Harrowing Of Hell
November 29, 2015

Living Beyond Fear

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves.” Our gospel goes on to say, “People will faint from fear and foreboding from what is coming upon the world.”

That sounds pretty apocalyptic. That sounds like cosmic distress. That is how I have been feeling lately, but only when I forget who I am, and whose I am.

Judy, our communications manager, is off to Zimbabwe in a few days to help build a hospital there. She received an email from the State Department warning her of a worldwide terrorist threat and saying that she is traveling at her own risk. That gave her some anxiety.

Similarly in this country, the FBI has issued an unspecified terrorist alert saying that we are in imminent danger, yet claiming there is no specific identifiable threat. Their advice is that we go about our regular lives, only more vigilantly. In other words: don’t worry, don’t be afraid, just be ready at all times for an unexpected attack.

And so I wonder, how does one live like that? How does one live in a world where we are asked to live normally while perpetually under threat? How do we live like that?

I remember years ago, when I was doing international relief work. I found myself traveling with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Force in what was then northern Ethiopia. They were in the midst of a thirty-year civil war. We had arrived in the port city of Misawa, which, only 12 hours earlier, had been liberated (or defeated, depending on your point of view). I was exhausted after traveling all night with the freedom fighters (or rebels, depending on your point of view). I had fallen asleep on the floor of an old mansion that was now the ELPF headquarters.

I awoke to bombs going off. I scrambled to the basement. There I found soldiers milling around by the door. It was a walkout basement. They joked with me about the bombing. I remember one urged me to go stand in the middle of a field and wave my arms. “That is the safest place when the Ethiopians are bombing,” he claimed, “because they couldn’t hit anything they were aiming at.” They all thought that was hysterical. I decided not to test it out.

For 30 years the Eritrean community lived in a constant state of threat, and one way they dealt with it was humor. It was effective, but only because of their underlying core commitment to their cause. They were unwaveringly committed, to the point of giving their lives, to the cause of Eritrean independence. Living under this constant state of threat was a by-product, a necessary by-product, if you will, that came with seeking their higher cause. So they diluted their anxiety with humor, and it gave them ease in the face of fear.

And so I wonder, in this world where we too live in a state of heightened vigilance, what is the higher cause we are attached to? If we are destined to live in a world where our government says that, whether here or abroad, we are in imminent danger at all times, then I believe if we are to live beyond fear we must be able to answer the questions: What is my higher cause? Who am I? What is my identity? What is my purpose? Because without answers to these questions life becomes a state of medium-grade anxiety that spikes every time a terrorist attacks.

And what the terrorists are counting on, what gives them their power, is that we can’t answer the questions: What is our higher cause? Who are we? What is our identity? What is our purpose?

It is a question the Eritreans could answer. It is a question the ISIS terrorist can answer. And those terrorists are betting that we can’t answer that question, or if we do, the answer is ourselves. This is our higher cause, ourselves, our survival, and the survival of our families. Now if that is our best answer (not that it is a bad answer, it is a normal, natural way to respond), then they can hem us into a state of constant fear, anxiety, and paralysis. All they need to do is create a little bit of uncertainty at all times, just enough uncertainty to cause us to build walls, isolate strangers, and give away our freedoms in exchange for the promise of more safety, which by their own admission our government cannot do.

If our best answer to the question, “What is our higher cause?” is “ourselves and our family,” then we will be crippled by the terrorists.

The theologian Augustine of Hippo called this incurvatus in se: that is, the great turning inward, the curving in on oneself, that happens when we think that we and our survival, are the higher cause of life. When that happens evil makes its mischief, and evil is making mischief today, scaring us to turn inward, incurvatus in se, with fear and foreboding. We are bent over, heads down, waiting for the next shoe to drop, or the next terrorist to attack. This is what our scripture is about today.

Jesus says, “Stand up!” Jesus says, “Raise your head up! Look at the fig tree.” Just as its buds are a sign of summer approaching, so these terrible times, these shaking foundations are a sign that Jesus, in power and glory, is taking hold and taking off, and inviting us to step over fear and beyond the evil of our times.

When the foundation of heaven quakes the question isn’t, “Where do we run and hide?” The questions are: Who are we? What is our identity? What is our purpose? What is our higher cause? If it is incurvatus in se, then evil wins. If it is simply for our survival, then evil wins as we curve inward, instead of standing upright and lifting our heads high and living into the power and great glory of the Son of Man.

Let me tell you what victory looks like by telling you about Kathie Fazekas. She works for the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. Last week she was at the Radisson Hotel in Bamako, Mali, when the terrorist attacked.

In a CNN interview, Kathie said, when she heard gunfire and screaming, she locked her door. Then she sent her husband an email that said, “I love you, and I love the children.” And she added, “No matter what, I am going home.” She was certain she was going home. I found the phraseology interesting. It wasn’t: “I’m coming home.” It was: “I’m going home.”

The reporter never asked her to clarify, but I have a sense that she is a Christian, and that she knew, whether she lived or she died, she was going home. This sense was brightened for me when she talked about why she was in Mali. It wasn’t about her survival. It was about her higher cause: the eradication of polio.

The interviewer, of course, went for the dramatic. He asked her what she felt when the Special Forces freed her. And she said, “These guys put their lives on the line for me. I don’t know much French, but I know enough to say, “Merci beaucoup, merci beaucoup, thank you.”

She went on: “My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones in this attack, but I believe they were here doing what they loved. And if that day came for me, I hope someone would be saying the same thing about me. . . . I was doing something I loved.”

And so we return to our questions with Kathie’s story in mind: Who are we? What is our identity? What is our purpose? What is our higher cause?

Kathie worked for the CDC. She loved her job, and yet it was just her job. There are people who work at the CDC who do not like their job. That I can guarantee. It is not the job that gives purpose; it is what fuels the job that gives it purpose.

For Christians, that is following Jesus by living our lives as Jesus would if he were you or me. Followers of Jesus believe that God made all things and all people, and God called all of this good. Followers of Jesus believe that God is here and near, right next to us. And this reality is made permanent and punctuated through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus believe in eternal life, that we are bigger than the space our bodies occupy. Followers of Jesus believe that love vanquishes fears.

Let me say this another way. As Christians we believe in:

  • Inclusion of all people
  • The permanent and perpetual presence of God
  • Eternity, meaning we are bigger than the space we occupy, and
  • Love that drives out all fear.

Inclusion. Presence. Eternity. Love. We are Christians, and we are fearless because God loves us and came among us in the person of Jesus.

That is how we repel the insidious nature of evil. Love stamps out fear. That is how we push back against terror. We are Christians. That is who we are. It is our identity. We have a higher purpose: It is the love of God. It is knowing the love of God. It is experiencing the love of God. And is sharing the love of God.

And so we stand up and raise our heads up. Our love matters. Our love makes a difference. Right now. Our love is the power and great glory that vanquishes evil, but it requires our knowing who we are, and whose we are.