I. A Story from Parenthood
I’ve recently fallen in love with the NBC TV-show Parenthood which follows three generations of the Braverman family. The four adult siblings raise their children with their significant others and/or their parents. In a recent episode, the oldest sibling, Adam is trying to involve his 9 year old son Max in Halloween. Max has Asperger’s, a form of autism, and it is often hard for him to maneuver social situations … but Max decides to go Trick or Treating. After some heated debate, his parents consent to this and they set about canvassing the route they will take on Halloween night so as to better prepare themselves and Max for this event. They ask neighbors to use glow sticks instead of candles in the jack-o-lanterns since candles and flames make Max scared and nervous and could cause a melt-down for him. And they decide to avoid the street with the very scary house. They also make Max practice going up to the door and saying ‘Trick or Treat,’ prompting Max to ask what to do if someone chooses Trick. Finally, Max’s parents decide it will be best (and easier to control the situation) if they go by themselves without the rest of the Braverman family.
The night of Halloween arrives along with the sudden appearance of the extended Braverman clan, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. There is nothing to do except to go along with the flow and they set off down the street. The parents all agree to follow the previously planned route and avoid the scary house, but somehow along the way they end up in front of that very house. There is smoke and scary music, dark branches, and jack-o-lanterns with live candles, and everyone pauses to look on in horror. Max’s parents try to convince him that he doesn’t need to go up to this house, but Max is determined. “The little kids can do it, I can do it!” And off Max goes. You see him walk up the windy stone stairs, confronted by the candles, the smoke, and the music. You see his parents stricken, afraid, and powerless standing on the street ready to jump to the rescue if need be, but unable to go the scary route for their son.
Suddenly, you hear Max crying out, “Dad! Dad!” Anxiously, his dad responds, “Yeah Max?” as he takes several steps forward. And Max bursts forth proclaiming that he got candy! He did it!! In the aftermath of this success, Max’s parents share a look of surprised relief. If there were a horror movie aimed at parents, it would be full of moments like this when we experience our powerlessness and inability to make the world a completely secure and safe place for them.
Halloween, in particular, gives us the opportunity to confront what it is that scares us and look our fears full in the face. Oddly enough, most of our fears run along similar lines: the fear of heights, of spiders or snakes, of clowns and monsters. Even across cultures and across the span of the world, monsters take on very similar shapes.
In a more general sense, most of us have the same worries and anxieties. We worry about bills and if we’re getting the best deal for our money. We worry about doctor’s visits and insurance coverage. We are anxious about change and big decisions. We hope we have prepared enough for retirement or a new addition to the family. In short, we worry about the uncertainty of life, the general aches and sharp pains of life, and we worry about things that we do not have the power to control.
I wonder what we as Christians in the church fear? As individuals or as on organization. Today is Halloween. It is also Reformation Day when we celebrate Martin Luther began to question how the Western branch of the church operated. Out of that reform came the understanding that Scripture is and should be available to all. As a part of the Reformed Church, we understand ourselves to be Reformed, Always Reforming. That is a pretty large source of anxiety for us.
II. What is it that we (as individuals and as the church) fear?
We fear becoming something different that is unrecognizable, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar. The trouble with this fear is that change happens whether we want it to or not. The big difference in how you feel about change is how involved you are in the process. If you close your eyes and just hold on to the person in front of you, you may be scared once you open your eyes because you won’t recognize where you are or how you got there. The church in general has had its head in the sand and so of course the cultural landscape looks different.
How can you conquer your fear of change? Choose to change. Choose to be involved and take part in the process. In that way, you have a say in how things change and when and you see things changing as you journey so you’re not startled by the end result.
Rejection or Failure
Sometimes we are afraid of new ideas or projects because we are afraid to fail or we are afraid of being rejected. This stops us from even trying sometimes! It is true; you will not fail if you do not attempt something. And you will not be rejected if you do not put yourself out there … but you also deny yourself, then, the possibility of something wonderful. Being afraid of some magnificent possibility because of a chance of failure or rejection …. That’s like saying no to dessert because there’s possibility you may not like it.
