We’ve been out at the lake near here the last couple of weeks. It’s beautiful there and there’s a nice little community, some summer residents and a few all season. Right where you drive in there’s signs in both directions, those yellow diamond shape caution signs. They say “BEWARE OF CHILDREN.”
I’m pretty sure a few people smile at that. Unless they just read Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn,” then maybe not.
We’re used to seeing “Caution” or “Slow: Children Playing,” “Watch for Children” or even just the sign with the image of children playing. Maybe whoever put the sign up just had a sense of humour or was just trying to be different and meant the same thing. But I was thinking that they wanted more from drivers. I thought they must have wanted drivers to be aware.
So I looked up the definition of “beware” in a few different dictionaries and I have to say I’m disappointed. All of them indicated that it comes from the contraction of “be” and “ware” and means to be cautious, alert or on guard (I’m mostly okay with that) because of impending danger, trouble or risk (not fine with that at all).
I so wanted it to be a contraction of “be aware.”
I know it might seem that I’m being fussy, but I think there’s a huge difference in our world between “be aware” and “be wary.” That huge difference is fear.
Take that signage, for example. Would you understand it to mean be on guard because of the impending danger of children? Or be aware that there are children around here and act accordingly.
Well, it means the second one, of course (for most of us, anyway). But that’s probably because, like me, you read it as “be aware of children.”
Just like the dictionaries, when we say beware we’ve already presumed danger, we’ve already assumed there’s something to fear for which we should be on guard and ready to defend, ready to protect ourselves and our stuff. And we can find lots to fear. Look around you, read the news. We could probably live our entire lives on the defensive.
Or we could be aware.
Look at Jesus for a minute. “Don’t be afraid” is his favourite thing to say. I don’t think Jesus ever meant that in a dismissive way, as if our fear wasn’t real or reasonable. Nor do I think Jesus ever meant to say it as a command, as if it were simply a question of obeying his word. Whether it’s “don’t be afraid,” “fear not,” “do not let your heart be troubled” or any of the many ways Jesus addressed our fear, Jesus never left it there. “Don’t be afraid” was always followed by “be aware.”
Sure, be aware that your fear may very well be real. But that doesn’t mean it controls you. You choose how to respond to it and how to use it. Perhaps it is time to beware - to be prepared for danger or risk - but the important part of that isn’t the danger and risk, it’s the be prepared.
It may also be that what we fear is simply the unknown, a lack of understanding or experience. And to that I think Jesus would tell us to be aware and engage the world. Find out more, wonder more, experience more, understand more. Don’t be afraid, be prepared and go experience life. You’ll be okay.
You’ll be okay because God is with you. “I know, I know,” Jesus might say, “you think that all sounds good, but what does it really mean. Well, let me show you.” Jesus’ life teaches us how to be aware, not afraid. Jesus teaches us to engage the world with love and grace and build relationships that reach out, not walls to hide behind. Jesus brings us closer to God and shows us how to live with God in our lives.
Don’t be afraid. Be aware. Be like Jesus.