Fear is a good thing. But it needs training. We need to fear rightly.
Fear is a bodily response. Hear a surprising and loud noise or hear an unexpected noise and we react. Those who study the body’s reactions tell us that before we have a chance to think about what we experience the amygdala has set off a series of bodily reactions for alertness and response. Yet this response can be trained. If we hear the same sound repeatedly, we respond differently. Our response is being trained. Our adaptable minds adjust our response to minimize fear as we get comfortable with the circumstances. When trauma occurs, there are times when our fear and anxiety response is heightened. Sometimes this leads to such disorders as PTSD.
There is much to fear in this world. Every time I drive down the road – especially the two lane highways at great speeds – there are bullets (cars) coming my way. It is dangerous. But I seldom give it a second thought. I trust that those coming toward me have as much interest in avoiding me as I them. I count on it. There is much I count on in my life. Electricity, water, support, income. When I read and see stories of devastation because of natural disasters, I see people traumatized because all this is taken away in a moment. There is loneliness and anxiety. And in the moment of crisis, people need to rebuild the connections and supports they counted on. To whom shall I go? Who can I count on?
There is fear in certain conversations. We have expressions about that: let sleeping dogs lie, we say. Or “Don’t open that can of worms.” Many conversations seem dangerous precisely because they threaten the very supports and connections we have counted on. Some conversations can divide families. Others can threaten our interpretation of Scripture. Still others threaten the comfortable life we have enjoyed. But our fears can be misplaced. Abuse can be hidden because a person fears the threats of the abuser. Truth can be hidden because we feel the threat of the powerful (consider Amos 7:10ff – the priest condemns Amos because it would not be good for the empire). Sin is unconfessed because a person fears the words of condemnation. Misplaced fear undermines our conversations and lives in so many ways.
I am reminded of two phrases in Scripture: “fear God” and “perfect love casts out fear.” The first reminds us that our lives need to be lived in the profound awareness of the transcendent God in very earthly fearful circumstances. Amos needed to put his legitimate fear of the power of the Israel elite in the context of God’s call in his life. It is better to pursue a life with God – a life of truth, grace and love – than to live by the lies, threats and hatreds of our world. The second reminds us that love is critical in getting beyond fear to healing relationships and new creation life. Love opens doors. The fact that God loves us in Jesus, opens the doors to confession. The fact that love exists between a husband and wife allows for difficult conversations to begin. Love between members of a congregation can allow us to enter fearful conversations.
Fear needs to be rightly trained. Fear needs to be disciplined by the guidance of the triune God and experience of deep love. Much of what we fear displays a mistrust of God’s guidance and direction. Much of what we fear reveals the inadequacy of the love in community. This past synod (June 2011) reveals many conversations we need to have. Some are very difficult and will reveal tensions and deep disagreements. Some may open “cans of worms” that surprise us and disturb us. We have this in congregational life as well. Sometimes we need to begin the conversations not by focusing on the debate but developing the relationships that will sustain the conversation – that is, build the love between members. Sometimes we need to practice conversations that deeply engage in the practice of listening to God – a bible study where we learn the practice of self-criticism. Our fears need to be rightly disciplined.