Advent II, 2018
Camp Brady Saunders, our local Boy Scout camp has lots of characteristics that distinguish it. One thing is the skunks that prowl throughout the camp. My close encounter with a skunk came as I settled into my cot to read at bit before lights out. I noticed a bit of white fur stuck between the floor boards. “Hmm, a skunk has been under the tent,” I thought to myself. Then the fur moved! I had chosen a tent with a nesting skunk underneath. Afraid to move and disturb my newly discovered bunkmate, I spent a long, restless night trying not to toss and turn. It was a fearful few hours.
Fear can lurk in my psyche. As a child of about 9 or so, I was fearful of robbers breaking into our house at night. Every night before bed I would walk around to every door and window, checking that they were locked. Looking back, fear got the better of me.
President Roosevelt famously sought to calm the nation’s fears of the Great Depression saying: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Fear seems to be getting the better of us as now. There is a lot of fear in the contemporary landscape. At every turn fear invades our lives. Many of us feel as if we live on edge. Already jumpy, anything that reeks of difference, or change, or strange, feels like a threat. We are hyper-aware and on the lookout for the bad stuff we hear about everyday, on the news, on our phones, seemingly everywhere.
Here at church, the property committee has been examining security issues. I like what one committee member said during discussion, “There is possibility and there is probability.” My night of sleeping with a skunk presented me with a high probability of a long smelly week. My childhood home, in a safe, low-crime area, possibly could be robbed, but the probability was low. When it comes to our fears, how do we discern the difference? That’s the problem with our contemporary culture of fear. Fear shrinks us, and renders us incapable of acting on our own behalf.
Psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Dr. Bruce Perry notes, “When people are frightened, intelligent parts of the brain cease to dominate. When faced with a threat, the cortex responsible for risk assessment and actions cease to function. In other words logical thinking is replaced by overwhelming emotions, thus favoring short-term solutions and sudden reactions.” Fear thus becomes our very mode of life.
Of course fear is not a new human emotion. The shepherds got quite a wake-up call that night when the sky lit up like a Christmas tree. “…the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” As Silent Night describes them, they “quaked” at the sight. They were afraid, fearful.
I love the King James Version of this story. That’s the one that has Gabriel say to quaking shepherds, and to us, “Fear not.” Two simple words that act to obliterate fear. It gives the listener the hope that fear’s domination of the human heart is subject to God and its power can be extinguished. Yes, fear can stymie us. But it can also free us.
In the ancient world, fear also meant reverence, awe, wonder. The shepherds were struck by the majesty of the Lord and felt unworthy to receive such glory. We must recapture fear in that ancient sense of awe. A sense that allows us to recognize the holy in our midst. It is that fear that gives us the courage to listen. To let God awaken in us capacities and responsibilities we have been afraid to contemplate.
That is what opens the shepherds to the “good news of great joy” that Gabriel brings them. They had every reason to be afraid of the glory shining around them. They were the lowest of the low. They were living in the field, tending someone else’s flock. They are night-shift slaves with no expectations and no prospects. Certainly something so powerful, so wonderful, as the glory of the Lord would not come to them.
And yet it does.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (15:11) he said this at the supper he knew would be his last. A fearful moment in time if ever there was one.
And yet it is also the glory of the Lord, shining and saving the world.
We can miss all around us what is worthy of joy because we are distracted, jumpy with our fear. In the story of the quaking shepherds we see the transformation from fear to joy, from panic to praise. The glory streams upon us. God’s goodness, presence and strength are all around us and in us.
Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it, - a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeathes it. We have to work, to open our eyes and our hearts to see it, embrace it.
Henri Nouwen puts it this way: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We must choose joy. And keep choosing it every day.”
I like the way the poet Wendell Berry writes on fighting back fear in order to embrace joy:
When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
If fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds.
I come into peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come in to the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
A star is born and glories stream from heaven, every time we let ourselves embrace joy and let that star shine its light from within us to the world. It is in the unbridled laughter of a baby, the beauty of birds soaring through the air, the stir of a breeze through trees, the fall of snow outside the window. Find your joy in the world today. Be a star and let your joy spill out, streaming all over the place.