During my middle school and high school years, my parents imparted valuable social skills that they believed would benefit me as I transitioned into adulthood. My mother specifically emphasized etiquette. For instance, when invited to someone’s house for dinner, it’s customary to wait for the host to signal the start of the meal, often indicated by them picking up their silverware first. Additionally, it’s essential to be mindful not to comment on someone else’s food, especially if it’s something you don’t personally like.
On the other hand, my dad underscored the importance of staying informed about current events, just in case you might be engaged in conversation with an elder. He also highlighted the significance of a firm handshake and holding doors for others—even if they’re a few paces behind you. Most crucially, he emphasized making eye contact when speaking to others for better connection, perceived honesty, mutual understanding, and respect.
All of these have served me well, although I admit that maintaining eye contact in conversations is difficult for me. I had always wondered why eye contact proved challenging until I was diagnosed with a neuro-difference about six years ago. For people who have ADHD (like me) or are on the Autism spectrum, maintaining eye contact can prove disconcerting.
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Recall a Fear
Let it go
- at least for now -
In the Midst of Fear
Br. David Vryhof
You may know what it is to be sailing through life in radiant sunlight when, swiftly and unexpectedly, a storm arises, and you suddenly find yourself swamped by mighty waves and tossed about by terrible winds. Perhaps it’s an unexpected calamity – a health issue, an accident, some kind of assault, or some other unforeseen suffering – that affects you or your loved ones. Or maybe it’s tragedy on a national or global scale that frightens you: the threat of violence, political upheaval, or environmental disaster. Or perhaps it’s something that hasn’t happened, but could happen. There is much to be afraid of in life, and at times our fears can seem truly great, and we can feel so weak and small in the face of them.
Fear is no respecter of age, gender, or social standing. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes irrational visitation of fear. Fear arrives when we face impending danger, pain, evil, confusion, vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can control this thing that threatens to swamp our lives and cause us to sink. Whatever its source, our fear is real.
Jesus speaks a great deal about fear and anxiety, which is quite revealing. He would have learned about fear in part from the Hebrew scriptures. The scriptures he would have known – what we call the “Old Testament” – are replete with messages about worry and fear. We are told very plainly that we do not need to be afraid because God’s steadfast love and unfailing faithfulness will provide for us. Fear’s tight hold on us is loosened, the Bible assures us, when we put our trust in God.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me,” the psalmist says, “and delivered me out of all my terror” (Psalm 34:4).
Jesus would have known these words, just as he would have known the words of the prophet Isaiah: “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. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3).
Jesus would also have learned about fear from his own life. I am not talking about the fear he observed in other people, but about his own personal fear, what he experienced. We don’t know the specifics of what Jesus feared, but we do know that Jesus lived a fully human life and experienced the full range of human emotions, and therefore he must have been acquainted with fear. We see him withdrawing to pray in solitude as he wrestles with his own calling and with the challenges he and his followers face. We catch a glimpse of real fear when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane for the cup of suffering to pass him by (Matthew 26:36-46). We can trust that when Jesus talks about not being afraid, he is speaking about fear from the inside-out, autobiographically.
Jesus would have learned about
fear from his own life.
Jesus was able to speak reassuringly about fear because he had taken to heart the words of scripture and learned to trust in God. In prayer he received the assurance that he was not alone, that God would always be with him, strengthening him to face every trial. He wanted others (including us) to know the inner freedom and deep assurance that comes from trusting in God. Over and over again, his message was “Do not fear.” He promised his followers that his power, his provision, and his presence would be with them (and us) always, to the end of the storm, and to the end of life.
If your life now is swamped with fear, or if you are afraid about an incoming storm, remember this: our fear is not an obstacle to God but rather an invitation from God to take Jesus at his word. We need not be afraid. Jesus knows every reason why we could be afraid; he’s been there. For us, fear can seem such an immovable impediment. But it is no obstacle for God. Our fear presents an opportunity to experience first-hand God’s presence and power and provision by trusting in God’s promises.
Our fear is God’s invitation, and Jesus will make good on his promise to be with us always. Let Jesus have the last word: “Do not fear, for I am with you, always” (Matthew 28:20).
Our fear is God’s invitation.
What fears are storming in your life right now? Can you imagine that Jesus might have known a similar fear?
