Monday, June 28, 2010 by niebuhrian
‘And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: ‘I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.
From my second to my eighth grade years we lived in the same home in Decatur, Georgia. It was an old ranch style bungalow that, at one point, had its top popped and then lovingly wrapped in lime green asbestos shingles. By the time we moved into the house it was in dire need of updating and my parents set about the task of renovating it from top to bottom. This was a project that last every day from the moment we moved in through the final week before we sold it and moved to Florida.
Our slowly transforming lime green abode was the first house on a block bordered by businesses behind and to the west of us. Thankfully, there was a vacant lot that provided a bit of a buffer between our bedroom windows and the car dealership next door. That vacant lot was ringed with large oak trees and when we first moved in it was neglected, but you could see clearly from the street to the alley in the back. As time wore on, the weeds continued to grow until they formed a canopy of flimsy trees.
It was a wonderful place to play hide and seek or any manner of games that involved chasing another person while being slapped by bushes and branches. Throughout the days, months and years, our constant running wove a path from the street to the alley which enabled us to quickly move from one end of our house to the other sight unseen.
One day, a few years before we moved, I took off out of the back yard with a friend following close behind. I broke out in a full sprint around the corner of our garage and headed towards the path in the back of the vacant lot. Careening through the branches which floated over the edges of the path, I rounded a bend in the path at full speed with my friend only a few steps behind me.
The moment I rounded the corner my eyes widened as I dug my heels in the ground and skidded to stop about a foot from a large spider which sat in the middle of its web spun directly across the trail. My abrupt stop alarmed my friend and, hands out, he pushed into my back as he attempted to avoid running over me. His momentum edged me forward to within inches of the spider and its web. My heart pounded in my chest as I focused on the spider and directed my muscles and body to avoid it at all costs. I felt my body contort into an oddly tall banana shape as my arms curved over the top of the web and my feet felt as though they slid underneath it. I desperately began to backpedal trying to escape, and I felt myself let out a scream as I was being pushed ever closer to the web. Somewhat angry, definitely afraid, I practically climbed over my friend to retreat back the way I came faster than I had ever run before.
For the last two and a half years I spent my time wondering and learning about the emotion of far. During that time, I have been aware of two things, that God often tells us not to be afraid; and that fear is an inescapable human reality and one of the most powerful human emotions and forces in our lives.
To be afraid is to be human. It is to act out of the most basic emotional instincts and reactions to something that threatens us. I think, maybe, in a weird way, God tells us not to be afraid so much mostly because we really can’t help it. You see, there is this little part of our brains that makes the emotion of fear an inescapable reality.
Out of clay, the great potter saw it fit to add a little fear center to our highly evolved brains that makes us squeal like a helpless toddler when something threatening surprises us. This is why the words “do not fear” can often feel out of place. I mean, seriously, has God seen the world lately? All the floods, earthquakes, oil spills, wars, all of the crime we hear reported, and the constant food and medicine recalls. The world can be an overwhelming and scary place, and God has the audacity, when our bodies are hardwired to experience fear, to tell us not to be afraid.
The summer before I began high school, we sold that formerly lime green house and moved to Florida, far away from that frightful vacant lot. It was the first time I ever had a bathroom to myself. It was a three quarter bath, with a tiny shower stall, but it was mine.
When I showered in the morning before school I would often hang my towel over the shower rod so that I could dry myself off without tracking water everywhere in the bathroom. One morning upon finishing my shower, I began to retrieve my towel. As the end of the towel whipped over the rod, I saw that a large brown spider had ridden its way to the top on the tail end of the towel...
The next few moments happened in slow motion as I watched the spider leap off the towel, certain that it was going for my jugular. I pressed my back against one wall as it plummeted into the small shower stall with me, legs splayed into, what I was convinced, was an attack position.
As soon as it hit the floor, I leapt an equal distance out of the shower, simultaneously throwing my towel on top of it. I quickly turned on the shower. Remembering that the rain washed the itsy bitsy spider out and I was going to make sure it washed this one away as well.
