The right use of fear

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me; 
your rod and your staff -- 
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4; from Psalm 23, lectionary text for Sunday, March 22, 2020

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, 
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. 

Proverbs 9:10

Thinking much about fear this past week, particularly the relationship between fear and faith.  I’m not the only one.   The Washington Post reports that in a certain Bible app, ‘searches for “fear” went up by 167 percent last week, and “fear not” by 299 percent.’*   

Institutions throughout my area — including the university where I teach — closed and moved work online.  Churches closed too.  More accurately, church buildings closed.  ‘Church’ remained open, with the community’s worship and prayer and study moved online.  News stories and social media feeds started covering this aspect of the coronavirus as a distinct thread within the larger tapestry of the new social pattern COVID is creating.  Of the various slants relative to the closing of churches, one that continued to recur was the tension claimed between fear and faith.  Most negatively, the relationship between fear and faith was presented as an intrinsic opposition, so that failure to gather physically for worship was failure of faith in God, elevating the power of the virus over the power of God.  In a more benign form, fear was admitted as natural, a human condition that we could offer to the LORD in trust of God’s comfort and cure.

‘Fear not,’ God repeatedly instructs, from Genesis (15:1) through Revelation (1:17).   ‘I will fear no evil,’ the psalmist sings, in laud and thanks of the LORD’s presence and comfort.   

But:  ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.’  The proverb offers fear in parallel with knowledge, not as something to be avoided. 

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.

Fear may be irresponsible or destructive — panic that destabilizes and debilitates individuals and communities.  Yet I wonder whether our fear of fear, so rooted in our national ethos (‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ FDR famously said) is depriving us of an important learning about ourselves as creatures and our place in creation.  Fear reminds us that we are not in control.  The Bible reminds us that we were never meant to be in control.  Made in the image and likeness of God, yes; given ‘dominion’ over creation, yes.   Just ‘a little lower than God,’ yes.  But ‘like’ and ‘lower than’ God.  Not God.  We were never meant to be God.  Fear reminds us that we are limited. Fear may allow us to recognize and admit, again as if for the first time, the power that is outside of us, the power that is other, the power that is beyond.

Perhaps this is the value in the practice of fear.   Perhaps this is the lesson of a time such as this.  The scope of the risk is unknown, at this point unknowable.  We are required to acknowledge our ignorance and to admit our finitude.  Even — effectively — forced to admit the fear that is the shadow side of so much of our bright life, the worry both quotidian and ultimate that we hide under the thrum of busy-ness, the hectic pace of work or play, the anxiety that comes out only sometimes, in the wee hours of the night when the surrounding dark seems vast and terrible.  Daybreak comes, we push the night terrors down and away, and we spend the hours of light — again — acting as if we are in control, which pretense has as its implicit corollary, that we are God, or at least that we know God already so perfectly as to be able anticipate and respond to every circumstance.

The current pandemic proves the power of this virus.  Fear of it is not faithlessness.  Fear may be, instead, the beginning of the beginning of wisdom.  As we acknowledge the fear of what is finite, as learn to revise our own actions in response to its power — a power as impersonal as a wave — we may begin to realize how to practice the fear of what is ultimate and infinite.  Of Who is ultimate and infinite.

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.  It has the potential to teach. As we learn, may we be drawn further on and in to deeper and dearer relationship with God.

‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight’

*The Washington Post, ‘Worship goes virtual in age of social distancing,’ print 3/21/20

Night Hearts

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.  For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 35:4-7; excerpt from text for Sunday December 15, 2019, Isaiah 35:1-10

The sound blares, breaking the night.  The dark that had come as a comforting unity as soon as I turned off the lamp is split into bits.  I find myself standing beside my bed, phone in my hand, bare feet somehow colder than the bare floor, with no conscious recollection of how I went to vertical from prone.  It is not good news.  It never has been, these calls that come in the dark.  This time, at least, I am being told, not summoned.  I can return to my bed, which is still warm.  I can pull the covers over.  I can fall back asleep.  Except, of course, I cannot do the last.  Not immediately.  I am still too aware of my heart’s pounding.

