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By Rev. Dave Brown, a member of the PCUSA Education Roundtable

It was 1966 when, after taking the bus from New Jersey to the Port Authority bus terminal and the 1-train downtown, I found myself at the Café Au Go Go, the legendary subterranean club on Bleeker Street. The YOUNGBLOODS was the band on stage that night and I clearly remember one song from that set. The song was “Get Together”. It would appear on the band’s first album that would be released early in 1967. It would be re-released as a single in 1969, becoming a hit and an anthem that still echoes today. Chet Powers wrote the song with the memorable chorus, “Come on People, now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” The chorus became an anthem and lots of people knew it then and now. But that night at the Café Au Go Go, it was the opening line that caught my attention:

 “Love is but a song to sing, fears the way we die.”  

That line holds my attention today.

“Love is but a song to sing, fears the way we die.”  

The contrast between love and fear caught hold of my late teenage imagination. I was a young Christian drawn to the counterculture that found a home in the Greenwich Village of the late sixties, where I would eventually live. I knew that love was more than just a song to sing. And I knew that fear could be the way we die. There was love all around me. And there was fear. Fear due to the war, polarization and the violence we experienced in the struggle for Civil Rights. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, the year before I heard that song. The year after the song was released, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would be assassinated followed by, the year after the song was re-released, the death of 5 students on the campus of Kent State University. In the late sixties, there was flower power and love and there was a lot to be afraid of. I came of age in a world where you navigated the tension between love and fear. 

“Love is but a song to sing, fears the way we die.”

In the last few weeks, the coronavirus has laid the tension between love and fear at our doorsteps. All of a sudden, we find ourselves living in a time of a widespread life-threatening disease. The disease has disrupted every part of our life. How will we balance love and fear? The answer is, of course, to be wise, safe and not let fear seize the day and our hearts. Yet as obvious as the answer is, living into the reality it suggests is not easy. There is a lot of fear out there and many legitimate reasons for that fear. Which brings me to the question: How do we wrestle with, and live with fear? 

It is an ancient question. Those of us who identify in one way or another with the Christian tradition may recognize that it is a question central to the teaching of Jesus. In the Christian sacred texts, the role of fear was addressed again and again by Jesus. The phrase “Fear Not” is one of the most common phrases in the Bible. I admit I have not counted myself, but I’ve read that some form of that phrase appears more than 350 times. In the Christian tradition, the warning to not be afraid is a constant theme. 

It’s there in the beginning when the angel that announces Jesus’ birth tells Mary, “Do not be afraid.”[i] It’s there near the end when the women go to the tomb on the third day and an angel tells the women, “Do not be afraid.”[ii]

The consistent message to not be afraid reminds us how real fear can be in human life. There would be no need to say again and again, “Do not be afraid” if fear was not a regular companion on many a life’s journey. Fear is real — the fear of something or someone that could hurt us, fear of harm that will come close to someone we love, fear of the future of the planet or the quiet intimate fear that somehow, we aren’t good enough, loveable enough, smart enough. Fear is real. 

The Bible in general and the Christian texts in particular commands those who take the text seriously not to be afraid. It is one command or teaching most readers fail to obey. Fear is a real part of most lives. 

Is our fear in the face of the command not to be afraid a sign of our faithlessness? Or, perhaps, is the repetition of the commandment an implicit acknowledgment that fear in human life is real and a reality we all face, a reality we need to learn how to live with.

The reality of fear is a more present reality to many of us this March of 2020 as the coronavirus changes reality and threatens the health of friends and loved ones.  Is our fear the opposite of faith and love? Is it the way we die? 

The virus is serious. It is something that we should be afraid of, something that we need to take seriously. In the Christian texts, Jesus never says there is nothing to be afraid of.

There were and are realities any wise person should fear. But Jesus teaches us not to give in to fear, to not let fear be our primary emotion. Jesus’ words do not ask us to deny the dangers that confront us and make us afraid, but rather, to acknowledge those fearsome things and to be wise when dealing with them without letting our fear dominate our lives. In a time of pandemic, we are invited to hold on to love and have faith which doesn’t mean denying fear, but rather, living in a way that deals wisely with the things that rightly make us afraid. 

Dr. King expresses this well. He had a lot to be afraid of, yet he never let fear have the last word and dominate his life. He said this, “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear, but rather to harness and master it.”[iii]

The fear Jesus spoke to was, I believe, what MLK called “abnormal fear.” Fear that is greater than love, fear that paralyzes us and shuts us down. Abnormal fear is, in the words of the song, “the way we die.” It destroys community and poisons our lives. 

As we face the challenges of 2020, we do well to be honest with our fears and know they are real. Yes, there are things to be afraid of and we need to be cautious and smart. Yet, I believe, the path of faith is a path that will not allow fear to be the way we die. It is a path we walk holding love and fear together so we will not allow our fear to grow and in Kings words, “poison and distort out lives.” 

The familiar anthem that I heard in Café Au Go Go so many years ago speaks today echoing Jesus words, “ Do not be afraid” reminding us to always hold love and fear together and “ to smile on your brother and sister, everybody get together, try to love one another right now”

[i] Luke 1:30
[ii] Matthew 28:5
[iii] The quote from Dr. King is from his sermon, Antidotes for Fear, found in the book Strength to Love .