Can you recall a time when a particular verse or image from scripture helped you to face your fear in a difficult situation? What words comfort you?
When angels appear to human beings in the scriptures, their first words are almost always, “Don’t be afraid.” Who are the “angels of consolation” who have helped you face your fears in life? A particular friend or relative? A mentor or teacher or pastor? How have they been able to comfort you?
Set aside time this week for a period of prayer in which you speak aloud your deepest fears to God and listen for God's reassuring words and comforting presence within you.
Carry in your heart a mantra which you can repeat to yourself whenever you feel afraid, such as “Whenever I am afraid, I will put my trust in you” (Psalm 56:3:) or “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name. It is the eighth day of Christmas, the day on which Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple, offering him to God with the appointed sacrifices. In Judaism, this was the occasion on which the father named the child, and for Jewish boys, this was the day of their circumcision, which set them apart from all others and marked them as belonging to God’s holy people, Israel. “The Word became flesh and lived among us”… as a young Jewish boy.
We recognize, don’t we, that there is power in a name. In ancient Israel, and in other ancient cultures, there was believed to be a close connection between a person’s name and their soul. It was as if their identity, their personality, their temperament, and their character were all bound up in their name. To know someone’s name was to gain insight into them, perhaps even power over them. Recall the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger throughout the night beside the river Jabbok, refusing to let go and demanding to know the stranger’s name (Gen. 32:29). Or remember in the gospels how demons tried to exercise power over Jesus by calling out his name and claiming to know who he was (Mark 3:11). There was power in knowing someone’s name.
To do something “in the name of” another person, or to evoke or call upon a person’ name, was an act of utmost weight and power because it made the other person effectively present in the transaction. Someone who was authorized to act “in the name of” another shared that person’s power and authority.
Most preachers, when they reflect on their preaching, will find that they have a few themes that they come back to again and again. For me, one of those themes is the question of what it means to believe. I return to this theme repeatedly because I want to challenge the popular understanding that believing means holding a certain set of statements or claims to be true – statements, for example, about God or Jesus or the Bible or salvation. When we speak of believing in this way, Christianity becomes a matter of the head rather than of the heart.
We know that faith does not spare us from the pain of human existence. Believing does not guarantee that we will never have cancer, or suffer the loss of a loved one, or lose a job, or watch a business fail. Believing does not solve all our problems or make us rich or popular or successful. It does not exempt us from the experience of pain and suffering. It does not make everything right.
Genesis 46:1-7, 28-30
Almost exactly two years ago, a long period of uncertainty ended in clarity. Clarity that God was calling me here, to this community. And while that clarity was a relief, what I didn’t expect was that that would be the easy part. Leaving my job, packing up my apartment, saying goodbye to my friends—all these practicalities showed that responding to God’s call was definitive, transformative, and risky.
Our Gospel lesson today sits in the middle of what’s called the “Missionary Discourse.” Jesus’s disciples have answered his call, and Jesus has told them that they will share in his ministry of proclaiming the good news, healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons. But he also tells them that they will share in his sufferings: betrayed and arrested, hated and beaten. These disciples are risking all when they say yes to Jesus.
What is an acceptable risk? In my own answer to God’s call, I didn’t face betrayals, beatings, or hatred of all. But I did face the unknown—what if this doesn’t work out? What if friends or family don’t understand what I’m doing? Part of me—a lot of me—was afraid of the unknown, afraid of what the answer to these questions might be. Is the risk worth it?
Jesus calls us to risk all, but he also offers us a simple assurance: “have no fear.” “Have no fear.” This is the same assurance God gives to Jacob as he uproots his family and all his possessions to join his son Joseph in Egypt: “Jacob, Jacob . . : do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there” (Gen 46:3).
All this may strike us as strange or difficult to live into. Fear is a natural, human reaction to risk. But I think Jesus’s point is not that we should be fearless, but that that fear shouldn’t dominate our lives and thoughts. “Jacob, Jacob . . . I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again” (Gen 46:4). We can feel fear, but not let it dominate because, if we live into God’s call to us, God has promised to be with us. “Have no fear. . . . I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 10:26, 20:20)
What is God calling you to today? How does saying yes to God unsettle your life, your sense of security? What are you afraid to risk? Hear Jesus’s words—“have no fear”—and know that he will be with you, always.
