In 1933, a newly elected US President stood up to give his First Inaugural Address. And he gave us a phrase that would echo through the years – “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. To a nation in the depths of the Great Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt offered words of hope and challenge. He reminded them that they could overcome the difficulty they were facing. But first he reminded them that fear – “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” -- could get in the way of that recovery.
At first glance FDR's words make no sense. In 1933 people had no work, and no prospects of work. People were losing houses, land, hope. People had no way to provide for their families. And remember that in the US (and in Canada) at the time there was little to no social safety net. Certainly there were many things that people had to fear.
But on another level FDR was very right. Fear is a powerful thing. In fact many suggest that the two primal motivators in human life are fear and love. In times of change and upheaval fear gets into our psyches and freezes us in our anxiety. Fear leads us to lose hope. Fear leads us to depression. Fear leads us to give up. This is why Roosevelt was right. Fear gets in the way of change and therefore blocks recovery.
In the first two chapters of Luke's gospel three different people are visited by angels bearing life-changing news. And in all three instances one of the first things the angel says is “be not afraid”. In order to hear and absorb the news about how God is active in their lives Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds need to release their fear.
And I think we can find a resonance between these stories and our present. Certainly the parallels between present-day life in Northwestern Ontario and the US of 1933 are obvious. The only difference is in the depth and scope of the economic collapse. As I listen around town I hear a lot of anxiety and fear over what the future will, or will not, bring. What is it that we have to fear?
But every time of upheaval brings new opportunities. The challenge is that those new opportunities often mean change in our beliefs and our expectations. The challenge is that those new opportunities often come in unexpected ways. This is where I see us in the same spot as a man too old to become a father, a young unmarried woman, and some lowly shepherds on a hillside.
In a time when the world is turned upside down we have to choose how we will react (and we can always choose how we react to things). Do we give in to the fear and anxiety that leads to paralysis and despair? Or do we find a way to let go of that fear and look for the signs of hope in the world around us? Can we embrace the changes that may be coming our way despite the fact that change always brings uncertainty? Can we “be not afraid”?