We don’t know quite what else to do
We have all our beliefs
But we don’t want our beliefs
God of peace,
We want you.
I have irrational fears.
They used to be small–pumping my own gas, making small-talk with a cashier, parking down-town. And then they grew larger: fears about failure, about my children dying, about people committing violence in my neighborhood. I had panic attacks, my throat closing in on me, I stopped being able to drive, I spent months hiding out in my house, clutching my baby close, fearful he would catch a whiff of sickness. I was afraid, and desperately trying to control everything around me, which only made me more fearful as it became apparent that I was powerless to keep my family and myself safe.
Do not be afraid, is what those angels say any time they show up in the Bible. Probably because they look terrifying, but also because they probably know a little bit about the human condition. We are afraid, all the time, but we have gotten good at hiding it, covering it up, masquerading as happy, busy, satiated people. But all it takes is one little ripple, and our masks are ripped off, revealing our deep wells of fear inside.
When I had my son two years ago, it did not go as planned. My body failed me, and I came close to the grave. I recovered, only to have my son hospitalized when he was six weeks old due to high fever and meningitis scares. Those two experiences made me realize how much I feared death, but they also exposed something that surprised even me; I felt shame over that fear. Wasn’t I supposed to be a Christian? Wasn’t I supposed to have the hope of heaven, the promise of resurrection, the perfect peace that passes understanding?
Then why did I lie awake at night, heart pounding, feeling so very afraid of death? Where were my angels, my heavenly host, telling me it would all be OK?
Be not afraid, the angels said, but I think they knew that the people they spoke to had every reason for fear. They lived in uncertain times, politically and geographically, people used to displacement and war and sickness and corrupt governments. Be not afraid, they said, and in saying so they both acknowledged the truth of the world (so scary, so unjust) while also calling for an attitude of dissent. There are so many things to be afraid of, and that is what the world wants. But God came to turn the world upside-down.
There are refugees everywhere we look: on our facebook feeds, on our news cycles, hidden in the corners of our cities. Our age is the age of displacement and also the ability to see and hear a taste of all of the suffering in the world. Years ago I started volunteering with refugee families here in Portland, Oregon, and I was unprepared for how close it brought me to the suffering that so many experience. So many talk about the risk of allowing Muslim refugees into our country, the possibility of terrorism or extremism. But the real risk, the one nobody seems to acknowledge, is how welcoming and befriending the stranger changes you in so many ways.
When I first met my refugee friends–most of them Muslim, and from East Africa–I was a self-assured student at a conservative Bible college. I had all the right answers, all the right beliefs, and I tried to explain them to my new friends. But as I started to live life with them, as I started to experience the hardships of navigating America as a cultural minority, as people relegated to a life of displacement and poverty, and as I started to hear the stories of the traumas that pushed them from their homes, my quick and easy theologies started to crumble.
Where was God? Why did they experience all of this suffering, while I remained pristine and untouched by sorrow? Why was the world so unequal, so unjust? Why was everything so horrible, why was God so apparently absent?
My refugee friends and the situations they came from brought me to a place of great questioning, they propelled me to ask the questions that so many have shouted to the skies, from Job to the prophets to the psalmists. We asked our questions, brought about by proximity to crisis, and we were afraid that the answer would be silence.
But God said: be not afraid. The light has come into the world, and the darkness cannot contain it.
I know some fear terrorism the way I fear my little baby getting gravely ill. These fears have both a grain of truth (they are possibilities, after all) and yet are not likely to happen. Mostly irrational, it doesn’t make it any less real. We are all afraid to die, all afraid that God is absent in our world, all afraid that we will lose everything we have worked so hard for, all afraid that we cannot save ourselves and our loved ones.
And it is true, we can never truly be safe in this world. This was never promised to us, yet we so often wish it was. Instead, what God says over and over again in the Scriptures is this: you can never be safe, but you will always be loved.
So let’s live like we are loved. Let us fixate on that, and I bet it will start to chip away at the great lies and fears we have swallowed whole. Be not afraid, the angels said, and they paved the way for a Savior who was himself a refugee–torn from his home, oppressed, beaten, ridiculed, and killed in a horrific way by the powers that be. A Christ who suffered what so many in the world suffer, who understands the temptation to fear, who loves in radical and unsafe ways, who asks nothing less of us, his followers.
One of the hardest commandments in the Bible, one of the hardest paths of obedience to walk in, one of the most repeated refrains in Scripture: Be not afraid. I want that for myself, of course, and I await the day when my fears are stilled. But I also want that for everyone else in the world, the refugees in Syria, my neighbors here in America, the politicians busy trying to hold on to their offices — I want us to not be afraid. I want us to live like we are loved, even in the midst of a very unsafe world.
(For more information on the current refugee crisis and ways to get involved, contact your local resettlement agency. My personal favorites are World Relief, Mennonite Central Committee, Catholic Charities, and Lutheran Family Services.)