As the days have been getting longer, I’ve been taking advantage by going for late evening walks in the woods surrounding Emery House. Day gives way to night, and the woods are transformed. Although I’ve walked these paths dozens of times now, I feel that I encounter something new each time—grazing deer, the shape of a tree, the color of the sky. I try to walk without the aid of a flashlight, not only trusting my own experience of the trails but also being open to their illumination by a different light.
The First Nations Version (FNV), an Indigenous translation of the New Testament, renders the familiar “kingdom of God” as “Creator’s good road.” This is particularly striking in the teaching on wealth leading up to this evening’s Gospel passage, where Jesus notes that “finding and walking the good road is a hard thing for the ones who have many possessions,” and “the ones who trust in their many possessions will have a hard time finding their way onto the good road” (Mk 10:23, 25, FNV).
I Peter 3:8-18
The Gospel passage we’ve read this morning is part of the “farewell discourse” of Jesus in the Gospel of John. In John’s account, Jesus speaks these words to his disciples just after the Last Supper, before he is betrayed and arrested, brought to trial, and put to death. It’s a lengthy discourse, spread over four chapters, offering further teaching, reassurance, and prayers. The farewell discourse is packed full of theology, and it can be challenging for readers to understand all that Jesus is saying. Some readers may feel like they’re pushing through a lengthy theological lecture, interesting at points, but definitely heavy-going. There’s a lot here.
Tucked into these chapters of theological discourse is a short phrase that catches my attention. Jesus says to his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
What prompted him to say that?
If we view this Final Discourse as a lengthy theological lecture, we’ll miss the significance of this phrase and of this entire section. We shouldn’t imagine Jesus standing like a teacher at a lectern, explaining to his sleepy disciples complex theological concepts that he thought they ought to know. Rather, we should picture him surrounded by his closest friends, speaking to them with great compassion, care, and concern. This is a very intimate conversation, not a theological discourse.
“Are you greater than our father Abraham?” They were confused and upset. How could those who kept Jesus’ word not see death? They clung to what they knew, to being Abraham’s children, so much that they could not see and understand Jesus who was with them.
In our own confusion and pain, it can be hard to hear, hard to see God with us. What might you be clinging to so tightly that you’re not seeing? What’s getting in the way of receiving Jesus?
Sometimes we cling to who we are or what we have: heritage, group-identity, connections. We cling to the people we love or who love us best, our meaningful relationships. We cling to comfort or privilege, standard of living, status, or success. We cling to abilities, gifts, how we serve, what we do well, including for God.
When was the last time you walked into the ocean? Or sat on the sand with the surf washing up over you? Do you remember the force of the tide, the effort needed to maintain your footing or seat, to counter the push and pull of the current against your body so that you could remain planted in the sand, firm, upright? Do you remember saying to yourself, “Okay, now, I’ve got it,” just before a wave hit you and knocked you over?
Jesus’s listeners in today’s Gospel are trying to find their footing, to find a place to stand upright. “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (Jn 8:24). His listeners are desperate, pressing Jesus for details – so desperate that, even though they don’t understand what he is saying to them, nevertheless, “many believed in him” (Jn 8:30). But the current of Jesus’s truth will be too strong for them; by the end of this chapter, these same people who believed will try to stone Jesus (Jn 8:59). Their belief is without a firm foundation, unable to brace them against the next wave.
Today we celebrate the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, or Candlemas. It has a particular resonance for me, because Candlemas was the last Sunday that I spent in my parish in England before coming to the United States. I remember the very mixed feelings I had during that final service. On the one hand looking back with thanksgiving and celebration, but on the other, looking forward with a certain degree of trepidation.
And I think the feast of Candlemas has a similar liturgical function in the Christian year. On the one hand, we look back on this day, to the forty days of light and rejoicing which we have been celebrating during Christmas and Epiphany. But on the other hand, we are forced to look forward with some trepidation, to anticipate the events of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, his passion and his death.
This bitter-sweet character is articulated by Simeon, on the day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the Temple to be presented to the Lord. As he takes the child into his arms, he utters that great peon of praise, ‘Lord you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see.’ But then, with prophetic insight, he looks forward to what is yet to come, and says to Mary, ‘This child is destined to be a sign which many will reject, and you too shall be pierced to the heart.’