Be Not Afraid
- An excerpt from “The Sonnets To Orpheus” by Rainer Maria Rilke
- Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21
- Lyrics to Tracy Chapman’s song “Be And Be Not Afraid”
The character of God said it to the reluctant Hebrew prophets who were always charged with speaking truth to power. “Be not afraid.”
Jesus said it to his followers, most of whom were rightfully terrified of the looming violence of the Roman Empire. “Be not afraid.”
The angels said it to Mary who was poor, unmarried and informed—by angels—that she was going to give birth to—and then raise—the messiah. “Be not afraid.”
They were all terrified with good reason. And they were all told, “Be not afraid.”
Our fears serve a great purpose. We sense a threat. Adrenaline rushes through our body, bringing blood to muscles. We can physically respond with speed and strength.
Our primitive instincts protect us by saying, “Be afraid! Be very afraid!”
Religious paths can help us cope when we are afraid. Some lead us toward making justice in the here and now while others help us cope by cultivating the inner life, believing that through contemplative practices the spirit is strengthened to face anything that happens in the material world. There is really only one human fear: the fear that we will be unable to cope.
There was a story I heard last month about a woman whose husband lost his job just a month before Christmas. She spoke through tears describing how different Christmas would be for her family this year. A couple days ago, she was interviewed again. She said that things are getting more urgent at home—bills are piling up and there is no sign of her husband finding a job right away, but when she was asked about Christmas she said that her family’s holiday was really good. They learned—the often talked about lesson—that the holiday is not about the many expensive gifts that they usually have. In the first interview you could hear that she was afraid of not being able to cope with her new reality. In the second interview, she sounded like she had somehow found a new way.
It sounded to me that she was like so many of us. Her spiritual stability had come to depend on the permanence of impermanent things. Her material world was shaken and in the midst of the confusion, there was somehow some acceptance and peace. Perhaps she was fortunate enough to hear the ‘still, small voice’ and follow it toward renewal.
There is a passionate curiosity right now about Roosevelt’s presidency and how he led people through crisis. As we know, Roosevelt said during the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But what we may not hear in his famous sound bites is that he also said, “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”
We must be rigorous in our vision to see the dark reality for what it is—there is suffering among us and in the lives of our neighbors around the world, especially for those who were already vulnerable when this downturn started. And it is scary. There is a lot that we cannot control, but we can aspire to respond to this fear in a way that is creative and life-affirming.
After 9/11 we were afraid and rightfully so. Our fear was an incredibly powerful force that could have been used to justify reaching out to each other and to our neighbors around the world in innovative ways. Instead the powerful force of our fear was used to justify pre-emptive war. This time, our fear can be a force for awakening, not for violence.
This is where my religious life is so important to me. It keeps reminding me that there is another way beyond the knee jerk reactions and hiding in the bunker. Living a religious life means continuing to turn toward that still, small voice.
Let your presence ring out like a bell into the night. If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine. And if the earthly no longer knows your name, whisper to the silent earth: I'm flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
My grandmother once told me that this was something she liked about the Great Depression years. People could not afford to go out for entertainment and sometimes they didn’t even have work, so they were guests in each other’s homes—sharing stories and conversation. Because there was less work to be had, there was more time for hospitality with friends, neighbors and family.
The lessons of the Great Depression stayed with my grandmother throughout her life. My family has been in St. Louis for many generations and when I moved away I would call my grandmother regularly. She was always terribly uncomfortable with our calls. Not because she didn’t want to talk with me but because it was a long distance call. It didn’t matter how many times I described to her what an unlimited long distance calling plan was, she couldn’t stand that it was costing too much money for me to make a long distance call. For years, I’d call her anyway and talk as long as I could before she would inevitably say, “Well, that’s all I have Susan. We should really get off the phone now.”
