Recently, I have heard a lot of people say "If that person becomes our president, I am seriously terrified about what might happen to our world." Each time I've heard this, I have noticed I am quick to empathize with them, to nod in agreement, to let my own fears be voiced and magnify the concern in their comment. Basically, I keep finding that I tend to contribute to the fear mongering and help make a mountain of fear from a molehill of concern.
This recent pattern has left me wondering: What happened to my tendency to be an optimistic person? Why are we all so afraid? And, how is Christ really inviting us to respond during this Lenten season?
I don't think I have it all figured out. But, I am pretty sure about this: practically everyone I know — including myself — is afraid of something serious nowadays. Whether we're afraid of who might get elected, a terrorist attack, a shooting, losing our jobs, an oil crisis, or of how climate change could harm our food, water or air sources, fears are affecting us all.
It's ugly out there. Fears are tearing apart our nation, neighborhoods and families. It's getting tougher to engage in peaceful, rational dialogue about important issues and build quality relationships. Fears are impacting the way we deal with diversity; fears are influencing whether we avoid or accept people who live, believe, act or look differently than we do. We are defensive and reactionary, oftentimes in the cruelest of ways. We turn to name-calling, blame, anger and resentment. Some are insisting upon tighter boundaries, imagining new walls, and creating closed communities. Others are becoming obsessed with weapons and an ability to defend oneself. No matter who we are or what we are afraid of, our fears have created enemies among us.
Fortunately, we don't need to stay stuck in our fear. We are designed to be better than the pain that our fears can create. By God's grace we can be freed from the burdens we have made for ourselves and develop into healthier people. Lent is especially a season for transformation, a chance for us to be renewed and revived by God's abundant mercy as it overtakes us. Then we can become lighter while loads of ugly, fearful tendencies are lifted from us.
Changed and renewed, we can then live out the heart of our Christian vocation and love one another.
Here are some ideas I have about ways we can avoid getting stuck in our fear, and instead act in love:
• Read and pray with Scripture. The Bible is full of encouragement to "be not afraid" (Mark 6:50) and "have no anxiety at all" (Philippians 4:6) and "do not worry about tomorrow" (Matthew 6:34).
• Read modern thinkers who give advice about how to remain hopeful. I found this Christian response to this fearful time especially valuable.
• Remember that fear doesn't mix with love. I have been thinking a lot about the idea that "love, not hate, is the opposite of fear." Scripture helps me understand that love and fear don't mix: There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. (1 John 4: 18)
• Find ways to reach out to others with kindness. It seems to me that most of us are afraid of people or circumstances of which we lack knowledge or experience. In order to love our neighbors we need to get to know them, or at least make ourselves available for them. It can be risky, but offering ourselves as a friend and offering to help out with things can lead to building real trust.
• Ask God to help you see your enemies with love. Read and pray with Matthew 5:44-48. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you see the persons you like the least the way that God sees them — with love. Keep the cross of Christ as a model of how to love our enemies in sacrificial, redemptive and selfless ways.
• Forgive and offer compassion. Once we start to see our enemies the way that God sees them, we can begin to realize that they are trying their best at being human, just as we are. Although this can take more prayer and help from God, we might start to appreciate them.
• Be willing to be courageous. When the enemy that we're trying to love continues to insult or oppress us, then we may need to non-violently stand up to them and speak out on behalf of justice. This takes creativity, courage, and intentionality. And, it works better when others are doing it with us, in community.
• Look in the mirror. Sometimes the enemy that we most need to love is ourselves, so we can better love God and neighbor more authentically. This takes prayer and grounded intentionality, just like loving one's enemies does. In order to love ourselves, we need to understand our triggers and weaknesses. What angers and fears blind us to God's love and mercy? When does our sinful ego take over and distract us from operating out of a conscious, Christ-centered space?
Our fears don't need to lock us down. We are all in this together, like it or not, and we need each other. This Lenten season asks us to silence the chorus of fear, and step forward into loving our enemies with strength and compassion.
I have reasons to hope that God can help me change my fears into love because it's happened in the past. Once, I realized that I was feeling very hateful toward a powerful person and had made an enemy in my heart. I prayed and asked God to help me love him. Then, I had a dream that we were sitting together at dinner and he was cracking all sorts of jokes and making me laugh. The next day I woke up with a real appreciation for the person that has never left me. My enemy became someone I love.
In this fearful age, God can transform all of us and the ways we feel about each other. We can love in radical ways, guided by our faith that each of us — even the person who scares us the most — are truly children of God deserving to be loved and cherished. Then, freed from the fears that plague our conversations, news, and dynamics, we can powerfully love one another just as God has loved us, sharing transformative mercy and hope.
[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]