Wednesday, February 12, 2014

FAQ: Fear

Occasionally, some brave soul/organization/school asks Adam and me to share our story. This typically goes better together than apart, since I loathe speaking in front of anyone, but cannot resist correcting and contributing once Adam opens his mouth.

A few months ago, a friend and professor asked if we might share with his college sociology class our journey from living and growing up in the suburbs to living in the city. It was an interesting place for us to share, with emphasis neither on our faith, nor on our reasons behind living where we do; rather, we spoke frankly about some of the differences in city vs. suburban living, and some of the challenges and joys of living in our neighborhood. This journey, of course, finds itself all tangled up with our faith and following Jesus, which means we end up talking at least a little bit about how and why we decided to move here. When we finished, the professor asked the class if they had any questions. Every hand shot up.

One girl in particular began the evening slouched in the back row, texting or facebooking furiously on her phone. As our story progressed, she stashed her phone in her faded leather bag alongside her books, and eventually abandoned her seat in the back row for an open chair near the front. I smiled encouragingly at her, hoping she would ask a nice-and-easy question. What she actually asked was this:

But aren’t you afraid?

This question, or some variation of it, definitely ranks as our most frequently asked frequently-asked-question. I find it surprisingly difficult to answer, because here’s the thing about fear: of course I’m afraid. Of so many things: of Caden’s next surgery, of screwing up my children in irrevocable ways, of saying the wrong thing, of the scrawny collarless pitbulls roaming our hood with ribs jutting, of dying; and, inexplicably, of our chickens. Of getting everything all wrong in following Jesus, or even (if I’m totally honest) that I’m wrong about the very existence of the one I follow. Fear unfolds complex and hard to define, let alone conquer.


The complexity of fear acknowledged, on this particular evening, Adam and I make eye contact with eye-brows raised. He nods his head, clearly passing the question to me. I shoot him a quick sarcastic thank-you-very-much look, and take a deep breath.

Actually no, I tell her. In fact, I’m surprisingly unafraid of living in our neighborhood. In every way. Sometimes, we even forget to lock our doors; such is our height of our not-afraid.

I hurry on, noticing the skeptical looks sprinkled throughout the room.

Because, honestly, I didn’t always roll down my windows and yell to my neighbors. I can remember, with surprising clarity, exactly the fear that coursed through my veins when I began coming downtown. We had just finished our first summer at camp, and I knew I simply HAD to see these kids again. And so, I called every ministry on the list of those who brought kids to camp. After weeks of unreturned phone calls, two ministries finally told me how I could get involved. Wednesday night Bible study after work seemed like a fairly harmless way to ease-in.

The next Wednesday evening, I began the drive downtown with the sun still high in the sky. But as I turned onto the infamous Bankhead highway, it had already nearly completed its slow descent over the horizon. Shadows lengthened and deepened, while the sky steeped to black. Street lights blinked on, or perhaps didn’t, over long stretches of abandoned houses with shattered and boarded windows. Entire blocks littered by trash and wire-grated-corner stores, bustling sidewalks, and strip malls with every sign painted by hand, the landscape reminded me more of our honeymoon drive through the streets of Jamaica en route to our resort than of my own suburban neighborhood. I’m embarrassed to remember just how deeply and loudly my heart thrummed in my chest. I sank in my seat at each red light, checking surreptitiously time and again to ensure I had securely locked the doors. On one particular corner, men huddled in clusters outside a windowless store, staring unabashedly at my twenty-one-year-old self with creamy-colored white skin and curly hair tied hurriedly back in a ponytail. I cautiously navigated my cute new green Honda down pot-holed streets, contemplating running the red light, carefully avoiding eye contact and ignoring the shouts. Wondering if I should turn back.

But I didn’t turn back. Instead, I kept showing up week-after-week. And I discovered that those guys on the corner? It turns out they are human beings. With names. And fear always recedes in the face of names; of humanization, of friendship, or even just connection.

The girl nodded slow: I never thought of that, she said. You know, that the thugs on the corner are just people.

I felt shock course through me at her words, though I suppose before I began that fateful drive down Bankhead highway, I had never thought of it either. Yet even months later her words haunt me. Because at what point did it become ok for us, especially us Christ followers, to cease thinking of anyone as a person?