But I didn’t know anything about her saving and sacrificing as I was growing up. I came to learn that she and my grandfather had nothing when they married in 1942. He went into the Navy and when he returned they started a business. He poured his life into that food distributorship and my grandmother poured her life into raising four children. They saved everything they could and their greatest sense of accomplishment was that they paid for all four of their children to go through Catholic schools.
They weren’t rich by most definitions of the word, but as a child I knew we had a safety net in my grandparents—whether is was helping us get settled in a new town or just to pay for my summer camp. I grew up knowing that we were loved and that my grandparents wanted us to thrive and to not live from scarcity. My grandfather legacy to us all was his saying, “Do what you love and the money will come.”
They didn’t talk about how hard it was to save and sacrifice year after year. They made it look easy, but I was reminded of how intentional they had to be when my grandmother died six years ago. We were all emptying out her basement. We found a box. It was full of little strings. The box was neatly labeled: Strings Too Short To Use.
We are all living in the wake of that generation’s sacrifice and hard work and we have the opportunity to be such a generation, but we are not going to get there by the ways we have been living.
For too long we have comfortably lived in an economy that is not healthy—one that encourages people to spend far more than they have, encourages people to pull from the planet far more resources than the earth has to give, encourages us toward a society that does not care for the most vulnerable among us.
Whether we like it or not, we are living in a turning point. We can continue living in an economy of short cuts, exploiting the vulnerable people and the vulnerable earth. Or we can turn. We can turn toward building a new world—one that is truly sustainable, one that calls for each of us to sacrifice for the well being of all. If we don’t all get there together, ain’t none of us goin’ home.
My grandmother felt that during the Depression there was strong connection to one another. And this is, indeed, a lesson we have to learn. We are such a transient people, often living without the benefit of a cultural heritage or religious traditions that can teach us how to live through disorienting experiences. Some people don’t have a sense of self any larger than their job description. Without multi-generational family, without a history to revere, without role models, without a sustaining faith then our fears can destroy us. When we can trust in something larger than ‘self’, then we can afford to be courageous. We might not know all the answers but we can trust that others have walked this way before and they are watching, holding, loving.
In the words of Janet Morley:
and you held me and there were no words
and there was no time and you held me
and there was only wanting and
being held and being filled with wanting
and I was nothing but letting go
and being held
and there were no words and there
needed to be no words
and there was no terror only stillness
and I was wanting nothing and
it was fullness and it was like aching for God
and it was tough and warmth and
darkness and no time and no words and we flowed and I flowed and I was not empty
and I was given up to the dark and
in the darkness I was not lost
and the waiting was like fullness and I could
hardly hold it and I was held and
you were dark and warm and without time and
without words and you held me
Visiting yet another cheery time in history, we go to the black plague! During the years of the black plague and peasant revolts the predominant theology of the time was one that said: ‘those people who are suffering and dying are being punished by God for their sins’.
Julian of Norwich told a different story. As a hermit and a mystic, she saw visions and people listened. She said that God was both male and female, that God’s message was one of pure love for all and that God’s language to send such a message was the language of love. She knew full well the challenges people faced and yet she dared to say: All shall be well.
None of us know how this will play out—on a global scale, in our country and in our individual family’s life. We don’t yet know if all shall be well. But we do know that we have the opportunity to do more than stand on the sidelines watching our bottom line. We have been given the gift—whether we want it or not—to live in times when we are charged with nothing less than to recreate the world.
What we can know is that we are living in a special moment in history, but we are not alone. Every couple generations, the cycle turns. This is a turning point. This is our turning point. Let us be counted among those who stand and turn.
So be it.
Come into the spirit of meditation and prayer.
Imagine…you are afraid and in the same breath, you are safe.
In your darkest valley of fear…
Be and be not afraid to reach for your loved ones—the living and the dead.
Be and be not afraid to reach for god—creating, sustaining, redeeming.
Be not afraid to reach for sacred stories that show us the way—the histories, the mythologies, the poems and the songs.
Be and be not afraid to reach—for the still, small voice, whispering within all.