I am afraid of snakes. This is no secret to folks who know me.
I am afraid of many other things as well. Many of the things I fear are less tangible. I fear failure. I fear being left out. I fear letting people down. Such fears are, I imagine, normal for many of us.
Underneath fear is almost always the love of something good, and there is anxiety surrounding protection of that good. I fear snakes—irrationally, I’ll admit—because I love my health and well-being and do not want to lose them to a snake. I am afraid of letting people down at least in part because I want others to be happy. I am afraid of being left out because I know we were created for community.
Our fears and the manner in which they drive our behavior too often go unspoken. We react out of our fear without naming the good that we love and are striving to protect. In many cases, this is at the core of conflict in our churches. We fear that our view of Scripture, our understanding of who God is, even the manner in which we experience and embody our own faith are under attack from those with whom we disagree. Worship becomes a war because we are afraid our own experience of God is somehow less valid than that of somebody else. Theological disagreements become points of division because we are afraid our church and our denomination are losing respect for Scripture as the Word of God.
In the Banner article “Renewal,” Clay Libolt suggests, “What [our denomination needs] is clarity about who we are and what we proclaim.” My guess, however, is that we are afraid to do this work. We are afraid to seek clarity about who we are and what we proclaim because we are afraid it will expose the divisions that underlie our denomination. We are afraid that our denomination will undergo yet another surge of exiting congregants and churches. We fear that clarity will come at the expense of theological rigor and respect for the tradition of our denomination.
The foundation of these fears is love and the desire to protect that which we love. A deep love for our denomination. Deep love for the next generation. Deep love for our traditions and the contribution that our church has made to the broad stream of the Christian faith.
When we react less out of fear and instead articulate what it is that we love, we find ourselves able to have healthy dialogue, to encourage one another, and to be bonded together by our shared experience of God’s grace and by what we have in common with one another. This does not result in a wishy-washy, watered-down sense of identity. Rather, when we move from fear to love we find ourselves empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in dynamic unity with one another, united by grace and compelled to bear witness to the world of the God who breaks down our divisions and the One who “reconcile[s] to himself all things . . . by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20).
I commonly end our worship services with a benediction I learned from Neal Plantinga. It promises that God will go before us to guide us, beside us to befriend us, beneath us to support us, and behind us to protect us. It ends with two simple sentences: “Do not fear; God is with us. Do not be afraid.”
This is God’s promise to us still, God’s promise to us today and always.
God is with us. Do not be afraid.