which of these causes you a little anxiety? Or panic attack? Perhaps the list makes you aware of things you didn’t even think to be afraid of, but now you are! Sorry…
Easter is such a happy holiday that we forget the fear that surrounded it. The culture has made the day we celebrate the resurrected Christ into a general holiday for Spring. Spring is the marker of new life, of course, so I guess it cold be worse. But its easy to forget the incredible drama that took place the days before and after the first resurrection Sunday. Many of the fear-inducing issues listed above would have been claimed by the disciples during those days. They would be able to relate to us today from their experience. The fears we face today are not new to humanity. Others have been through what we’re experiencing. Jesus’ disciples were so filled with fear after his crucifixion that they hid behind locked doors, fearful that they would be next to be executed.
Fear is a good thing, of course. When we experience what we perceive as a threat, our reptilian brain kicks into action. The emotional control portion of our brain called the amygdala triggers the release of epinephrine and cortisol to help us fight or take flight in order to survive. A bunch of other things happen as well, all to protect us from the threat. We need fear to protect us from danger. Our brains remember certain stimuli and associate it with past events, both good and bad. We have the ability to connect one sensory experience with something desirable or dangerous or frightening and respond in a related way. This is called classical conditioning (remember Pavlov’s dog?). It’s this very helpful capacity that can also take us to some less helpful places, where fear can become debilitating even when the perceived threat is not as threatening as we imagine.
I once heard fear defined with the following acronym: False Expectations Appearing Real. Well known and highly respected pastor and author Adam Hamilton, in his book Unafraid, which will provide material and organization for this series, heard it slightly differently: False Events Appearing Real. False expectations may be directly related to false events or experiences, all combining to blind us to the reality before us – a reality that may not be nearly as fearful as we thought. One hope for this series is that we would learn to see things more clearly so that we can assess whether or not our current level of fear is appropriate. That alone can be freeing.
In addition to assessing the facts behind all of the areas we previously listed, we will also be talking about faith’s response, and what it means to live in faith instead of in fear. I like how Adam Hamilton talks about what faith is not:
“I’m not, for example, talking about a saccharine faith that assures us that if we pray hard enough nothing bad will ever happen to us. As a pastor, I’ve walked with enough people through hell to know that this is not how life works. I am not proposing the theologically inaccurate view that everything that happens is the will of God. And I won’t insult you by suggesting that if only you have enough faith, you’ll never have fears. But I will suggest that a well-considered faith in God and the timeless insights of scripture can have a profound impact on your ability to experience peace, hope, and joy despite your fears.” (Unafraid, 34)
There is great value in the wisdom that our faith tradition offers. There is nothing new under the sun, after all. There is much to gain from the thoughtful experience of those who have gone before us. There are many bruises we can avoid if we learn from them. Faith itself is one of those things they pass on to us – trusting that the overarching flow of God is always heading toward redemption, restoration, healing, harmony, etc. Even if the circumstances we find ourselves in don’t appear so does not mean that God is not in the game. Even in the worst of situations. Perhaps especially as we walk through hell.
The good news about our brain’s capacity to be conditioned is that it can also be unconditioned. Hamilton’s hope in writing this book, and my hope in riffing on it and talking with you about it each week is that we’ll emerge with less fear, and more faith. Hamilton uses the word fear to spell out the process we’ll work through with each issue: “Face your fears with faith. Examine your assumptions in light of the facts. Attack your anxieties with action. Release your cares to God.” Hamilton admits it’s a little cheesy and does not see this as a simple task. It is a process that requires focus over time. If the end result is we live more free from fear and all the ways it binds us up, then that is very much worth the effort. Furthermore, if we can then become agents of hope over fear in a world that is currently riddled and motivated by fear – well, that’s a game changer.
Sometimes, even very good things can be terrifying:
“That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord!” – John 20:19-20 (NLT)
This experience of God breaking into our lives and bringing hope is what happens. It happened long, long ago and was referenced by a Jewish Prophet named Isaiah: “He gives beauty for ashes, strength for fear, gladness for mourning, peace for despair” (Is. 61). It is what the Apostle Paul referenced when he encouraged his protégé Timothy: God has not given you a spirit of fear, but power, love and self-control (2 Tim. 1:7). And this reality is what gave Paul hope even as he wondered whether he would live or die: to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Paul, like so many others, saw Christ, which changed everything. It still changes everything. The call of faith is, in part, to decide where to look.
Are you familiar with the Peacock Mantis Shrimp? There are some interesting things to note about this beautiful sea crustacean. Its jab is as fast as a .22 caliber round. Its punch is strong enough to break the glass of an aquarium tank. And, it’s eyes have the most receptors of any creature known on earth. At least four times as many receptors as human beings. In other words, when we are looking at a rainbow – or anything else – that shrimp has the potential to see way more than we are capable of seeing. Yet there is an unfortunate additional fact about our little friend: it has a terribly small brain. Even though it has the capacity to see more than any creature, it is unknown whether the little dude’s brain does much with it. Mainly, it spends it brainpower looking to beat to death unsuspecting prey.
We don’t have as many receptors as that shrimp, but millions who have gone before us and millions more who live today remind us that there is a way of seeing that allows us to have vision to see the divine breaking into our lives. We can see God working all around us and within us. We can live new and different lives because of that. Seeing God in this life gives us increased confidence about the next life. The question is, will we allow ourselves to see? I wonder if our brains are trained to see in limited color in the face of extraordinary beauty and life? I wonder if we have been conditioned to see only in part.
Easter was the ultimate April Fools joke on death in all its forms. Roman torture and oppression were punked. The narrow Jewish theology espoused by the leading Sadducees got pranked as many people witnessed a real afterlife. Paul, in light of the Good News of Christ, quoted the Jewish prophet Hosea who asked, “Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” So many issues confront us, arousing fear within us, including the fear of death itself. But the hope of today is this declaration: in the love and embrace of God those fears will not have the final say as they suggest. We can trust that the end of the story will be good because we know who is going to write the unfolding ending – a very good, loving God. The joke is on fear itself.
To help you train your vision to see more and more of God breaking into the world, I leave you with this chorus from an old hymn. May it stay with you as we face our fears together:
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face, and the things of this world will grow strangely dim in the Light of his Glory and Grace.”