You may remember a guy in the bible named Zechariah. You may wonder what in the world he has to do with neuroscience. Zechariah’s story, briefly, as told in the opening pages of Luke’s Gospel is that he was an older man serving as a temple priest. He and his wife Elizabeth had no children, which in their culture was a terribly shaming mark of inadequacy. While performing his priestly duties, the angel Gabriel appeared to him. As Luke tells it, Zechariah was “terrified.” Not startled. Not surprised, or merely curious. Terrified. And I get it. I mean, how many of us see angels routinely? Apparently, not our man Zechariah.
What puzzles me is what happens next in the story. The first thing the angel tells him is, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard…” Okay, it’s reasonable for the angel to offer some comfort with those words. But do you ever notice how often in the bible angels visit people, scare the living daylights out of them just by showing up, and then tell them to not be afraid? It’s as if it’s part of the job description, and they were trained at Monsters Inc.: scare them, and then tell them “Don’t be scared.” It just doesn’t make sense.
I have a better idea: don’t frighten them in the first place. For heavens’ sake (literally), I would think angels could do better. I’m sure God or they could come up with some way to deliver a message without engaging the sympathetic nervous system’s flight or fight networks. If you’re bringing me the gift of good news, must the packaging be so terrifying?
And then a different thought struck me. It has been said that one of, if not the most frequently uttered commands in all of scripture is “fear not.” Why is it not “Love God with everything you have,” or “Love your neighbor as yourself?” How is it that the two greatest commandments aren’t the ones given most frequently? And then I wondered if perhaps it has to do with the way we learn. One cannot take on tasks of significant complexity without first learning the basics. I don’t learn multiplication before addition and subtraction. I don’t write books without learning to construct a proper sentence. No one will be building the next Mars rover if they haven’t first learned the fundamentals of physics.
In order to love—which as it turns out is not necessarily complex in the same way physics is complex, just far more hard to do—I must be first willing to give up my fear. First one, then the other, certainly in so quick a succession so as to seem simultaneous. For to love requires that I first risk entering into real relationships. Ones that will go deep. And wide. And will be messy—and therefore, at times, frightening—as a result. No wonder “Fear not,” is plastered all over the bible. And this is where Zechariah’s story finds us. Real relationships will necessarily be frightening because we’re not always that good at them. Real love takes more than I am or have to give. I suppose God could make it easier for me to enter into relationship with him by making himself so malleable to my needs that I don’t end up loving him; I love my constructed version of him instead. And it seems I’m already pretty good at loving the gods I construct. God won’t let me do that with him.
It seems that God took Zechariah very seriously. More seriously than Zechariah took himself. The angel was not about to offer an apology for who he was. Nor was he going to apologize for inviting Zechariah to become more than who he was. More solid. More real. More able to tolerate the sort of beauty and goodness and light and kindness that Gabriel represented. The angel was inviting the priest to become who he was made to be. And in the process become more able to risk the possibility of hope in the face of the memory of deep disappointment. Hope that God would make it possible for Zechariah to become a father, after all this time. After all this public shame. Think of how much courage it would require of Zechariah to believe again. No wonder he asks the angel how he could know for certain that this would come true.
The sign that Gabriel gave to answer Zechariah’s question was not what I would have expected. He first simply identifies himself and then states that he stands in the presence of God. He doesn’t offer a plan; he offers the reality of the presence of a relationship. The solution for Zechariah’s distress at the moment was not a rational explanation. It was a relational invasion. And God takes these relationships very seriously. So much so that Gabriel next told the priest that, given his reticence to live into his destiny, he would be struck mute until the baby was born. Plenty of time to feel, reflect, and feel some more. Plenty of time to sit with a process he could only trust; not one he could control. Plenty of time for him to learn how to release his fear as he entered into God’s unbelievable story.
What has this to do with the neuroscience of the mind? Our history of shame and fear of trusting are stored in implicit as well as explicit neural memory tracts. Our awareness of that shame and fear keeps those neurons dormant until God’s visitation comes calling, scaring us to death—or if we’re willing, to life. Take a look around. Where has God been calling you to join him in doing a new thing? Who have been the angels telling you not to be afraid, but rather to trust? And in the process, what part of your story that has historically represented disappointment is God now asking you to risk to his renewing adventure, changing your brain along the way? Today, my hope is that, like Zechariah, even if it requires some time for reflective silence—and it likely will—eventually what God is germinating for birth in, for, and through you will be something you will want to shout about.
And after all that who wouldn’t want to? Go ahead. Try it. Do not be afraid.