It sounded like it was going to be such a nice, feel-good story. “A Life Without Fear,” the NPR announcer called it. This will be good, I thought.
But what I expected to be an inspiring story of courage and bravery instead turned out to be – well, frightening.
The story was about Isabelle, a 9-year-old girl who knows no fear, who trusts the world completely. Isabelle has a rare genetic disorder called Williams Syndrome that causes her to be, as the reporter described it, “chronically happy and pathologically trusting.”
And it scares Isabelle’s mother, Jessica, to death.
Jessica lives in constant fear that her fearless daughter will wander off with a stranger, will trust someone who shouldn’t be trusted, will tell the wrong person that she loves him.
“We’re always looking after her because she’s a time bomb waiting to blow her joy over whoever she sees,” Jessica says.
Isabelle’s mother has decided that the most important thing for her to do is to teach her daughter how to fear. She calls it her “life’s project.”
I thought of Isabelle when I read the scripture texts for today.
“Do not fear, O soil,” the prophet Joel proclaims. “Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit; the fig tree and vine give their full yield. O children of Zion be glad and rejoice.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid,” we hear Jesus tell his disciples.
Fear not. Do not be afraid. Those phrases are found 59 times in scripture. To live a life without fear seems to be a clear biblical mandate.
But is it possible, or even commendable to live that way?
Who can blame Jessica for devoting her life to teaching her daughter to fear? Her case may be extreme, but it is one with which all parents can identify.
When we think of the safety of our children, or others we love, the biblical mandate to fear not sounds naïve at best, if not downright ridiculous.
It’s alright for the prophet Joel or Jesus to admonish us not to fear, but we live in the real world, at a time when fear seems to be in the very air we breathe, and often for good reason.
But the situations in the Bible are in the real world, too. When Joel tells the people, the soil, the animals and vegetation not to fear the people of Israel are in a crisis. The nation has been hit by drought and locusts.
The fields are devastated, the ground mourns, the grain is destroyed, the crops are ruined, and the people are in despair, fearful for their future.
In the midst of that devastation and despair comes Joel’s seemingly nonsensical message: “Do not fear, but rejoice in the Lord.”
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel come the night before his death at his least meal with his friends. Jesus tells them what he expects will happen in just a few hours – that he will be betrayed, arrested, and executed.
And then he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Fear not. Do not be afraid.
This biblical admonition is not sentimental or naïve. It is not the scriptural equivalent of whistling by the graveyard, hoping to keep danger at bay.
Scripture acknowledges that there is much to fear – drought, devastation, war, betrayal, persecution, death. None of the world’s dangers or evils are ignored. But even in the face of those dangers and evils scripture tells us again and again: Do not be afraid. Trust in God and have courage.
Despite those admonitions we are a fearful people. Our lives are more often built around fear and anxiety than trust and courage.
We have economic fears. The economy may be strong, but many people remain out of work, or work in jobs that do not pay a living wage. Many are wondering: Will we be able to pay our bills? Will we be able to stay in our home? Will we be able to pay for our children’s education? Will we have enough money for retirement?
And yet Jesus says, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Why do you worry?”
We fear change. It’s happening around us all the time. Maybe we’re afraid of the explosion of knowledge and technology, that our jobs will become obsolete – or that we will.
Maybe we’re fearful about changes in the world’s climate, wondering how long this fragile earth, our island home, will be able to sustain life.
Maybe we’re fearful about changing demographics in this country. Some of us who are so accustomed to being the majority may fear losing privilege and power to others who are not like us.
And yet God tells us through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
We’re afraid for our safety. As a nation we spend billions of dollars on weapons that we pray we will never use. More individuals than I like to think about have their own private stockpiles of weapons.
We have elaborate security systems in our cars and homes. There are those who would love to build a wall around our southern border in the mistaken idea it will keep our country secure.
And yet God says again through Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more…and no one shall make them afraid.”
We fear sickness, aging, and death. We fear sudden death from accidents, heart attacks or strokes. We fear even more the long, debilitating illness. We wonder who will care for us when we can no longer care for ourselves. We wonder and fear what will happen to us when we die.
Yet Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid. In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. I go and prepare a place for you…so that where I am, you may be also.
Remember that the Bible is always realistic. There are things in life to fear. But again and again we are told to resist that temptation.
There is a difference between fear and concern. Scripture does not tell us to be foolish, to spend every penny we have, to take needless risks, to ignore our health, to continue to abuse the environment.
We are told to be good stewards of all our resources, to take care of ourselves and one another.
But fear is another matter. Fear may be a natural response to the world around us, but ultimately it is impractical. Fear debilitates us, causes us to withdraw and care less for others, isolates us and causes us not to face our problems.
Fear does not bring out the best in us.
Think back to the late 1980s when the AIDS epidemic began. I remember as a reporter writing stories about children who were HIV positive being banned from school, workers losing their jobs, anyone diagnosed with this illness being shunned and isolated.
Too often we acted out of fear.
Or think of the years after September 11 when our entire country lived in a climate of fear. Indeed, at times our leaders seemed to play on our fears to mislead us into war, to erode our liberties, to justify torture, ignoring international law and human decency.
Too many politicians have discovered that fearful people are easy to manipulate and control.
But ultimately, fear is unworthy of a child of God – because when we act out of fear we are not being faithful to God.
Trusting God is what gives us the courage to face the realities of every day life, to be open to the world, not withdrawn from it.
Trusting God allows us to see beyond our immediate concerns, and not be overwhelmed by them.
Trusting God does not mean that we won’t face dangers, worries, uncertainties, illness and death. But it does mean that when we encounter those things we have the assurance that we are not alone, that God is with us.
Of course, not being fearful is easier said than done. We cannot simply banish fear, but we can act in faith even in fearful times.
We all know the story of God parting the Red Sea for the people of Israel to cross and escape from the Egyptians.
The legend behind that story is that the Israelites were paralyzed with fear on the banks of the sea. To go into the deep, rapidly moving water was to surely drown.
But the Egyptian army was upon them, and to turn back or to stay on the shore was to be killed.
If ever there was a fearful situation, this was it. The first Israelite murmured a prayer, then stepped in the water. Others followed.
And when they were in water up to their noses, the seas suddenly parted and they crossed in safety.
Stepping out in faith, even when they were afraid, saved them.
“You shall know that I am in the midst of you,” God tells the people of Israel and us.
“I, the Lord, am your God.
“Do not be afraid.”