I’m thrilled to introduce you to my friend Karen Marsh. You will love her new book. I’m already ordering it for friends! Here’s a sneak preview from Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith (IVP, 2017)
By the time you read this, my daughter Nan will be out the door and off to college for the first time. On a rainy morning following the terrifying weekend here in Charlottesville, I count the three days until Move In at UVA and I wonder: what final wisdom can I give to her before she’s gone?
In the book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg challenges gifted young women to step up. Lead the way. Aim for the top. And then she issues one final charge: “Please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.” It’s a strong question for my daughter, for all of us. Where does fear hold us back from our deepest callings or from simple daily acts of courage?
What would you do if you weren’t afraid? It would seem a cruel question to ask of Amanda Berry Smith, born into slavery in Maryland in 1837; she had every good reason to be afraid. Yet through her fear, Amanda Berry Smith leaned fully into God’s power and presence. She stood up, trembling, and preached the Gospel to people of all races. She was a woman who knew what she was meant to do-and she did it.
Amanda Berry’s life, even in freedom, was one of privation, hunger, ill health and intense stress. She sweated over laundry for only pennies a day. She grieved the early deaths of four of her five children. In her autobiography, Amanda speaks frankly of her constant struggles with fear. “I always had a fear of white people,” she writes, and justifiably so: she experienced virulent prejudice every day. (Imagine if she had been on the University Lawn when those torch-bearing men stormed through?) Dread held her captive.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid? More than security or health, young Amanda desired to experience the immediate, living reality of God. She leaned in and made a daring vow, “I will pray once more, and if there is any such thing as salvation, I am determined to have it this afternoon or die.”
In church one day, she experienced, at her core, the presence of the Holy, a feeling wonderfully strange yet glorious. Overcoming her timidity, Amanda blurted out: the Lord has sanctified my soul! “I suppose the people thought I was wild, and I was, for God had set me on fire!” she writes, “O, if there was a platform around the world I would be willing to get on it and walk and tell everybody of this sanctifying power of God!”
From that day forward, Amanda was propelled by passion for two things: to know God and to tell others about Him. At that time, women were not welcome in pulpits, and certainly not black women. But she preached and sang-through her fear.
Amanda had troubles with one fierce minister who opposed her public preaching. Before Sunday’s worship service, she was laid low by worry. As Amanda spent Friday in fasting and prayer, Satan tormented her with discouraging accusations. She took her Bible and knelt down. “Oh, Lord, what is the matter? Why is this darkness in my mind?” she prayed. “I opened my Bible, and my eyes lighted on these words: ‘Perfect love casteth out fear. He that feareth has not been made perfect in love.’ Then I saw what was the matter. Fear!”
Fear. Yes, fear is the matter. So what are you afraid of? Loss? Loneliness? Illness? Exhaustion? You and I are visited by real, myriad fears that wake us up in the night and trouble our souls. In her dorm room, my daughter will contend with her own worries, too.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Amanda was called to preach but she was terrified. So she prayed for help: “Oh! Lord! Give me complete victory over this fear.” Though her circumstances didn’t change, Amanda had a deep sense that God was with her-and she praised Him.
God met her and called her to take action: to testify at Union Church. She responded, “Yes, Lord, if Thou wilt help me, and give me Thy strength, and go with me, I will go.” That Sunday Amanda showed up, ready to face a congregation of skeptical strangers.
Lean in and lean on the God who is near. Amanda did not muster her own rhetorical skills or dig deep for self-confidence. She was out on the ledge with God alone. Before the packed house she stood up, heart pounding, body trembling. At the right moment the Lord gave her great liberty as her fright melted away. “I seemed to lose sight of everybody and everything but my responsibility to God and my duty to the people,” she recalled. “The Holy Ghost fell on the people and we had a wonderful time. Souls were convicted and some converted that night.”
Through controversy and hardship, Amanda Berry Smith, the self-taught former slave, travelled across oceans and around the world, an evangelist unlike any the people had seen before. Whenever she spoke in England and Scotland, as many as six hundred people came out. In Calcutta, where angry protestors threatened violence, Amanda knelt down on the grass and prayed until the crowd fell silent. She travelled through Liberia by canoe, stricken by malaria. She preached and labored till her death at 78, answering the what would you do question with her very life.
In our very different times and places, you, Amanda, Nan and I—we are sisters in a long line of vulnerable, fearful people. Here in Charlottesville, I have been painfully reminded of that truth. Now, in my mind’s eye I see Amanda Berry Smith approaching me after one of her sermons. She grips my arm and says quietly, “Now, my child, you needn’t be afraid. Lean on the Lord. He will help you.”
What would you do if you weren’t afraid? That turns out to be a trick question. What will you do when you are afraid, even when your legs are quaking? That’s more like it. We need people like Amanda for these perilous times, believers who cling to grace when they are weak. Who trust in God when treasured people or precious possessions are at risk. Who respond with generosity when others need their time or compassion. Courageous ones who speak their minds clearly, have hard conversations, stand with those who need allies. And more than anything, I pray that each and every one of us will ask God for the brave love that casts out fear.