Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fear Not!

Yesterday while flipping through the channels as a self-reward for completing a homework assignment, I stumbled upon an episode of Archbishop Fulton Sheen's "Life is Worth Living" series on EWTN.  I'm not an EWTN watcher and although I've heard of his series, I'd never taken the time to seek out and watch them.  That might change now.  Once I got past the antiquated black-and-white, the immediate realization came to mind: this man was a master communicator, and his message was crystal clear.  My DVR is set to record the series now.

Archbishop Sheen's message in the episode that was a topic that I am trying to make into a four letter word: FEAR.

That's right, the other four-letter word.  The one we think about so much, but may never talk about or face head-on.  Archbishop Sheen opened by referencing a 1927 speech by Joseph Stalin on the coexistence of Communism and Capitalism in the 20th Century.  His initial point was as provocative then as it is now, and caught my attention:

Deep down, any desire for "coexistence" and "world peace," that is not rooted in genuine love and God's plan as revealed in Christ, ultimately stems from a source other than God: fear.  That fear takes two forms: first, psychological fear, created by the tensions that exist between men because of our sinful nature, and second, the concrete, physical fear of suffering or death.  Both of those fears have been present throughout human history since the fall; in the 1950's they were manifested by the looming threat of nuclear war, which the fear of MAD (mutually assured destruction) ultimately kept at bay.  Today, terrorism and economic uncertainty lead us to fear the unknown and unknowable future.

Archbishop Sheen pointed out the fact that we are fed an almost constant diet of fear, particularly in the media.  We are literally taught to live in fear: fear of serious illness or injury and the effects it might have, fear of losing a job or not making the next promotion, fear of losing a loved one who is close to us, even fear of not looking "good enough" or "fitting into the right crowd."  This list is endless, but you get the point.  There is a fine line that legitimate concerns and responsibilities in life cross to become fears that define the way we live.  That line is Christ.

By a quick count, we are commanded explitily not to fear or live in anxiety at least half a dozen times in the New Testament alone (Mt 10:26-28, Lk 12:7, Mt 14:27, Mk 5:36, Rev 1:17 & 2:10), and dozens of other times implicitly using the negative examples of people who lived in fear.  Probably the most famous issuance of this command was Matthew's account of Christ walking on the water toward the Apostles, whose boat is being tossed about by the stormy sea: "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid" (Matthew 14:27).  The Apostle Paul likewise cautions us in his letter to the Philippians, "Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6; emphasis mine).  I emphasize the anything and everything because Jesus' command, and Paul's exhortation in support of it, are given as absolutes.  There are no exceptions.  There are no ifs, and, or buts.

The world offers us many temporary antidotes to our fear: everything from better medication and medical care, to the latest safety gadets and techniques, psychotherapy and meditation, better and more efficient ways of communicating, etc.  Each of those has their place and is none is bad in and of itself, but where they become dangerous is when we begin to put our ultimate trust in stuff--in the "expert advice"--instead of in our loving Father.  In fact as we see so much in our secularized world today, they can lead to a self-reliance and reliance on governmental and socio-economic structures to the exclusion of God.  Ironically, society makes us a promise that ultimately only God can make: that, if we trust it (instead of Him), everything in the end will be okay.  Worldly fear ultimately leads us to distrust a perfect, all-powerful and unconditionally loving Father in favor of our own limited, broken, and fallible human will and intellect.

But the Father has given us a cure for our fear, and for everything else that wears us down and divides us: love.  For "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."  (1 John 4:18)  That perfect love is not some abstract, intangible idea as we would imagine it.  It is the limitless but very tangible love that is a person, Jesus Christ.  That is a whole post in itself, so more on that for a later time. 

Archbishop Sheen ended the episode by contrasting two images, a pyramid and a healthy, flourishing tree, to illustrate the difference between false, man-made peace, and the peace of God.  Society (without God) establishes itself like a pyramid, trying to dictate its utopian notion of a peace from above.  As history has proven, that system does not work and is doomed to fail because true peace that only comes as a byproduct of love and trust, does not take hold.  True peace grows much more like a tree, where the individual members (you and I) are roots watered and sustained by love--first of God, then of neighbor as self--and strengthened by the concrete morality that is rooted obedience to his Commandments.  Those roots grow and feed a healthy society, which ultimately reaches skyward and points toward the eternal Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus taught us perfectly what it means to trust the Father, and lived what he taught to the death.  Living without fear does not mean that we will not undergo trial and suffering, only that if we join it with the suffering of his passion and crucifixion, we have the Resurrection as a promise that he will bring us through all of it and into eternal glory.  For "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18).  I don't know about you, but that sounds much better than just a few decades (if we're lucky) of being comfortably okay.

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