Sunday, June 24, 2012

Stilling Fear

Stilling Fear
Mk. 4:35-41[1]
I think it’s safe to say that most of us have some experience with fear.  We all have some kind of situation or thought that can instill a feeling of fear in us.  As for me, I have a mild fear of heights.  When I was a Seminary student, one of my jobs as a part-time security guard was to check two towers—each about 30 to 40 stories tall.  And a tower check started by going up on the roof and making sure it was secure!  I’m also a bit uncomfortable around snakes.  I guess that puts me in company with Indiana Jones!  And, as I have mentioned before, I have some mild anxiety being alone in a dark place. 
These are fairly common kinds of fears.  Many of us have other fears in common.  Some of us fear the future because of all the changes that have happened or are happening in our lives.  Some of us fear losing our health, and being dependent on others to take care of us.  Some of us fear being unable to support ourselves financially.  Especially in these troubled economic times.  Some of us fear losing a loved one, and the loneliness that would entail for us.  And some of us fear the ultimate unknown, death.
In our Gospel lesson for today, I’m somewhat intrigued that Jesus asked the question, “Why are you afraid?”  Some of his disciples were seasoned fishermen, who knew the Sea of Galilee well and the dangers of a storm.  Despite their best efforts at keeping the boat afloat, it was beginning to sink!  We don’t know how far they were from land, but in Mark’s version of the story, swimming for shore apparently wasn’t an option.  Even the experienced fishermen knew that their chances of surviving in open water under those conditions were not good.
So Jesus’ question strikes me.  It makes me think that perhaps he wasn’t just asking the obvious question.  In the follow-up, he asks, “Have you still no faith?”  It seems to me that the question Jesus is really asking is about their faith.  One of the main themes throughout the Gospels is that, despite all that they witnessed Jesus do and say, despite all that they discovered him to be, over and over his disciples lacked faith.[2]  It strikes me as ironic that the very ones who were closest to him struggled just like everybody else to trust in him when they were confronted with something that they didn’t understand, or that instilled fear in them.  Over and over, they seemed all too willing to abandon their faith.
I think the questions Jesus asked of his disciples are worth asking of ourselves.  Why are we afraid?  Again, I don’t think that necessarily applies to the obvious situations of our lives.  There are some things that are simply frightening, and it is only human for us to respond to them with fear.  But it’s one thing for us to feel fear, and it’s another thing for us to live in fear.  Too often, we don’t just feel fear, we turn it into something that occupies our whole lives.[3]  We don’t just feel fear, we let it move in and take up residence.  We don’t just experience fear, we turn it into a giant, category-five storm that sends us running for cover and cowering in bunkers. 
Part of the problem with fear is what it does to us when we give it that much power over our lives.  We cling to whatever it is we fear losing—we hold on for dear life!  What we desperately fear to lose, we will sometimes do anything to keep.  In the process we try to control what we cannot control, we try to cling to what we cannot hold, and we can become incredibly selfish, childish, and even angry and bitter when things don’t go the way we hoped they would.[4] I think Jesus’ question addresses our tendency to obsess about the things we fear to the extent that fear controls our lives.  It addresses the problem of what fear does to us when we give it that much power over us.
But I think his other question can help us here as well.  Have we still no faith?  I don’t think this applies to the content of what we believe so much as our ability to hold onto a basic trust in God no matter what.  We say we believe God is a God of love, and that God loves us unconditionally.  But the real challenge is to entrust ourselves, our loved ones, our hopes and dreams, our very lives into the care of this loving God—especially when we’re afraid.[5]  The only way to do this is to let go whatever it is we’re afraid to lose—whether our health, our financial security, our relationships, our even our very life.  If the essence of fear is trying to control, the essence of faith is letting go.[6]  When we can do that—when we can let go, we find peace, and contentment, and even joy taking the place of fear—regardless of our circumstances.[7]  I’m not going to pretend that this is easy, because it’s not.  The challenge is to look beneath the fear and see the sustaining hand of the God of grace and mercy, even when life’s twists and turns are so frightening.  That’s something that we have to do day by day, hour by hour, sometimes even moment by moment.
Faith is not a magic charm that somehow protects us from loss or hardship or catastrophe.[8]  Faith is basic trust—trust in the God who says, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).[9]  That doesn’t mean that bad things will never happen to us.  What it means is that when they do, our faith keeps us from going under—or perhaps we should say, the one in whom we place our faith keeps us from going under!  When the fears of life come our way, if we can simply let them be, let go of whatever it is we’re clinging to, and turn our attention away from our fear to the one to whom we have entrusted our lives, we find that even a giant storm can be stilled.  Our faith can still our fears and enable us to live our lives with joy and contentment

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/24/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] See Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 267-68.  Cf. William F. McInerny, “An Unresolved Question In The Gospel Called Mark:  ‘Who Is This Whom Even Wind And Sea Obey?’ (4:41),” Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (Fall, 1996): 259.
[3] Cf. Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap, 17.  She says, “self-absorption, this trying to find zones of safety, creates terrible suffering.  It weakens us, the world becomes terrifying, and our thoughts and emotions become more threatening as well.”
[4] Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, 102: “So long as man makes idols out of his life’s environment, then his certainty of life is surrounded by anxiety. That makes him malicious toward others.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:233-242.  He says (p. 236), “The distinctive feature of the New Testament faith in miracles is that it was faith in Jesus and therefore in God as the faithful and merciful God of the covenant with Israel; and that in this way and as such it was this confidence in His power.”  Cf. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 102, where he suggests we might paraphrase Jesus’ question:  “Why are you afraid? Do you not yet trust God, whose rule is present in me?”
[6] Cf. Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, 14, where she emphasizes that we can respond to fear in this way by taking it as “a message that it is time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.”
[7] See Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, 52.  He says that not clinging to and not rejecting our feelings but letting go is a way to not only learn about ourselves but also helps us discover the peace and happiness available in the present moment. 
[8] In fact, the reason Mark was writing his gospel was to assure Christians of his day that God was with them in their sufferings.  See Pheme Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:581; Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 269. Cf. also Jim Callaghan, “Weatherproof,” The Christian Century (June 7, 2000):643; and Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:733, where he argues that Mark uses this story to remind the early church that Jesus is “the sure basis of their existence as his people.”
[9] The author to the Hebrews is adapting the Greek translation of Deut. 31:6,8 here.

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