Perfect Love Casts Out Fear
It’s March 22, 2020. The first day of Spring; the Vernal Equinox; plus one. And here we are at church, the few of us; for the last time in a while––perhaps a long while.
That we dream we were dreaming . . . what was it??? Unending peace? Overwhelming prosperity? Total security? In the Lord’s providence it’s been withdrawn. God’s doing?
Our doing? If I had the strength left to inquire in these difficult days, I would inquire . . . .
But like all who love the Lord, I live from day to day; I move forward; I hunker down; I live in hope, not despair; whether it is given me to understand the present situation––indeed any situation––or not.
One would think the present situation unique. But it’s not. It’s not. Certainly not in human history. “There have been as many plagues as wars, in history,” wrote French novelist Albert Camus, in 1947, in a novel called, simply, La Peste, or The Plague. “yet plagues––like wars––always take people by surprise.” Who would have thought even two months ago that we––we, and the whole world with us––would be where we are? Who????
I mean, while we were celebrating Christmas––on December 31, to be exact––some mysterious cases of viral pneumonia were detected in Wuhan, China; cases that had turned up as early as December 12. Concerned, Chinese health authorities closed the Wuhan Seafood Market, the very next day. The Wuhan Seafood market, of course, is a Wet market, and sold more than seafood. In point of fact it sold wild animals of every kind, both for food, and as pets.
On January 5 Chinese authorities confirmed that the virus causing this pneumonia is neither SARS nor MERS, but something entirely new. On January 11, The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announces the first death. Over the next week Thailand reports a case, and then Japan, and by January 20, China reports 139 cases. On January 23 China starts building brand new hospitals from scratch, with workers toiling 24-hours-a-day to erect them. And the rest, as they say, would become history.
Were we worried? Not particularly. We had SARS in 2003. 8,000 were infected; 800 killed, and all of them in China. We had MERS in 2012. 2500 were infected; 850 killed. We had even had the Spanish flu, in 1918. 500,000,000 were infected, in three different waves; with an unknown death toll. Some say 17,000,000; others say 100,000,000. But that was 100 years ago.
And so on. “We have it totally under control,” said Donald Trump on January 22. “It’s one person coming in from China.” But we didn’t have it under control.
And so––what do we do? Where do we go? To begin with, of course, if we are wise,
we listen to our governments, and health officials, and follow their advice––whether the law compels to, or not.
But where do we go with the fear? The crippling, gnawing, debilitating fear?? To whom do we turn to uphold the heart, from which everything else proceeds?? When, in the words of Gustave Flaubert, it seems that “rain is falling through the human heart.” What do we do? Give up? Run away? Hide away? Curse God and die?
The latter, of course, is the advice given a certain man by a certain spouse, Job, and Job’s wife, to be exact. “Job, Are you still maintaining your integrity?”, said she. “Curse God and die!”
Job does not curse God, his wife notwithstanding, but he does grow discouraged––very discouraged.
“Why did I not die at birth, breathe my last when I was born?” Job asks the Lord. “I should then have lain down in quiet; I should have slept and been at rest, with kings and counsellors of earth,
who built themselves great pyramids; with princes rich in gold, who filled their houses with silver. There, if not here, the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest. There, too, even captives are at ease together, hearing not the voice of masters. There the small and great are gathered; there the slave is free; free at last.”
Hearing this, Job’s friends, of course, are disgusted with him. “Is not your religion your confidence? Your blameless life, your hope?” opines Eliphaz, heaping on the guilt . . .
“Remember, dear Job! What innocent man ever perished? Or when were the upright ever destroyed?”
“Job, are you saying that God is a God of injustice? scolds his other friend Bildad. “Can the Almighty do wrong? If your children have sinned against him, He has let them suffer the penalty; but you should earnestly seek him, and devoutly beseech the Almighty.”
Zophar, of course, has to have his say too. “If you would cleanse your heart, and stretch out your hands to God, Job, and put away sin from your hand, and let no wrong dwell in your tent, you would then lift your face without spot, you would then be steadfast and fearless.”
After all, God has made some extraordinary promises, some of which we read this morning:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
[Even] when you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;”
But how do we get from here to there? From the land of fear, to the land of faith, and hope?
Many people think that when faced with difficulty or grief or illness or pain or loss or plague or pandemic or war one simply needs to work a lot harder in spiritual terms. You have to pray more, believe more, have faith more; and then you will be okay! (As it were by magic if nothing else.) All you have to summon is “perseverance on steroids,” so screw up your courage, and hold your breath, and simply hold on, God being your helper. And all will be well.
