‘Father, I don’t want to go to heaven ... I’m afraid of heights’
By Father Don Braukmann/Parochial Vicar - St. Philip’s, Bemidji and St. Charles, Pennington
A pre-kindergarten student informed me at Easter, “Father, I don’t want to go to heaven ... I’m afraid of heights!”
Fear. It paralyzes us. The fear of rejection. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being who we are.
Fear of speaking in front of crowds (or writing columns such as this) nearly kept me from being ordained! Still not sure how I broke that fear other than by the grace of God, of course.
Fear of actually having to step onto the field and play in a middle school football game against Menahga in seventh grade was the reason I asked the coach “Isn’t there anyone else?” when he told me to go in for an injured player! I joined the team out of fear from peer pressure but prayed every game I wouldn’t have to go in. It’s funny now, but not at the time!
The words “Do not be afraid!” appear 365 times in the Bible. One for every day of the year.
As we read the Easter stories of the resurrection, we hear of the absolute fear the disciples lived with as they tried to figure out what happened.
The very people who knew Jesus, lived with Jesus, ate with Jesus and prayed with Jesus stuffed themselves into an airless room somewhere in downtown Jerusalem terrified of what would happen next. Would they be killed? Would they be crucified like Jesus because they were seen in his presence day after day? What should they do? Where could they run? Was anywhere safe? Who could they trust?
They had heard Jesus say “Do not be afraid!” many times. And now, in the moment of their greatest fear, they could not move. They were frozen in the mystery of all that had taken place.
Days earlier, in the Garden of Gethsemane, a handful of disciples were with Jesus. What happened the moment the guards showed up and Judas delivered his kiss? They scattered! Fear overtook them. Even Peter, the first pope, ran and did his best to pretend he had never heard of Jesus over and over and over again. Even a rooster accused him of betrayal.
Our human nature is filled with fear. There is a saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” 2,000 years ago, when the going got tough, the disciples just kept on going ... right out of sight!
Sadly, it seems like not much has changed in 2,000 years.
While in school, long ago, there was a man on our floor who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. We were friends one day, and I abandoned him the next. He quit school to die. I never spoke to him again. What changed? Fear, ignorance and self-righteousness took over my life. I ran away right when I was needed most.
So, too, with the disciples. A week after the Resurrection, even though they had seen the Lord Easter night, they were still breathing stale air, petrified with fear and shaking in their sandals. This time, however, Thomas, the doubter, was with them. So Jesus, stubborn in his determination to save them and us, walks through the walls they had built to keep people out. What were the first words out of his mouth? “Peace be with you!” He knew their fear and accepted them where they were at. He then revealed to them his hands, his feet and his side, each engraved with the mark of devoted love.
In an instant he snatched Thomas’ hand and placed it in his own side as if to say, “No more fear Thomas! No more fear! I am real and I am alive!”
That is exactly what Jesus says to each of us when we stumble down the aisle in our blindness, selfishness, greed, lust, envy, gossip and hypocrisy ... broken and wounded ... filled with old grudges and new. We stand before the foot of the altar, the foot of the Cross and say “Amen” as Jesus comes to rest in our soul.
My friends, Jesus says to us all: “No more fear of what the world can toss at you because I have killed death and buried it six feet under. You are good. You are loved. It matters not what the world may say or think or do. Go ahead and weld shut the doors to your heart if you think that will bring you happiness. It won’t because it can’t. I refuse to live without you!”
The fears which come from living are many. From North Korea to the clamor over our politics and from sickness and disease to the slaughter of the innocents; so many living so long in so much fear.
The lilies may have faded in our homes and churches but may the mighty voice of the Risen One whisper into the deepest recesses of our frail, beautiful souls, “Do not be afraid! Do not be afraid!”