Don’t be afraid…

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Here’s the reflection from Thursday’s online Communion service. Do join us tomorrow at 4.30pm for Breathe – a quiet way to end the week – here.

I’m finding it a bit hard to remember what day it is at the moment, but I was reminded yesterday that it was a special day – the day we remember a particular story. You can work out what event by thinking about the date – 25th March – and counting forward exactly nine months.

Here’s the story…

God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee named Nazareth. He had a message for a young woman promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David. Her name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, “Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!”

Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message, and she wondered what his words meant. The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will make him a king, as his ancestor David was, and he will be the king of the descendants of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end!”

Mary said to the angel, “I am a virgin. How, then, can this be?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and God’s power will rest upon you. For this reason the holy child will be called the Son of God. Remember your relative Elizabeth. It is said that she cannot have children, but she herself is now six months pregnant, even though she is very old. For there is nothing that God cannot do.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it happen to me as you have said.” And the angel left her.

That was a very different world – but maybe there were some similarities. Mary’s country had also been overrun by an invader. In her case it was the Roman empire, not a new virus – but some of the effects were the same – some loss of life, huge economic costs. People lived under a severe regime which restricted their liberty – although not quite as much as us at the moment. And there must have been a great deal of fear and uncertainty about the future all around.

In the midst of all this we have a very personal story. Mary is visited by a mysterious stranger, who knows her name and says something very strange. Mary is disturbed and frightened. ‘Don’t be afraid’ the stranger says.

That’s easier said than done. I expect that all of us have been living with some high levels of fear and anxiety over the last weeks – for ourselves, for those we love, for our wider community, and for our world. Out cycling for my daily exercise yesterday I could almost feel the fear in the streets I passed, and felt I needed to pray for those who lived there.

Don’t be afraid… It’s even harder when we’re stuck at home with less distractions than usual. I read this the other day, from a book called Sabbath by Nicola Slee:

Feeling fear, rather like feeling deep pain, is a deeply uncomfortable experience and one that most of us find ways of keeping at bay – through work, routine busyness, care of others and so on.  Large unbounded periods of solitude, silence and spaciousness without fixed agenda can allow the habitual safeguards to be loosened, and then we experience our fears in their full force.

I think we may be discovering how true that is. But Nicola Slee goes on:

Yet if we can stay with the reality of whatever feelings may be around; if we can feel them, welcome them even, allow ourselves to become intimate with the painful, fearful realities of our internal world, then they may reveal ourselves to ourselves, they may gift us with new insight. Recognising our own fragility and our fear of fear, we can discover the courage to face the fear and to await the unfolding of its gift.

Facing our fears is hard. It may help to name them. You can name them before God in prayer. Something else I’ve just said that fear can be like a fog pressing down on us – but if we take time to face those fears, and name them before God in prayer, it can be as if the contents of the fog is contained somehow, into a number of buckets that we can then look at one by one, and hold before God – knowing that he is holding us.

That is one way. I watched a wonderful talk by an American priest called Nadia Bolz Webber the other day – she’s great – covered in tattoos – speaks straight – you can find it here. She was saying that the way to overcome fear is not necessarily through courage – a better way is through love. Fear closes us up – that’s how we’re often feeling – tensed up all the time. Love opens us again. We can breathe. we can live more freely. That’s why it’s so wonderful to see so many people volunteering to help the NHS or help their neighbours at the moment. When we look outward, and give, then we become more open to receive.

That’s what Mary did. Faced with this terrifying news from God, instead of closing down in fear, she allowed herself to open up – to open up in love to the God she knew – to open up in love to this new life within us – to open up to all that this would mean.

And so through her God was able to come in a new way into our world – with all its pain and darkness – and joy and life. To be here with us in the middle of this incredibly difficult time. To be helping the NHS workers and all those caring for others and volunteering. To be alongside those who are in self-isolation and lonely. And to be with us here, as we open ourselves to his love.

On my cycle ride I saw something which really lifted my spirits. In many windows there were pictures of rainbows, drawn by children. A picture of hope – a promise that we will not always be in this time, and that there will be a new beginning. Things will not be the same as they were – and there will be new challenges – it was the same for Mary – but we have the opportunity to open up to love in a new way – and maybe that could be the unexpected gift that unfolds from this time…

So we remember that God holds us in love as we pray…

Pray for those who are facing fear –

may they be held in God’s love.

Pray for those who are facing loneliness –

may they be held in God’s love.

Pray for those who are being called to care for others –

may they be held in God’s love.

Pray for those we love, and for ourselves…

may we all be held in God’s love. Amen.

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