Be not afraid. Easier said than done, because life often scares the beejezus out of us. Just ask Matt Lloyd, a climber who likes to scale ice sheets-for fun! In a Climbing Magazine article Matt wrote:
I was in Vail, Colorado, climbing a spectacular 90-foot curtain of ice…. It had formed a thin, fragile pillar running from the ground to the top in one continuous, beautiful blue column. An ice climber’s dream. https://www.climbing.com/skills/the-mind-game-how-to-overcome-fear/#!
That sounds breath-taking, but Matt is deranged. Who looks at an ice-sheet the size of our church clock tower and says, “Hey, that looks fun to climb”? I don’t even like to walk down an icy driveway. I don’t like too much ice in my water for fear of brain freeze.
So here is Matt focused on putting in some ice screws, when he hears a cracking sound. It suddenly rips the air, like a cannon going off in the library. He looks down and discovers that the column split horizontally, just above his knees.
The gravity of the situation registered immediately in my body and mind. I was motionless for a few seconds in hyper-awareness. The silence closes in on me. Time slowed, and I watched for signs of the whole climb collapsing—with me on it. My mind was a white-hot fury of input, and an electric heat ran through me. Thoughts fired in disjointed fragments: Screw placements? How do I get out of harm’s way? How far to the top? Wait, was that another cracking sound. Is this shifting? My left foot is slipping. I don’t want to fall, I don’t want to die.
He is attached to a 100,000-pound ice bomb about to plummet. He starts to shake uncontrollably, the vibration pulsing out to his grip on the ice tools. He could not stop shaking and he knew he had to control it or there would be fatal consequences.
This is why I don’t climb ice sheets. Preaching is risky enough. That may sound tame, just me talking to all of you, as we try to figure out how to live with integrity. This is scary. After all, what do I know? What if people don’t take me seriously, or even worse, what if they do, and I’m totally wrong? The first time I preached, my left leg began to shake, and I thought my knee would buckle and I might topple from the pulpit. I read a survey where many people said they feared public speaking more than death. What makes you tremble? Did your legs quiver at your wedding, or when you proposed? You watch your children go out into the world on their own. Maybe you have had major surgery. You hope your social security or 401K will carry you through old age. You wonder what kind of country we will have left as Trump dismantles the Federal government. I wonder how Robert Mueller manages his fear? We probably all have an ice pillar we have to climb some time in our lives.
Is this how Mary felt? Or Joseph? Or shepherds, or Moses when he heard through the burning bush to go tell Pharaoh to let the people go? Or Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial? Or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat? Or everyone that has said #MeToo in the face of a powerful man? We may think of all of these people as fearless, something sets them apart so they don’t feel their legs trembling and about to buckle in the face of danger. But I doubt it. I imagine that even at their very best, there were moments where they could barely breath. After their most courageous moments, they had to pause a moment while the command to their legs to move had to work its way down to their feet.
So, Matt the Mountain climber is still clinging to the ice for his life. Even if he is foolish, I think we all want him to get out of this. After several deep breaths, Matt realized he could not climb down if all he could think of is “I’m about to die.” Fear is not conquered by thinking about what can go wrong and the dire consequences of failure. Fear is conquered by focusing in on what you can do and taking the next small step. Matt stopped himself from shaking and remembered all his successful climbs, and told himself, “You can do this, it’s just one step at a time until you are off this pillar.” He focused completely on each next task. Clip safety belt, move left hand down and get a grip, untie knot, throw rope down, move right foot down, move left foot down. One step at a time and 15 minutes later he stood on solid ground again.
There are times when the task before us seems too difficult to handle. We find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation, the odds feel stacked against us, and life doesn’t prepare us for everything. We might pray for a miracle, some kind of divine deliverance. What we often get is the Angel Gabriel, and his message, “Be not afraid.” These words are spoken 96 times in the Bible, quite often to people who were “in over their heads.” These words are spoken to Abram and Sarah, to Hagar the slave woman who thinks she will die in the wilderness, to Moses from the burning bush, to the prophets Samuel, Jeremiah and Isaiah, from Gabriel and angels to Zachariah, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. Jesus called his first disciples with these words and an angel speaks to the three Mary’s around the tomb, be not afraid for he is risen.
Tonight, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who lived with great love and courage in the face of adversity. But on Christmas Day he is but a helpless child and dependent on the courage of everyone around him as they conquer their own fear. This is how the great story unfolds. The story of God’s love moves forward again and again, when we are in over our heads, frozen with fear, and you hear an angel telling you, “Be not afraid.” Take your next step. Do the right thing and then do the next right thing. Tonight, as you light your candle, remember that Jesus said you are the light of the world, and let it shine. Don’t hide it, keep passing the light, and Be Not Afraid.