Hope Amidst Fear
Easter Chapel Talk
Lee Burns ’87, Head of School
On a crisp and beautiful Saturday morning many years ago, I, a proud six-year-old boy who’d recently learned to ride his bike, set out on my first real ride, a mile journey from my house, down a slightly sloping road to my grandparents’ house. My dad was in the car to my left side and a bit behind me, shouting words of encouragement out the windows of his blue Chevy Chevette. I was gaining in my confidence, riding on a real road, until I was jarred by the loud barks of a dog who, to my consternation, began running toward me. I wobbled and hesitated, despite my dad telling me to ignore the dog, who, in my six-year-old eyes, was big and getting closer and chasing me. It got closer and more aggressive. I wobbled some more, unsure whether to concentrate on the road, the dog or my dad, and in the confusion and panic of the moment, I lost my balance and fell, tumbling hard and skidding into the ditch on the right side of the road. Lying in the ditch tangled in my bike, with bits of gravel in my knee and blood pouring from it and other parts of my body, with the dog growling and flashing its teeth at me, in my mind about to attack and bite me, I was afraid.
That next summer, or perhaps the one after that, I attended a YMCA day camp for a week with my sister and a couple of our neighbors. Each afternoon when camp was over, a bus would drop us off about 15 minutes from our house, and the parents rotated who would meet us there to drive us home. One afternoon, a parent wasn’t there to meet us, but the bus driver drove off. We were sure that a parent would soon be there, in the parking lot of the American National Bank in St. Elmo, but as the minutes passed by and became perhaps an hour, we lost our confidence in that. There were no cell phones then, the bank was closed, and we young kids were stranded, alone and vulnerable, as cars raced by, oblivious to our predicament. I was afraid.
My sophomore year in college, our tennis team traveled to California for spring break to play some teams out there, and as we were preparing to board our van for dinner after a long day, I suddenly felt an excruciating pain in my midsection--so severe that I crumpled to the ground and writhed there. The awful pain didn’t stop. Was I having a heart attack? Was I dying? A doctor with our team gave me several possibilities. As they raced me to the hospital in San Diego, my mind raced. What was happening? What was wrong? I was afraid.
On a warm May evening in Memphis in 2008, I looked at my phone on the way home from a parent gathering to celebrate the boys who earlier that afternoon had graduated from high school. I had missed multiple calls from my brother living in New York. His messages said to call him at once. His tone said something was wrong. When I called him, he told me that our father, who was recuperating from back surgery at a hospital here in Chattanooga, had developed a terrible infection which was causing his organs to shut down. As I raced through the night across Tennessee to try to get to him before would die, and as I contemplated my life without him, I was afraid.
Last winter, my son Arthur and I took our ski trip which we’ve done most of the last 10 years. I admire his adventurous spirit and skills on the slopes. I’ve tried my best to keep up with his young legs and lungs on very difficult runs, but his idea that we go heli-skiing was a whole different matter. A helicopter would drop us and a few others off on top of a mountain on a tiny area that to me seemed too small to land a helicopter, that seemed perched atop jagged cliffs in every direction, and that showed no obvious way to ski down the extreme terrain. Our guides had told us about avalanches and deaths and rescues. Would I fail? Would I tear my ACL, break a leg, or ski off the mountain? Would I lose my son? Though the wind chill was I think eight degrees below zero, I was drenched in sweat...sweat born of fear. I was afraid.
Like me, each of you would likely have your own several stories of being afraid. They are likely stories that you will recall for the rest of your lives.
Perhaps, probably, your fears would have some of the same themes that mine do. Fear of being hurt or injured. Fear of being abandoned, left behind or left out. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failing. Fear of dying, or a loved one dying.
Those fears, powerful as they are, are straight forward and obvious. They are easy to identify.
But might there be some fears beneath the fears? Might there be some deeper fears, real and more powerful fears that are the true source of the other fears? I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The Bible tells us, many times, not to fear. I think what that means is not to be unafraid in a particular moment, but not to have a spirit of fear. Having a spirit or mindset of fear makes us small. It shrinks us. It keeps us stuck. It limits us. It can reveal a lack of faith. Timothy writes in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
Having a spirit or mindset of fear can keep us from living with boldness and adventure. We are wired and designed to lean into life, to be active rather than passive, to play offense rather than defense, to seek and strive, to be passionate, to love, to enjoy. We are designed to be in relationship with God, to glorify and enjoy Him.
