Can I tell you a story I’m not proud of?
About four years ago, I received an email from a woman who attended the church where I was a teaching pastor. The email said, “My family attends [your church], and you are my sister’s favorite preacher. My sister is dying of cancer, and the doctors think she only has a couple weeks left. I think it would mean a lot if you came to see her. Would that be possible?”
I replied immediately and said that I would absolutely come and see her sister. The woman emailed back and said that they were moving her from the hospital into hospice care and that she would let me know when a good time would be—probably within the next couple days.
Here’s the part I’m not proud of: I didn’t want to go. It wasn’t because I didn’t care or because I had so much else going on in my life that I couldn’t possibly spare the time.
I didn’t want to go because I was afraid.
The dying woman was only two years older than me (she was 31). She had a husband and a two-year-old son. Other than these two details, I knew nothing else about her. I didn’t even know what she looked like. The church was very big, and it was entirely possible for a person to attend services every single week and simply get lost in the crowd.
Which brings me to why I was afraid.
I was afraid that she—the dying woman—would ask me why God was letting this happen and that I would have to tell her that I had no idea. I was afraid that she would be disappointed in me—that she would wish she had requested a different pastor from her church. But mostly, I was afraid to be that close to death. Like I said, she was two years older than me (two years younger than I am now), and she was facing my greatest fear. She was dying young, she felt afraid and helpless, and I was afraid to be so close to that much pain and sorrow.
So I waited to hear from the sister, feeling nervous every time my phone rang. A full week after I had heard from the sister, I had still heard nothing. I called the home phone number to check in and see if I had missed a message. The dying woman’s mother answered the phone and told me that her daughter was deeply sedated, so she wouldn’t ever know if I had come to see her or not. The mother also said that she had called her own pastor (she attended a different church), and he was with them now. Essentially, the mother was telling me “Thank you for your time, but your services are no longer required.” They didn’t want me to come see the woman after all.
We hung up, and I felt relieved. Again, I am not proud of this story. In fact, I almost deleted that sentence about feeling relieved, but I left it in because it’s completely true.
Three days later, I received an email saying that the woman had died.
I think about that experience all the time. I think about how afraid I felt and how I wish I had tried harder to see her before it was too late. I never met the woman, but I still feel like I let her down. My fear stopped me from being useful to her at her greatest moment of need.
Earlier this week I received a text from a childhood friend. He told me that his mother is dying, and they don’t know how long she has left. I didn’t even think about my response; it was instinctual. I instantly texted back and asked, “Can I see her?”
I’ve known this family for over half my life, and I love them so much. We don’t see each other much these days, but that’s only because life has pulled us all in different directions. There has never been a time when I didn’t feel a certain sense of endearment and warmth toward this family. So when my friend said that his mother was dying, I felt none of the fear I felt four years ago; I simply needed to see her.
I didn’t become braver in the last four years. I’m still a coward. But I love this family, so fear was simply not part of my thought process.
In the situation from four years ago, I had no personal attachment to the dying woman. I felt sad for her—deeply sad—but I had no direct personal connection with her, so my ability to feel love was consumed by own fears and insecurities.
In the situation from this week, my personal connection was so deep that fear never had a chance. There was no time to be afraid; the urgency love was too powerful.
I guess this is what it means when the Bible says that there is no fear in love and that perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). Four years ago, fear nearly paralyzed me and all but made it impossible for me to sit with a dying woman. This week, love demanded that I go see my friend’s dying mother.
When a person is only a name on a page or a tiny .jpg file next to a screen name, fear comes easily. A lot of our hate comes from a place of fear—we fear the people we don’t understand, we fear their point-of-view, and we fear what might happen if they are right. And so that fear—that dehumanizing way of seeing the world—pulls us farther apart. It prevents us from existing in this world as we were meant to.
When the person we’re engaging has no face—when we don’t know them or at least can’t see them—it’s easier to engage with fear, because the unknown allows for that. That’s why it’s easier to make enemies on Facebook than in real life.
When a person’s understanding of God demands that they show hate toward others or allows them to dehumanize people who are different from them, they are operating from a place of fear—fear of other people and fear of their angry God.
However, when a person’s God says, “Love your enemies,” perhaps that is a way of saying, “Don’t let the fear stop you from being human. Perfect love drives out fear.”
When fear keeps us out of hospital rooms, it’s time to reengage our capacity for love.
May we love in ways that drive out fear.
Grace and peace.