You know how that famous phrase offered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt ends…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But after the last six months and more specifically, the last 6 weeks, of my life, I am no longer certain that I agree with our illustrious President.
Fear, it turns out, is a natural, healthy human reaction, that when properly understood, can lead us to greater understanding and faith. What we have to fear, most specifically, is our response to the fear we feel.
I have been in recovery from a very serious heart operation these last weeks, an operation to repair a congenital defect that I did not know that I had. In the years before the diagnosis (meaning my entire life up until June 2013), I will admit that I lived in a great deal of fear although unless you knew me really well you might not have known it. I spent many, many hours combating my reaction to a variety of existential fears. I attributed the sometimes paralyzing fear I felt to a lot of different stimuli: the fact that I had been raped, the fact that I had endured sexual abuse as a child, the death of my brother, the financial uncertainties of my childhood, my divorce — the list can go on a and on and on if I choose. Fear often expressed itself as indecision, isolation, resistance, and anger. And sometimes fear expressed itself in my life as seemingly compulsive action and what to many might have looked like risk-taking (a lot of people I know think that singing in public is risk-taking). I had developed a finely tuned method of pushing myself off the cliff of whatever fear I was feeling (except when it came to learning how to swim).
I have spent a lot of my life devoted to overcoming feelings of victim-hood and the grip of those existential fears. But as I walked through all these things, these things I now know to be the little fears of life, I had no glimpse of the fact that all of these were little rehearsals for a great big moment in my life.
I had no idea that God would call me to face my greatest fear: that I, like my parents before me, would have a problem with my heart. That I, like my father before me, would have to undergo open heart surgery. And that like him, I might not survive.
And so as I went through these last six months, each and every day, I was called by life to live in fear. Yes, I could choose to push it away and live in denial, but I accepted the call to live in fear. I accepted the call to embrace the fear and face it and talk to it and welcome it in…because no matter what I might have tried, the fear would be there anyway. I will never forget the day that fear became my friend and not my enemy. We were meeting with the surgeon who would do my procedure and my friend said, “she’s really afraid.”. And my doctor, to whom I will be grateful until the end of my days and beyond, looked at her and said, of course she is afraid. If she wasn’t I would be calling the psychiatrist.
You see, the scientist understood where the theologian did not. The scientist understood, where President Roosevelt did not. My fear was part of my beautiful humanity, part of my God-created self, and my fear did not stand alone. My fear stood alongside my faith — I could be both afraid and comforted at the same time. He of course thought that the comfort came from my understanding of the facts about the surgery and my confidence in his skill. Those things were comforting, of course, but the real comfort came from my relationship with a faithful God and my strong bonds with my community of faith. And from something else that I didn’t understand until a couple of nights ago.
We have an active small groups program at the Calvary Baptist Church, and I have been a participant in the Wednesday night group, called Wednesday Night Words, well, since it started. And this fall we are reading a book by John Indermark called Do Not Live Afraid: Faith in a Fearful World. Truth be told, because of what I was going through, I read the whole book before the surgery. And at the time I wasn’t sure whether or not I would recover quickly enough to go to any of the group gatherings at all. Last Wednesday I was able to attend and we talked about the chapter titled “For the Sake of Vocation”…and we talked about the relationship between fear and vocation, we talked about the times in our lives when we felt called and how fear played into or fought against those moments.
And I heard myself say these words: of course, the surgery and the recovery are part of my calling. I understood this at some level all these months, but had never said the words to anyone.
And I wrote down these words said by our Pastor: “Vocation is any place where we like Peter (Luke 5:1-11) are called forward into something unknown.” I have certainly been living in a place of something unknown and I continue to live there every day.
My life is the same but not the same; I have no more clarity about the next step than I did before the surgery, although I have a lot more energy and focus. I have much to understand and much to forgive about the LBS (life before surgery) so that I can best steward these days in LAS (life after surgery). But this I do know: I am never to be afraid of being afraid ever again.
My fear, like my faith, is a part of me. It can be my friend or it can be my enemy. I choose friendship, because in friendship is understanding, and in understanding there is life and purpose and the chance to live out my purpose according to that greater plan which I simply can’t see.
So you see, President Roosevelt, we have a lot more to fear than fear itself. We should fear those who deny the healthy recognition of real fear in their lives, because they will take their fear out on those around them. We should fear our own denial of our own fears, because in the embrace of those less than wonderful feelings comes fuel for great change and beauty.
Better to say: be afraid, love yourself, seek community, and face what lies ahead with grace and faith in the God who will not desert you. Fear and faith are not opposites; they live together in us. And in that lies our strength to live into the calling we see or do not see before us, but which is there no matter what.