Happy New Year!
Today is the first day of 2024. How do we want to begin this new year? What might the Spirit be saying to us and inviting us into?
As I prayed and listened over this time in my life, I heard four simple words: Do not be afraid! Perhaps this message is also relevant to you.
Confessing My Fear
I have to begin with a confession. In many ways, 2023 was a year of fear for me. Looking back, I can see how fear haunted me, limited me, strove to trap me, block me, and pull me under.
I began the year with the fear that I would be rejected and abandoned by people I love.
I was dogged by the fear that I couldn’t heal from traumatic wounds in my soul and that I would always feel broken and empty inside.
I was haunted by fear that I could no longer write and that my vocation was coming undone.
All throughout these other fears, I was attacked by fear that I was inadequate, disappointing, and thus again setup up to be rejected and abandoned.
I was weighed down by fears of depression and health problems in myself and in my family and the fear of how they might harm our relationships.
I was haunted by the fear that nothing really changes and that hope is a dangerous illusion – for me, for people I love, for places I love. This was a kind of doubled meta-fear: the fear that my fears are permanent and will always be with me.
Perhaps you have also struggled with fear in 2023. I invite you to pause and consider: What fears have surfaced in you this year?
The Advent Pattern
This Christmas I reread the stories of Jesus’ birth several times. And I couldn’t help noticing a striking pattern. It happened over and over again.
Each time God’s messenger speaks to one of the characters connected with Jesus’s birth, the angel says the same, exact thing. He says, “Do not be afraid.” This happens with Joseph. And then with Zechariah. And then with Mary. And also with the shepherd boys.
These visitations were grace-filled moments of God-given possibility. They were arguably the most important, most sacred, indeed, probably the most joyful and beautiful moments of each of these persons’ lives.
Joseph, go ahead and get married to Mary; you’re part of something birthed from the Spirit of God.
Zechariah, you’ve been waiting a lifetime for this: you and Elizabeth are finally going to have a baby, and he’s going to prepare the way for the Messiah
Mary, surprise: you’ve been chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah, the mother of God’s Child.
Shepherds, you’re not nobodies: God wants you to be the very first witnesses of God’s Child.
These were once-in-a-life-time blessings – truly, once-in-history blessings. They were God-given gifts of infinite preciousness, as each of God’s gifts always is.
And yet. the first response of each one of these people was fear. Joseph — fear. Zechariah — fear. Mary — fear. The shepherds — fear. They’re wildly different people: a young woman in a rural village; a craftsman also in a rural village; an elderly priest in the heart of Jerusalem and the temple itself; young boys watching animals out in the fields. And yet their response is the same: fear. I can see myself in each one of them.
We’re often told that these people were afraid of the angel. Perhaps angels aren’t cute, harmless cherubs after all but fierce, tremendous heavenly being. But I’m not sure that’s why these people were afraid. If they were afraid of the angel, I’d expect the angel to tell them, “Do not be afraid. I’m not going to hurt you” or “I’m safe.” But that’s not how the angel responds to any of them.
Instead, notice that the angel names the new possibility or the new invitation that God is giving them. For Joseph, it’s marrying the pregnant Mary. For Zechariah, it’s becoming a father in his old age. For Mary, it’s becoming the mother of the Messiah. For the shepherds, it’s going to meet the Messiah in person.
It’s the presence of divine possibility that seems to trigger their fear: something new, something different, is about to be set in motion, and it seems that each character is secretly feeling inside, “I’m not sure I want that new thing to happen!”
The Precipice of Fear
I’ve found that fear seeks to trap us and control us. It wants to keep us stuck in what is familiar to us and seemingly under our control – even if that familiarity is really controlling us. Fear says, “No, this can’t be real; don’t take this seriously or get your hopes up.” Or fear says, “This will cause you pain; don’t be open to this.” In other words: stay where you are; don’t take that next step. Don’t sit down to write. Don’t spend time with your canvas. Don’t make that phone call. Or send that email. Or have that scary conversation. Or explore that pain inside. Don’t take that next, new step.
