What are you afraid of? I mean what are you deeply and genuinely afraid of? For some it is death. For some it is spiders. For some it is the isolation or mere mundaneness of being alone.
Most of my life I have been afraid of god and people. When I was too young to read, my mother read to me from the book of Revelation. My mom was a bit obsessed at times with the end of the world. She read books with titles like, “The Late, Great Planet Earth” and “The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon.”
Sure “Satan” and “demons” played a big role in my mix & match, scratch & sniff religious upbringing. When we were in the Charismatic church, the devil was around every corner. He was the reason my parents were always fighting. He was blamed for pastors falling from grace and youth group leaders having extra-marital affairs with “young leaders” just old enough to not be students. But it was people and god who were really scary to me. The Bible is full of bleak depictions of humanity for pastors and mothers a bit obsessed with the end of the world to harp on:
You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!
“They had a form of godliness.” Whoever “they” were, they could be sitting next to you in church, leading you in worship or staring at you in the mirror. A deep fear of the world was instilled in me. Sure there are plenty of religious people who don’t fear the world like I grew to. Maybe some people are blessed with more cognitive dissonance than I ever was. Perhaps it is because the “worldview” I was handed matched my existential experience so closely. Maybe if 8 year me would have found himself in a loving stable home where dad never left for months on end and mom didn’t lock herself in her bedroom crying a weekend away I could have grown up to be like many Christians who talk about how evil the world is all of the time but still find the capacity to bend and stretch their beliefs for their beer guzzling, none church going uncle who “is a really good guy” or their atheist neighbor who they insist deep down must believe or their gay son who the Bible clearly and blatantly condemns.
But I could never do that. My experience confirmed the teaching that the world was an unstable and unsafe place and that that people could not be trusted. In what seems like another lifetime now, in my 20’s, I put severe strain on really good friendships by writing people I loved very long evangelistic letters, pleading with them to accept Jesus and informing them of my fear that they would go to hell. One of those people was Amanda. I started to tell you a bit about her yesterday. I am sure there will be more to come. But now that truly seems like it was a different lifetime. A different me.
Ultimately what I was afraid of was god, specifically the God of the Bible. Jesus told his followers, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” He wasn’t talking about the devils he purportedly cast out everywhere he went. He was talking about his “father.” In one of the passages I most vividly remember my mom reading me from Revelation, Jesus was coming back with an army of hungry birds to “gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.” He had a “sword in his mouth” and a “robe dipped in blood.”
All of my life I have had nightmares about people and god doing bad shit. In most of my worst dreams people are trying to hurt me or I am actively or passively hurting them. People are doing all sorts of grotesque things. In these dreams there are devils and all sorts of nefarious creatures. But there is always a watcher. Jesus and his father are just around the corner. Jesus is bloody and ready for battle or poised to say “I never knew you.”
I don’t want to be afraid of the world anymore. I have made a lot of progress and made my therapist a lot of money. But sometimes it still creeps up on me. Sunday my dad called to tell me he has been thinking of me a lot lately and he has been really worried about me since I quit pastoring and eventually going to church altogether. This is code for he is worried about me going to hell. Sunday and Monday night I had horrible nightmares.
But this is Lent. And I am committed to 40 days of listening, writing and loving my neighbor in an effort to all of these things better and with more consistently. Yesterday I told you that I am not sure that I believe much anymore in a god “up there” a god “beyond our galaxy.” But I do believe in a sense of justice and peace that pervades the universe. So, I am not only picking up the tasks of listening, writing and loving my neighbor. In true Lenten fashion I am also following Jesus (metaphorically, contemplatively) into the desert where he comes face to face with the devil and temptation. According to the tradition, the devil tempted Jesus with power. First he tempted him to flex his godly might and appease his hunger by turning stones to bread. Then he tried to entice him to prove his divinity by jumping from a cliff and calling angels to catch him. Finally he tried to allure him to swap sides and align himself with the powers of darkness in trade for ruling all of the kingdoms of the world. Jesus being perhaps the most self-assured person in all of literature had no need for any of it. His belly could wait. He had no need to prove his divine status to anyone. And his kingdom was not of this world.
But what is the temptation for someone who constantly doubts the divine spark within? What is the enticement for the kid too fat and embarrassed to do the trust fall in PE class, when he is all grown up and still full of self-doubt and fear that his heart is too heavy for those around him? What is the allure for someone who desperately clings to the hope that there is good in the world, despite being taught to believe that the world and all of its inhabitants were hurling through space and time on a spinning sphere headed for a lake of fire and destruction?
Perhaps my greatest and ever-present temptation is to continue to fear and wallow in pity and in doubt. Perhaps my triumph is forsaking self-deprecation in exchange for self-care and self-love. Maybe my victory is jumping headlong from the pinnacle of doubt and fear, knowing full well that the world is full of folly, misfortune, mayhem – and yes evil – but still finding the courage to believe that there is good. Maybe, just maybe, the good even outweighs the bad.