Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fear Not!

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” -- Matthew 28:1-6

I can’t imagine a more absurd thing for the angel to say than “Fear not.” Don’t be afraid? Are you kidding? There was an earthquake and an angel with an appearance like lightning rolling away the stone. It’s scary enough the guards -- those big strong military men -- have fainted dead away. And this angel’s first words are “Do not be afraid!” Yeah, right. Did he think the women would just go, ”Oh, all right, then“?

As this Lenten journey draws to a close, though, I find myself pondering the angel’s words. This is a season of repentance -- a word meaning, “turning away” the the sense of turning away from our sins and back towards God. And as I listen to the news, I wonder if maybe what we most need to turn away from is fear.

I’ve had this thought before. A year ago, when the airwaves were filled with reports of lead paint in toys and toxins in baby bottles, politicians predicting more acts of terrorism (unless you elected them, of course), and school notices carefully explaining what steps would be taken if a gunman walked through the front doors, I was struck by the sheer number of things we seemed to fear. And that was before our retirement accounts and job security vanished in a puff of Wall Street smoke.

What’s wrong with being afraid? We certainly have plenty of reason to be. But then, so did the shepherds and the women at the tomb. And yet... Fear Not!

I am coming to believe that fear may not be only the most visible evidence of our human sinfulness, but possibly also the root of that sinfulness, as well. When Adam and Eve transgress by eating the forbidden fruit, their reaction is to hide from God when he comes to walk in the Garden. Where are you? God asks, and Adam and Even answer, “We were afraid.”

Isn’t it fear that drives us to lay up our treasure in storehouses where the moths and rust will consume it? Isn’t it fear that holds us back from relationships with the most vulnerable among us: the sick, the mentally ill, the poor, the “different”? When I examine my own heart, and repent of my sins, I find fear at the root of so very many of them -- fear that I will be seen as unworthy of my calling, fear that I will not be loved.

Repentance, then, should free us from fear. John Howard Yoder writes that Christian social service agencies can often undertake efforts public service agencies wouldn’t dare to try because “they can afford the risk of failure.” Why? Because the success or failure of those efforts is not where our hope lies.

Our hope is in that tomb with the stone rolled away -- that empty tomb. “Fear not!” the angel tells the women -- the tomb is empty. Your hope is no longer ended with death. The most terrible thing possible has happened -- and it wasn’t the end of everything. “He is not here; he has been raised.”

What would it be like to live without fear? If we really, truly believed that our hope was never in our 401k, or our jobs, or our houses, anyway? What if we could respond to the angel’s call, and fear not?

We never seem able to do it, and maybe that’s because fear really is the original sin that entered the world with the Fall. In this season of repentance, though, we are reminded that it is not our own ability that lifts us out of sin, but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We are invited to place the cross and the empty tomb as a beacon of hope against our fear, and turn away from fear towards God, trusting in God’s grace to lift us up where we cannot lift ourselves. “Fear not!” says the angel. And even in the midst of war and economic meltdown, we can trust that advice.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


It’s official. I’ve finished my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. I know it’s official because I have two thick final evaluations, one written by me and one written by my supervisor, signed and in a folder that will soon be carefully placed in a file, removed only to photocopy (probably a hundred times) to turn in with all the paperwork I need for school, for my application for candidacy, and probably for all the other applications I will prepare in the next two years. And then it will stay there, probably never removed again, for years and years and years, because it is too hard-earned to simply throw out.

Really, though, I’ve been done for almost a month. My group gathered for the last time on Feb. 12, and I made my last clinical rounds on Feb. 13. I returned to a life where I was *only* juggling four classes, church, and my family -- and I was right, after three weeks of four classes, family, church, and nearly 30 hours a week of CPE related stuff, it feels like vacation.

Or maybe more precisely, like sabbath. Because I’ve been a little slow to start diving back in, reluctant to take on new tasks. I’ve been keeping my head down, not raising my hand to volunteer to preach, or teach, or even to take the first presentation slot in class. I’ve kind of been hoping that no one will notice I’m home more often. I thought about things I could do at church, but didn’t act on any of them. I considered signing up for the Spring Learning Event in the diocese, about inviting friends for dinner, about going to the YMCA. But in the end, I stayed home. I left whole days filled with nothing on the schedule. When it snowed, I slept in, re-upholstered my dining chairs, sewed Becky a dress for her doll. I skipped church and went skiing. I played Rock Band with my husband, and watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I set up a profile on Facebook.

I hadn’t planned to slow down. There are so many things I need to do! But after the intensity of CPE and the lack of time that accompanied that last six months, I realized that one of those things was to take some time to breath, to play, to just be around people I care about. And that’s the wisdom of sabbath.

The to-do list never gets shorter. There are always more tasks to do than we can get to, more people to care for than we have hours in the day. Somehow, pray, play, breath never find their way into the top spots. Sabbath invites us to reserve some time where they do -- and even God knew that after a busy week of work, it’s important to take time to play.

After my sabbath time, I’m holding things more lightly. There are papers to write, and I’m feeling more eager to engage with them. I’m beginning to organize, to take pleasure in checking things off the to do list. The books on my desk beckon, rather than chastise. The work awaiting me feels inviting, challenging, new.

That’s what sabbath is for. For strength and renewal, for the rest that allows us to gather up the threads of our lives afresh and anew, more fully present than we were before. God commands it because he knows we won’t do it on our own -- but it isn’t a burden, it’s a promise. We can take time to rest and blame it on God. Thank you, God.

Claiming my sabbath time means some task will go unfinished. But some task will go unfinished anyway. They always do. I needed the rest, the time to play. Now it is time to begin the work again. And I’m ready -- until it’s time once again for sabbath rest.