In whatever language it speaks, fear urges us to pull back, to close up. It wants us to withdraw, to disengage, to abort the new thing God wants to birth in us.
I experienced this trapping, controlling power of fear very tangibly this October in Maine. Dear friends invited me to visit them and go hiking in Acadia National Park. We drove through Maine’s winding roads, painting-like forests, and then along the glorious coast with its crashing waves. Eventually, we arrived at a breathtakingly beautiful path appropriately named Precipice.
There we climbed up flows of massive boulders set in place by glaciers millions of years ago. It was as if giants had flung marbles down the mountainside, and we were ants inching our way up them. We climbed up staircase after staircase of rock that had been cut into the face of the mountain. Eventually, we got to the point where the path became a vertical wall of granite rising straight above our heads. The only way to continue was to monkey ourselves up small metal staples hammered into the rock.
This is where the path really started to get frightening for me. But then I understood why it was called Precipice. At the top of those staples, we arrived at a sliver-like cliff-edge that wound around the face of the mountain. At points, the path was only about a foot wide. To your left is a wall of rock with only a metal handrail to hold on to. To your right is free-fall — a straight drop down into the forest and certain death. Behind you are other hikers, so going back isn’t an option. (And I confess that I thought about going back!)
As I inched along the cliff-edge of the Precipice, fear began to flare up in me. The way this manifested itself is that I started asking what-if questions: “What if I made a mistake coming here, and I should be somewhere else? What if I’m not able to do this, and I should be someone else? What if I fall and end up crumpled on the rocks below? What if I lose my life and bring terrible pain to Lily?”
Have you ever get detained and arrested by what-if questions in the face of your fear?
Notice what these seemingly protective what-if questions of fear were actually doing to me. They were de-presencing me. They were taking me off the path and somewhere else — into my own head and my worst scenarios. In that moment, the safest place for me to be was fully present on the path — taking one step, and then another, and then one more. Walking the path is what I came to do, and that was the safest thing for me to do in that moment.
But fear’s depresencing what-if questions were taking me away from the path and trapping me inside my own imaginary scenarios. Unsurprisingly, as I went deeper into these de-presencing questions, I became increasingly anxious, dizzy, and stuck. I felt like I was freezing up and couldn’t move forward. (Thankfully, my friend David was present with me, helped me come back to the present with his gentle words, and and we safely climbed to the summit together. Thank you, David!)
Fear has this incredibly potent power. It wants to control us and trap us. It promises to protect us from loss. But then it de-presences us and cuts us off from what we really need and desire. And so it produces loss.
Maybe God is wanting to do something new and good in our lives. Maybe this goodness is just for us or maybe it’s for us and also for others through us. But fear seeks to shut this goodness down and to close it off. Joseph was receiving the good gift of Mary as his wife; but he was also being invited to be part of loving, protecting, and raising the Savior of the world. In this way, Joseph was being invited to touch the lives of billions of people and all humanity, indeed, every thing in creation. Fear would have kept Joseph from this ultimate gift. Imagine if Joseph had been trapped in his fear and replied to the angel, “No, it’s too risky. We’re not married yet, and Mary is pregnant. My community won’t understand or accept this. I can’t be part of Mary’s life anymore. I’m divorcing her.”
Fear wields and weaponizes this terrible power: to vanish and void the gifts of God in us.
Fear, Loss, and Irony
What is the root of fear? Fear is a complex root system with many tendrils. But perhaps the tap root of fear is the risk of loss. At least, I notice that I feel fear when I face the possibility of losing something I love. It could be the loss of a relationship or safety or the loss of dignity or the loss of my identity or my memory. Why are we so afraid to die? Death represents the possibility of totally losing ourselves and the certainty of losing all control over ourselves. When the possibility of loss shows up on the radar, fear is the alarm system that starts blaring and pulsating.
Fear promises to protect us from this loss. It says, “If you do what I say, I’ll keep you safe.” Notice our characters in the Christmas story again.
