“Do not, fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Isaiah 43:1b-2
I’ve been thinking about fear a lot lately. The life circumstance that has brought this about doesn’t need to be shared in order for most of my readers to relate. I don’t know very many people who don’t experience fear, sometimes mild, sometimes paralyzing, sometimes for their own safety, but I think more often for the safety and well-being of loved ones. I am much less likely to be tied in knots by my own problems than I am by the difficulties in the lives of my spouse, children, grandson, friends and extended family. The dilemma lies in the scriptural admonition to “Fear not!” As believers, our faith is supposed to cast out fear. According to an internet source, there are 116 verses in the Bible that tell us not to be afraid. But if you count passages that don’t use the words “fear” or “afraid” while conveying the same basic message, the number rises to 365, one reference for every day of the year. And apparently, we need it!
When we are afraid, our brains seem to go into overdrive, running through all the possible outcomes of the fearful situation, processing the “what-ifs” until we are about to go mad! And every imagined scenario cranks up our anxiety and fear a little more and a little more, eventually turning our bodies into a quivering mass of tight muscles, tension headaches and upset stomachs. The Bible promises a peace that passes all understanding, but we don’t know how to get there. How do we claim the promises of the Bible like the one above when we know that we live in a world where bad things DO happen to good people?
In a recent conversation with my spiritual director, she told me that I needed to radically trust God, letting go and giving the situation to God multiple times a day if that’s what it took. So I tried that, and it worked to a certain extent. The problem was, every time I let it go, I took it right back a few minutes later. At least I was getting practice! Another thing that helped was remembering all the times when fearful situations in my life were transformed by a surprising outcome, something unpredictable and completely of God.
Then, during my devotional time one morning, out of the blue I got the urge to lie on the floor in a yoga position that opens the chest and heart. As I breathed into this position, the idea came to compose a breath prayer. What immediately entered my mind was “God of light and peace, be by our side.” And so I prayed, over and over, letting my body open up to the presence of God and God’s promise. Gradually, peace washed over me and replaced the racing thoughts in my head with a quiet confidence that God would indeed be with our family and that all would be well. Not that it wouldn’t be a rough road, for the Isaiah passage doesn’t promise that, but, as Paul writes, “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:28, NRSV)
Later that day, I saw a golden eagle fly down and alight in the field behind our house. In over three years living in this valley, this was only the second golden eagle I had seen. As I watched, it took off again, its beautiful golden brown wings and unmistakable silhouette captivating to see. It flew to a nearby tree where it stayed for nearly half an hour. As time went on, I began to believe this was a divine visitor. Remembering a friend who is interested in Native American power animals, I decided to look up the eagle’s meaning on the internet. My feeling was confirmed by what I read there: the eagle signifies divine presence and connection to the Creator.
What I learned from this experience may be helpful to others who find themselves consumed by fear. First, pray. Not the kind of prayer that is full of words and pleas for God to make the bad things go away, but a prayer of opening, offering oneself up to God and quieting the mind so that God has room to speak. And then wait. Wait for the promise that God will be faithful to give, a promise of presence and peace. God’s message to you won’t necessarily come in the form of an eagle, but it will come if you are patient and paying attention. May God’s grace and abundant love be evident in your lives today and every day. Fear not.