I gave up fear for Lent. That seemed like a good and perhaps even holy idea at the time. After all, Jesus told his disciples "Fear Not!" on the boat and "Peace Be with You!" when he rejoined them after his resurrection.
The problem with my spiritual exercise was that the day after Ash Wednesday I lost my job, along with many of my colleagues at hospice who are also now unemployed. Then, a week ago, my previously perfectly healthy husband had a massive seizure. In those milliseconds when I wondered if he died I said, "Okay God, is it okay to be afraid now?" And even in the fear I was still and listened for God... even now, in the uncertainty.
So many well-intentioned Christians are quick to offer words of comfort like, "God will never give you more than you can handle." I wonder how those words sound to the saints stuck in mud fields when it rains in Haiti. Or to the women who will never urinate properly after being raped with broken pop bottles in DR Congo. Or to the people who have been forgotten by so many in Darfur.
This Easter is April 4, the 42nd anniversary of the martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I first became aware of the importance of the April 4 date twenty years ago at Riverside Church in New York City. I asked the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes and then-pastor of the church why they remembered the date. He explained, "Because it's too easy to forget. Most people are quick to run to the empty tomb and spend very little time at the cross."
We are quick to assuage people's fear and pain because it makes us feel better -- but it cheapens the sacred gift of peace that the Eternal God gives. Our need for easy answers diminishes our ability to hear God, even in the scary times.
The tendency toward fear also seems to inform how we treat each other. Two years ago several precious friends and I joined on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to remember the sacrifice that Dr. King made on April 4. We asked tourists, internationals, diplomats, retirees, children -- whoever happened to be on the steps that day -- to gather with people who didn't look like them and answer this question: "What keeps us from living the Dream?" These were some of their answers:
Ignorance stands in the way of the dream.
Intolerance of diversity
General lack of respect
The old mindset of segregation: the visible difference and fear of that difference between races and religions keep people from realizing the fullness of Dr. King's Dream and unifying this country.
Too much of America is about me, me, me instead of us, us, us.
People like power and it's hard for people to give away their power. Even though we would like to be selfless, everyone wants to live life to the fullest but most people don't take time to see how others live theirs.
Because so many people believe some of us are better.
All their answers subtly refer to fear, and fear inevitably divides us rather than unites us. But courage seeks to unite us -- for the sake of all. Rabbi Abraham Heschel was with Dr. King at Riverside Church a year before his murder. Heschel explains what it is to be a prophet: "To us a single act of injustice -- cheating in business, exploitation of the poor -- is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world."
Dr. King died believing that it was possible for a better world for all -- for the Vietnamese, for the garbage workers, for the maids, for the bus drivers, for those who mistakenly perceived that the American empire was God's empire. Shortly before Christ died he said in John 14: "I am leaving you with a gift -- peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don't be troubled or afraid."
When we have the courage to say the liberating truth like Dr. King did we have the courage to live in the daily tension between the cross and the empty tomb -- and the courage to live in a world that has room for all of God's children
Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry is a pastor in Michigan.