Handling Our Fears

by Jan Engle Lewis

*Reprinted from the Spring 2016 edition of Shalom!

A MISSIONARY COUPLE I came to know while living in Ecuador recently posted a Facebook link to a short clip by pastor/author Francis Chan: “Parents, Don’t Teach Your Kids to Be Safe, Teach Them to Be Dangerous for the Gospel.”  The couple’s comment on the link:  “Yes!  This is why we are going back again even though so many tell us it’s crazy!”

My friends, Australians, are heading toward a door God opened in Thailand—a place that has been recognized in recent years as increasingly inhospitable to outsiders. As when they went to Ecuador, the couple will again leave family and friends, giving up the known for the unknown. And, they will take their three young daughters along.

The unknown is our most elemental fear, and it looms large, at times, in many aspects of our lives:  economics (will I have enough money?); health (will I suffer illness, accident, or attack?); politics (who will win any given election and how might the world then change?). For those of us who are parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, our deepest fears are often linked to concerns for the young and vulnerable—our children.

The scriptures are full of admonitions not to fear, and many Christians can quote a verse that has been meaningful to them during difficult times. Jesus himself experienced dread as he faced the cross, and we’ll consider this at the end of the article. But now I want to pose a question: How do we handle fear and teach our children to do the same while engaging in the world in which we are called to be salt and light?

Back to Francis Chan for a moment. The title of his message, mentioned in the first paragraph, is a bit misleading. Of course we need to teach our kids safety basics. A more accurate distillation of Chan’s challenge would be:  “Parents, Teach Your Children It’s Okay to Take Risks for God Because He Is Always With Us!” We’ll take a brief look at risk-taking for God. But first let’s consider some ways fear has influenced our actions at family, community, and national levels.

Chan is saddened by the trend among some Christian couples, especially after children arrive, to create a protective cocoon in which family security becomes paramount, and no longer is the Kingdom first in their lives. Some retreat to gated communities, avoiding wider community involvement or travel that might involve risks. At the core of taking such protective measures is the fear that someone might do us harm. And those we tend to fear most are those who who are different than us: individuals or groups of a different class, color, or culture.

At a community level, we typically seek housing among those who are most like ourselves. This tendency toward neighborhood segregation by class and color has been reinforced through redlining, a discriminatory practice by which banks, insurance companies, etc. refuse or limit loans, mortgages, and insurance within specific geographical areas, especially inner city neighborhoods. And what of our churches? The Pew Research Center reported in December 2014 that eight in ten American congregants attend services at a place where a single racial or ethnic group comprises at least 80 percent of the congregation. While fear may not be the only driving force behind such realities, I suggest it plays a significant role.

As a nation, we Americans have been moved by fear and its common bedfellow, prejudice, to incarcerate more of our citizens than any other nation in the world. Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow (2012), describes how as a consequence of the so-called war on drugs, prison populations jumped in less than thirty years from 300,000 to more than two million. (See Melba Scott’s article in the Winter 2016 edition of Shalom! for more on this.) Individuals belonging to racial and ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate number of those incarcerated, in spite of studies showing that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates.

Another national fear that is fueled, according to scholars like Carl Ernst, by a well-funded propaganda effort is fear of Islam. It is not just the media that reinforce this fear. A community activist friend, who is a young Muslim mother, recently shared the experience of another Muslim mother whose daughter faced this situation at school:  “…her teacher announced to her class of fourth graders that ‘Muslims are terrorists; look what they did in San Bernardino and Paris.’ The daughter spoke up, insisting that she and her family were not terrorists, to which the teacher responded that they were fine but all other Muslims were suspect.”

As an antidote to fear—one that can be applied to fears about any individual or group—my activist friend poses this challenge: “I ask parents who feel discomfort about American Muslims to confront that feeling and challenge themselves to learn more about our community. Get to know us because we are part of the same neighborhoods, the same schools, and the same workplaces. I present the same challenge to American Muslim families that take refuge in cultural isolation. Be present in our democracy, be present with your whole community, not just with those from your own cultural background.” You can read my friend’s entire piece at bit.ly/ERsNadiaH.

Be present. That’s what we Christians are called to as we make disciples, welcome strangers, visit prisoners, and respond to the needs of those who lack life’s basics (Matthew 25). Obedience often means leaving the comfort of the known and venturing out to be present in unfamiliar and even scary places—perhaps in a country far from home, or in a prison, school, or shelter nearby. When we feel afraid, we remember that Christ understands fear and can help us handle it. As he faced suffering and death, Jesus cried out to God. An angel came to strengthen him, enabling him to move forward with the great work God had called him to.

The message by Chan that so inspired my Australian friends concludes with a challenge to put ourselves in positions where dependance on God is crucial, “where God has to come through.” And then, says Chan, “He comes through and the whole family says: ‘Wow, that was amazing; I’m never going to leave that God!’”

Jan Engle Lewis is a semi-retired mental health educator/consultant. She has lived and/or worked in the United States, Zambia, Haiti, Ecuador, and now Mexico, where she writes and volunteers at a women’s shelter (newbeginningsbaja.org). Jan posts regularly on Facebook and blogs periodically at janecuador.blogspot.com