Saturday, February 2, 2013

Baptizing Fear

In 1 Peter 3:13-22, I find something that can give great comfort to those who face uncertainty and fear. 
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.... For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you―not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. (1 Peter 3:13-22) 

In these verses, we have the unforgettable line, “You are blessed. Do not fear what they fear.” The passage appears to be about happy endings. And, isn’t that nice? The Bible is so full of what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror,”5 those horribly hard-to-explain passages about people getting torn apart, as in Judges 19. There are also countless paradoxical sayings, so it is nice to have these verses in 1 Peter in which we find a pleasant, happy ending: “You are blessed . . . everything will be okay―God will sort it out.” 

There is the end-times ring to the whole thing. Later in the passage, we hear the words “Christ also suffered for sins once for all.” It’s great not to need to be afraid anymore. Who wants to be afraid? I don’t think anyone truly likes to be afraid. There are those of us who enjoy a good, scary movie. The actors lull us into a false sense of security with a beautiful day, pleasant music, a seemingly idyllic scene; but, as we watch, we notice there is something not quite right. We watch the main character blunder into danger. The idyllic day has turned to a dark night with strange noises―Was that someone’s footsteps or the family dog? Was the movement the wind in the trees or the lunatic who just escaped from an asylum? We watch the main character fumble with her keys just as we become aware that the movement in the shadow is, in fact, the murderous madman! Collectively we want to scream, “TURN ON THE LIGHT BEFORE ENTERING THE ROOM!” When the film ends and the lights come on in the theater, we can breathe a sigh of relief. It was a thrill ride, but were we really afraid? 

What does it mean to be afraid? Of course, I don’t mean us. We are not afraid. No one wants to admit to having any fears, so we can agree that we, in this room, are never afraid, but for the sake of argument, let’s talk about other people, those who do experience fear. What does it mean for them to be afraid? Fear is a distressing emotion at any age. We, as human beings, change over time. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” My children’s fears are different from my own. Oops, I just admitted to being afraid. Let us forget that little faux pas. 

For one of my sons, shapes in the darkness sometimes take on strange new lives and scare the daylights out of him; a coat hanging on the back of a door can become a monster. I remember having those kinds of fears as a child. I also remember the strange new world of discovery during adolescence. Everything seemed to be about confidence and other people’s opinions, and when a teenager’s imagination starts going on about things that are unknown, the teenage fears and emotions can spiral out of control. 

Gradually fears start to become more complex: How will I score on the exam? Will I get accepted where I want to go? Will I get a good job after school? Will I get any job in this economy? How long will this bad economy last? Or, the fears can be personal, very personal―Does he love me (or care about me at all)? Is she cheating on me? Did I give her a reason to? Life can be incredibly frightening! There are sources for anxiety all around us. 

After university, fears shift a little, as they did from childhood to adolescence, but they do not go away. Grown-ups fear for our jobs, especially these days. We continue to be insecure and worry about our relationships and our children. That never changes. When a violent crime occurred at our next-door-neighbor’s house, I sat awake night after night, wondering in the darkness if the intruder would come back. I remember once my octogenarian grandmother was concerned, maybe not afraid, but concerned about my then upper-middle-aged parents’ safety while they were traveling. 

Fear is a part of life, one that will never leave. Fortunately, we are not afraid all the time. Or, most of us are not afraid most of the time; experiencing fear all the time or a lot of the time is a sign of some serious trouble, and I would recommend talking with someone about such constant fear. But what can we do with this fear, this normal fear that everyone experiences, especially in the face of a passage from the Bible that says, “You are blessed. Do not fear what they fear”? As Christians, we are told to trust in God, but it is difficult to trust in something we cannot see when the things we do see betray us and seem to falter so easily. I propose that we baptize our fear. 

I propose that we allow God to be a part of whatever we are afraid of. It is easy to stand in the safety of this beautiful room, with the stone archways and amazing choir, and suggest a cliché like “Let go and let God.” This old platitude means Don’t worry or be afraid because God is in control. That kind of advice is fine for cliché problems, but the things we are afraid of are real. They are our fears, and they are personal to us, so the stock answers quickly become stretched and do not offer any real comfort. 

Baptizing our fear means allowing God to enter into our fear with us. It means believing that God has been afraid too. Recall verse 19, “He [Jesus] went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” However one wants to interpret it, the verse sounds like Jesus, who was God in human form, faced something scary. If we step out of 1 Peter 3 for a moment and into the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus quite afraid in Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion (Mark 14). 

Baptizing our fear is not a simple solution to our complex problems. It is not a formula. It is the realization that God has been afraid too. It is praying for a traveling relative and trusting God will be with him ore her on the journey. It is making God part of our relationships, whether these are with a boyfriend or girlfriend, wife or husband, friends or family. It is inviting God into the dark room and asking God to be part of the darkness with me. 

Baptizing our fears is the realization that God can enter our fears with us, and when whatever was causing us fear has passed, God will celebrate with us. It is communion with the Lord, even in our fear. Amen.

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