Easter Fears

Easter faith is about many things. But more than anything else, it may be about the end of fear. Getting perspective on this fear is half the challenge of making sense of the Easter story. Along comes a wildly popular novel in recent years that brings a curious insight for gaining just this perspective. The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, features the harrowing experiences of a sixteen-year-old, nicknamed Pi, who weaves together his own mix of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, with ingenuity and imagination.

Pi and his family pack up the zoo they own and emigrate from India to America with their full inventory of animals. The Japanese cargo ship transporting this wayfaring lot sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, drowning every living thing on board except for Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. The tiger soon finishes off all but Pi. Then comes the suspenseful 227 days of boy and beast floating together.

Pi devises six separate plans for disposing of his nemesis. Each plan to rid the lifeboard of the tiger, described in hilarious detail by the author, poses glaring problems. Pushing the tiger off the boat, for example, would not eliminate the cat’s capacity to swim. Killing him with six morphine syringes has possibilities. But how would Pi possibly give a hungry Bengal tiger six consecutive injections? Choking, poisoning, or setting the animal on fire all present sizeable challenges for this scrawny, dehydrated kid. Waging a war of attrition briefly seems plausible. But even here, the unforgiving laws of nature suggest a critical flaw in this plan.

As Pi’s fears mount, an important breakthrough emerges. From the lifeboat’s storage locker of emergency supplies, Pi straps together four buoyant oars, several life jackets, and a sturdy lifebuoy. With this marginally seaworthy raft now built, and a buoyant rope tied to the lifeboat, Pi is able to push off some forty feet from the tiger. There, with the jaws of the cat now a distant leap away, Pi gains new insight on his fears. He develops perspective previously unavailable to him. The growling and snarling that had paralyzed his thinking when the two shared such close quarters were no longer factors. Now a deep sense of peace and wholeness came over Pi as he looked soberly at the tiger. A fresh reckoning helped him realize a seventh plan: the need for the two of them to co-exist.

Fear functions like this. It is debilitating when experienced up close, but more manageable when viewed from a distance. Young Pi on his raft has an oddly biblical understanding of fear, whether he recognizes as much or not. Only fear can defeat life,” he exclaims. Nothing presents such a formidable opponent to life as fear. “It is a clever, treacherous adversary…[one that] has no decency, respects no law or convention, [and] shows no mercy.”

Jesus’ most important work may be to help us extinguish all of our unnecessary fear. He sees the way it cripples life. He understands the stranglehold it places upon us when we try to embrace the future, and find plenty of reasons why we cannot. Fear goes for the weakest spot in us and then overruns our mind and body in fast succession.

Sometimes I look at the fears of other people, advantageously from a distance, and gain fresh perspective on my own anxieties. When I am afraid, I find that I am a house divided against itself. I play it safe. I worry in excess. Fear becomes a tyranny that keeps me from being deeply alive. It’s a curse that limits wholeness. When I contemplate the meaning of Easter, I start to make inroads on this defensive living. What are the most powerful words of Easter but, “Do not fear. Why are you afraid?” Peter Gomes argues that the real achievement of Easter is a freedom from fear. Not freedom from death, but freedom from fear. “We do not fear death,” he reasons. “Death is the incarnation of our fears. Thus to defeat fear is to defeat death and to defeat death is to defeat fear.” If it is true that the fear of death looms larger than death itself, indeed a diminishment of this very fear might be the beginning of eternal life.

Fear at close range consumes. The resurrection narratives in the Gospels attest to this overwhelming character of fear. Only when the women at the tomb gain some critical distance from their embalming jars, the vividness of the actual death, and the burial plot of their Lord, only then do they find a way to function wholesomely. It takes the reminder of Jesus’ own promised words and a reconnecting with their fellow disciples before they reconstitute life and discover the joyous power of the resurrection. The smell of the grave up close cripples their faith.

Establishing some distance from our deepest fears can work miracles for living courageously through those fears. Consider the immediate impact of a funeral. It doesn’t pay to ask too many grieving family members on the day of their loved one’s funeral to articulate a brilliant hope for the future. You’re likely to get a well-intended but sentimental soliloquy about “Bob really being better off now that he is in heaven.” Anything that softens the harshness of death surfaces as comfort. But wait a few weeks or months and notice the change. Now these same relatives will be prepared to utter eloquent words about Bob’s death and the personally rejuvenating power they know from an Easter faith. They may even be in a position to aid other people who are cringing in the same close-up fear that once stopped them.

Distance provides perspective. Just as the tiny dots in an impressionistic painting create a dizzying effect for eyes that are too close, so the peculiar anxieties of immediate fear distort our odds for living in wholeness and peace. The cure to living with consuming fear is not a change in circumstances. Some circumstances are unavoidable. What’s needed is a change in the way we view our circumstances, a lens through which we can see them at a distance in proper focus. Scripture contributes to a helpful vantage point when it offers up the command to “fear not” some 365 times. Not only is this frequency of mention a reminder that fear will nag us in a persistent way. It is also medicine for desperate spirits that need a once-a-day dose of perspective, every day of the year.

Kathleen Norris thinks that fear happens to be a pretty good place to start a spiritual journey. If you know what it is that makes you afraid, she reasons, you have a chance to see more clearly that the way out is by living through the fear. Forty feet of rope and a raft can do wonders for gaining perspective on real fear, especially if you’re floating in the ocean. Those forty feet may be the perfect length for convincing you that you can live through your fear, with a Bengal tiger as your companion, no less. For those of us not drifting precariously in the middle of the ocean, but saddled with fears as ferocious as young Pi’s, there is Easter. And there is the valuable distance that comes from faith in the weeks following Easter. That’s when the Risen One will do everything he can to get us out of the cemetery, and to a perfect distance where we can truly discover freedom from our fears.

Peter W. Marty is senior pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and host of the radio program, Grace Matters.