Some Lenten Foolishness
Timothy J. Mooney
My sophomore year in high school I went backpacking with a few friends at Hetch-Hetchy. Getting into my pack for supper, I heard a snort. “Ah, horse campers,” I thought. I turned around with a “Hi” already on my lips and there, 20 feet away, was a big brown bear. You’ve heard of the “Fear Response,” fight or flight, right? I turned, ran, crossed a flowing stream without getting my feet wet, and found myself 50 yards away, all in the blink of an eye. My conscious brain was not involved at all; my immediate response to fear was to take flight.
In Junior High School, there was a big, loud kid who talked non-stop and poked me on the shoulder for punctuation. I was afraid of him. But one day I reached the saturation point of pokes on the shoulder. I slugged him! “Stop poking me!” My response, eventually, was to fight, but it wasn’t a thought out choice, it was an impulse.
In high school a bunch of us drove 60 miles to see the movie The Exorcist. I chose to see it, and I knew there was nothing to fear except fear itself. But I was afraid! My experience in that movie exposed a raw vein of unexamined assumptions about the spiritual world and its potential power over me. After returning from the movie, my friend Jim and I drove out to a friend’s ranch to stay the night. We were getting up early to dig thistles out of their fields. On the drive, the theme song to The Exorcist came on the radio, and Jim and I nearly crawled out of our skin. I did not sleep well that night.
Growing up I loved my Dad, but I was afraid of him, too. To assuage that fear I aligned myself with him: against mom, my sister, against the world. I saw the world like he did, I agreed with his thoughts, I did everything just like he did, all to stay on his good side.
All of us are indelibly shaped by fear. Sudden fear causes a fight or flight response in us. But persistent fear induces more subtle reactions. We become paranoid; stick our head, ostrich-like, in the sand; begin to rationalize or go into denial; develop obsessive-compulsive behavior or sedate ourselves so we don’t feel the fear so much. We can’t avoid this, this is what we humans do. But it’s important to notice what it is we fear, and what our response is to persistent fear.
It’s an odd thing, really. Christianity has, in part, been shaped by fear. Fear of God. Think about that for a minute. I can look back on my relationship with God and see how I fled from God out of fear, occasionally fought with God out of fear, but most often I formed some type of alliance with God. I loved God, was on God’s side, but there was a fair amount of fear there, too. God had the power of life and death, blessing and curse, eternal life or the other place. Parts of scripture, in word and deed, suggest fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But what is the end of wisdom? Is it greater fear?
There is movement within the biblical witness; it is a movement away from fear of God toward love of God.
Jim Wallis in his book “God’s Politics” tells the story of his four-year-old son talking to him over the phone when he traveled. His son ended his conversations by saying, “Daddy, I love you, I like you, and you’re incredible.” But one day, Jim’s young son added one more thing to his goodbye. “Daddy, I love you, I like you, and you’re incredible. And Daddy, don’t be afraid.”
I imagine that this is what happened to Jesus himself. His affectionate and intimate name for God was abba, daddy, and he knew himself as beloved. Knowing that he was God’s beloved began to sink into his bones, and he then began to see that it was true for everyone else, male and female, Jew or Samaritan, wealthy and poor, clean or unclean. The most common thing he said was “Do not be afraid.” But as Jesus began to practice this truth more deeply the implications of this truth began to sink into the minds of the religious and political authorities. It undermined their power, it shined a bright light on their unjust policies, it threatened their existence. They tried to assert their power through fear: the threat of rejection, ostracism, suffering, humiliation, and death. But Jesus did not choose fear as a motivator. He chose love. The truth of his belovedness, of our belovedness, of everyone’s belovedness, had sunk so deep into his bones, that to shrink back from that and use fear instead would have been worse than death.
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says the only thing he wants to know between them is Christ and him crucified. Paul knows this sounds foolish, to both Greek and Jew alike. The Greeks wanted things to make sense: rational, efficient, logical. The crucifixion was none of these. The Jews wanted signs, miracles to make them believe. Crucifixion didn’t qualify. What Greeks and Jews considered foolishness was for Paul the wisdom of God: Jesus’ death atoned for humanity’s sins. But I think there is a deeper foolishness going on. Jesus, at every stage of his journey, at every crossroad and temptation, chose the way of love instead of the way of fear. God is not to be feared, God is to be loved. And God’s love is more real than death.
Death is our greatest fear. Death is the great unknown, the end of relationships – all our fears get their power from the fear of death. And that fear is palpable.
The belief in eternal salvation has empowered people to bravely face and overcome the fear of death. But there are some distinctions to be made. Suicide bombers believe they are doing God’s will and heaven awaits them. By overcoming the fear of death they are able to strap explosive devises around their chests and offer themselves in sacrifice. I guess you could say they are willing to lose their lives in order to save it. But there’s one large piece missing: love for one’s neighbor and love for one’s enemy. Believing that he and others were God’s Beloved, Jesus chose a way of being in the world that did not rely on the use of fear. Thomas Merton wrote, “The root of war is fear.” War, revenge, violence, injustice, and the fear that’s behind it all – is not God’s way.
That is the ultimate foolishness of the cross. I understand how Paul could interpret Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice to atone for our sins – it’s what much of the sacrificial system of the Hebrew tradition pointed to. But there’s another way to faithfully interpret the meaning of the cross. The ultimate foolishness is that Jesus believed everyone was God’s beloved. He believed love was the ultimate reality. He believed fear was in the way, rather than being the way.
I suppose I should tell you that after my fifty-yard flight of fear across the stream, I turned around and was surprised – the bear apparently had been afraid of me as much as I was of it. He’d sprinted fifty-yards in the opposite direction. We did not sleep much that night; every rustle of the pine trees became a potential bear attack. Immediate fear seems so much easier to deal with than persistent fear. Gerald May, in his wonderful writings, offers us a choice he says each one of us must make each day: between love or fear. He writes: “If you choose the side of fear, you are likely to stifle your love by trying to make sure you never make a mistake. If you choose love, you will surely make some mistakes, but you will be growing and making a difference in the world around you…on balance, I would prefer a thousand mistakes in extravagance of love to any paralysis in wariness of fear. Our world has known too much of fear, defensiveness, and mistrust; I think we could use a healthy dose of unmitigated, mistake-making loving.”
What persistent fear is showing up in your life? How are you reacting to it?
In this season of Lent, let us see that Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross was an extravagance of love that shouts to all: “I love you, I like you, you’re incredible, and don’t be afraid.” Amen.