Advent Day 14: Do Not Fear

Zephaniah 3:16-17
On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”

Isaiah 12:2
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

Philippians 4:6
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

These passages are from this coming Sunday’s lectionary passages. There’s an Urban Church Legend out there that the Bible contains the phrases “fear not” or “do not fear” 365 times – one for every day of the year! Adorable, right? (by the way, love that God anticipated our calendar and planned it out that when the Bible would finally be translated into English that would all work out, but that’s another conversation). The truth is, depending on the translation you’re using, the Bible encourages us not to be feaful well over 100 times which is enough for me to believe that it’s an important message.

Today is unfortunately going to be remembered as the annversary of the worst elementary school shooting in US history. I turned on the TV and watched as information came over the airwaves, wept as the President spoke and as stories were told of some of the smallest victims, and tried to wrap my head around all that has gone on. I’ve had a lot of reactions to this as has most of the country and much of what’s being expressed is outrage because we’ve seen this too many times.

I’m not a fan of Michael Moore, and I haven’t seen any of his films, but I know a bit about Bowling for Columbine, and I know that his basic premise is that our violent culture is a result of a culture of fear in the US. He compares us to Canada, a country with similar gun ownership but almost zero instances of gun-related violence. Fear is the great manipulator in our culture for everything from toothpaste commercials (if you have bad breath, you’ll die alone!) to cable news (the Muslims are coming!). We’re afraid, so we feel like we need to buy guns. I’m not referring to people who collect historic pieces. I’m speaking of those who feel they need to arm themselves against something.

I know that in the coming days we will have conversations about gun laws and gun control. In this instance, at least one of the guns were legal and owned by one of the victims. Not much else is known about them. These are conversations we need to have. I have my own thoughts about guns and gun control, which I won’t share right now. I feel that gun legislation is part of this conversation, but the bigger conversation in this situation is how we as a culture deal (or don’t deal) with mental illness and in particular with men who have mental illness.

From the beginning of time and especially in the work of Freud, women have been considered mentally/emotionally/psychologically “weaker” than our male counterparts. We are more “sensitive.” Men are socialized to be less emotional, what is considered “strong.” Think of how you interact with children, even babies. With girls we are sweet and cooey and with boys we’re more rough and tumble. There are few acceptable moments for men to express their emotions. Then add the stigma of mental illness and you have a ticking time bomb. So far, in all the mass killings we’ve had, none of the shooters have been women. This is not to say that women don’t do heinous things in the throes of mental illness. They’re just not on this scale. These men are broken and hurting and they’ve been reared in a system that tells them they can’t display weakness. They are afraid.

The people who know them are also afraid. It is pretty routine that after events like this there are a lot of armchair psychologists who come out and say, “Yeah, I thought there might be something wrong with that guy.” Hindsight is particularly keen with people who know the perpetrators, but why wasn’t something being said when this stuff is happening? We’re afraid. We’re terribly afraid of offending someone and willing to play the odds that they’re not going to go shoot up an elementary school. We are all afraid.

Last night, Mike Huckabee came out and said that this happened because we no longer have prayer in public schools. I wish I could ring his ever-expanding neck. In making those inane statements, he piled on to the fear mongering by saying that now we need to be afraid of God. We stopped praying in schools and look what happened in schools! God does not punish a country or a school system for not praying by allowing a room full of kindergarteners to be be gunned down. This is not how God operates. God is horrified and saddened as we all are by these events. God works through these situations but God does not will them.

The people involved in today’s events, especially the children, have learned a new way to fear today. They have eaten (or rather been force-fed) of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and their eyes are open. Life will always be different for them because they have seen the very worst of humanity. They have seen the culmination of indifference and a warped system in which it is easier to get a gun than it is to get treatment for mental illness. They will forever be afraid in ways that most of us will never understand.

I also think about the people around the world live with this kind of fear and violence every day. We’re very blessed to live where this type of occurrence is the exception and not the rule. When we have this kind of event it’s the big news for days and it’s all we talk about. Yet in other parts of the world this was a normal Friday. The fear there must be unimaginable, perpetual and deep.

Now we come to God’s message of “do not fear.” Of all the counter-cultural teachings of the Bible this may be the most radical, for it goes against all natural tendencies, all logic and all evidence. We look around us and see that there is no reason to do anything but fear. The Bible tells us that fear and love cannot co-exist, and the the very essence of God is love. Therefore, we cannot live in fear and effectively communicate God’s message of love to the world. Right now, it’s hard to not be fearful, sad, angry, frustrated, all the things that are natural at this time. We will feel all this and more but we have to move through it back to a place where love is more important. I’m not sure how to do that except for a steady diet of prayer and a constant giving back to God the things that cause my fear and anxiety.

This is a time of darkness for us, but I pray that the light of God’s love will illuminate the things that cause these kinds of tragedies and we will come together as communities to bring an end to the violence that is perpetuated by mental illness and the stigma that surrounds it.

Do not fear.

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