But I beg to differ. When life becomes impossibly difficult, then it’s not time to hold on.
It’s time let go: Let go and let God––and let God hold you. It’s time to make room for love––
By which I mean the love of God, and the presence of God, and, dare I say it, the love of the church, as flawed as that can sometimes be.
For God’s love is a love that will not let you go. Never mind holding on to God; let God hold on to you. Never mind––at those dark and terrible moments––trying to pray, and believe, and be courageous, when it’s the last thing you are able to do. Instead, let others pray for you, and with you; let others have faith for you, when you feel you no longer have any to scratch together.
Let others hold you, when you can no longer hold yourself. Let others be brave, and endure, and hold fast, when all your own personal, and spiritual resources have become exhausted.
Because God will not let you go. And with God, you are not alone.
Stop striving; stop beating yourself up. Be still and know, that God is God. That he is the Lord that heals you. When you can no longer find your way, give up, as it were, and give your life back to God, and he will lift you up.
For you are NOT alone …
I have read this before, a few times in fact, but I can’t help reading again a little section from
the Narnian Chronicle “The Horse and His Boy” by C. S. Lewis. This tells the story of a little boy named Shasta who finds himself on a dark forest road, all alone.
“What on earth am I to do?” said Shasta to himself. “After all, this road is bound to get to somewhere.”
But that all depends on what you mean by somewhere. The road kept on getting to somewhere in the sense that it got to more and more trees, all dark and dripping, and to colder and colder air. And strange, icy winds kept blowing the mist past him though they never blew it away. “I do think,” said Shasta, “That I must be the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me. And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.
What put a stop to all this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls. What he could hear was breathing. His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale, and Shasta got the impression that it was a very large creature. The Thing, unless it was a Person, went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope he had only imagined it. But just as he was becoming quite sure of it, there suddenly came a deep, rich sigh out of the darkness beside him. That couldn’t be imagination! Anyway, he felt the hot breath of that sigh on his chilly left hand.
So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him. At last he could bear it no longer.
“Who are you?” he said, scarcely above a whisper.
“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.
“I can’t see you at all,” said Shasta, staring very hard. Then
––(for an even more terrible idea had come into his head)––
he said, almost in a scream,
“You’re not—not something dead, are you?
Oh please—please do go away.
Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. “There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.”
“When Jesus comes to me, as He sometimes does,” wrote Bernard of Clairvaux in the 11th century, “He never signals His presence by any token, neither by voice nor by vision nor by the sound of His step. By no such movement do I become aware of Him, nor does He penetrate my being through the senses. Only, by the movement of the heart do I come to realize that He is with me. What is that movement of the heart, by which we detect the passage of the Lord and become aware of His presence? It is, first of all, interior peace, the effect of the voice of Jesus saying: “Take courage, it is I myself; do not be afraid” (Mt 14:27).
It is a pull of the heart that compels us to draw near to Christ in spite of the dark night, which obscures our vision, and in spite of the rolling waves, which threaten to pull us back and drag us down.” We may abandon God; we may forget God; we may even curse God, and die––or try to die. But he will never abandon us. For God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In point of fact, God has engraved you, directly into the palms of his hands. “But Zion said,” writes Isaiah, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me. Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” the Lord asks. “Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.”
Dear people of God, you are not alone! Together with you are the countless people who have followed the Lamb wherever he goes from the beginning of time! Therefore do not be afraid.
You will see the forest for the trees, some day, in whatever you’re going through at the moment,
aloneness notwithstanding; it just might take some time . . .
And in that meanness of time, God has given us another gift to deal with the loneliness––and difficulty––of this present life. That gift is each other! Each other!
Needless to say, sometimes the church fails, in this, like the disciples failed Jesus.
For we are––or should be––family. “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling,” reads Psalm 68. God sets the lonely in families.”
(Something I preached about only weeks ago.)
And he does! It’s called the church. You don’t have to be a paragon of stoic individuality!
So let’s be in touch, if not in person, then by phone, and email, and text. Let’s run errands for each other. Let’s do whatever we can.
Let me leave you with something that has just been written, if you’ll pardon the expression,
it’s something that has gone “viral” on the Internet (as the saying goes.)
It’s a poem entitled Lockdown by an Irish monk, Capuchin Franciscan Brother Richard Hendrick.
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,