Adam Hamilton’s book Unafraid was published in 2018, two years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Its subtitle,” Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times,” captures a message that resonates with this summer of discontent. Hamilton, pastor of the largest Methodist church in America, uses the acronym FEAR to prescribe his approach to dealing with our current anxieties. Ministers cannot resist alliteration and acronyms: Face your fears with faith, Examine your assumptions in light of the facts, Attack your anxieties with action, and Release your cares to God.
Fear is a basic human emotion arising from a primitive part of our brain. All vertebrates probably experience fear. I observe it each morning when I feed my two feral cats. As they eat, they watch the storm sewer closely since a family of masked thieves live there and emerge to steal the cat food. You have probably seen the internet meme about raccoons. Raccoons (also spelled racoons) are a marvelous symbol of the epidemic – masks, frequent hand washing, and the letters of CORONA rearranged.
According to Hamilton, the Bible has 140 verses warning us not to be afraid. Bible stories about fear range from spying out the promised land in Numbers 13-14 to praying in the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26. The spies Caleb and Joshua seemed to follow Hamilton’s acronym perfectly by demonstrating faith, relating the facts, recommending immediate action, and trusting in God.
Fear of Others and Fear of Failure
Americans worry about crime, racial tensions, terrorism, and immigration. Extreme partisanship is also fanned by fear. Fear has caused surges in gun ownership, purchases of home security systems, and bans on immigration. Violent crime rates in the United States have actually been dropping. Hamilton notes that fear of folks different from us typically dissipates once we interact with them. My father was a man of his time living in central Mississippi. He disliked Yankees and thought the country would be far better off if New York and California would disappear. However, there was one major exception to his prejudices. Kosciusko, MS, had a school bus body plant, Superior Coach, headquartered in Lima, Ohio. My father worked for the Mississippi Employment Service and helped Superior Coach hire employees. In my father’s eyes, those folks from Ohio were just nice people, not at all like people from New York and California whom he had never met. From my work in healthcare, I know lots of Muslim immigrants, and they are nice people too! Hamilton views American partisanship as evil. During the hyperpartisan 2016 election, he had his congregation carry around business cards with James 1:19 and Matthew 7:12: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this – everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry… so in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the prophets.” He notes, “Being right is not the defining mark of the Christian life. We are defined and ultimately judged by how we practice love.”
Fear of failure, disappointing others, and meaninglessness particularly afflict the younger generations. Both the Bible and events today are filled with stories of objecting to God’s direction but finally taking risks. Moses made numerous excuses before finally obeying God. Jonah headed in the wrong direction, and God sent a fish. J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected twelve times. Hamilton quotes Victor Frankl, “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” Hamilton adds that the thousands of small acts that we do across the course of our lives are what truly give our lives meaning.
Fear of Illness and Death
Hamilton addresses aging, illness, and death in the final chapters of the book. With the fear of COVID-19 lingering around us, I would like to apply Hamilton’s formula to that disease. First, faith can help us face COVID-19. A Christian view of the afterlife is reassuring. Hamilton tells a nineteenth century story of a man dying alone at home. The doctor arrives by buggy with his dog and has his dog remain on the front porch. The patient expresses his fear of what lies ahead, beyond death. At that moment the dog scratches at the door and whines. The doctor says, “Do you hear my dog scratching at your door? He’s never been in your house. He doesn’t know anything about what’s inside. He knows only one thing and that is that his master is on the other side of the door. If his master is there, then it must be OK and that is where he wants to be. That is what heaven is like.” Faith is followed by facts. COVID-19 is a relatively minor illness for young adults and children. The severity rises above age 65 especially if there are underlying co-morbidities such as diabetes and heart disease. COVID -19 can almost entirely be prevented by using four actions – frequent handwashing, monitoring daily for symptoms, wearing a mask, and staying six feet away from other people. Stay secluded from others if you have symptoms. Then release your anxieties to God, and wait for the vaccine.
While Hamilton is highly supportive about seeking appropriate medical interventions for our treatable mental health fears – phobias, depression, generalized anxiety disorders – he also encourages prayer. He supplies thirty-one scriptures about fear and suggests using the technique of lectio divina to thoroughly explore these scriptures. One of my favorites is Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”