It seems that Joseph feared disgrace – losing his belonging in his community. Divorcing Mary would seemingly cancel that risk of loss and keep him safe.
It seems Zechariah feared disappointment, the loss of his own heart: “I’m too old to have a child; if I get my hopes up, they’ll only be dashed again when this doesn’t happen.” Dismissing the angel’s promise would cancel this risk of disappointment, of lost hope, and seemingly keep hi safe.
I wonder if the shepherds feared the loss of their dignity: “We’re nobodies, and this angel wants us to think we’re somebodies who can show up and spend time with the Messiah. This can’t be true. If we even find him, we’ll be turned away and lose whatever shred of self-respect we have.” Not going would prevent that humiliation from even being possible.
Maybe Mary’s fear was similar to Joseph’s: “If I have a baby as an unmarried woman, I’ll l lose my community, my belonging, even my own self.” Again, saying no would seem to be the safest option.
And this is the irony of fear: fear promises to protect us from loss; but fear guarantees loss. Notice how fear wanted to control and cut off each of these people from God’s gift in this pivotal moment of history.
Imagine if Joseph had said, “No, I’m sorry, I need to divorce Mary.” What incredible, self-selected, self-imposed loss — for himself, for Jesus, for all of us.
Imagine if the shepherds had said, “No, we’re sorry, we’re just low-class, ordinary people; the Messiah isn’t interested in meeting us. We’re not going.” What incredible, self-selected, self-imposed loss — for themselves, for the people they told about Jesus, and for all of us ordinary people who draw inspiration from these youth being the first witnesses of God’s Child.
Most of all, imagine if Mary had allowed herself to be controlled by her fear: “I’m sorry, I’m too young. I don’t understand what you’re saying. It sounds impossible. Even if it is possible, there’s too much loss at risk. I’m not ready to have a baby; my community won’t understand; the Messiah will get into trouble. I’m afraid; I can’t be part of this. Find someone else to be the Messiah’s mother.” For two thousand years, literally billions of people around the world have drawn inspiration and hope from Mary’s faith. This young, vulnerable, courageous woman said yes to God. Imagine the extraordinary, billion-fold loss if Mary had said, “I’m too afraid; count me out.”
This is what fear wants to do: it wants to control us and cut us off from God’s gifts. And it does this by lying to us: it promises to protect us from loss, and then fear produces loss. As I’ve suggested, fear is a self-selecting, self-imposing guarantee of things staying the same or even getting worse. It de-presences us and takes us off the path God is giving us to walk. Fear says to us, “Don’t trust. Don’t try. Don’t step out. Don’t show up. Don’t open yourself to God and life and your own dignity, your own agency, your God-given invitation to be part of something good. Stay where you are. Stay as you are.”
“Do Not Be Afraid”
How does God respond to our fear?
God explicitly names our fear, and God confronts it head on. To each person in the Christmas story, God says, “Do not be afraid!” This command is usually paired with a promise like, “I am with you. Goodness is coming. You can trust me.”
These divine words “Do not be afraid” remind me of a beam of light shining into a dark room. The light doesn’t argue with the darkness. The light doesn’t try to convince the darkness. The light simply shines into the darkness, scatters and dispels it.
Similarly, God, who is light and love, doesn’t argue with our fear. God simply says, “Release your fear; don’t let it control you. You don’t need to be possessed by the possibility that you might lose something you love – that you might be vulnerable. I am with you; I want something good for you. Do not be afraid!”
And we watch as each of these ordinary people respond with trust. They disobey their fear, make mundane choices of faith, and take the next step on the path. Mary chooses to say yes to becoming pregnant. Joseph chooses to marry Mary. Zechariah chooses to return home to Elizabeth. The shepherds choose to walk to Bethlehem and look for a baby in an animal shelter.
The Christmas story is a microcosm of what we see throughout the Bible and our own lives:
First, God meets people where they are again and again, and God invites them to take a new step of faith on their journey.
