Afraid To Be

At the center of all my favorite movies are lonely people.

My top 5 favorite movies are, in exactly this order:

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life (George Bailey’s obligations isolate him in the small town of Bedford Falls)
  2. Gladiator (Maximus’ calling has him standing virtually alone in the face of grave injustice)
  3. Mask (a young man’s facial deformity means he is swimming upstream relationally without reprieve)
  4. The Lion King (Simba finds himself a refugee from his homeland after a traumatic event)
  5. There Will Be Blood (Daniel Plainview is a selfish and conniving oil man who rips through anyone who stands in his way)

Though presented with nuances, a central theme of each of those movies is a lonely person. I’m not sure what it says about me that I’m attracted to these films, and that this is a feature shared by each is something I only recently recognized. I’m trying to figure it out. Still, it’s the truth, whatever it means.

But this is only part of the reason I write.

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At the center of the long storytelling arc of the Bible is being. We think a lot about the Bible as being a love story, or a salvation story, or a rescue story, or a resurrection story. But taken on the whole, it’s hard to argue with it simply being a being story.

At the very beginning, we learn that God…well…was.

“In the beginning, God…” The presence of God existed when nothing else existed.

Then, when you get to Exodus, that story is all about presence. God is present in exile, in the release, and in the tabernacle. He leads his people with his presence. And when Moses inquires at the burning bush about what name he should use to say who sent him back to Egypt to free the captive people, God says, “Tell them ‘I AM’ sent you.”

What of it?

That’s the other reason I write.

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You need to know that there is no present tense verb for “to be” in the Hebrew language. “I am” doesn’t mean that “I am right now.” It means “I was…I am…I will be.” If you were a book, and books could talk, and you were a book that spoke Hebrew, you would not say “I am a book.” That would simply mean you are a book right now. To be Hebrew about it, you would probably say “I book.”

Hear the difference?

So if our names mean something, and most of our names do, then it’s hard to escape notice that God’s name means, quite literally, being. 

I think that’s why coming to faith in Jesus is so much about our identity — who we are, what makes us who we are, and how we identify ourselves in relationship to deity. These are concerns of being, more so than doing.

And, as has been repeated by various spiritual teachers over the centuries in various ways, we are human beings, not human doings. Dallas Willard encourages us, “learn that you don’t have to do to be.”

But that is only part of the reason I write.

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So I was singing in church the other day. I’m a pastor, but I’m the talking kind of pastor, not the singing one. Our singing pastor was, well, singing. He was also playing guitar. That’s why he’s better than me. I can only do one thing at a time (talk). He can sing and play and lead others in singing and playing all at once. Pretty impressive stuff, to tell you the truth.

But I was among the congregation, singing along.

We were singing this song we sing sometimes. it’s called My Sweet Lord. To be honest, I wasn’t really singing along that much, just kind of standing there and listening, and I heard everyone sing these words:

My sweet Lord, desperately,

I am alone, afraid to be,

My love is gone so far away,

I need my sweet Lord’s help today.

The rest of the song is kind of a blur to me, because I got really hung up on those three words in the second line — “afraid to be.” It was kind of grammatically strange — is the author saying they were afraid to be alone? I saw the lyrics in isolation — that the author was simply afraid “to be.” Not afraid to be alone, or afraid to be anything else — just afraid to be. 

But then came the chorus, and this idea of Jesus helping us to be.

Let your love shine down on me,

And light the way to be,

Oh and these are the words that I pray,

I need my sweet Lord’s help today.

That’s when I started to think about the Hebrew language again. And the Greek.

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The Greek has various verb forms for “to be,” but when it is used in an emphasized way, it means the same thing as the Hebrew word — just to exist. Just to be. And, wouldn’t you know it, in John 8, Jesus uses just that verb, with emphasis, to point out that he predates Abraham. In so doing, he makes the Jewish leaders so mad (because they know he’s claiming deity), that they pick up rocks and try and stone him.

Jesus knows the way to be. He can’t help it. He just, well, is. 

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So there I am, singing about how I’m afraid to be, and it hit me like my own self-inflicted rock to the head.

Why am I afraid just to be? Why can’t I just “is?”

Why do I strive to accomplish? Why do I seek to project a better vision of who I am to the outside world? Why is it hard for admit when I’m sad, or lonely, or unhappy, or insecure? Why am I afraid to be? 

And, to tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer. There’s probably more than one way of looking at it. There’s probably more than one answer. Heck, I don’t even know if I’m asking the right question.

I do get one clue from all those movies I mentioned earlier. In each, the lonely central character kind of just is, and it’s a pretty tough go of it for them all. I think I see that and I, in some ways, relate to it. I also think I feel what they feel and I will do almost anything not to feel it.

When you just are, when it’s all stripped down to the studs and your vulnerabilities are exposed and you just kind of exist, it can be a frightening thing. I wonder if that’s why I like all those movies…because I can kind of relate to their plight and the fact that I can relate kind of freaks me out.

Or maybe I enjoy the fact that, as those movies go along, they all pretty much figure out how to just be. Except Daniel Plainview, but I don’t want to name any spoilers. The rest of them — George Bailey, Maximus, Simba, Rocky — they kind of come to peace with who they are, they “find the way to be.”

What I do know is that if the story of the Bible is about being, and if God is perfect and timeless in his being, and if Jesus’ biggest claim of importance was not surrounding what he did, but who he was (and that he simply just was), then I need to figure out what it means to simply be.

I certainly shouldn’t be afraid to be, like the song says. Or, if I am afraid to be, I should, as the song encourages, invite Jesus’ love (that is, his very being) to light my way to be.