‘Say to those of fearful heart,’ the prophet addresses the people.  The opening imperative is plural, ‘You, all of you, say …. ’  The once-removed addressees are plural as well:  all of those whose heart is hastening.  Those who need the word are multiple, yet they are one in the characterization of their shared heart.  It is not in the Hebrew, ‘fearful’:  the word used to describe the heart is different than the verb in the command not to fear.  Their heart is ’hasty,’ ‘swift,’ ‘rash,’ or ‘impetuous.’  (The alternate glosses come from other verses where the same verb is used.).  Their heart is racing.  Whether the news come is unexpected or long-dreaded or still only anticipated, not yet here, they find themselves standing in the cold dark, heart pounding, with no clear recollection of how they got there nor a clear vision of what comes next.  

The prophet gives them the latter, at least.  The prophet promises their God coming with ‘terrible recompense’ to save.  Rather, the prophet commands the people (‘You, all of you, say’) to say the word of saving.  Not just to save generically, generally, but to ‘save you.’  You plural.  You whose heart is racing in apprehension, in reaction, in fear.  Be strong.  Do not fear.  The prophet foretells sight and hearing, leaping with the height and grace of a deer, songs exultant rising to the sky.  The promise is wonderfully, deeply embodied — this salvation is not something away from this world but something that transforms our experience of this world, something that transforms the world itself.  The desert springs with water.  Burning sand becomes a pool.  Human and earthly reviving are woven in together, as if each — both — are necessary parts of the exact same whole.

The transformation has not come.  Not yet.  Nor does the prophet say that it has.  Eyes shall be opened; ears shall be unstopped.  Shall be so — surely so — just not yet.  But even to say it coming marks a change.  The prophet previously heard from the LORD regarding the people’s heart and eyes and ears:  the heart made fat, or dull, the eyes shut, the ears stopped (Isa 6:10).  Some 30 chapters on, that period of incapacity is coming to a close.  This heart is not dull, insensitive, unable to respond.  This heart pounds, races, in reaction to what has come.  The people are becoming again awake.  Awake again to know their need.  Awake again to given a word of renewal of sight and hearing and dancing and song, the desert itself rejoicing and the dry land made glad.  All creation redeemed by its creator.  Be strong.  Do not fear.

I don’t live in a desert.  And, in truth, the awareness of my own heart’s racing is (again) too new for a word of comfort to be heard, for the promise of saving to feel near.  But it matters, yet, to know that the word is said, that God’s purpose has turned from one phase to the next.  As if I and others might — in time — be turned with it.

I walk on the paved path by the creek.  Sometimes, the water seems glass-still.  But the water cannot be still.  This is a creek, not a pool.  Sligo flows to join the Northwest Branch, and together they run into the Anacostia which flows into the Potomac which joins the Chesapeake which itself flows into the ocean.  I look, and I see glass rather than motion.  But the water cannot be still.  There must be motion because this is a creek.  I have to stop walking to see it.  I have to stop walking and look a long while at the water’s glassy brown color and the leaves floating atop it.  Only when I myself have stopped walking and have looked and have fixed my sight on the leaves, then I begin to be able to see:  the leaves are moving; I can measure their subtle progress against the bank.  But I had to look long to realize it was happening all along. The word of the LORD is told in the motion of the water.

Yes, my heart is pounding.  Yours is racing too, for whatever night noise brought you awake, for whatever dread outcome has occurred in actuality or expectation.  It is awful.  And it is not the end.  It begins the summons of the LORD — God speaking to all of us, for none among the people (not even the prophet) have not known that fear, that grief, that ache.  So all of us are called by God to strengthen the weak hands, firm the feeble knees, and share the news with all of us — each other — we whose hearts race and flutter and pound in our chests:  Be strong, do not fear.  The LORD our God is coming to save.  The movement is subtle but it is sure.  You do not need to sing, not yet.  But know that — soon — creation itself shall sing for and with you.