“The hands with which you hold this book will be lifeless.” This is how the book on death that I read a couple of years ago began. The premise was simple. To say “we’re all going to die someday” is a tired cliché that doesn’t really move anyone. We are effectively isolated from intimate experiences of death by the outsourcing of the care of the dying to professionals and institutions. And, in spite of the death that is regularly beamed into our lives by news and entertainment, these are not real deaths to us. Their safe distance reassures us that death is, in the end, for someone else and not for us. No one, then, really has a grip on the reality of their own inevitable deaths. But they should, especially if they’re Christians.
Fear of death has plagued man from time immemorial. In recent times, lists of Americans’ greatest fears have always contained the fear of death, even though its position rises and falls. More recently, however, it’s fallen quite a bit, being buried beneath the more pressing concerns of corrupt government officials, pollution of drinking water, not having enough money for the future, and cyber-terrorism (for a complete list, see Chapman University’s “America’s Top Fears”). Is this because Americans have finally adjusted to the notion of their own deaths, or is it because we’ve managed to avoid confronting it by our tendency to push it to the margins and distract ourselves with other priorities? In reality, fear of death still lives, even amongst Christians. We need to know what Jesus would have us do with it.
So, remember: the hands with which you hold this bulletin will one day be lifeless. Have you embraced and come to peace with this truth? Let’s see if we can work it out this morning.
Before you say to yourself, “Wow, that title sounds like this is the church for me!” - allow me to explain. That’s a lyric from a 1969 song recorded by Peggy Lee entitled “Is That All There Is?” In the song, she gradually progresses through major experiences of life that usually offer occasions for deep reflection, wonder or satisfaction. She sings about watching her childhood home burn down as a child, seeing the circus as a young girl, and falling “so very much in love” with the “most wonderful boy in the world.” And after each experience, she’s left saying to herself, “Is that all there is?” The things that were supposed to evoke deep feeling, delight, or satisfaction simply don’t. And, as far as she’s concerned, if that’s all there is, then “let’s keep dancing…break out the booze and have a ball.”
We can’t help but search for a deep satisfaction of the soul, something that lets us say to ourselves, “Ah, I’ve finally found it. Now, I can rest. Now, my heart is full and the dull, achy restlessness of my spirit is gone.” More often than not, however, we discover that what we think has satisfied us hasn’t. We grow numb, jaded, cynical, or worse. The woman in Peggy Lee’s song eventually realizes that people listening to her might wonder why she just doesn’t commit suicide, but she replies that death would probably be a disappointment, too. So, “let’s break out the booze and have a ball.” Can we do better than this? Is there a better satisfaction for the human spirit, maybe even a satisfaction that we’re made for? At Eastside, we think there is. That’s what we’re talking about today. Thanks for being here!
“We Americans are programmed to be consumers…Even when hard-pressed financially, we are pressured by our culture to consume. “This is our identity” (Brennan Manning, The Signature of Jesus, 70). Do you feel “pressured to consume”? If so, where does the pressure come from? Your colleagues at work? Your social groups? The parents on your kids’ soccer team? Your media? Yourself? What drives us with a feverish anxiety to keep wanting, getting, collecting more?
There are various reasons why we feel we need to acquire more and more, and one of these is the fear of not having enough. This fear can take two forms: a legitimate fear that’s genuinely worried that next month’s bills won’t get paid and an illegitimate fear where all of one’s needs are met and yet a drive to accumulate, expand, and consume continuously gnaws at your heart. In modern American society, you’re likely to find both of these fears in equal supply. There are scores of people who live in poverty and who realistically harbor doubt about how to feed their families while waiting for the next paycheck. However, there seem to be just as many who have everything they need and more, and yet have an impulse to keep acquiring. The Bible speaks to both of these anxieties, these fears of not having enough. However, it is far less kind to those who fear not having enough because they succumb to the “pressure to consume.”
Today, we’re talking about the fear of not having enough. Do you harbor such fear? If so, which kind? Let’s look closer in the message today.
Christian counselor Ed Welch once noted, “No matter how much I try, God’s love in itself doesn’t quite deliver me from desiring psychological trinkets from others” (Running Scared, 182-183). He was talking about how to get past the need for another person’s approval. In other words, he was trying to focus on God’s love for him as a means of getting over his need to be loved, admired, and respected by others. But this wasn’t helping. What he found was what all of us find in some measure or another: In spite of our awareness of God’s love, we crave the love, admiration, and approval of other human beings. In some sense, we will always want the “psychological trinkets” that others give to us by their approval and respect.
This typically doesn’t create problems until our desire for recognition, affirmation, and approval leads us to significantly alter our behavior and refrain from doing things we should or actively do things we shouldn’t. The Bible refers to this tendency to drastically change our behavior on account of others’ opinions or importance as the “fear of man.” And we all have it to one degree or another. We all want someone’s approval. We all want someone important to notice us and think that we’re important. Sometimes, however, this fear goes too far and carries us too far with it. How, then, do we confront our fear of man, our tendency to drastically change plans and behaviors out of concern for what other people will think? That’s our focus today.
What is it that you fear the most? Fear is an undeniable, even constant, part of human experience. No one knows what it’s like to be completely fearless. Fear drives a great deal of what we do every single day. We lock our doors at night for fear of thieves and violent criminals (if fear is too strong a word for you here, then how about anxiety or worry?) We work hard on a project so that we don’t incur the wrath of our boss or the ridicule of our peers. We take pains to look good before going out in public so that no one thinks we’re ugly and undesirable (again, if fear is too strong a word for you here, anxiety, worry, or concern fits in nicely).
Today, we start a new sermon series on fear. Fear plays such a wide-spread role in our lives that we should want to know if the Bible offers any resources by which to conquer it. Does life with God in Christ offer anything to help us vanquish the fears that control us? Does it offer anything to inspire us to be strong, courageous, and unafraid? Over the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at the major fears that factor into our shared human experience and mining the Bible for its resources to counter them.
This morning, we’ll look at that old, familiar fear: the fear of failure. Psychologists tell us that fear of failure involves “ego-death.” Ego-death, and everything associated with it, involves a sense of profound selfdisapproval and the shattering of one’s sense of worthiness, capability, and loveliness. Does the Bible have anything to say about failure? Come along as we find out.