By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 4:35-41
Perhaps, you have heard these lines from an old Scottish prayer:
From ghoulies and ghosties
and long-leggedy beasties
and things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
I’m currently in the midst of a sermon series on prayer. It is based on a book called Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship With God Through Honest Prayer. The author, William Barry, contends that God wants a friendship with us, a premise supported in scripture. Now, like any healthy friendship, our friendship with God requires honest, authentic communication. A relationship built on pretense isn’t a friendship. In a genuine friendship, people know that the relationship can only flourish if both individuals sincerely share their thoughts and their feelings, no matter how uncomfortable and difficult that might be.
In his book, Barry defines prayer as our conscious awareness of God’s presence; an awareness that is cultivated through honest communication, that results in mutual self-revelation.[i] That means that what we “say” to God goes far beyond what we may have learned as children; that is, that prayer begins with a direct address to God (“Dear Lord,” “Dear heavenly Father’) and prayer concludes with the obligatory “amen.” But prayer is not limited to those formal structures or patterns.
Recently someone shared with me that there is a somewhat murky line between when she talks to herself and when she talks with God and that, I think, is a point Barry makes as well. Prayer happens anytime that we reflect; when we turn over our thoughts and ideas, our challenges, concerns and fears, while being conscious of the fact that we are doing so in the presence of God. In other words, as we reflect, we are aware that all of our thoughts, ideas, challenges, concerns and fears are being sifted through together with God.
This morning our focus is on “talking to God about our fears.” Fear is, perhaps, the most primitive of all emotions. As children, we fear the monster under the bed and those things that go bump in the night. As adults, we fear the call from the doctor’s office when our lab results have come back or a call from the police when our teenager has missed their curfew. We fear corporate downsizing and the loss of our jobs. We fear when the pediatrician tells us our toddler is not meeting appropriate developmental milestones. And often, when we voice our fears, others say, “Don’t worry; don’t be afraid.” Among Christians, we hear people say, “Don’t worry, I’ll pray for you” or “Just turn it over to Jesus.” Yet we feel what we feel and feelings don’t go away just because we try to ignore or suppress them.
If you struggle with fear, you’re in good company. Particularly in the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples struggle continually with fear. This morning’s gospel story is a prime example. Jesus and his disciples are out on the Sea of Galilee. Galilee is a bit like our Great Lake Erie; it’s notorious for storms coming up quickly. In the ancient world, people had an incredible fear of water. After all, they had no submarines and no way of knowing what lurked deep beneath the surface. Monsters, like the mighty Leviathan[ii], lived in those waters. The sea was associated with chaos, death and destruction. And so, when a storm begins to swamp the boat the disciples are in, they cry out to Jesus in fear. They’re convinced that they’re going to die, to drown to death, and what is Jesus doing; just sleeping through the whole thing. They wake him up and cry out, I imagine somewhat indignantly, “Don’t you care; we’re going to be destroyed.” So Jesus speaks to the sea and the wind and it becomes a dead calm. And then how do the disciples feel? They’re afraid. Apparently even Jesus’ dramatic displays of power don’t put an end to their fear. They have seen so much already during their time with Jesus. I mean, they were with him 24/7. And again, especially in Mark, Jesus’ ministry moves at a fast and furious pace: he heals the sick, casts out demons, defeats the power of sin and evil. Mark, chapter 3 gives us a summary of Jesus’ ministry to date; verses 7-11 tell us:
Mark 3:7 Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; 8 hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers... 9 He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; 10 for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. 11 Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, "You are the Son of God!"[iii]
That’s some pretty impressive stuff. Jesus’ disciples have not been in any way lacking in evidence or demonstrations of his power but they still fear and they just don’t get it; they just don’t get Jesus.[iv] They are overwhelmed and frightened. They simply do not grasp the significance of what is happening. They do not learn from one experience to the next. Fear limits their ability to see; it limits their ability to see reality and it limits their ability to see possibility. Fear limits one’s ability to see current reality and it limits one’s ability to see future possibility.
And maybe we should cut those disciples a little slack. I mean, fear – we all know – can be paralyzing, debilitating. So what can we do? What should we do when a fear has paralyzed us, debilitated us, consumed us and blinded us to reality and to possibility?
Well, Barry tells us, we still need to be in communication with God. We need to tell God about our fear. Barry writes: “[T]ell God what you fear and tell it in detail. As you do this, you might find that you are more able to face your fears honestly and in the process become less fearful.”[v]
And here is what I would add: as we tell God about our fears, we need to call to remembrance, to recollect other times, experiences in the past involving threatening situations and our feelings of fear and remember how God has cared for us during those times. See; that’s what the disciples were missing. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, I’m sure you can recall times when God brought you through a terribly frightening experience. Now, that doesn’t mean everything came out perfectly. Life isn’t perfect. As I mentioned last week, it isn’t fair either. But you’re here this morning; so God got you through. God was with you and God did not abandon you. When you are afraid, tell God about your fears; but also reminiscence with God about past experiences of fear and how Jesus took care of you. Let’s not be like those disciples in Mark. Let us learn from our experiences with Jesus.
