Do Not Be Afraid
Each year around Christmastime for the last decade or so, our family has a tradition of watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended versions, of course). We spread it out over six nights—a full week immersion into Middle Earth, as it were. Over the last two or three years, my ears have invariably perked up during Bilbo’s conversation with Gandalf near the beginning of the first film. Bilbo is tired and conflicted and ready to leave everything and everyone behind. Then, this memorable and evocative line: I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.
I’ve had a number of conversations recently with people who feel just like this, people who are coasting on fumes as the Christmas season approaches. Often, these people are in what could broadly be termed “helping professions,” whether it is pastoral work or counseling or social work or volunteering or whatever. This is a time of year when our collective rhetoric about peace and hope and goodwill and ooey-gooey newness tends to race a fair distance out in front of many people’s reality. And for those who consistently and determinedly wade into the wreckage of other people’s troubles there are seasons where it all gets to be a bit much. I’ve heard stories of burnout, fatigue, anger at persistent misunderstanding, helplessness, and a general weariness that can just kind of bury its way into your soul.
Truth be told, I have at times felt the same way this season. There is a lot of subterranean pain out there. A lot. And it’s not always easy to be on the receiving end of this or to try to figure out which surface pains are masks for deeper wounds, etc. Pastors are supposed to be kind and wise and compassionate, drawing resourcefully from bottomless wells of compassion and grace. And such pastors do seem to exist out there, thanks be to God! But there are times when the well is pretty much dry, times when listening and speaking into the brokenness of human lives seems too tall a task, times when I’d rather go paint a fence or wash the dishes or shovel the sidewalk—anything with some easily observable progress and some definable results.
In light of all this, I was brought up short by a providential encounter with the final chapter of Gordon Smith’s Courage and Calling this morning. The chapter is called “The Ordered Life” and the particular passage that I was drawn to this morning was about conversation as the “greatest gift of community:”
Conversation involves two simple acts or elements. First, conversation involves the discipline and grace of listening. There is probably no greater service that we give others.
When I was younger, I probably would have dismissed statements like this as a bit of romantic hyperbole. No greater service? Really? What about doing something like, I don’t know, feeding someone or meeting some urgent practical need? Listening doesn’t really accomplish much. Except that it does. It really does. People really, really need to be listened to. Many people in our culture are very, very lonely. This is perhaps ironic given our endless resources for “connection,” but true nonetheless. Many people have few, if any people in their lives that will listen to them with patience and understanding.
Listening really is a true grace that we can offer one another, as Smith says:
For in listening we attend to them, honor them, accept them and respond to what matters most to them. Nothing so demonstrates that we love others than listening to them.
And, conversely, I suspect that nothing so demonstrates that we are unwilling or unable to love others well than our refusal to listen. I mean really listen, not just allow noises to pass across our auditory membranes. The verbs Smith uses are instructive: attend, honor, accept, respond… And respond to what matters most to them. Those last two words are pretty important. I am quite skilled at listening and responding to what matters most to me. I do this instinctively because, naturally, what could matter more in a conversation than what matters to me? Especially when what matters to others is wrong or boring or inconvenient or exhausting!
Smith goes on:
We listen, of course, only when we resist the temptation to say something, to teach something or worse, to use the word should before we have really heard the other. The death of conversation comes when we speak before we listen, when we speak before the other has really spoken, when we jump to conclusions or make premature assumptions about what they are going to say.
Wise words, those. Words that make me wonder how many conversations I’ve killed over the years as a pastor, a husband, a father, a brother, a son, a friend…
Of course conversation can and must go beyond listening. At some point, we must speak. But again, Smith’s words are of the chastening variety:
Second, conversation includes speaking. But it must not include innuendo, complaint, or sarcasm. It is spoken without pretense or posturing, the truth plainly given without exaggeration, without flattery. Some, it would seem, cannot speak without being patronizing; their speaking is either controlling or is a means to cover their own fears.
I’ve noticed that when I’m feeling like “butter scraped over too much bread” I tend to gravitate toward precisely the kinds of speech Smith mentions here. Innuendo, complaint, sarcasm, posturing, exaggeration, false flattery, patronizing, controlling… [shudder]. Yes, much as I would like to imagine that these are all manifestations of my obvious wit and endearing humour, I fear that the motivations behind them are often slightly less noble. I fear that fear has far too much sway in how I listen and in how I speak. I am afraid to listen well because who knows what it might demand of me? Who knows what might be involved in giving myself to others in deep and honest ways? I am afraid to speak without affectation. Who knows what others might think of me if we were to shed my self-protective shield?
Speaking of fear, in reading through the Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke this week, I was struck again by how both Mary and Joseph received the same message prior to the arrival of the Christ child: Do not be afraid. You could probably make a pretty good case that “Do not be afraid” is one of the most consistent themes that runs throughout the broad biblical narrative. To quote Brian Zahnd in a recent sermon, “What does heaven always say to earth? Do not be afraid.” Fear is at the root of so much of what troubles us. Perhaps on some level it’s at the root of all of what troubles us. God knows.
Yes, God does know. Knows about the hopes and fears of your years, my years, all the years. Knows and extends his invitation again through the Christ child this Christmas season. Do not be afraid.
For those who are feeling burned out and stretched thin and inadequate and uncertain, for those who are afraid to listen and speak well, for those carrying burdens too heavy to bear, for those who are stressed out about the season and its real or perceived obligations… for all of us who are preparing to enter into the old, old story once again, whatever our circumstances or state of mind, I hope we can hear at least these four words this Christmas:
Do not be afraid.