Monday, April 15, 2013. 2:49pm. The Finish Line of the 117th Boston Marathon had just seen the 17,580th runner successfully cross the bright blue and yellow painted signature of the world’s most famous 26.2 mile run. It was a glorious spring day, with the sun shining brightly over the city. An international phenomenon. A spectacle for runners and athletes, fans, family members, and a city beaming with pride. All seemed well in the world.
One minute later, 2:50pm, and the mood instantly shifted to fear. The first of two bombs would detonate in front of the Marathon Sports store. Moments later a second bomb ignited a few hundred feet away. Shock and sadness. Disbelief and doubt. Turmoil and confusion. Frenetic and fantastic response: Shutdown the race. Detour the remaining 5,742 runners. Dial 9-1-1. Attend to the victims. Don’t worry about the mess. Race to the hospitals. Close down all subways in and out of the city. Suspend cell phone service. Close off Boylston Street. Call the FBI. Work as a team. Time is of the essence. Lives are in danger. Confusion reigns.
It all happened so fast. Initially, the race was a photograph of Americana, filled with children on their dad’s shoulders and family members grinning from ear to ear. In an instant, a glorious day of citywide splendor turned to memories of 9/11, and the world’s focus was back on Boston once more. Not because we were looking for attention. But, simply because we were the target of a plot that unfortunately succeeded.
Three were confirmed dead. More than 260 were injured. Some were clinging to life, many have lost limbs, and all will certainly be scarred for the rest of their lives. It was a horrible day for Boston, but a remarkable day for Bostonians, especially those who showed the world our collective grit, savvy, wisdom, and courageous action in a time of need. For those of us who live here, there’s no place like Boston in a crisis.
We’ve had our share of challenging times. Difficult economic years. Political upheaval. Communities in pain. Ethnic brawls. Winters of record; even a perfect storm or two. Few events are as gripping as airplanes leaving Boston and flying into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But on April 15, 2013 all eyes were back on Boston at the finish line of our world-renowned marathon. Pain, heartache, confusion, anger and fear become the motivators of deliberate action. Justice will be done – in due time.
The drama that unfolded in the subsequent days was riveting. For the first 48 hours the focus was on the wounded and deceased. The focus was on the local hospitals and the communities of those most affected. The FBI, state and local law enforcement agencies called for help from all bystanders.
By Thursday, the President joined the religious community of Boston for a Memorial Service. Suspects were identified that night, thanks to videos taken along the race route. By week’s end the city was shut down and a manhunt unfolded in neighboring Watertown. One of the suspects was shot dead, another was found hiding in a winterized boat. Finally a collective sigh of relief was heard and felt throughout the city and beyond. A makeshift memorial was created by grieving citizens in Copley Square. Life eventually shifted back to a sense of normalcy once more. But no one will forget the events that compelled us to become Boston Strong.
This story isn’t the only one like it in the past year or so. We all remember each of the others with vivid clarity. The movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado. The tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The shocking effects of Hurricane Sandy in downtown Manhattan and along the New Jersey shore. The fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. The recent tornadoes that touched down in Moore, Oklahoma, and the wildfires currently blazing in Colorado Springs. Some of these even pale in comparison to all the international incidents that rivet our attention almost daily. But these are different, for they are all so much further from home.
Each of these catastrophic events touches similar emotional and spiritual chords deep within us. They level the playing field and our humanity is brought back to commonality as our collective empathy is evoked toward all who suffer. At other times, life seems to be going fine and all of a sudden we hear news that a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, a family member has suddenly died, economic recession squeezes one into unemployment, a tsunami comes ashore during a friend’s vacation, a long since covered up double life comes to light, or a father backs out of the driveway and runs over his own child. All have their tragic realities.
Facing our fears
It’s at moments like this when our lives flash before our eyes. We come face to face with the brokenness of our world, or worse yet our own brokenness. We are brought to tears by the incidents that unfold. We can barely sustain the inner pain. Questions abound about the problem of suffering, the desperate needs of the world, and even about the reality of God. Additionally, our compassionate concerns for others are thwarted by the truths that we hold dearly about our faith. And fear rears its ugly head.
What are we to do with all the question marks that cripple our understanding of God? Are answers even possible amidst the tragic circumstances that capture our attention? Thankfully, my charge in this article is not to solve the problem of pain or answer one of the biggest questions of life, “How does a good God allow evil, suffering, and pain in this world?”
