Fear and Hope in the Here and Now

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“Be not afraid,” the angels admonished the shepherds who were tending their flocks in the fields the night Jesus was born. Easy for angels to say. Mere mortals have a hard time tamping down fear. Indeed, the reality of fear lies at the heart of the human experience and shows up in a variety of degrees, shapes and sizes. Be Not Afraid

In recent days, the North Korean government has chosen to impose fear upon American moviegoers. Threats of terrorism over the release of a movie depicting the overthrow of the North Korean leader has caused Sony Pictures to cancel the scheduled release of the film, “The Interview,” on Christmas Day. I am not usually afraid in a movie theater, but maybe it’s time to start worrying.

My stomach did several flip-flops last week when I watched a worrisome report on the evening news that consisted of a video taken by a passenger during a cross-Pacific airplane flight. Unexpected rough air in a completely clear sky rocked the plane so violently that refreshment carts, plates, wine bottles, and people were sent flying all over the cabin. The sound background consisted of passenger screams and prayers.

There are plenty of reasons to be afraid. Fear itself is instinctive, not rational. It just shows up in the face of real or imagined danger. At its best, fear sounds the alarm that alerts us to danger. At its worst, it can paralyze us into inaction. It can rob us of the good we know. Remember the initial panic when the first Ebola patients were brought to Emory University Hospital this fall? Thank goodness compassion and wisdom kept fear from carrying the day.

What a sad thing that fear has become such a driving force in our world. How we respond to situations, how we respond to people who are different from ourselves — so much of it is controlled by nothing more than fear. The recent dust-up over the mosque in Kennesaw is a case in point.

There’s a story about two little boys in Texas whose mother asked them to chase a chicken snake out of the hen house. The boys looked everywhere for it but couldn’t find it; the more they looked, the more frightened they became. Finally, they stood up on their tiptoes to look on the top nest shelf and came nose to nose with the snake. They fell all over themselves running out of the hen house. “Don’t you know a chicken snake won’t hurt you?” their mother asked them.

“Yes ma’am,” one of the boys answered, “but there are some things that will scare you so bad you’ll hurt yourself.”

The truth is that none of us gets through this life without more than a few wrestling matches with fright and panic under our belts. Sometimes, we get caught in the net of anticipatory anxiety: What if I fail the exam? Miss the bus? Lose my job? Am left alone? Lose my mental faculties? End up without the resources I need? Then, there is “holy dread,” that deep down sense of insecurity about whether God can and will love us in spite of our failings.

At its most destructive, fear can breed hopelessness in the human soul. Written over the gate of hell in Dante’s “Inferno” are these words “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.”

Hope is the match that ignites our energies and imaginations. Once the paralysis of their fear abated, the shepherds ran to see the gift God had given to them and to the world. Why sit trembling on a cold rock in a dark field when the air is astir with the glorious message of new life? A child is born! New possibilities are released, up to and including the possibility of peace on earth. How awesome is that?

The great religious leader Howard Thurman defined Christmas this way:

It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day,

the movement of life in defiance of death,

the assurance that love is sturdier than hate,

that right is more confident than wrong,

that good is more permanent than evil.

In the New Year, shall we resolve to move from behind the cold hard rocks of fear and worry, determined to live in hope? The hope factor makes all the difference in the world.

Joanna M. Adams