This is the shy person’s fear, and it is one I lived with for many years. I would subconsciously decide to not study well for a test because then I had a built in excuse for why I didn’t do well on the exam. The problem with that is I knew what I was capable of and I was refusing myself the possibility of reaching that potential. Taking risks can be scary … but an even scarier thing is to never try or attempt new things. “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
Similar to the fear of rejection or failure is the fear of getting hurt – or possibly of hurting others. This fear forces us into passivity and non-participation. The best, most pastoral response to this fear is to simply say, “Yes, you will get hurt. And some of your decisions and actions may hurt others.” You cannot go through life without some bumps and bruises, it is impossible. It’s not easy or fun to get hurt, and no one enjoys hurting other people, but in a world of disagreements, different opinions and values, you cannot withhold yourself from life because of this fear.
When I was in youth group we went white water rafting, and I quickly learned that if I wanted to keep my butt in the boat, I needed to paddle for all I was worth. That action of pushing against the raging water, against life itself, is what kept me in the boat and kept me together with my companions. If I held back and didn’t paddle hard, I was thrown into the river and my boat-mates were left without that extra person to balance out their work and keep them headed down river. Participation in life is required in order to have the best outcome possible.
Doing the Wrong Thing
Lastly, I think sometimes we are afraid of making the wrong decision or doing the wrong thing. But life is not just a one way street. We can make u-turns if necessary, take detours around obstacles, or work together to clear the road if need be. We may make wrong decisions, but let us be committed to acting in the world and continually striving forward.
On this Reformation Day, I think it appropriate to quote Martin Luther who said:
Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.
We will do the wrong thing. We will have good intentions and kind hearts and we will blunder and hurt people we don’t mean to. The mark of a Christian community is not being a group of righteous individuals who never make mistakes. The mark of the body of Christ is the willingness to live in God’s grace, to bear with one another mutually as we try to live towards God’s kingdom here on earth.
III. The Haunted House
Last Sunday, nine of us journeyed to the Reformatory for the Haunted Prison experience. As we stood in line waiting for our turn to be scared witless, I asked everyone to share their favorite costume and what scared them the most.
We watched as the sky got darker and we hear a few rumbles of thunder before the skies opened up and rained down on us. Shortly after that, we spent a half hour to forty-five minutes holding hands going through a drafty, dark prison with one minister in particular screaming loudly at every noise and motion.
After we left the prison and sat in the bright, fluorescent lighting of Taco Bell, someone asked the youth how they liked the haunted house. One of them, Elyse Schaeffer, said that she was glad she kept her eyes opened because “it was so much less scary than what I had imagined!”
How true that is of most fears. We tend to have fears and anxieties that are unfocused, non-specific. And if we take the time to look at what scares us, we see the cracks in the monster’s mask or we notice the absence of a chain on a chainsaw and we realize that what we see isn’t that scary after all. What we imagined to be so terrible really wasn’t that terrible – that is the nature of fear.
IV. Psalm 46 and 23
“Scripture identifies the overwhelming emotion of fear almost 1000 times with words like fear (441 times), afraid (167 times), tremble (101 times), terror or terrified (121 times), as well as dread, frighten, and, faint.”
Many of these references to fear are in the book of Psalms. The Psalms speak to the comfort of God and to the dramatic dangers of the world in terms that make us tremble. The Psalmist speaks to inspire us:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
(Psalm 46:1, NRSV)
“Stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom, courageous in seastorm and earthquake, Before the rush and roar of oceans, the tremors that shift mountains” (Psalm 46: 2-3, The Message)
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4, KJV)
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow all the days of my life”
(Psalm 23:6a, NRSV)
“I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.”
(Psalm 23:6b, The Message)