Instead, we want to address the subject of fear (the theme of the forthcoming issue of Conversations). What do we do when fear grips our heart? In response, what does it mean to follow the urgings of the Lord, to “Fear not”?
When tragedy strikes in our social context or in the wider public arena of our world, it taps into something very personal. Our own fears emerge amidst the raw feelings of sadness, discontent, or frustration. Our fears are an antithesis to our faith, and yet they are so viscerally felt.
Thankfully, the God of the universe understands. In fact, He’s there to greet us in the midst of our fear and comfort us with His abiding presence and peace. To the children of Israel, the Lord says, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). God pours strength into the souls of His people, exercising grace for His children to withstand corruption, resist temptation, and bear affliction.
David the psalmist joins in the refrain,
“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident” (Psalm 27: 1-3). With God as our strength, our fears are greatly relieved.
Perusing the Scriptures we find over 500 references to fear. The good side of fear is when we “fear the Lord” out of reverence and awe, which leads to our wisdom and salvation. This is when honor, worship, confidence, thankfulness, and love converge upon holy fear. The first such reference is when Abraham fears God and offers his son Isaac on the altar of submission, and is commended for trusting in God (Genesis 22). In times of terror and doubt, however, it’s human fear that emerges. Instead of the resulting commendations of faith, such fear takes us to dark and difficult, often painful, places.
Several times the admonition is to “fear not” including utterances from Moses, Job, Isaiah, and even Jesus Himself. In the midst of His performing miracles, addressing crowds, in stormy tempests, and remaining close to His disciples, Jesus would often comfort His followers with two simple words: “Fear not.” When He sent out the disciples to preach the message of the Kingdom He reminds them not to be afraid, “you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31). His love was available to cast out their many fears.
I will fear no evil
During the week prior to the Marathon, I was preparing to preach on Psalm 23 and lead a soul care day for Christian business professionals on the subject of trusting the Good Shepherd of our souls. I was knee deep into the powerfully life-transformative verses of the 23rd Psalm, John 10, and 1 Peter 2. I was reminded once more of the central imagery of God as Shepherd of His people, from creation to glory, and every day in between. Little did I know at that time how meaningful this preparation would be for the group I was called upon to address, and particularly for yours truly, only two days after the Marathon bombing.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Written by the elderly King David, he uses the image of shepherd to describe the Lord. Reminiscent of his own days as a shepherd boy, David testifies to the many ways God had shepherded his own soul and the soul of his people. And often through very turbulent times. With the provision of the Shepherd, there was nothing more to want. Green pastures and quiet waters were the location for soul restoration. Guided down paths of righteousness, and through valleys near death, there was nothing to fear in His presence. Anointed and overflowing with gladness, the sheep are provided for all the days of their wooly lives. No wonder Psalm 23 has been a comfort for God’s people throughout the generations.
For several weeks that followed April 15 I found myself often on the verge of tears. I don’t think it’s because Boston is my hometown, or simply because I was feeling the violation of terror in my favorite city. Instead, I’m confident the incidents of that week tapped into something deeper and more primitive within my heart and soul. There was something happening within me that provoked a longing in my soul for greater peace, comfort and security. I was a sheep in need of the Good Shepherd.
Perhaps the human invasion of terror in Boston was unleashing something fearful deep within me. Am I in touch with my own fears, those that get exposed in times of communal and/or personal grief, sadness and/or fear? Can I name my fears, identify their impact and own the influence they have upon my soul? Or, does the constant flurry and pace of my life keep them hidden and neglected when they are more easily out of sight?
For a couple of days city life came to a standstill in Boston. The Symphony was canceled. The Bruins and Celtics postponed their professional sports games. Even the New York Yankees sang “Sweet Caroline” at Yankee Stadium in solidarity with Boston (unheard of before or since, given our rabid rivalry). But slowly and surely life began to resume to a state of pre-Marathon normalcy.
So too do our fears come to the forefront during such a time as this. But, slowly and surely they subside as life regains its normalcy.
As Boston came to a slowdown, pressed the pause button on all that smacked of daily reality, we were also willing to look our collective fear in its face and address it with vengeance. When will we return to that place of communal and inner reflection once again? Hopefully it won’t take another tragedy to open up our hearts once more. What about for us as individuals?
