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Some things are scarier than others

My first childhood memory of fear is forever associated with the
bathtub. My parents, perhaps misunderstanding Melville’s depth as a
writer, took me to see the movie “Moby Dick.” Imprinting that vision of
the White Whale chomping away on a ship in my four-year-old mind was a
blunder exceeded only by their appeasement gift of a white plastic whale
for the bathtub. One wonders how any of us survive childhood.

It’s often said that we fear what we don’t understand. I don’t know
if that’s completely true. I’m not afraid of my VCR, my computer, or my
microwave. I might become afraid of them if we ever succeed in
transmitting electrical power without wires. For
now, however, I rest secure in the knowledge that we as human beings can
always have the last word — we can simply unplug them.

Halloween is a good time to think about fear. Hollywood movie moguls
tell us that we actually like to be frightened. They say they know this
because of the kinds of movies we rent, especially as teenagers. Maybe
that’s true, but it could also be that scary movies just give teenagers
an excuse to cuddle up to each other while they’re screaming and jumping
around. Determining cause and effect is a dicey game.

Fear has certainly played a big part in human history.

“From this arises the question whether it is better to be loved
rather than feared, or feared rather than loved,” wrote Machiavelli in
The Prince. “It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be
both: but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must
choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”

“He who strikes terror into others,” said Claudian, “is himself in
continual fear.”

The Bible has a lot to say about fear, too. Oddly enough, the Old
Testament references can be summed up in two thoughts. First, fear of
God overcame mankind only after we chose to go our own way in the Garden
of Eden. The relationship between us is described repeatedly as based on
fear. Second, those who acknowledged him as God weren’t to go around
fearing other things.

The verdict of history would seem to be that this approach to
building a relationship between God and humanity had limited success. It
certainly worked for the prophets, who sometimes saw God. Their reaction
was pretty universal: they fell on their faces
and feared for their lives. I suspect my reaction to such an encounter
would fit that pattern. But whatever they saw in God lost something in
translation, first to the priests, and then the people. It ultimately
became a set of rules designed by man to
please God. What they really built was a wall between God and man. It
seemed to make us feel safe.

Perhaps God also grew frustrated with the communication process,
because as the Old Testament drew to a close, there was a long period of
silence. Then something quite remarkable happened: Jesus appeared. But
His message didn’t seem to be about the fear of God. Oh, Jesus did talk
about fearing God, but He seemed to have a different relationship with
the One whom he called His Father. Ordinary people immediately sensed
the difference, and they crowded around Jesus. His biographers tell us
that He had compassion on them; He taught them, healed them, fed them
and forgave them.

Like the Celtic Druids who originated what we call Halloween, Jesus
clearly had communication with the spirit world. Unlike them, He made
clear the spirits weren’t old uncle Harry or other dearly departeds. You
can read about one of His encounters in Luke 8:26-56. Interestingly
enough, the spirit-world had no trouble discerning who He was.

The reaction of the townspeople to seeing God “out of the box” was
perhaps not unlike many of ours today: “Then all the people of the
region of the Gerasenes (where the demon-possessed man had been healed)
asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he
got into the boat and left” (Luke 8:37). Perhaps His reaction today is
similar, also?

But the most overwhelming sense of fear rose up in just one group of
people. They feared they would lose their position, their power, their
perks. Jesus’ miracles made it difficult to deny who He was. The best
they could do was to complain that he didn’t
follow their rules; He didn’t conform to their image of God. They
understood perfectly well the implications: If God truly had taken it
upon Himself to come down and deal with people individually, they were
out of a job. Scary prospect.

What was their reaction to their fear? Caiaphas, the high priest that
year, said,

Years later, after the religious rulers had carried out their
plot — and faced the reality of Jesus’ empty tomb — one of the
Master’s inner circle summed up the new relationship that could exist
between God and man, made possible by Jesus:

Where does that leave us, today, as we prepare for the ghosts
and goblins of Halloween? Should we fear God? Is eternity a scary

Perhaps it depends upon which side of the cross we find ourselves.
There are any number of religions that will let us build our own bridge
toward God. Some have a rigid set of rules; some let us mix and match.
That’s what religion is all about. Rules designed to please God so that
He has to let us into heaven. We check out the architecture, examine the
bridge-building capabilities of the engineers, factor in our personal
temperament and goals, and make our choice. For some, religion is a
serious business. For others, one choice is as good as another. Yet
history records only one instance of a bridge that God built to reach
us, when Jesus reached out across our fear with love and forgiveness.
Compared to the ghosts and goblins we may see on Halloween, being on a
bridge that doesn’t quite reach to eternity seems like a pretty
frightening prospect.