I was scared; 16 years old and scared. Jesus Christ was going to return at any moment, and I was scared.
It was the last night of church camp, and the preacher had practically promised that Jesus Christ would return before morning — Jesus by morning! — and in the mildewed darkness of the dormitory I was scared. Scared that Jesus might not show up after all and we’d been hyped by another preacher trying yet again to scare salvation into our post-pubescent little hearts. After all those tears and all that repentance, Jesus had better show up. I was scared he wouldn’t.
But I also was scared that Jesus just might return after all. Scared he would appear with a shout and roll the list of my 16-year-old sins across the sky like credits at a Texas drive-in movie. Scared he’d return before I graduated from high school, and I would have endured plane geometry for nothing. I lay there in the dark waiting on Jesus, scared to leave this world and scared to stay; scared that God would find me, and scared God wouldn’t.
I’m still waiting on Jesus, and I’m still scared. Yes, my fears have become a bit more sophisticated and my coping mechanisms a little more complex, but these days, what’s happening in the world, the country and the church remain all too scary. In fact, amid my seven decades of life, I don’t think I’ve had as many reasons to be afraid as at this moment in time, illustrated in these brief headlines:
- “An Energy Crisis is Gripping the World, with Potentially Grave Consequences,” Washington Post.
- “China floods: Nearly 2 Million People displaced in Shanxi Province,” BBC.
- “Over 120,000 Children Have Lost a Parent or Caregiver to COVID-19, Study Says,” New York Times.
- “The Increasingly Wild World of School Board Meetings,” The New Yorker.
- “Student Taken into Custody Hours after School Shooting,” Associated Press.
- “Integrity and the Future of the Church,” Plough
- “Facing the Clear and Present Danger Lurking among White Evangelicals Today,” BNG.
- “Our Constitutional Crisis is Already Here,” Washington Post.
- “More than 200,000 Abused by French Catholic Priests,” BBC Newshour.
In his Oct. 11 ope-ed titled “The Trump Nightmare Looms Again,” conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson appears to summarize such dangers, writing: “What attitudes and actions does this require of us? Any reaction must begin with a sober recognition. Catastrophe is in the front room. The weather forecast includes the apocalypse.” Fear-filled words.
There are, of course, degrees of fear — a spectrum that runs all the way from occasional apprehension to imminent dread to bone-chilling terror. Biblical writers used numerous words to reflect the many fears that assault the human condition. We translate them variously: to be troubled, to be terrified, to tremble, to be afraid, to fear, to reverence. These days we all know that fear can find us in the emergency room, the school room, at a political rally or in the halls of Congress. Given those immediate realities of our common life, where do our fears take us, or where do we take them?
“The basis of all things is to be afraid.”
“Though the world seems formed in love,” Herman Melville declared, “the invisible spheres are formed in fright.” In the tormented Captain Ahab, Melville explored the terror of that inner sphere that exists in all of us.
“The basis of all things is to be afraid,” William Faulkner wrote, and God knows he found fear aplenty in the Southern species of human beings.
Catholic writer Henry Nouwen explained that many people suffer from the “false supposition” that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. For Nouwen, “these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. …When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.”
James Baldwin said it in his characteristically direct and earthy way: “Don’t try to defend yourself against your fears — that is, think you can live above them or outsmart them.” Says Baldwin, “To defend oneself against a fear is simply to ensure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced.”
Scripture says it both ways, admonishing the people of God to “fear not’ while confessing, “What time I am afraid, I will trust in God.”
“No life is fully immune from the many fears that affect us all.”
Biblical writers, philosophers, literary luminaries are correct — nobody lives without fear. No life is fully immune from the many fears that affect us all. Life is too unpredictable to remain stoic in every crisis. At any moment it may take an unexpected turn and leave us high and dry in some undeserved crisis or ill-begotten wilderness.
Martin Luther King Jr. once recalled a day in Philadelphia, Miss. — one of the scariest days of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. They marched, he said, surrounded by crowds of whites, some of whom had murdered a Black man days before. Says King, “I just gave up — I wouldn’t say I was afraid, I just gave up. I yielded to the real possibility of the inevitability of death.”
King recalled: “Did I pray, or did Ralph (Abernathy)? Ralph prayed that day and we had to close our eyes and I just knew they were going to drop us. Ralph says he prayed with his eyes open.”
That’s it, isn’t it? Let’s not allow anybody — even an angel from heaven — to tell us that even Jesus can take away all the fear, all at once, all the time. Sometimes like Martin Luther King we get some strength and peace, and let go of the fear, for the sake of justice. Yet sometimes, like Ralph Abernathy, the fear remains, so we pray with both eyes open, in case the justice is a long time coming.
That’s why, after seven decades of living, I’m not scared that Jesus will or will not return by morning. In fact, while I think we’ve got plenty of reasons to be afraid right now, the Second Coming is not one of them.
The apocalypse may come, but I don’t think Jesus will “rapture” anyone out before some terrible “tribulation” befalls humanity. Rather, I think he calls us to stay right here with the Good Shepherd, working for justice, reconciliation and compassion until the last, lost sheep gets home.
And what of Jesus? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Was he scared too? Then there is hope.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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