Second, again and again, fear is their response to the presence of God. Seemingly everyone in the Bible feels afraid when they encounter divine possibility. They feel the compulsion to avoid and close off this presence — to protect themselves from the possibility of loss, disappointment, and pain. It’s astonishing and comforting to see how common this fear response is. Even the most respected heroes of faith experience fear, including Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the liberator Moses; prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel; the apostles Peter, Paul, and John; and the collective community of Jesus’s first followers (they literally lock themselves in a room and shake with fear!).
Third, again and again, God says, “Do not be afraid.” God names our fear, confronts our fear, and asks us to release our fear. In doing so, God re-presences us, promises us we are safe, and invites us to make a fresh choice of trusting God.
A Sacred Shower of Love and Trust
I invite you to slowly read through these words from God in the face of our fear. Receive them as a sacred shower of faith to wash away fear and refresh our trust. As you read, notice the prevalence of God’s promise to be with the people who are afraid. Perhaps our deepest fear is being alone, and God assures us that we are never truly alone.
To Abraham, far from his family and homeland, God says, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1).
To Hagar, rejected and abandoned in the wilderness with her child Ismael, God says, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 21:17-18).
To Isaac, in a time of famine and communal fighting over scarce resources, God says, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham” (Genesis 21:24).
To the entire community of Israel, in the face of a major transition, God says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified… the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6, 8).
To Joshua, after the death of his mentor Moses and in a risky new leadership role, God says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
To Gideon, terrified that he is about to die, God says, “I will be with you… Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die” (Judges 6:16, 23).
To the entire community, under military siege and terrified of destruction, God says, “do not be afraid… ‘Here is your God!’ … He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young… So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you… I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you… this is what the Lord says — he who created you, he who formed you: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine’ (Isaiah 40:9-11; 41:10, 13; 43:1).
And again God says to the community through Isaiah: “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth… with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says the Lord your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:4-5, 8).
To Jeremiah, when his community had been forced into exile by a foreign army, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations… Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you” (Jeremiah 1:5-8). (Based on this experience, again and again, Jeremiah tells his people, “Do not be afraid”: Jeremiah 30:10; 40:9; 42:11; 46:27-28; 51:46.)
To Daniel, after he had mourned for three weeks, eaten no food, and seen a terrifying vision of war, the Voice says, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them” (Daniel 10:11-13).
To Joseph, afraid of being disgraced and rejected by his community, God says, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).
To Zechariah, old and resigned to disappointment, God says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth” (Luke 1:13-14).
To Mary, an impoverished young woman, God says, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High… his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:30-34).
To the shepherds, young and without any status, God says, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).
To his disciples, afraid of being rejected by their community and physically attacked by the powerful, Jesus says, “do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known… Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul… Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:26-31).
To his disciples, lost in a storm and afraid of drowning, Jesus says, “Take courage! I’m here. Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).
To his disciples, afraid of the violence and death that are coming, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (14:27).
To his disciples, afraid that Jesus was dead and their hopes were finished, the resurrected Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10).
This is the hauntingly beautiful symphony of faith throughout the Bible. Yes, we are vulnerable. Yes, we are afraid of losing things we love, including our own lives and our loved ones. But God says, “Do not be afraid. I see you. I know you. I value you. I’m with you. I shield you. I hold your hand. I number your hair. I will never abandon you. You can trust me through everything – anxiety, uncertainty, war, famine, and death itself.”
The biblical poet sums up their faith like this, “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Psalm 118:6). And the Apostle John distills the heart of this fear-dispelling trust with these words: “we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love…There is no fear in love” (1 John 4:16-19). God’s love is unconditional, and in God’s love we are perfectly safe.
An Invitation into 2024
As we transition from 2023 into a new year, I invite you to pause and reflect once more: What are you afraid of? What fear of loss has surfaced in your life and promised to protect you but is really controlling you and trapping you?
Hear once more more God’s loving, liberating invitation:
Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid.
I love you. I am with you. And I always will be.