The Subject of Our Fears: Finding Faith in an Anxious World
On Memorial Day weekend, I stood in a cemetery on the southwest side of Fresno. Beside me was Troy, a nearly-50-something disabled veteran. We stood over his father’s fresh grave.
Troy isn’t the kind of guy who has had an easy life. He wasn’t dealt the best hand. Made some poor choices. Reaped the consequences. Over a decade ago, Troy cleaned up his life to care for his aging parents. He buried his mom six years ago. His father was now dead at the age of 83.
For the past five years, Troy and his dad lived together. Troy was the caretaker; his father was confined to a wheelchair. The sudden death, however, has ended Troy’s primary purpose in life. I can’t imagine what he’s going to do next. His options are few.
It’s an anxious world—and for good reason. Nothing feels secure. Change sometimes seems like the only constant. This isn’t just the linear change of time’s unrelenting advance. Change is accelerating at an unprecedented pace, and this seems an obvious source of anxiety.
A digital publication called The Pudding recently used IBM technology to analyze 30 years of Dear Abby letters. In that treasure trove, they discovered interesting patterns. These 20,000 letters revealed common threads among three decades of people’s worries. Their research reveals the following: “Without friends and lovers, family and coworkers, there would be no Dear Abby column.”
Let’s assume that these letters run the gamut of human worry. I’d say they probably do. If so, then you’d be forced to admit that the subject of our fears is surprisingly predictable, even in an age of unprecedented change.
As a religious leader, I spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what’s going on in our world. I think it’s important to be conversant on the issues of our day. I want our faith to seem relevant. This is an impulse I share with many like-minded ministers.
But can I confess something? I sometimes get distracted and forget how simple our fears really are. For all the talk of change in our world, the subject of our fears remains surprisingly the same. I tend to overlook this basic truth.
At the end of the day, most people aren’t really concerned with understanding national politics or Hollywood or the latest trends. Yes, people talk about all these things, but these issues are like decoys to distract from the things most deeply feared.
The Dear Abby researchers suggested,
To be sure, our worries will continue to reflect the times: mentions of the internet and new technology in questions notably increased throughout the late ‘90s. The subjects of our fears, however—our parents, children, friends, colleagues, and others closest to us—are unlikely to change. That which is most important to us has less to do with the times, than it does with being human.
Being human is what causes our fears.
And into this morass of existential fear speaks the truth of the gospel: Take up your cross and follow me. Come to me all who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest. I am with you always.
These words of Jesus are the words we speak to a wounded, fearful world. But am I speaking them? Am I saying them consistently and with clarity? Or do I at times muddle these promising words of presence with my efforts to understand the present age?
I have a friend, Phil, who is spending much of his retired life hiking the pilgrim paths of Europe. He’s hiked the Camino de Santiago from differing originating points. Now he’s hiking from Canterbury across France toward Rome. He recently described why he does these backpacking trips on the pilgrim routes. He hikes, he said, to free himself from the baggage of fear and to live into the hope of the future. Here are a few of his pictures.
Fear is heavy, but hope weighs nothing. When you hike a pilgrim path, you can’t pack for every contingency. You can only carry so much. Setting out on the journey, therefore, requires you to let go of some fears. But you don’t just let go. The pilgrim’s life also allows you to pick up the hopes of meeting new friends and experiencing new things.
The Christian life ought to be a freeing journey lifting our spirits toward hope. Not a manufactured hope. Not a saccharin-filled, misuse-of-Scripture hope. Not a misguided, the-next-election-will-fix-everything kind of hope.
The hope of Christianity embraces a world of hopelessness. Ours is the most real hope of all, because death sits at its center. Ours is a hopeless hope that runs not just through the valley of the shadow of death but right through death itself. The hope we embrace is one in which God transforms our hopelessness through the power of resurrection. To think we have such a message of hope!
As I stood with Troy over his father’s still unmarked grave, I realized that the subject of our fears is quite simple. We fear the things that make us human. I can’t fix Troy’s life. But I can be with him here in the presence of death. We can journey together on the path toward hope.
So we prayed and shed a couple tears. I read Psalm 23. You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
How do we find faith in an anxious world? We find faith by believing in the God who journeys with us through it all. And we live out our faith by setting out on the pilgrim path with fellow believers. Fear is heavy. But hope weighs nothing.