Yet deep in our DNA, buried in our hearts and minds, are doubts and fears, the fears beneath our fears that I referenced a moment ago. Sometimes we are conscious of them; sometimes they are unconscious, but in both cases they can be limiting, even controlling and crippling.
All human beings have a fundamental need to know that they are inherently valuable and that they are deeply loved. Our deepest fear is that we are unworthy and thus unlovable. We thus fear we will be unknown, abandoned and alone. All human beings also know that they carry within their hearts certain characteristics that are undesirable: pride and selfishness, lust and greed, uncleanliness and other unattractive things of which we are not proud...things that cause us to feel and think that we are not inherently valuable and lovable. So to think or feel we are worthy and lovable, or to distract us from these doubts and fears, we work hard to achieve, to be successful, to be powerful, to be rich, to look beautiful, to be admired. We tirelessly pour ourselves into achieving, into pretending, into busyness, into mitigating and medicating our deepest fears.
But deep down, despite our best efforts and even the good things we achieve, we often still fear that we are unworthy and unloved, unknown and alone.
Next week, Christians around the world celebrate Holy Week, culminating with Easter on Sunday, to commemorate the death and, three days later, the resurrection of Jesus, whom we believe to be the Son of God, one part of the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God sent His Son to us on a loving rescue mission, as a sacrifice, dying a gruesome and undeserved death on a cross despite His perfect life, as the ultimate act of His unconditional love, to pay the price, the ransom, for our sins. He came to save us from our sins, from ourselves, because we can’t do it ourselves. He came to free us from our guilt, from the junk and messes deep within our hearts, the messages that tell us we are unworthy and unlovable. He came to tell us we are loved, for who we are and how we are, as His beloved children created in His image. Through His sacrifice, He gave us His perfect record before God despite our sinful one. He told us that we can’t earn His favor by our actions or attitudes, that we need not perform or be perfect or posture, but that we simply receive His gift of grace through faith in Jesus. Over and over again, He says and shows “I love you, I love you, I love you.” And in this love--the love that is profound and perfect, more powerful than any human or worldly love--we can understand that we each have immense, even infinite, worth and value. We can understand that we are not alone or abandoned, but that the God of the universe knows us intimately and gives us power through the Holy Spirit. We can understand that our lives, and life itself, have meaning and purpose. We can understand that we can endure periods of confusion, pain and tragedy, and that disease and even death are not fatal.
Knowing all this, we can lead a life without fear. A fearless life is one of confidence and peace. It exudes joy, no matter the circumstances. The fearless man has an authenticity, an integrity, a harmony. He can rest in receiving rather than achieving. He’s not controlled and buffeted by the opinions and likes of others. He is secure in the depth of his soul, and that security enables him to love well -- himself, others and God. He is grace-filled, gracious and grateful, as he understands that is the character and call of God.
In the well-known 23rd Psalm, David writes that even though I walk through the valley of shadow of death, I will fear no evil. How can he and we live without fear? How especially can we do it today in an era of such fear -- in times of pandemics and storms, riots and social unrest, distrust of familiar institutions and dislike of unfamiliar individuals? How can we live without fear when we fail and fall and are forgotten, when the dogs growl and the mountains seem impossibly steep, when our bodies and hearts ache with loss and longing? The next verse answers the question: “For You are with me.”
God sent His son, in human flesh, to be with us. He sent His Holy Spirit to dwell within us, to guide and comfort us. God is not a distant god. He is a personal one. He is with us. And He loves us, each of us, so much that He would even send His Son to die for us, to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and to free us from the pressures to perform, from our identities wrapped up in resumes and rejections, from the fears that constrain us and the guilts that consume us. He invites you to invite Him, and, again in the words of the 23rd Psalm, to let Him lead you beside the still waters and let Him restore your soul.
Whatever your background may be, I encourage you to consider your fears, especially the fears beneath your fears, and contemplate who this God of the Bible claims to be, and how He promises to reorient hearts and change lives. May we all be, not a fearful people, but a hopeful people.