Do It Scared
Dr. F. David Carr gives an inspiring message to the students at Roberts Wesleyan College as they begin their academic school year
From the Convocation of the 2022-23 School Year: “Do it Scared”
Good morning, everyone. Welcome first-year students and other newcomers! To our sophomores, juniors, seniors, and those who are genuinely confused about where you are at this point, welcome back!
Earlier you heard a selection read from a book of the Bible called Isaiah, and that passage includes our focus verse for the year: Isaiah 43:19. In it God says, “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”
Isaiah is an ancient prophetic writing, and the first 39 chapters focus mostly on the judgment Israel experienced for their sins. Try to imagine this with me: the Babylonian Empire had invaded the southern part of Israel. They eventually destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and then they sent the inhabitants of the land into exile. Exile is a type of forced migration. These things happened to real life, living, breathing people with living breathing parents, siblings, children, cousins, and friends who then lived for decades in a foreign land, navigating an unknown culture, and under the rulership of a militaristic empire.
But then, a shift occurs at Isaiah 40. It’s time for Israel to come back home! Isaiah announces that Israel’s term has been served and declares, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’” (Isaiah 40:1–5).
God is calling Israel back home to restore their lives. That’s great news! But there’s something important to recognize about this announcement: rebuilding isn’t the same thing as building. If you read Isaiah 43:19 closely, you can sense that tension. It begins with “I am about to do a new thing” and follows with a short explanation, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Readers familiar with the Bible may notice that “making a way in the wilderness” echoes an old thing, namely, the exodus story. God is about to do something like that again; at the same time, God isn’t doing exactly that because God is, well, “about to do a new thing.” Whatever Israel’s future entails on the other side of exile, it may resemble the past, but it won’t look exactly like the past.
A lot has changed in exile. Israel isn’t made up of the same people as before. Some have died; some were born in exile. One thing, however, is true for everyone who’s trekking back from being displaced: they’ve all experienced trauma. And these traumatized people will have to transition from living in someone else’s nation to living again in their own.
To rebuild their lives, Israel has a lot of hard work ahead of them. As the verses I read earlier suggest, that work will be as arduous as raising up valleys and turning mountains into flat land. The days before exile are gone, but their restoration isn’t yet achieved. Israel is in an in-between moment, transitioning between a destructive past and a hope-filled future that could take shape in a variety of unpredictable ways. For this beleaguered people, the sense of being in-between was undoubtedly scary.
We don’t have to have undergone literal exile to resonate with Israel’s experience. If you students have anything in common, it’s that you’ve also experienced real fear, anxiety, and trauma, as well as disorientation due to major disruptions to your future plans. In the past few years alone, you’ve suffered through a global pandemic. You’ve endured political divisions that have reached beyond the level of mere disagreement to acts of physical violence and destruction. You’ve experienced extreme manifestations of ongoing racial injustice. You are, mostly at young ages, already witnessing the effects of global climate change, especially if you’re from the global south. As our nation weathers one economic crisis after another with sustained, historic levels of economic inequality, nations are in conflict, or even all-out war. The devices in our pockets—perhaps even in your hands; yes, I see you there in the back!—pump us full of updates in ways that outpace our capacities to cope with what we’re absorbing. Unsurprisingly, Gen Z suffers disproportionately in its mental health and well-being. But sure, just focus on your homework assignments! Piece of cake!
A bit like Isaiah’s audience, we’re starting this school year in an in-between space. Before exile, Israel had ways of living in their land, surrounded by the familiarity of their own cultures and characterized by the normalcy of worship in Jerusalem. Before, say, Spring 2020 you were likely accustomed to a certain way of life. We all had our ups and downs, sure, but you probably navigated the good and the bad in a national and international setting that was more or less familiar to you. The pandemic changed that. Now, the pandemic continues—the U.S. is still averaging between 400 and 500 COVID deaths per day—but things are not as they were before. We all have ambitions. Roberts Wesleyan College has big goals. But even our best planning can’t tell us precisely how things will turn out. So here we are, plodding through this in-between space, confident that we’re going somewhere, but not sure exactly how the journey will go or how things will look when we arrive.
Personally, I love a sense of certainty and resolution, so the unknown really freaks me out. Like ancient Israel, we’re going to need resources to help us move forward. Specifically, we’re going to need courage.
For most of my life, I thought of courage as the absence of fear. But about ten years ago, I learned to think differently about courage. I was a graduate student in Atlanta, GA, and my wife and I had two young children. I’m not much of a night person, and so I would usually go to one of my favorite spots on campus early in the mornings to work. At around sunrise each day, I’d chat briefly with a custodian who worked in the same building. One morning, he told me that his job was the first one he’d ever had, and that he’d held it for 10 years. I estimated that he was in his fifties. The math didn’t add up to me.
