Life Doesn't Frighten Us At All


(Editor’s note: Below is the transcript of the Cabinet Address delivered by Rev. Dr. Terry Harter at the 2014 Annual Conference. Due to the large number of requests for the address, the address is presented in transcript form instead of a news article.)
Last Wednesday, at the age of 86, Dr. Maya Angelou set aside her writings, books and poetry, her clarion calls for full humanity and dignity and fearless living in community with all on this planet, as well as her stories and testimony of healing and blessing – because her greatest work… her life … was completed. 
Since then, she rightly has been hailed as a Renaissance woman, poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker and civil right activist…
Was she not also one who (in the words of Paul in Ephesians) “was given for the equipping of the saints … for the edifying of the body … that we should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about …”
But speaking the truth in love, Dr. Angelou still speaks to us this morning as God’s children, fellow disciples:  as she said in an interview just last year that it was her faith in God that allowed her to achieve such incredible feats.
Dr. Angelou told her interviewers:
“I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I
understood that, when I comprehended that … more than that, when I internalized that,
ingested that, I became courageous. 
I dared to do anything that was a good thing.  I dared to do things as distant from what seemed to be in my future.
If God loves me, if God made everything from leaves to seals and oak trees, then what is it I can’t do?”
My name is Terry Harter, and I am serving as the Conference Superintendent for the Sangamon River District.  I want to ask my fellow Superintendents to stand, acknowledging their service, and relieving them for responsibility for the content of this address on their behalf.   
It is inherent to the office of Superintendent that, from time to time, we encounter both pastors and congregations that are facing the future with courage – as well as pastors and congregations that are facing the future with fear – ALL of them are called upon to “do things as distant from what seems to be in their future.”
Some may be beset by problems of their own making – or maybe they find themselves awash in the vast tidal flows of cultural change … adrift and overwhelmed by powerful currents beyond their control. 
In our itineration and service as superintendents we hear of financial struggles and spiritual malaise.   As our Bishop has already attested, we witness gloriously hope-filled ministries, and at the same time (along with you) we observe aging congregations, decreasing membership and worship attendance – summarized again this year in the now standard GCFA report of Financial and Statistical Trends for the past 20 years.  The 2014 version is a pastel cherry sheet easily overlooked in the massive collection of documents assembled for you in your various packets – This has already been drawn to your attention by Bill Adams.  And what if we were to attend to its content?  Even if we believe we can predict the future based on these trends of seemingly perpetual decline – What exactly are we to do about it?  What things are we to dare to do that are as distant from what seems to be our future?  If God loves us, if God made everything from leaves to seals and oak trees, then what is it we can’t do? 
We invite you on this golden morning to think big thoughts.  Let’s make our hearts as wide as God’s universe, and to get us started, let’s call to mind the story in the 13th and 14th chapters of the Book of Numbers. 
After a long and tear-stained trek, the children of Israel finally reach the borders of the Promised Land.  Spies are sent out, and when they come back, there is a majority report and there is a minority report.  The minority report, submitted by Joshua and Caleb, is prophetic, saying in effect, “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”  “We can go ahead, we can do God’s will, if only we don’t lose hope” which we can translate as a passion for the possible.  The majority report, as one might expect, is pragmatic.  The prudence it counsels only thinly veils the cowardice of those submitting it.  It speaks of “giants in the land” – the sons of Anak, literally, “the long-necked one”.  “And we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers and so we seemed to them.”  (Numbers 13:33)  Predictably, the children of Israel accept the majority report and we read that “all the congregation raised a loud cry and the people wept that night; and all the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron.  The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, … and they said to one another, ‘Let’s choose a captain and go back to Egypt.”  And then when Aaron and Moses remonstrate, and Caleb gets up once again, and Joshua, and say, “The Lord is with us” the congregation said to stone them.  (Numbers 14: 1-10).
I recall this story because that line “We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers” seems to reflect the constant problem, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
As in Jesus’ story of the one-talent man, we see again the protective strategy of deliberate failure, only with two added wrinkles:  if you think other people make you into a failure – “giants in the land” – then you don’t have to feel badly about being one.  And if you think that those trying to wean you from your sense of failure – the Joshuas and Calebs of the world – are only trying to push you around, then you can stone them in good conscience. 
Now I do not think there is a Promised Land for anybody any more, but I recall this story because I believe there is a Promised Time for everybody.  After a far longer and even more arduous trek, the 7 billion of us who inhabit this planet are in fact on the very border of that time promised in Scripture – “and it shall come to pass in the latter days” – a time when quite literally, if we do not lose our passion for the possible, we might indeed create a world without borders, a world without famine, a world at one, a world at peace. 
