I’ll never forget when my sons were elementary school age, and they went to confession to a visiting priest. After leaving the reconciliation room, Jimmy turned to me and said, “You were wrong. Fear isn’t a sin!” Charlie chimed in with Jimmy. “Yes, you told us being afraid is a sin.”
My immediate reaction was to defend myself. My mind raced: The priest must think I’m a terrible mother because I led my sons to believe that a natural emotion, fear, was a sin. What could I have said to my boys to make them think it was sinful to be afraid?
Yet after my initial embarrassment and confusion, I was grateful. The priest to whom my children confessed set straight their misconceptions, and they left confession with a better sense of God’s love. Even though I wanted to chase the priest down and tell him my boys had misunderstood, I let it go. Thank God, they learned that fear isn’t a sin.
Perhaps my sons came to that conclusion from my telling them that I believe fear can separate us from God. I didn’t mean to suggest that fear was sinful, but that fear could lead us to erect barriers that keep us from God and one another.
I remember when I was their age I was often afraid of God’s power and judgment rather than trusting in God’s love and mercy. I remember as I grew into adulthood, I was afraid of being too happy or proud because, almost superstitiously, I expected something bad to happen if life was going too well.
Fear prevented me from accepting God’s love because I was pre-occupied with my unworthiness instead of God’s grace.
Even though we may struggle to admit it, when we are fearful for our safety, for our material well-being, for our future, we create barriers among neighbors. We judge groups of people as dangerous, threatening. We make our homes and neighborhoods fortresses.
We imagine scenarios when we will be at risk, and we design ways to protect ourselves. We avoid stepping outside our comfort zones and accepting people who are different from us or whose backgrounds aren’t acceptable to us. We blame groups of people — the poor, immigrants, minorities — for the problems we face.
Fear prevents us recognizing our bonds with all of God’s people, even those we would prefer to avoid or dismiss. Most of us are not deliberately prejudiced. But our prejudices develop out from isolation and misunderstanding, and of course, from fear.
I recently read a powerful book: “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion” by Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries. Father Boyle has spent years living and ministering to members of the toughest gangs in Los Angeles. The back cover of the book reads, in part: “These essays about universal kinship and redemption are moving examples of the power of unconditional love … Tattoos on the Heart reminds us that no life is less valuable than another.”
Father Boyle would have every good reason to be afraid. He lives and works in violent neighborhoods, among people many of us would do almost anything to avoid. Yet he has transcended fear through boundless compassion. In our own neighborhoods and cities, we Christians are called to do the same.
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