Not far from us there is a house where dank spider webs, rotting pumpkin heads and deflated vinyl creatures still haunt the yard. Tacky Christmas lightings will soon replace them but it is evident each year that Halloween is the main focus of their energy.
It seems Halloween is fun for everybody except those few christians who still find creepy ways to make it creepy. I noticed this year that some Bible Belt churches chose to replace Halloween with harvest festivals, which was how things used to be before they replaced the harvest festivals. Or how about the angry MAGA pastor who claimed Starbucks is a “witch’s coven”? (Note to self – use the drive through.)
Those fears remind me of the Puritan witch trials where gossip, superstition, vendettas and guilt generated fearful accusations along with strident religious reactions. Redemption and mercy were always a distant second.
The rhetorical question comes to mind: “Why were we taught to be afraid of witches and not the people who burned them alive?”
Fear is natural, fear is reflexive. It is healthy when it protects us but unhealthy when it steers us. Left on its own, fear doesn’t mature us, move us forward, or bring us peace.
I’m convinced that most of us are more fearful than we admit. We fear for our families or finances or health or pollution or society. We fear that conversation we need to have, or the lump we just found. The list is endless.
The scary thing about fear (…) is that it is a powerful motivator. Fear sells. We live in a culture where social media and news networks profit by highlighting the fearful. Politicians exaggerate fear of crime, taxes, immigrants, or whatever their opponents stand for. There is always a famine or natural disaster on our doorstep. Just yesterday our neighbour shared how worried he was about the wars and possible wars in the world.
Religion sells fear too. It’s a common (and lazy) strategy for preachers to preach negatives: fear God, fear satan, fear hell, fear sin, fear backsliding, fear science, fear woke, fear other religions, fear the world, fear being Left Behind, fear persecution.¹
I’m typically embarrassed/annoyed when I reflect on the list of empty fears christianity has handed us through its entire existence. Yes we have some reasons to be fearful but often christians respond to their fear with promises, claims, and emotions that are closer to superstition. Like the prophets of Baal, many think that passionate rituals and prayer formulas will convince God to fix their fears.
Yet our desperation reveals the deeper fears within us: fear of loss, fear of shame, fear of punishment, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of being othered. Our faith tightrope sways over a chasm of fear but fear fades when we live in balance.
In scripture, fear has different expressions based on the context: it can mean fright or dread but it can also mean reverence or cautious realization. In other words, ‘the fear of God’ isn’t about anxiety but about internalizing who God is. That understanding would help us leave behind our superstitious religiosity and embrace the safety of a loving parent.
Do you know what the opposite of fear is? Love. When love is full we may not like the process but we trust the outcome to the One who loves us.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” – from 1 John
Jesus clearly warned people that following him would be difficult but he never used fear as a motivator. There is lots to be afraid of in our world but he offers a path that trusts in the final goodness of God’s love.
I remember praying about a situation in my life that was devastating. As a veteran christian I had checked all the boxes: my heart was clean, my prayers were sincere, my faith was strong, and I told God exactly what needed to happen.
Yet at some point I realized my prayers were nothing more than superstitious sacrifices offered on an altar of religiosity. I had been trying to appease a distant, demanding god instead of trusting a faithful, loving God. After that my prayers became more simple and trusting and I found myself increasingly calm, even grateful.
I don’t have any easy formulas for dealing with fear. I will say that I have been realizing my need to filter out the clamour and to live more fully in the good. I have edited out negative people on social media and severely restricted network news. It’s been years since I read a book or listened to a message from any well known religious leader. I’m still not good at it but these days I find more space to read, pray, smile, gaze,² and express thanks.
While writing this blog I re-discovered the Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila; its expressions are beautiful and meaningful in their simplicity. I invite you to join me in memorizing it and installing it into your prayerful moments.
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
~ ~ ~
¹ Which reminds me – we are almost at the time of year when christians begin to share their fear of not being allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’. When they say that, we have the choice to stare at them blankly, change the subject, or explain to them what confirmation bias is.
² Gazing at an object (starry sky, crackling fire) that allows me time and space to think. Richard Rohr introduces the idea of ‘gazing’ here.