I am flying out of Denver, Colorado one February twilight many years ago. To our right, the snow-covered plains stretch endlessly into the distance, the last light of the day still dancing in golden sparkles across the icy ground. On our left, the Rockies, high and majestic and utterly still, are bathed in a rosy hue. The first stars are just becoming visible, little holes of light poked into the velvet purple/blue mantel above the earth. As the plane ascends into that exquisitely beautiful evening sky, my traveling companion, who is five years old, is keeping up a continuous commentary.
“Look, mom, see that barn over there? If our plane crashed right now, it would crash right into all those animals. Look mom, see that lake? If we crashed into the lake first we’d die and then we’d drown. Look, mom, see those trees? . . .”
I wonder how much of life’s loveliness and pleasure we can’t enjoy because we are afraid? And with good reason.
The Spiritual challenge then is this: in a world where so many bad things can and do happen and where we are taught to fear the other, fear the economy , fear terrorism, fear for our lives, how can we nevertheless live brave and joyous lives, lives in which defying logic and caution we are still able and willing to embrace our own lives, and embrace each other?
It is to that spiritual challenge that the prophet Isaiah speaks the word of God. “Comfort, comfort ye my people!” It is an odd message coming where it does. The Israelites have been captive in Babylon for 20 plus years. Painful as it has been, it is just beginning to be manageable when the political scene shifts, the nation’s rage, and Babylon itself is in danger of being overthrown. What will become of this people holding so tenuously to the little security they have found in Babylon?
At first glance, the news is not good. In a gigantic upheaval, the way of the Lord is prepared – the valleys are lifted up, the mountains are brought low. An offstage voice says to the prophet, “Cry out!” and Isaiah says, “What should I cry?” Get what he’s supposed to cry: “All people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fade.” Now there’s a cheery little message. It’s the same message I saw on a bumper sticker the other day. “In the end we all we all die.” And the message is true enough, and we know it. That, after all, is what fuels our fears. But the message is not true enough, for the prophet goes on – “But the word of our God will stand forever!” Far from being absent from the political and cosmic shaking of the world, the prophet lifts up that terrible beauty and says in the midst of it, “Here is your God”.
Then hear how tenderly Isaiah will describe the coming of God: “God will feed the flock like a shepherd; will gather the lambs in God’s arms, and carry them in God’s bosom.” We die. But the God in whose bosom we are tenderly carried everyday of our lives does not die. In the end, we live in that love.
Love is what it comes down to. We are tenderly and fiercely loved by the eternal God who will not let us go. The writer of the Song of Solomon puts it this way: “For love is stronger…than death.”So, then,” says the prophet, “Lift up your voice with strength.” And then those words again, “Do not fear!” The apostle Paul, catching a glimpse of the power of that love will say, “Love casts out fear.” Notice that the imagery here is not gentle – like if you love enough all your fears will softly dissipate. Instead the imagery is very strong – love casts out fear. It is a willful, determined love that picks fear up by the scruff of the neck and throws it out – and gives us a life bold and undaunted.
There are only two emotions, someone has written. Fear and love. Choose love.
Back in the air over Denver, the plane is banking now, making a wide, arcing tum over the frozen pink earth before it fixes its course south. “Mom, look at that hill right there. If this plane crashed into that hill you know what would happen?”
“What would happen?” I ask. “We’d die,” comes the answer.
“And then what?” I ask. My son takes such questions very seriously so it is a moment before he answers. Finally,
“Then we’d be back in God.”
I say nothing, sensing that he is not through with his thought. And then suddenly his face lights up, as if caught, by chance, in the last flash of dying sunlight – only the light is not outside the plane, but in him, more like a sunrise of revelation dawning in his soul, filling his face, indeed his whole being, with light.
“Mom,” he says, and his voice is hushed, “if that’s the very worst thing that can happen, then there’s nothing to be afraid of, is there?”
And in the deep, eternal silence that ensues, a word is forming. Is it my voice, calm and reassuring against the noisy clank of the engines? Or is it the voice of Another, more ancient and tranquil than the mountains now far below us, wiser than fear, more enduring than the love of a mother for her son.
“No, my child, no. There is nothing to be afraid of.”