What are your deepest fears? Fear comes in all different shapes, sizes and forms. For some, it’s the fear of the dark, of pain, of being alone, of closed in spaces, of death itself. Or, phobias that evoke anxiety when we are around snakes, spiders, or other fear-inducing objects. For others, it’s the fear of losing one’s reputation, relational abandonment, personal failure, or not being accepted by others. Whatever your fears may be, they are very real. Don’t be shamed out of an awareness of them. These are the very places where God seeks to reside, to comfort, to protect, to release, and to redeem.
So, when you are gripped by fear, what is your response? Are you willing to enter into the space where your deepest fears reside? Or, are you more prone to shun them, wish them away, or ignore the pain of dealing with your mostly neglected fears? At times of national, regional, or even personal tragedy, it’s best for us to come alongside one another and remind each other of God’s promises for peace, protection, and presence. We don’t need to stand alone in our fears. We have God and our faith communities to reside alongside us and help us face our fears.
In addition, it’s vital that we face our fears head on. They are there to increase our faith, so that we can learn how to put our trust in the living God, who wishes to carry those fears for us. We don’t have to carry them on our own strength, conquer them with our own wisdom, or release them by our own willpower. No, instead, it’s in the center of our fears that God desires to reside. He is there for us in the vortex of our fearfulness. He doesn’t absent Himself from us when confronted by our fears. He is instead very present to hold us close to Himself, whisper love and consolation into our hearts, and fill our souls with peace.
In Matthew 14, Jesus sends his disciples on ahead of him to the other side of the lake. As the disciples get a considerable distance away, Jesus goes up on a mountainside alone to pray. Later in the evening, while the boat was a considerable distance from shore, buffeted by the wind and waves, the disciples are terrified. When they see Jesus, they think He’s a ghost! He encourages them to take courage and says “do not be afraid.”
Testing the Lord, Peter cries out in return “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus invites Peter to get out of the boat and walk on water, which he proceeds to do. But, when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid, began to sink and cries out to the Lord to save him. Then, Jesus exhorts his lack of faith and his enormity of doubt. The wind dies down, and after climbing back into the boat, those who witness all of this respond in worship, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
No matter how much our world has been rocked, no matter how filled we are with fear and riveted by doubt, no matter how often we cry out to God to deliver us, no matter what—we can trust the Son of God to calm the storm and invite us safely back into the boat. No matter what.
When you are stunted by fear, what is your resolve? When confronted by fear, what is your reply? When you hear the words “Be not afraid” what is your response? Here are a few suggestions to consider:
- Take some time to journal your fears. Call them by name. Bring them before the Lord in prayer. Ask God to carry them for you.
- Open the Scriptures and practice lectio divina with various passages that speak of both the life giving nature of the “fear of the Lord” that leads to awe and wonder, as well as those passages that address head first the need to “fear not” amidst the backdrop of your genuinely felt fears. The former will lead you into worship; the latter into prayerful reflection.
- Share your fears with those who know you best and love you most. Trust your closest spiritual friends with this insight about yourself. Invite them to journey with you into and through your fears. If necessary, seek professional help on any fears that seem crippling to you.
- Continue to be aware of the locus of fear at every level…global, communal, relational, and personal. As you travel the journey of life, notice how fear emerges and takes hold of your heart. Keep naming them, draw close to them, and prayerfully release them into the faithful hands of your loving heavenly Father who will always long to carry them for you.
- Believe in the truth of the biblical text and your understanding of the Triune God, and hold fast to the promises that bring life and joy out of pain and sorrow. The more “momentary” afflictions of this world will someday be eclipsed by the glory of eternity forever.
Lord God Almighty, in the midst of our fears we invite You to comfort us, protect us, and restore us. Redeem every ounce of pain that keeps us from trusting you in the center of our fear-filled lives. Release hope and joy into our hearts so that in believing your promises, we may be a witness to the fearful world in which we reside. Restore our souls, lead us by the hand, and quicken our hearts to trust you no matter what. All for Your honor and glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All for love’s sake. Amen.
Stephen A. Macchia, D.Min., is the Founder and President of Leadership Transformations, Inc. (www.LeadershipTransformations.org); Director of the Pierce Center, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; Author of several books, including Crafting A Rule of Life (IVP) and Becoming A Healthy Church (Baker) and lives in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. Steve and his wife, Ruth, have two children, Nathan and Rebekah, and make their home in Lexington, MA.