Adam and I have discovered that the similarities between us and our neighbors far outweigh the differences. We've discovered that we belong to each other; and that together we discover Jesus across the dinner table, in the backyard, and throwing the Frisbee at the park. That the lady on the corner is Mikey, never prostitute. Because who among us wants to be labeled and described by our most desperate mistakes? So we learn names. And then we call people by them. Because we firmly believe that Christ would not brand junkie or homeless or drug dealer or gang-banger. Why do I believe this? Because the gospel in my own life carries the freedom and grace in called-by-name, not labeled by the mistakes I’ve made. Not proud, or greedy, or fearful, or anxious, or depressed, or quick-to-anger. None of that defines me in Christ, and living out of my identity in Him is the quickest way to breathe fear-less wherever we find ourselves.

This fearlessness, however, arrived for us two-fold. Almost like Jesus knew we needed greater protection against creeping anxiety and the constant question: but aren’t you afraid?

And so literally two days after we moved into our house in a “dangerous neighborhood,” our son emerged from my womb with a heart not formed quite right. We cried, and wailed, and kicked, and finally surrendered to the truth most hard to swallow: there are no guarantees. Life turns, not as we will it, nor how we prepare for it. Rather, God holds all of our futures in His strong hand, and in His perfect timing. That means we cannot protect against bullets any more certainly than we can protect against a broken heart, both literally and figuratively. Our children’s hearts WILL be broken, as will ours, whether we live in the city or the suburbs. And yes, we will find ourselves in pain and perhaps weeping through the night. But this problem cannot be relegated to simply living in a broken neighborhood. Because the truth remains that we live in an entire world broken in need of a Savior.

While I do not claim to understand God’s ways, I would not say that God gave Caden a faulty heart, necessarily. I will declare with certainty, however, that the Lord in His infinite kindness used those harrowing days to draw us near, to deepen our dependence, and to teach us to live fearless by stripping away any illusions of control we might have otherwise harbored.

And so we live in the hood, and we invite yet another teenager to live with us for a few weeks. We remind him to turn down his music and pull up his pants, and we don’t let our own children watch anything not rated G. Because we walk in the tension daily of somehow both letting go and living wise. Of fear and freedom, messy relationships and prayer. We remember the lessons that have been learned the hard way, and we enter into even the darkest places knowing the truth that behind every chest lies another human being, one whose heart beats broken in desperate need of a Savior.

To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world's sake - even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death - that little by little we start to come alive.”

12 comments:

  1. Becca, thank you for sharing this! It was just what I needed to hear today. We recently moved in town to a great neighborhood, but one that would be defined as "transitional." I've been struggling with a lot of fear here that I didn't expect - your words brought light and encouragement to me today!

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    1. Jamie - first of all, I am very glad to hear from you :-) i hope you're doing so well!! And thanks for your encouragement, and congratulations on your new place - praying you find a wonderful home and community there!

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  2. I love that you are afraid, but you stay. You were afraid, but you kept driving that Wednesday night so long ago. You don't let fear reign in your heart. I love what you do. I love that you make a difference. I love that you love Mikey. I wish when I left comments I could say beautiful words and sentences like you do, but I fail at that. I hope I don't fail at expressing my admiration and love for you. For the kids in your house. For the kids in your city. And even for Mikey. Everyone has a name and deserves to be known by it.

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    1. I think you should win an award for being the best encourager ever. Your words are a blessing to me on a day when I dont really feel like I'm making a difference. Thank-you.

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  3. Just, wow. Beautifully said. I live in "safe" small-town Arkansas but struggle with crippling anxiety on a daily basis. This was so good for my fearful heart to read. Thank you for sharing openly and honestly!

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  4. I stumbled across your blog yesterday - I'm not sure how? For the most part, I'd stopped reading blogs. I am fed up with outfit posts and what I should be signing up for, of posts that talk about being honest- but then stop there. My husband and I live in Israel, we get the "but aren't you afraid?" question too. Different, but in a similar vein. I'm so blessed by your words and inspired. It's such a blessing to be inspired by someone running their race. Thanks for that :)

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    1. Thank you for stopping by and for commenting (also, nobody wants to see my outfits. for serious). Thank you also for running your race in Israel too!

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  5. well said. Thankful you are brave enough to share your fears and your heart.

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  6. Wow. Thank you for sharing your heart- so many sweet reminders in your words and in these truths. Well said indeed.

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  7. I'm saying it again.... write a book!! =)

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  8. I'm just speechless. Always.
    And Mrs. Southern Belle took the words outta my mouth.
    I was planning to text the question, but I'll just ask it now: Have you started???

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