FEAR in these Modern Times

Today is Protestant Reformation Day. I’ve also been reminded that it is Halloween and my friend Dave’s Birthday. On top of all that, there is a giant meteorological event being dubbed “Frankenstorm” and an impending presidential vote of evidently unheard-of historical consequence. I’d like to take this opportunity to address what I see as a major problem facing America (a.k.a. U.S.A.). This problem is fear.

random art I found on the side of the road, unrelated to this post
I’ll start with the presidential race as an example of why fear is a big problem for us. This election is being trumpeted as a fork in the road for this country. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard someone say something like, “This is the most important presidential election in our lifetime.”

Let’s pause and reflect on that logic for a moment. What is that phrase meant to portray? It implies that if the election goes the wrong way then the unthinkable will happen. Never mind that the unthinkable is completely undefined or that there are rarely concrete examples of what real changes will result. The important thing the user of such a phrase wants you to know is that you need to be afraid. Very afraid. The further implication is that if someone doesn’t do something quick, something really bad is going to happen, and it won’t be their fault because they’re the one who told you that this was important. What reaction am I supposed to have to such a statement?

Concerned citizen: If [the candidate I happen to disagree with] wins this election then it will be too late to save this country!

Me: Oooooohhhh noooooooooooo!!!!! I don’t want it to be too late. I’ll do anything. What do you want me to do? How can I help?

Concerned citizen: Oh. Um. Ok. Yeah, I’m glad you are also concerned.

Me: Of course I’m concerned! You just said it will be too late to save the country. Are you crazy? We have to save the country. What are you doing to stop the evil man from not saving our country?! I’ll join you.

Concerned citizen: Well, you’ve got to vote.

Me: Duh. Yeah, of course I’m going to vote. I always vote even when the fate of my country doesn’t depend on it, but what else?

Concerned citizen: You should tell your friends.

Me: Tell my friends to be scared. Got it. What else?

Concerned citizen: Ah, you could write your elected officials.

Me: Ok, who do I write? What is their address? And what do I ask them?

Concerned citizen: You’ll have to look that up online, I guess. I’m not Google for crying out loud.

Me: Haven’t you written any letters?

Concerned citizen: Well, I signed an online petition once. I got a free bumber sticker. Anyway, what can one person do? We really don’t have a voice anymore.

Me: So why should I care about the election?

Concerned citizen: Honestly, I just wanted to frighten you.

Me: Why?

Concerned citizen: *Breaks down crying* Because I feel scared and weak, and I don’t want to be the only one!

Me: There, there. Who can blame you? It’s hard living in the wealthiest nation in the world. Of course you’re scared. It is unsettling living in a country with religious freedom, a free media, free speech, free public education, and reliable internet. Sure we’re more stable, secure and prosperous than most of the human race that has lived throughout history, but that could change at any moment. Our forefathers worked hard to earn us these privileges, and now people are expecting us to take responsibility and keep working hard for them. It really is too much. Let’s just go put you in a snuggie and watch some cable news.

You see, I try to pay attention. As a child I listened closely to the adults who surrounded me. I remember distinctly hearing phrases like, “This election will change the course of our country like no other!” or “If that guy gets the office it is the end of our country as we know it.” It scared me then. So did the weird shadows I sometimes saw on my bedroom wall that I thought may or may not be mutant creatures ready to pounce on me as soon as I closed my eyes. It scared me then because as a child I felt even more helpless. I couldn’t even vote for crying out loud. My future as a first worlder was dependent on the decisions of adults that I had zero influence over. What good would it do me to survive elementary gym class if the next president was going to mess up my life anyway?

Today I’m not scared. I’m not scared when I see shadows on my walls because I know that it is probably the streetlight casting a shadow on the jacket I threw on the chair before I went to bed. Even if I really thought it was a mutant, I probably wouldn’t get up to find out as long as the mutant was quiet and didn’t disturb my efforts to sleep. I am also not scared that the next president is going to ruin my life. There are TWO VERY IMPORTANT REASONS I’M NOT SCARED…

ONE. I don’t think the president has that much influence over the ruination of my life.

I know. I know, what over half of you are thinking. You just don’t understand how our government works. He’s the leader of the free world! He appoints judges and stuff! I’m sorry. I’ve read the documents and the arguments, but what I’m convinced by are the numbers and my experience. With every presidential election I’ve seen good things and bad things happen. I watch as presidents make decisions and claim or disavow responsibility for this result or that result. Yes, certain presidents have had certain effects on certain issues. I’m not denying that presidents have the power to do good and evil. I am only saying that as I try to weigh out the net good or evil done by any one man in office, it usually comes out more or less zero compared to the Big Picture. For all the good things one president might do concerning one issue, he usually drops the ball on some other issue. I’ll also point out that it is rarely the decisions that make the big headlines that are having the most effect in this world. In other words, most of the bad stuff (or good stuff) the president does, you’ll never find out about.

My experience tells me that bad presidents don’t destroy us, and good presidents won’t save us. One could argue that good presidents have saved us throughout history (Washington, Lincoln, etc.), but who’s to say that another man might not have been equal or better in the same situation. I have great respect for Washington and Lincoln and all they did, but a lot of people died during their tenure. There was a lot of violence and loss that might have been averted under a different leader. The point is they did not know how their decisions would turn out and neither do we.

