When I was a small child, I was very excited for the day that I would finally get to start going to school. School was where my mom worked – and I loved hanging out with her, reading and making craft projects and playing silly games and having fun. But as excited as I was to start school, I was also equally as terrified about the prospect. My dad has even told me in recent years about how anxious I was about the fact that I didn’t know how to read yet – and no amount of reasoning could persuade me that school is, in fact, the place you’re supposed to go to learn how to read. And beyond that, I just had no real idea what school would be like – for me, it was a venture into the unknown.
On the first day of kindergarten roundup, Mom took me to school, all dressed in my new school clothes, with my new little backpack on my back. At first I was excited, but with every step closer to the classroom, it felt like my excitement was slowly replaced by terror. Finally we stood in the very doorway of the classroom and I was so filled with fear that I would not let go of her. She turned to leave and go to her own classroom, and I literally wrapped my arms around her leg and clung on like a second skin. Eventually she pointed out that another little girl I was friends with was there, and she got me to let go just long enough to wave hello – and when I turned around, poof! Mom was gone.
Looking back now, it’s a pretty cute, funny little story. And, obviously, I survived a whole lot more schooling after that. But at the time, I was really scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen or what it would be like. And so I did what humans tend to do when we’re afraid – I grabbed for something familiar and I held onto it for dear life, with both hands.
Our instinctive fear reaction comes from one of the oldest parts of our brain – the amgydala, located near the brain stem. As we learn and grow older, we develop more and more of our higher brain function, like reasoning and logic and language – we literally learn to “use our words”! We grow into being able to view and interpret the world around us in more rational and abstract and imaginative ways.
But when we are afraid, it sends us right back to those most primitive parts of the brain. We struggle to be rational or imaginative when we’re operating out of fear, because those older, more instinct-driven parts of our brains have a tendency to take over. And it doesn’t matter if you’re five years old or a hundred and five; that instinct stays with us: that when we’re afraid, we instinctively seek security by clinging to whatever around us is familiar.
I bring up fear, because it’s what I see operating under the surface of our gospel reading for today. In this passage from Mark, we read kind of an odd little story. At this point, the disciples have been following Jesus around for many chapters. They know his brand. By now, they have heard his radical preaching that the last will be first and the first will be last, many times. Yet here are James and John jockeying for positions of honor by Jesus’ side – and the rest of the disciples are over here being salty about it, not because it was a dumb question that they should have known better than to ask, but because James and John asked it before the other disciples had the chance!
But as odd as this story is on its surface, it sounds even odder when you add in some context. The lectionary skips over a few verses between our gospel reading from last week and our gospel reading for today. After last week’s encounter with the rich man, Mark writes:
The disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”Mark 10:32-34
Jesus tells his disciples yet again: we are going to Jerusalem. I am going to be arrested, sentenced to death, mocked, tortured, and killed, before rising from the dead. And the very next thing out of anyone’s mouth is this question from James and John. (Read the room, my dudes! Good grief.) The timing of all this really makes them look like a pair of narcissistic ding-dongs who don’t super get what’s going on.
But for me, the key word for understanding this story comes in this passage between our gospel readings. In verse 32, “The disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and those who followed him were afraid.” They were afraid. And that makes me think that James and John probably did get it. In fact, they probably had a pretty good sense of just how bad things could get – and they were afraid. And in their fear, they went back to those same instinctive patterns of thought and behavior. They sought out security by clinging to something familiar – like me clinging to my mom’s leg on the first day of school. And I’m not even just talking about them clinging to Jesus. They were also trying to grab onto power in a way that they understood, in a way that made sense to them.
I find James and John’s actions a lot more relatable when I read them this way, through the lens of fear. We all know what it’s like to be afraid, especially when we are faced with unfamiliar and risky situations. I think it’s safe to say fear has become a pretty pervasive part of our lives in these days. We live with so much uncertainty. This pandemic has broken our world in ways that we are struggling to figure out how to fix. Or at the very least, it has exacerbated problems that we already didn’t know how to fix. Relationships, employment, recreation, schooling, healthcare, so many aspects of our lives have been plunged into uncertainty as even the end of the pandemic itself remains uncertain. And the church is by no means immune to this – the ways that people engage with and attend and give to the church (or don’t) are changing, and church leaders are struggling to understand and respond.
These days, we are all to some degree operating out of exhaustion and fear. I’m sure you can feel it in your own bodies as I say it – and as I feel it in mine. We’re often operating out of that instinct-driven, reactive part of our brains. And when we’re in that place, it’s hard for us to engage the more spacious, creative, front-brain kind of thinking to imagine what God might be doing next, to imagine what God might be calling us into. It’s hard for us to jump in and figure out where God is doing a new thing when our fear is driving us to cling to whatever we can find that is familiar.
This is why, again and again and again the scriptures we hear Jesus speak the same words to his followers: do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. You never hear him say “there’s nothing to be afraid of” – because of course, God knows there’s usually plenty to be afraid of. But do not be afraid. Now, God also knows that not being afraid is something that’s a lot more easily said than done. We can’t just shut off our fear reaction like a switch. But what we can do is become aware of what’s happening inside us, to bring awareness to those feelings of fear and exhaustion and to consciously work at re-engaging with our reason and empathy and imagination in response.
And we can remind ourselves that God is at work in the world; God is bringing healing and wholeness and life whether we are aware of it or not – whether we are full of fear or exhausted or otherwise. Even in the midst of these uncertain and chaotic times, God is spinning new possibilities into being, raising new hope from the ashes of what came before. God’s work is not dependent on how we feel. Like on that first day of school, my mom was always going to come back for me, whether I was anxious and afraid or not. Likewise God looks out for us and loves us regardless of how we feel. Today we hear God’s voice reassuring us through the words of the psalmist. God says – to you and to me:
I will deliver those who cling to me;Psalm 91:14-16
I will uphold them, because they know my name.
They will call me, and I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble; I will rescue and honor them.
With long life will I satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
No matter what life throws our way, we can depend on God. God in Christ intimately knows our struggles and our suffering and can help us find our way through them. When we are wrestling with fear, our best bet is to let go of our death grip on what is familiar and instead cling to Christ. He will not leave us in that closed off place of fear, but instead comes to liberate us from it. He has come to ransom us from the power of fear and death, so that we can rise above our fear and step forward into an unknown future with hope, confident that Christ is with us always, to the end of the age.