He clarified that before getting hired, he’d been homeless and an alcoholic. Miraculously, he’d gotten sober, found employment, started a family, bought a home, and had his life transformed. Shortly after, a friend approached him and asked him to purchase a small commercial building. The plan was to transform that building into a bakery that would provide employment for impoverished addicts as a step towards changing their lives. And they did it! He bought the property, and they started a business.
Now that’s an amazing story. But what he said next has impacted my life since that moonlit morning that I heard it. He said, “After being homeless, I NEVER imagined that I’d own my own home. No way I thought I’d ever own a business. I didn’t even know how the process worked, and it was terrifying because I had no idea what I was doing! But then I told myself, ‘If you’re scared, do it scared.’”
If you’re scared, do it scared.
Having courage doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear. It means you continue to press on in spite of your fears. It means, in the words of my friend, “If you’re scared, you do it scared.”
That line has become a motto used between my older son and me. He gave me permission to share that he was afraid when he first started kindergarten. The first week, he cried every single day, and every night he begged us not to take him back. I spent the whole week trying unsuccessfully to convince him not to be afraid. But then I remembered that early morning conversation, and I taught him what I’d learned from my wise friend: “If you’re scared, do it scared.” Shortly after, when I was afraid to begin my Ph.D. program, I confessed to my son that I was going to have to start by doing it scared. Several years later, when we first moved here, and my son had to begin middle school in a new city, I had to remind him, “I know you’re scared; do it scared.” Just last week, as he nervously prepared to walk out the door for JV soccer tryouts, I said to him, “If you’re scared,” and he gave me a fist bump before finishing my sentence, “Do it scared.” (he made the team, by the way).
To be sure, if you suffer from serious anxiety, you should seek professional help. Yet, there are times when you feel fear but know in your gut that you have to move forward. To put our little motto into more constructive terms, what we’re really saying to one another is, “Take courage”— act resiliently in spite of our fears. That’s my wish for you today.
If the process of making new friends goes slowly, and you become lonely and homesick, take courage.
As you step into certain classes and feel like you’re way in over your head, take courage.
When you encounter new ideas and feel like your world is being turned upside down, take courage.
When you find yourself wrestling with important moral issues, take courage.
When you’re so overwhelmed by the world’s problems that you feel like you can’t carry on, take a deep breath, visit the counseling center, and take courage.
I want to pause now and speak directly to our minoritized and historically-marginalized students. We are working to make our campus as hospitable and inclusive as possible. Even so, if you don’t represent a majority culture here, you might feel like an outsider who’s attending someone else’s school. Sadly, you may have to take courage in ways other students don’t. And I’m sorry for that. To help, I want you to embrace what I’m about to say: this is YOUR SCHOOL. If you’re a person of color, this school doesn’t belong to the racial majority alone. This is YOUR school. If you have a disability, you’re not attending a school for the bodily majority. This is YOUR school. If you’re an international student, this campus doesn’t belong to American-born students alone. This is YOUR school. I urge you: take courage, make this space your own, and we will all benefit from the beautiful diversity here at Roberts.
Courage is needed, yes. But Isaiah speaks of more than a formerly-displaced people who need to rebuild despite their fears. Part of Isaiah’s good news is that God’s people don’t have to do it alone. Remember, the voice speaking in the text is God’s. God beckons Israel to return and promises to restore them to their land. Like the exodus, this will be an act of divine power, and people are participants in that process of restoration. God, who created the universe simply by saying, “Let it be,” God, who delivered Israel from Egypt, that God was present with them to rebuild, restore, and even to accomplish new things. My friends, that truth is worth hanging our hopes on.
We too can step forward into this academic year, and the years that follow, trusting that the same God who restored Israel from exile centuries ago is here with us at Roberts Wesleyan College. That very same God is present to enable us, in the words of Paul, to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds,” so that we can go out and work, in the words of my church denomination, “for the transformation of the world.” And, as Scripture reveals, God tends to work most often through people. We’re all in this together, and we can move forward, hand-in-hand, confident that God is present to empower us as we go.
So, as we begin this academic year—for many of you, your first academic year—we don’t know exactly how things will play out. As a community, we’re going to need to take courage. It won’t be easy. Taking courage, and trusting that God is already at work and will carry us through a future of unknowns will require conscious, intentional effort, and even some practice. As we transition into this year and the next phase of Roberts Wesleyan College, we may feel all sorts of things, including fear. So we’ll need consistently to support one another by reminding ourselves, “If you’re scared, let’s do it scared.”
Amen. May it be so.