I cannot think of one case where my life was directly affected by the decision of a president acting on his own. Yes, I am affected by laws and regulations put in place by congress or agencies, but all the president’s ideas have to be filtered through committees, lobbyists, bureaucracy, and so on to extent that it could hardly be blamed on the president acting alone. My homeowner’s association has more direct influence over my life than the president of the United States. After all, if I decide to paint my house with a scene depicting Frodo and Sam climbing Mt. Doom there is not one thing the President would do to stop me. In campaigns and debates the candidates take responsibility for all sorts of things and blame all sorts of things on their counterparts, but I am not convinced that their assertions bear much validity at all. Economies, climates and wars are big and mysterious things with all kinds of factors. It would take a big man indeed to claim a modicum of influence over any of these much less the life of little old me. People think the course of the nation is a result of who our president is. I think the course of the president is a result of what our nation is.

TWO. The second reason I’m not scared is that I’m not a spineless wimp.

There are lots of more colorful ways to express this sentiment. Since I am a pastor and a family man I’ll keep it as clean as I can. Stop being a bunch of wussies! Bad things happen. Bad people do bad things on purpose. Good people do bad things by accident. Life doesn’t hardly ever seem fair (even though it technically is). These things have always been true, and they always will be true unless something greater than us intervenes. Spoiler alert: I believe something greater has intervened, is intervening, and will intervene. We’ll discuss that later. So, given the perpetual state of the nearly-encompassing stench of life, why oh why do we worry that more stinky things are going to happen? Every generation has understood this. No one argues with it. Even very optimistic people don’t see an end to conflict.

Indulge my nerdiness. Stark Trek presents one of the most optimistic portrayals of the advancement of the human species in all of popular science fiction. In the world of Star Trek the human race has overcome the frailty that was imposed on it by evolution and improved itself through science and technology to the point of being a benevolent race of explorers traveling through the galaxies governed by idealistic prime directives and such. Yet, even in the imaginary world of reformed and restrained human existence there is enough conflict to fill hundreds of TV episodes, dozens of movies, and countless books, conventions, clubs, games, and ill-advised costumes choices. It is an un-provable, yet universally accepted axiom that bad things will happen no matter what.

Given the afore proved stinkiness of life, there are two ways to live your life.

You can attempt to at all costs avoid the stench. You can insulate, fortify, censor, run, hide, beg, complain, manipulate, maneuver, or whatever you have to do to try to keep the hardship of life out. You can leverage all your resources toward the futile effort of never facing difficulty, never suffering, and never having conflict. You can live your life that way. You will fail. You will, after all your efforts, still be afraid, and in your fear you will feel alone. Because no matter what protections or distraction you put in place there is nothing that can keep you from fearing the things that you cannot control. In the end how much control do you have anyway?

There is a second and better way to live. It is not to flee from fear but to laugh in the face of it. Unfortunately, many Americans think courage means sticking a polarizing bumper sticker on their car. Many Americans think courage means refusing to listen to opposing viewpoints. Many Americans think courage means reposting a fear mongering Facebook status knowing that two of their distant friends may disagree with it. I propose to you real courage means acting with conviction and reacting with a firm hope. Let me explain.

Our actions need be guided by our beliefs. Fear rarely tells us to take action against our beliefs. Fear simply tells us not to act, or to act in a way that has no effect on our beliefs at all. Acting in courage causes us to discover and confront the roots of our problems. Acting in fear causes us to avoid and ignore the roots of our problems. If you say you are concerned about abortion, what have you done about it? Is your first inclination to find someone who is contemplating abortion or who has already gone through with it to ask them why? Are you willing to make changes in your life that will impact the root causes of abortion? Fear tells you that is too hard. Fear says you should complain to the government to fix it. Fear says you should use shame and guilt as a tool to influence others. Fear says that as long as you hold the right opinion and aren’t afraid to say it, then you are not responsible for what else happens. If you say you are concerned about the less fortunate, social justice, unemployment, violence, the environment or whatever, what actions are you taking? Are they courageous actions carried out with humility, or are they fearful actions cloaked in false courage and self-righteousness.

Our reactions need to reflect a firm hope. No matter how powerful you are you will often get bad news. Dr. Seuss explains it all in Oh The Places You’ll Go. “Hang-ups and bang-ups will happen to you.” When the bad news comes, our fear-based reactions are: despair, anger, whining, bullying, self-medicating, blaming others, addiction, selfishness or denial. The list could go on. The problem America is facing is that these reactions are the accepted standard. Got a problem? Of course, you should be protesting! Have you been wronged? You need to sue! Did you screw up your life? Find an excuse! I believe that Jesus taught against this attitude. When He tells us not to worry about tomorrow, when He reminds us that no one snatches anything out of his hand, when He implores us to abide in him—He is telling us that when we are afraid we don’t have to resort to any of the self-defeating reactions that come so naturally to us. When we are afraid we can trust in him alone.

That doesn’t mean that we need to blindly believe that every situation is going to have a happy ending. We are promised that it won’t turn out well for all of us all the time. That’s the point of the word “hope.” Hope means that no matter what situation you face, you can endure it with the knowledge that this is not the end! The darkness will not endure. You see if we believe the Bible, then we have to believe that God is powerful and He is good. Don’t you see what that means? It means that when bad things happen we don’t need to cry like little babies. It means that the lady that cut you off in traffic isn’t deserving of the condemnation you are calling down on her. It means that you should stop listening to a media that is constantly trying to scare you into listening to more of their commercials. It means that you are free to enjoy the good things in your life and fight against the bad things the best you can.

I am not writing this because I’m annoyed at the pervasiveness of political news (though I sometimes am). I’m writing this because I am concerned about the fear I see in my friends who should know better. I hurt for all of you and those you know who are living scared of the world that God created and rules over. Cast off the chains of fear, people, and live your life! That is all.

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