“Place these words I’m speaking on your heart and in your very being. Tie them on your hand as a sign.” Deuteronomy 11:16
I pulled the trigger.
I got my tattoo.
As I’ve been threatening to do for months now, I got the words “Fear Not” in Biblical Greek inked on my left inside forearm.
The words are from my favorite chapter of the Bible; Luke 2. And these are among my favorite verses…
“The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.”
This is the heart of the Gospel.
God is with us.
God saves us by dwelling among us fearful creatures, and by constantly calling us forward through the leading of the Holy Spirit. God saved us, and is saving us, by showing us how to limit and live with our fears.
We live with deeply embedded and “tribal” fears. Science is showing us how deep these fears are, within our being. They likely kept us alive and safe, eons ago…when we lived in a world of natural predators who might literally eat us alive.
Soldiers learn how to live from these fears, how to be guided by them, and it’s what keeps them alive in war.
But that’s also why they have such a hard time “re-entering” every day life. Because once you learn to live in fear, it’s doubly hard to unlearn it in “ordinary life.”
And make no mistake, not only are these fears latent within us, like spiritual cancers, the media cultivates them with us.
The media —all of the media– feeds them, even when try not to not pay attention. The shout at us with increasingly loud and obnoxious voices, in a desperate attempt to “channel us” on their channels.
The media could not exist in its current forms if it did not play on our fears. And it does not currently have another model to deliver news to us, except this fear-based one. To whit:
So, we all have those fears within our physical and spiritual DNA. Driving down the street. Standing in the line at the coffeeshop. Talking with coworkers. Talking with family. Thinking about the latest horrible terrors that happened somewhere else in the world. Even events that have no bearing on our daily lives…events from far across the globe…seep into us…
We are learning more and more about “mirror neurons.” These amazing parts of our brain are the scientific basis for our spiritual compassion. They allow us to feel empathy for another, and for situations that have nothing to do with us. But they apparently work in reverse too. The same mirror neurons that help develop our compassion, love, understanding…can also be triggered to cultivate fear, distrust, anxiety. This is the heart of what I mean when I say that our fears are buried deep within our DNA.
Suddenly, and without warning, the deep-seeded desire to “otherize” can well up inside of us in ways that catch each of us off guard. The strength of these feelings can surprise and embarrass us. Or even worse, we can be so far inside some unacknowledged fear, that don’t see them as fears at all, but instead as reasonable and hyper-rational “caution and care.” Even “being prudent” or “safe.”
Much of what passes for “trying to be safe” today is really rooted in fear.
So, in in this context, God’s scriptures say to us, over and over “Fear Not,” and this becomes tattoo for our age. And, for me, on my arm.
I already love this tattoo way more than I imagined I would. And can already envision that it will speak to me in settings and situations that I can’t possibly imagine yet.
It’s bigger than I thought I would get.
But, hey. Go big or go home.
I did it, first and foremost, for me.
I did it because I must confess that this is a message I must constantly send to myself…
Don’t Be Afraid…
And, it’s a vulnerable message to ink-down on yourself, for everybody to see. I mean, if you’re gonna put “Fear Not” on your skin, then you’re pretty much admitting to anybody you see that you are afraid, far too often. That’s pretty revealing, in a way that is at the same time embarrassing, dizzying and yet somehow….freeing.
Of all the messages God tries to send me, on a regular basis, this one needs near constant repeating. Because every day brings us new “reasons” to be afraid.
We all fear.
Hell, I will still fear.
Tons, I am sure.
But now, it’s written down. As David Wilcox sings,
“With this tattoo, you make your promise of who you are and what you think
This will be your binding contract, written down in blood and ink.”
Now, it’s more than just an aspiration or wishful thought. Now, it’s a skin-deep mission statement I’ve decided to carry with me, and a calling of God I cannot look away from.
At my most fearful, it will stare back at me, simultaneously convicting and comforting me, pushing me to be better than I am in the moment.
It’s the perfect message for our political world today. As we look at the campaign, the deep angers that divide us….fear drives that anger….fears that we fail to acknowledge…fear that causes us to do politically stupid things.
It’s the perfect message for the United Methodist Church.
I was at the Metro District Conference for our United Methodist Churches in Dallas yesterday, and somebody who saw a Facebook picture of the tattoo came up because he wanted to see it in person.
He had been General Conference delegate, and he has seen everything that happened there. And he said to me, “That it’s, right there…that’s the message.”
Glad he agrees.
I asked Northaven Church yesterday to see this as Jeremiah buying the field. We are grieving a lack of change at General Conference.
At a similar moment of grief and fear, right at the moment the people are being hauled off into captivity for hundreds of years, Jeremiah makes the absolutely foolish move of buying a field in Judah. It’s ridiculous. Nobody he knows will ever live there.
But he does it anyway, because as God says:
“Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”
He does it as a sign of hope.
Please understand, my own sense of God’s Holy Spirit is that change in the UMC is not hundreds of years away, or even years away. General Conference’s decision is a tacit admission that our systems are broken, and that we are already now living into a new reality. As with Congress, the old binary system of Roberts Rules and plenary sessions has pushed us more and more into “sides” of “winners and losers.” It is not allowing us to reach the mission field in every place, and creates the petri dish where fear of the “other” can grow.
Change is already upon us, now. And change will continue.
This is the work of God’s Holy Spirit, though it feels fraught with fear and peril.
A final message of God that came to me this week, as I watched the General Conference. As I saw the fear that seemed to grip everyone in that hall in Portland, God said:
“People who lead from their fear, and not their deepest values, can only lead people to more fear. To lead others to hope takes conquering your deepest inner fears, and starving-out your external ones.”
To all who would-be leaders in the UMC during this fearful time, please hear: We must lead from our convictions, and with conviction. We must be willing to stand for our own convictions, even when we are leading people who might think and feel differently than us. That ability is the heart of leadership. Conflict is inevitable, especially in periods of change. And while we cannot, and must not, intentionally create fear for fear’s sake, neither must we fear conflict and disagreement within our greater unity either.
And in every facet of life –within the church, and without, in family and work, as leaders, followers, or some mixture of the two– naming our own personal fears, and calming them, is essential before we can bring about real and healthy change.
So, yes, I got my tattoo for many varied and complex reason. But I mostly did it for me.
Because it’s a message I need to hear and see every day.