From the Letter to the Hebrews:
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 2:14-15 (NRSV) – January 15, 2014.)
What is fear of death but fear of the unknown? The fear of death and the unknown brings anxiety, despair, and a frantic search for meaning. The fear of death and the unknown distracts us and makes us afraid to truly live. We end up fearing both death and life; we end up not attending to those things which are most important.
Yesterday, I woke up with an aching lower back. As the day progressed, the ache became acute, changing from ache to stabbing pain; it localized itself on the right side of my back. When the stabbing sensations occurred, the pain radiated around my right flank and into my abdomen. They got worse. “Kidney stone,” I thought, “I must have a kidney stone.” I’ve never had a kidney stone, but what I was experiencing seemed to be exactly what others have described as the symptoms of a kidney stone. I decided to seek medical advice.
It turned out to be no help. Diagnostic activities (urinalysis and a CAT scan) said it wasn’t a kidney stone. So what was it? What is it? It’s still here. I woke up with it again today. I’ve taken pain medication and applied heat, and they have helped with the discomfort . . . but the source remains unknown.
So I am concerned. Is my concern “fear?” Yes, to some extent it is. Is it disabling? It’s certainly distracting! Both the pain, which limits my motion, and the concern (or fear) which keeps my attention focused on it, and thus not on . . . my prayers, my work, my regular activities, the things important in my life . . . the distraction holds me in thrall. My imagination runs wild and I envision all sorts of dire and deadly medical conditions to explain my pain, when I know full well it’s probably nothing more than a pulled muscle. To the extent that I focus on the pain and its unknown source, I am a slave to my discomforts, both physical and psychological.
A petition from an old Scottish litany prays: “From ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!” It is a prayer for release from the fear of the unknown, a release the Letter to the Hebrews assures us we have already been given. The power of the unknown has been destroyed by God in Jesus sharing our flesh and blood, with all of its aches and pains and unknown ailments.
So today, I choose to be free of the pain. I may still feel it, but I won’t let it or fear of its still-unknown source distract me from getting on with life.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.