By: Shawn Pittman
“What are you afraid of?”
This is a question I don't feel I ask myself often enough, a question we all face nearly every day. Or at least we should.
I fondly remember the time I was forced to face one of my greatest fears, leaving home and traveling into the unknown. I had never done anything remotely resembling such a journey before, never even thought about it. In fact, until this point in my life, I had never even admitted to myself I was afraid of reaching outside my comfort zone. I just told myself that I was content with life as it always had been, and that was that. So, when a good friend and mentor asked if I would join a Children's HopeChest team to run a summer camp for orphans in Ivanovo, my first reaction was to laugh at such a preposterous idea.
For weeks I never gave the possibility any serious thought, until I learned both my brother and my best friend, two of the most important people in the world to me, had joined the team traveling to Russia. Late one night after learning this, I realized my previously perceived contentment for what it actually was...fear. I was so afraid of leaving the wall of comfort that I spent most of my life carefully constructing around myself. And I was forced to face that question like never before.
“What are you afraid of?”
After that point I feel like the term “kicking and screaming” was the best way to describe my preparation for that trip. I always possessed an endless string of excuses to avoid mission trips when presented the opportunity before, but it seemed this time I had finally run out them.
I still wonder exactly how that mentor ended up convincing me to get on that plane. The one thing I am certain about is that it was only because of a firm push from the Lord that it happened, and I now thank him every day for that. I can't even begin to list all the ways that trip–and the friends I made–reshaped my life and continue mold it to this day. Beyond having to opportunity to spend three weeks with some of the most fun and inspiring people I will ever meet, I have also been blessed to see the ten Russian teens, whom I spent most of my time with, grow into wonderful young adults. I have even been so blessed to reunite with several of those kids and call them my friends to this day.
One way that trip will always impact my life personally though, is the way it has changed how I view fear. Until then I had viewed fear as something ultimately negative, something to be avoided at all costs. So I surrounded myself with things safe and familiar, and I built those walls to hide from all the frightening things life may throw at me. But our fear is not such a negative thing, depending on how we react to it. Fear can serve as a guide; it exists to be faced not hidden from.
Now days, when an opportunity arises that I know is goo, and I feel that familiar push from God, I imagine all of the opportunities and growth I avoided before traveling to Ivanovo a decade ago. Then I think of all the relationships and experiences I might have missed out on since. Then, I try my very best to run, not from the fear, but towards it.
The first time I met George Steiner, I told him this story, and I still think about how he smiled fondly at me and said, “It's amazing how we all seem to have a story of how we were pushed into this ministry rather unwillingly.” I realized then I was never alone in my fear. Even those who seem to be the bravest among us are battling it.
Often times, when I can convince myself to run towards the thing that scares me rather than away, I quickly realize there was nothing to be afraid of, only joy at finally following the path I am supposed to. Other times, things aren't so smooth. But even in those times we can take comfort knowing that God is running towards the fear, right beside us.
Not everything has gone smoothly in my travels to Russia, much of which was caused by my own oversight or downright stupidity. I have missed opportunities, failed to reconnect with long lost friends, forced the Kostroma ministry staff to listen to me puke my guts for a day straight after getting food poisoning, lost my immigration card on a train, and even spent seven hours being detained by Ivanovo police after they literally dragged me off the street. But those trials have taught me as much as all the positive experiences. They've taught me how to lean on God when I'm as far from home and those walls of comfort as I can possibly be, they've taught I'm never really alone no matter how much I may feel it, and they've shown me the unending love and patience of so many people, many of whom barely even knew me. One thing above all, after facing our fears, we can look back at those frightening events, then look forward to all the lifelong friendships we've made and all the possible good that may come from our work, and we'll find ourselves asking that same question (almost):
“What were you afraid of?”