As I took my dog, Toby, for a walk Sunday afternoon, it was still warm enough I only needed a light jacket. While it was a pleasant walk there were some ominous signs as the wind was beginning to pick up, clouds were gathering overhead and the temperature was starting to drop. A few hours later as the sun set I could, once again, hear the wind blowing strongly outside, the temperature had dropped considerably and dark clouds raced across the sky. I wondered what the morning would bring.
As disheartening as the weather was that evening, the wind and clouds weren’t what was casting a dark shadow on the night. As I was perusing the news on my electronic devices not one, not two, but four different stories of shootings scrolled across the screen. Shootings in Omaha, Nebraska at a mall, Austin, Texas at an apartment complex, Kenosha County, Wisconsin at a bar and a drive-by shooting at National Guard troops on duty in Minneapolis area. These were on top of the story of the shooting at a Fed Ex facility in Indianapolis just Thursday evening, which was the 40th mass casualty shooting in the last month. I couldn’t help but recall the introduction sometimes used for "God Bless America." It begins, “As the storm clouds gather, far across the sea. Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.” It seems to me that the storm clouds are gathering right here.
These recent mass shootings are only a portion of recent events in our country that have filled the news. Protests, the trial of Derek Chauvin and other reports of police shootings, the immigration and refugee challenges along the southern border, and ongoing pandemic challenges have combined with the political discord to create a deep division in our country and our community. Yet these are symptoms of a deeper issue — fear.
Fear is often a powerful force in our lives. We may build emotional walls to protect us from the hurt we may feel when a loved one dies. We may lash out at perceived threats to our well-being. In fear we may dig in our heels and become very stubborn when others propose changes to our jobs, church, policies, schools or families.
On that first Easter, the disciples were gathered in a house with the doors “locked for fear of the Jews.” When Jesus suddenly appeared among them, they were “startled and terrified.” Yet the first words Jesus spoke to them was “Peace be with you.” While this was a standard greeting in Jesus' time, it carried with it a new message. Peace was not understood as just an absence of conflict, but included a sense of wholeness and well-being. What was and is new is that Jesus was bringing and giving that gift to the disciples. The gift of the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to move past their fears and reach out to a world in need of good news.
In the familiar words of Psalm 23 we pray,
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I fear no evil for you are with me,
your rod and your staff — they comfort me.”
And in Psalm 46 we pray,
“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
As the storm clouds of division and fear swirl around our country and community, may you claim the gift of God’s presence and peace. Then may you share those gifts with others as we celebrate God’s blessings in our land.
Galen Smith is pastor at Worthington's Westminster Presbyterian Church.