But instead of pressing forward, God’s children once again are holding back.  Instead of “seizing the time”, we are losing our grip; and some of us seem eager to elect captains to lead us back to the fleshpots and spiritual slavery of Egypt.
It is understandable.  We have been through tough disillusioning times.  Who was it who said, “I used to be an incurable optimist, but now I’m cured.”  And understand why we are fearful.  Ahead are giants.  But what are giant obstacles if not brilliant opportunities brilliantly disguised as giant obstacles?  
And aren’t we children of God to say with Dr. Angelou: “If God loves me, if God made everything from leaves to seals and oak trees, then what is it I can’t do?”
The giants we face are not an identifiable group in the church or the world – much as we would like to point them out as this or that interest group of the left or the right.  The giants instead are forces that act to deter the daring action and risk-taking ventures to which Jesus calls us … In the churches that have suffered loss of membership over the past year, there is the giant of uneasiness and discomfort that invites us to focus on what will add numbers without counting the cost to the full-voiced gospel.  In the market-driven religious environment, there is the giant of temptation to offer only what will please – rather than stir and transform.  For the church that struggles with its identity, there is the giant of a temptation to settle on the lowest common denominator, one that will hold people together at all costs.  And there is the equally corrupting giant desire to provide a formula-faith that invests authority in what is less than ultimate:  our experience, the scripture, the church, some creed, some political viewpoint – rather than what IS ultimate – the God who calls us, graces us, and send us in Jesus Christ. 
There is the alluring giant, in an unstable environment, to long for and to seek a risk-free world – or at least to make the church an enclave of assurance and comfort – And then there arises in the church a culture of intimidation that works against standing up for the right and the just, and seeking the truth, no matter what.  This is a cultural giant of defensiveness and fear, discouraging and avoiding struggle, of denying the giants of ignorance and greed, of poverty and constriction of spirit, the giants that prowl around us and within us. 
But listen to Caleb and Joshua:  “Let us go up at once and occupy the country.  We are well able to conquer it.  The Lord is with us.  You have nothing to fear from them. “  (Numbers 13:30 and 14:9-10)
That is not a threat – it is a charge worthy of your gifts, your faith, your knowledge.  It is not a word to douse your enthusiasm but to elevate it.  It is a word not to discourage you but to encourage you.  It is a word not to make the work of ministry and mission threatening, but to affirm its noble and enabling dimensions…
We are not sent out with automatic weapons to kill the giants, but as bearers of the love and grace of God that will overcome them.  This love confronts the giants before which our spirits cower – this love rests on the love of God that has in Jesus Christ overcome all the giants of the world, rebuking the untruthful – and urging us to thinking and acting that frightens!  And giving us the courage to risk our comfort and security for the sake of The Gospel – The Good News of Jesus Christ – that in him – we need not be frightened by life – that we must act on our relentlessly impossible dreams, and the breathtaking evidence of such an embodiment of hope. 
So, dear friends, let us continue with good heart our exodus from old time to promised time.  The road is hard but the future is bright.  The Promised Time is there ahead, already we can dimly view its contours.  The spies are back – you have heard reports, the prophetic ones among them announcing that the Promised Time will be far better than the good old days!  So enough of this Egypt talk!  Enough of this talk about seeming to ourselves like grasshoppers.  We, too, can become giants, Anaks, - by sticking out our necks.  Let us go up at once.  We need not be FRIGHTENED of the New Life Christ has given and made possible for all of us. 
In her life, Dr. Angelou faced down more fearful giants than most of us, and out of her life came this psalm spoken from her heart to ours:
            Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn't frighten me at all
Bad dogs barking loud
Big ghosts in a cloud
Life doesn't frighten me at all
Mean old Mother Goose
Lions on the loose
They don't frighten me at all
Dragons breathing flame
On my counterpane
That doesn't frighten me at all.
I go boo
Make them shoo
I make fun
Way they run
I won't cry
So they fly
I just smile
They go wild
Life doesn't frighten me at all.
Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn't frighten me at all.
Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don't frighten me at all.
That new classroom where
Boys all pull my hair
(Kissy little girls
With their hair in curls)
They don't frighten me at all.
Don't show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I'm afraid at all
It's only in my dreams.
I've got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.
Life doesn't frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.
Life doesn't frighten me at all.
Sisters and brothers in Christ: Let us go up at once and occupy the Promised time – we are well able to conquer it.  You need not fear the giants – they have lost the protection they had.  The Lord is with us.  You have nothing to fear from them.
Life doesn’t frighten us.
In Jesus name and power.