Secondly, don’t just recollect a past, imagine a future. Author Karen Thompson Walker, presented a TED Talk on fear entitled “What Fear Can Teach Us.” Walker contends that fear can also be something that sparks our imaginations to address the problems behind our fears. She speaks of “productive paranoia” and reminds us that some people can and do translate their fears into preparation and productive, transformative action.
In her book, The Way of Discernment, author Elizabeth Liebert, discusses the role that imagination can play in prayer and discernment. She writes, “Imagination’s… potential to facilitate creative breakthroughs make it an invaluable partner for [prayerful] discernment when it is set within a context of faith.” It can “form images of what is not immediately present, and thereby create visions of new possibilities… Through imagination we can project our future... Imagination can compose, decompose, and recompose the meaning of our life.”[vi]
Let me briefly share with you a story of my praying in this way. Someone I cared about had made a decision that really concerned me; in part because I felt it could have a negative impact on others and on me. I knew we had to talk about it. But I was also concerned about our relationship. I thought, “what if she hears this as an attack and it puts a wedge in our relationship that unravels over time?” If our relationship broke down, that would also have a significant impact. I felt myself becoming really anxious and fearful about how this might play out. So I engaged with this prayer of imagination. I played out, in my mind with God, different ways of initiating this critical, necessary conversation. And what I discovered amazed me. As I imagined the scenario unfolding, I could see and feel the other person’s tension when I broached the topic in certain ways. As I imaginatively considered others approaches, I discovered new ways of expressing myself. I can’t really explain to you why it worked – well, other than the fact that I had invited the Holy Spirit to guide me in this process – but at the conclusion of my prayer time, I had discovered a new way of expressing myself and communicating my concern that hadn’t occurred to me before. During my prayer, as I had imagined the conversation beginning with me saying something in particular, I could see the other person shut down and withdraw and I had a sudden insight about why my approach might be hurtful and not helpful. As I continued to pray with my imagination, I finally arrived at a “presentation style” that, as I imagined it, I saw and sensed the other person’s ease and receptivity. That was the approach I felt God wanted me to take and I did and I was amazed at how well the actual conversation played out.
Now imaginations can come up with some crazy stuff, right? So Liebert cautions, at the conclusion of your “imagination prayer” consider whether the new imagined possibility is life-affirming and likely to increase faith, hope and love. If not, then it may have been a product of your imagination, but God likely wasn’t present with you in that imagining. But, if yes, then this may well be God’s communication to you of how to manage or cope with this fearful situation in your life.
Prayer of imagination isn’t that difficult. It consists of sitting still with an awareness of God’s presence and considering a challenge or a problem and, with God, imagining – seeing in our mind’s eye – how different ways of responding or coping might create different potential outcomes. After all, who better to engage with, to converse with, when we are seeking a creative solution to our fears then the God of the universe who created everything seen and unseen. In her TED Talk, Walker proposes that “our fears are an amazing gift of the imagination… a way of glimpsing what might be the future when there’s still time to influence how that future will play out.”[vii]
Friends, fear is a real and natural feeling and it’s something we need to talk about with God. Sometimes it is something we need to talk about with a therapist or a spiritual director. Maybe you’ve been trying to run away from your fears or just stuff them down. But really, how’s that working? Probably not very well. So, let’s face our fears. Let’s acknowledge them, even describe them; let’s talk them through with God.
And as we do, let us remember how God has cared for us during other scary times and experiences. Let’s remember and learn from the past. And, let’s explore responses to our fears with God; talking it through with God, imagining possibilities and options, exploring together where we go from here and how best to cope and adapt. When we place our trust in God, he can calm our fears like he calmed that sea long ago and the creative mind of God can offer us ways to cope and adapt and transform our frightening circumstances into a new possibility. What is it that you fear? Why not talk to God about it today. Have an honest conversation with Jesus, your friend.
[i] Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. By William A. Barry, SJ. Loyola Press; 2012. pp. 1, 7
[ii] See Job 41:1; Psalm 104:26.
[iii] New Revised Standard Version
[iv] See a detailed analysis of the characterization of the disciples in the gospel of Mark in Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel by David Rhoads and Donald Michie; 1982; Fortress Press; pp. 122-129.
[v] Praying the Truth; p. 31
[vi] The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert; Westminster John Knox Press; 2008; p. 98. In this book, Liebert provides more detailed direction/instruction for engaging with the imagination in prayer and discernment.
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