Scripture: Psalm 27
When I was little, I was afraid of a lot of things: being separated from my mom in the supermarket, getting in a car wreck, breaking a bone, losing teeth, the dark, spiders– things that I heard on TV or saw on the covers of cheap tabloids in the grocery aisle would stick in my brain until I was sure they’d happen to me too. Once, when I was too scared to sleep in my own bed, I wound up sleeping on the couch and my mom came in and said something that I will never forget:, “How are you ever going to live if you’re so afraid all the time?”
Flash forward: I had just turned 19 and, having just finished my first undergraduate semester at Oberlin College, was visiting the ecumenical monastery at Taize in southern France on a winter term trip. My first semester of college had been hard: living away from home, getting used to a roommate, a high school relationship breaking up, and right before Christmas, my grandfather, to whom I’m extremely close, had a stroke that ended my grandparents’ independent living. To be honest, I was terrified about being out of the country for the month of January. You might have heard the term “FOMO”, “fear of missing out”? Yeah, that was me. FOMO big time, but for huge scary reasons like fear of losing my grandfather. It felt like all of my life was converging in a huge, hot wave of worry and fear, and I was losing control. I was forgetting who I was and Whose I was. I remembered what First Timothy 1:7 says, “For God has not given us a heart of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” But in my heart, it just didn’t feel true.
So there I was, on my knees in front of a small carved wooden cross, my forehead bowed to the ground, weeping. I wept out of fear, out of worry, out of terror that I didn’t know what was happening in my life, where I was going, if my family would be ok, if my grandpa was going to live. I was praying as I’ve never prayed before.
Suddenly, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. I heard beneath my sobs a whisper of “It’s going to be alright. You’re going to be alright.” I felt held, felt cradled in the arms of the Holy. I reached next to me and grasped a Bible, and did one of those “open-it-to-any-page-and-maybe-it-will-speak-to-me” things. In fact, I turned to Psalm 27, our text for today.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
I’ve held these words close to me for six years, through college and graduation and moving to Nashville and beginning graduate school this past fall. These words continually help me contextualize my fear.
There is a lot of fear in the world, not just my own. As individuals, we might list: spiders, small spaces, snakes, heights, airplanes, the dark. As a western, United States American culture we might list: people who are different from us, terrorism, people who don’t speak our language, nuclear war, losing our material possessions, just to name a few. We have plenty of tangible fears like these, but also existential fears: as a Christian, one of mine has always been: “How do I know I’m really saved? Am I saved ‘enough’?”
What do we do with all this fear?
I believe that fear is often paired with a longing for something…when afraid of heights, we long for groundedness and stability. When afraid of terrorism, we long for security and safety. When afraid of the dark, we long for clarity and enlightenment. When I was afraid of missing out on important moments in my family’s life or losing my grandfather, I longed to be close to my family, geographically and emotionally.
Similarly, Psalm 27 is thought to be written out of the Israelites’ fear and pain when they were held captive in Babylon, away from their homeland and their god. Articulating this fear, the psalm writer describes the longing Israelites felt for their temple. Before the exile, the people of Israel understood their god as being a local deity, residing in the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel had not yet written about his vision of God sitting on the wheeled throne that symbolized God’s mobility, and thus God’s presence everywhere, even with the exiles in a different land. The Israelite exile community wished and hoped and prayed to be with their god in the temple: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple…I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.”
Psalm 27 combines two psalm genres: psalms of trust and psalms of petition. And you can really hear that pairing of fear and longing, petitions and trust here: “Though an army encamp against me” –and, reading this, we must imagine that this community has indeed experienced this personally, or at least in recent historical memory– “my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” Wow. What a deep confidence in their God. Reading this in the monastery chapel, I let myself dwell in the comfort of people who lived two and a half thousand years before me.
Let’s return to my mother’s question: “How are you going to live if you’re afraid all the time?” And I still don’t know the answer to that question. My problem is that the world is scary. Climate change, extreme weather events, natural disasters, domestic and global terrorism, systemic violence, hatred and bigotry and internalized oppression, and even loving people, all make for a really, really scary world sometimes. And fear seems to be an appropriate response to some of the events we read about in the news, and some we experience firsthand. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, that “The real problem has far less to do with what is really out there than it does with our resistance to finding out what is really out there.” Sometimes we don’t even want to think about maybe possibly venturing outside our comfort zones to find out what the truth is about this fear–what are our deepest longings trying to tell us, hiding behind our fear? Is it our longing for security, connection, consistency? Do we have a choice of what to do next when facing our fears–do we run away and hide, putting up our walls and forgetting the interwoven community of creation of which we are all a member? Or do we lean into it, embrace it, learn the shape of the fear, befriend it and try to transform it?
Frederick Buechner simply writes, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” But I say, yes! the world is beautiful and terrible, but–it’s ok to feel afraid. But we must not let it define us. It’s what we do with the fear that matters. I don’t think we honestly acknowledge fear enough; often when hearing someone describe their fears, we can so easily brush them off with a “Well, it’ll be ok. It’ll all turn out in the end. Don’t worry so much.” Or we can judge people with different ideologies from our own who pay attention to their fear such that it multiplies and inspires terror in others, while not examining our own fears in turn.
So whether our fears include not being able to pay our rent, getting bad grades, leaving our homeland, losing our parents, or experiencing prejudice because of our race, gender identity, sexuality, class or citizenship status–know that each of these fears are legitimate. But also think about what happens if we were to let our fears stop us from truly living? Or let our fears stop others from truly living? We must not lean away from embracing the God who hears our cries aloud; who calls our name; who invites us into the holy tent of community; who sets us high upon a rock, sure and strong; who holds us as we weep and walks alongside us in solidarity with our pain and anxiety and depression and terror–we can’t let our fears stifle our heart’s deepest call to living and loving.
The end of this psalm carries one of the most beautiful promises I’ve read in scripture, and, incidentally, these words have been turned into two Taize chants: “I am sure that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
And, before I finish, just a word about waiting: waiting in the Bible is always active. Remember Mary’s waiting before Jesus’ was born, or any of the other mothers who had to overcome huge obstacles before they conceived children (Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, Rachel and more) who became significant parts of God’s promise for the Israelites. The waiting was always anticipation of God’s handiwork, and in fact, God was already working in their lives, active and creative, and most of all, was present with them. Sometimes when we are engulfed in fear it is hard to wait for it to end, hard to see out of that deep, dark hole.
Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that
“…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
It starts with waiting. So as we wait to feel God’s presence in the land of the living, be assured of God’s presence, and how God has already prepared you for your life—not to live without fear, but to continue living into it. Again, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor:
“When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there – not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene – promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall.”
God has given us no heart of fear, but a heart to live in spite of, because of, in and with and through our fear.
No heart of fear can get in the way of the good that God is creating in our lives.
No heart of fear can cause God to leave our side.
No heart of fear can convince us that we are not worthy of God’s love–that truth is too powerful and vast.
No heart of fear can separate us from the love of God.
(This sermon was originally preached 2/16/16 at the Scarritt Bennett Center.)