I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. I mean, what else is there to do when holding a sleeping baby? I’ve been listening to news shows like The Daily and NPR’s Up First, leadership podcasts from former Thomas Nelson executive Michael Hyatt and Canadian pastor Carey Neiuwhof, and simplicity and organizational shows about how to feel somewhat productive with three kids, work, and a stifling pandemic. One particular podcast that has brought life to me in this time of uncertainty is The Everything Happens podcast with Kate Bowler. I’m sure you’ve heard her name on Fresh Air or read it on bestseller lists. Dr. Kate Bowler, is a Duke professor, spouse and mom, wine and cheese enthusiast, and lived an Instagram picture-perfect life…until she found out she had stage four cancer. Then she began to understand how gorgeous and remarkable life really is, that each day is a gift. That the staged life isn’t true life. Beauty is found in the mundane. And you know what? She’s still here four years later and counsels all of us podcast listeners to find the beauty in each and every moment, and to not fear the lies that the world tries to tell us.
Bowler found fame and following after writing her memoir, “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.” Some of those lies and fears that she debunked were phrases like “everything happens for a reason,” or “God has a plan,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” She contends that those platitudes do little in helping us encounter profound loss in a healing way. In her gut-wrenchingly honest book, she consoles us to abandon the lies the world tells us about success, attraction, and faith and to find God in the beauty of each precious moment. She had a choice to make when finding out that she had cancer. She could believe the lies and the fears that shouted into her soul saying that she was cursed or being punished or deserved it. Or, instead, hear the whispers of the divine saying that she is loved and cherished and whole. She revised her life when her wellbeing and health took a tragic turn.
In one of Bowler’s Thanksgiving Facebook posts, she talked about needing to be fearless when she encountered a moment when she had to revise her plans. Right before Thanksgiving, her car broke down on a family trip, causing her to reassess and create a new outlook. This setback wasn’t as large as changing her life due to cancer, but she thought her familiar struggles of everyday life could be something we might relate to. She said, “My small gratitude math for a trip that went sideways. Did the truck stop working? Yes! But did google help us figure out that it was a recall issue and we could make do in the meantime on a lower gear but only if we stayed out of the wind? It sure did! No water? Guess how many water bottles we could find and fill at a faucet in Nebraska! Tons! No firewood because it’s Thanksgiving and you’re buying cereal at a gas station? With a lot of waving and smiling and gesturing, the gas station owners will let you burn the pallets you find behind the dumpster. And you are thrilled.”
She continued, “Then everything was wonderful. We found an electric spot to park for the last two nights and a faucet and I’m not above Sutter Home Rose. I guess that’s the best part. Trying not to be above anything means you enjoy what my lovely friend Sarah Bessey calls ‘the ministry of being easily pleased.’ So, honestly, great trip so far. Grateful we are healthy enough to travel. Healthy enough to be monitored for cancer. Have access to an MRI. Have so many beautiful friends and thank you for that. And for pallets and cereal and faucets and the hunter who lost his phone and getting it back to him when his lock screen was truly horrifying absolutely made us beside ourselves. Dirty Dan, wherever you are, and if that is your real name, call your mom. You need a hug.”
Good words, Kate. We all have had to change our plans and we all need a hug. Fear has been overwhelming during this pandemic season, this time of social unrest, these medically fragile moments, and this period of financial insecurity. Our lives have slipped out of gear and we are having a tough time moving forward and changing our itinerary. We didn’t really plan for this to be where we are right now. Some people are telling us that “everything happens for a reason” or that “God is in control” or some other platitude to not have to experience the fear of our lives skidding out of control and going sideways. Our plans were jumbled up at the beginning of this year and we haven’t yet figured out where we are going or what 2021 will bring. Maybe we’ll need to find a new vocation? Maybe we’ll have to learn how to go on without a family member? Maybe we’ll have to figure out how to limp along with chronic pain? Maybe we’ll have to adapt and change in ways that are uncomfortable and unsettling? Having to revise our lives can, indeed, make us afraid.
But, as we heard in our Scripture lesson for today, we have a Jewish couple, a mother, a teenage mother at that, who had to revise her plans. She was afraid at becoming pregnant while not married and how she would face social judgment, much less her family’s wrath. And she was afraid for her unborn child. Who would he be? What would he accomplish? Would he be the one she saw in her dreams and heard about from the holy messengers? Would he change things for the better or the worse? She had so many reasons to be afraid.
Yet, Mary was the one whom God had found favor. Mary was held in the protective and parenting care of God. But even so, Mary had fear of what her life would be like with a new baby that was supposed to be the savior of the world. I sure would be scared, too. And we are afraid, sometimes, that God has changed our plans and that everything will be different. We are afraid when things take a sudden turn that we couldn’t predict. Why was I laid off? Why is this happening to my family? Why does my spouse have cancer? Sometimes we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and fear is all we can feel. But what if we were to hear the voices of the messengers of God calling out to us this Advent season saying, “be not afraid!” Because things aren’t always going to go as planned and our paths may need some revision.
And like us, Mary seemed to be moving more towards fear than to hope. And so, the messenger of God moved closely to her to reassure her and reveal those comforting places, those hopeful places. Remember in our first week when we talked about “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and the phrase, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight?” Well, that’s just it. Hopes and fears, together, are a part of our lives and a part of our individual stories. Hopes and fears, together, were a part of the Christmas story. And that is why the birth of a savior matters now more than ever.
You see, hopes and fears collided in that liminal moment when earth and eternity converged in the form of Christ child. But we’ve lost our way and fear seems to be winning. We, as a people of God, are fumbling around in our hopes and fears trying to figure out which one we should lean into. And that’s ok. Because, as humans, we tend to move towards fear. So, that is why we need those messengers, the bringers of hope, at every point in the story saying... “Be... Not... Afraid.”
Sometimes, in order to not be afraid, we might need to revise all of the plans we have created in our heads. Maybe things aren’t going like we designed and we have to strain to find moments of hope so that we don’t get overwhelmed by our fears. Gareth Higgins, who wrote “How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying,” spoke of rushing from one frantic solution to the next, thinking that we can, by grinding harder or doing more stuff, indeed, overcome the fears we feel. When all that is really needed is to pay attention and reject the fears of revision that creep into our lives.
Higgins says, “We don’t tend to stop and look at the leaves on and falling from the trees, copper in seven shades, stunned by the fact that we get to be in relationship with such majesty. We deny our own magnificence in pursuit of plastic faces and plastic cars, failing to apprehend the miracle inherent in the very ability to think about such things. We rush from what E. E. Cummings called the ‘blue true dream of sky’ to get into whatever activity we have accepted as our economic lot. We bury ourselves in a freneticism that would confound our forebears, vainly chasing the dream of sitting still and enjoying peace – while all the time, peace and stillness are there waiting for us, ready for our visit.”
I know for many of us, if not most of us, we’ve had to revise our lives this past year. Just like Mary not knowing of the child already growing inside her, we tend to be more afraid than hopeful of what is to come. But God’s message for us today, like it was for the mother of Jesus, is to lean into hope rather than fear. God’s message for us today is to “be not afraid.” Because God is growing new life within you, within each and every one of us this season, a new and revised future where we might not know what is to come, but we do know that hope is leaping in us ready to bring light and love into the world. Can you feel it?
In this season of revision, may we all be confident just as Mary was and echo her words this day that “no word from God will ever fail. I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”