Later I went back to retrieve my towel only to find that the spider was gone. For a few days afterwards I had recurring dreams of a sopping wet angry spider stalking me throughout the house…
One of the reasons that fear is so important is that it helps us survive in a world that can sometimes feel overwhelming and threatening. There are things out there, people, places, animals, objects that make the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. These things make us want to run, to protect ourselves, to somehow escape to live another day.
In the case of our passage from Revelation the threat is the suffering, probably more specifically, the pain and torture that would accompany the suffering. The church at Smyrna recognized that there were threats in their midst; people, institutions, leaders who wanted to do them harm and to make them suffer for what they professed.
Rightfully so, they became afraid. Maybe they insulated themselves from those around them, hiding their faith and beliefs. It is natural to want to run when fear strikes, to sever the relationships that might cause us harm. Fear, left unchecked, can take over our lives and isolate us from people who care about us; it can isolate us from a community of faith, or a family, or even God. Furthermore, fear is contagious. Once something frightening is reported to be true, our imaginations take over and we begin to become more aware and suspicious of our surroundings.
One of the major stories of American history will be the attacks on September 11th. A footnote to those attacks is the five people killed by anthrax sent through the mail about a month afterwards. The reporting of these ominous letters set off a small panic in certain circles of America.
One of the interesting things about humans, or any animal for that matter, is that when we experience the emotion of fear, we become quite self serving. Fear, quite appropriately, leads to activities related to self-preservation and self-importance.
Once the widespread reporting of this credible threat reached a saturation point, a new industry popped up to exploit this goal of self-preservation. Anthrax protection kits became the rage, as stores slapped together a breathing mask, rubber gloves and goggles and marketed them as a cure for our fears. Not to be left behind, purveyors of plastic sheeting and duct tape were boxed together as protection from biological or chemical agents.
The makers of the original duct tape went so far as to create a new product which promised to seal the corners of your windows so that nothing could get in or out. A few months after these attacks we began a war on terror, a war on fear if you will, which continues today.
What is interesting about our war on fear is the tactics begin used; we tell everyone to be more vigilant, to be more aware, essentially to be more afraid of everyone and everything in order to prevent feeling terrorized.
The ironic thing about fighting fear with more fear is that it inevitably leads to greater isolation, suspicion and discord. When we fight fear with fear, our imaginations get the best of us. And ordinary garden spiders suddenly become shadowy figures stalking us in the night; ordinary people become enemies before anything is known about them; and the church isolates themselves from the people around them, pushing away the challenges and possibilities that come with novelty and creativity.
But the amazing thing is that despite all of the times we give in to our fears, God remains faithful. To the church in Smyrna, the command is that they remain just as faithful. That they have hope, even in the midst of their trials.
During my two years of study on the emotion of fear, I came to learn one important thing that helps us understand what God is asking us to realize. That is, that fear and hope are inextricably tied together.
There is no fear apart from hope, because without hope there is little reason to live, to want to survive, to attempt to thrive.
When we are afraid, we are afforded a window of opportunity to remember the things that are important to us. Fear not only saves us from something that threatens us, it also saves us for tomorrow; for all of the relationships that are meaningful to us; for all the places that help us realize God’s presence; for all the dreams that provide meaningful windows into the future.
To be afraid is not the end of the world, it is merely a fact of the world. However, for those of us who believe in an active God, a God that cares for us, a God that provides the possibilities for a hopeful future. Fear can be something positive that reminds us what is worth living for at the end of the day.
The message to the church in Smyrna is the same message that is given to the church today. The world will be a difficult place; there will be times when the obvious response to the things happening around you is fear. Don’t worry though, fear is a natural response to these difficult moments and threatening things; just remember, fear is not the end of things.
Your faith, the faith that sustains you, the faith that gives you strength, the faith that you profess in a living God is more powerful than anything that threatens you. In fact, if you look hard enough at those moments of fear, you will see the hope of God as it plays out in the meaningful moments and relationships of your life. So go out into this world and be afraid, but don’t let fear rule your life. Instead live in the hope born of being a son or daughter of God…