Fear

Faith is a terrifying thing.

And, if that was the end of the story, that would not be enough to build a society-wide community of people around a particular faith tradition. Terror is, at best, a niche market.

Consider scary movies: it’s not that they don’t sell out at the box office, it’s just that in comparison to the latest feel-good, fun-for-the-whole-family animated film, they’re failures.

The funny thing about United States culture is that we do a really good job admiring fear’s cousins courage and endurance, because in our social narrative they lead to triumph and success. (And ain’t nothing USAmericans love more than triumph and success.)

Yet, we spend little to no time grappling with fear: arguably the most critical foundation for the end outcomes we are primed to admire.

Preachers like me will sometimes dwell on this topic during Holy Week — the most sacred week of the Christian year — emphatically stressing that Easter Sunday can’t come without Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In other words, we can’t start with triumph and success and somehow build more triumph and success.

What I’m thinking about today, though, is that our “product” as Christian faith leaders is, essentially fear. Faith is a terrifying thing.

I’m not saying faith isn’t rewarding or that faith isn’t meaningful. Perhaps more than many in my progressive Christian faith movement, I’m pretty big on Jesus being fully divine and fully human — an incredible faith statement, especially in an era and tradition that appeals to reason and objectivity.

But that’s part of the terrifying bit.

Then, when you start considering that ours is a faith that challenges the idea that strength is determined by the outward demonstrations of power of the surrounding culture, instead advancing the idea that God’s center is in the margins, things really start to snowball.

God’s center, God’s core, God’s power, is found in society’s margins.

God’s center is in the person struggling with addiction, down to the last $2 in their bank account that won’t buy another bottle to hide the pain.

God’s center is in the refugee family, having walked a thousand miles with another thousand miles in front of them to get to a place of safety, having worn out their only shoes 500 miles ago and burying their kin that didn’t make it along the way.

God’s center is in the bankrupt man who lost everything when his cancer diagnosis prevented him from being able to go to work and he was fired, and what the disease didn’t take the collections agencies did.

They’re stories that make good sermon illustrations, but they make poor foundations to build institutions. Buildings, bodies, and bucks are the three sacred B’s to institutional church. Without the three, the institution fails.

So we soften the fear. We delegate the work to others. We insulate ourselves.

I was in a meeting once where the pastor was telling me about the time the church needed to ask a homeless person to quit attending worship because his body odor was offensive to the membership, and the pastor was worried because giving was down and they wouldn’t be able to go on as a church without keeping Sunday morning collections up. Dare I say, they’ve quit being a church a few miles back.

I’m staring my Jesus Year in the face. I’ve been journaling in my prayer and study time recently about what made the band of Apostolic women, men, and others that dropped everything to follow the man from Nazareth do such a crazy thing.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m currently 32 that the type of fear inherent to faith seems not just appealing, but even innate and intuitive. It’s compelling, invigorating. It offers a type of promise that nothing else can provide.

It’s freedom. Abundance. Purpose. Meaning.

And, like that band of Apostles and others who followed Jesus around, I don’t understand it at all. Not one speck. Every time I think I get something figured out, a few minutes later I find myself saying, “WTF?”

(Well, most of the time it’s the initials. Sometimes it’s not. That’s OK, too.)

Faith answers questions with more questions. To certainty it provides ambiguity. It responds to despair with hope. In place of practicality it uses the language of audacity.

That’s hard stuff to build an institution around, at least in the way we’ve built institutions since the 1950’s. Like, really hard. I know, I’m about as fully embedded in a religious institution as you can get.

But, I wonder, still, if leaning in to the fear is precisely what will save us, if it’s not precisely where God calls us and Spirit leads us.

“Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword. I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. People’s enemies are members of their own households.

“Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me.Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” –Matthew 10:34-39

The stock picture I chose for this post illustrates the bizarre balance between fear and possibility for me. I’m terrified of heights — like, can’t look down from a railing of a second-floor balcony terrified. But, provided the water is deep enough for a jump from the height, for whatever reason I will take the jump into water.

Last week I spent time with my boyfriend at a waterpark resort in central Wisconsin. Most of the time in the waterparks, I was on a tube floating along the lazy river. (It was vacation, after all.)

One of those lazy rivers went underneath a tube body slide that included a freefall of about two stories with water cascading down around you before you started fully gliding along the slide up and around a loop to the splashchute.

After floating under it a few dozen times, hearing all the excitement — and, perhaps most importantly of all, noticing that there was rarely a long line waiting for it — I told my boyfriend that I wanted to do it.

He rolled his eyes at me. Rightly so; when I thought about it I would feel my knees start to get that jelly feeling. Time to take a few more laps floating around the lazy river.

Eventually I decided to do it.

And as I stood on top of the plexiglass trap door, hearing the beep, beep, beep counting down my impending drop, it took everything within me not to scream and try punching through the cover of the tube that closed around me.

Beep, beep, beep… snap… whoosh

I didn’t scream. I didn’t laugh. To my great relief, I didn’t leave a mess in the behind of my swim shorts. I just froze and let the fear take me over.

I don’t remember the loop. I just remember the splashchute spraying over me and bringing me to a stop, it seemed, in less time than I stood on top of that trap door.

But I did feel the grin across my face. I got back in the lazy river, but was disappointed that the line for the slide kept growing the rest of the day and I never did it again.

Because that’s the really compelling thing about faith and fear: terrifying and terrific come from the same word.

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Daniel Ross-Jones

Rev. Daniel Ross-Jones is a United Church of Christ pastor and nonprofit organizational leadership professional based in Silicon Valley.

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