Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 15, 2013
“And a light shines out in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.” (John 1:5) No amount of darkness have ever yet extinguished a single light (a paraphrase of St. Francis of Assisi.) Every year on Christmas Eve I read the passage from the gospel of Luke that describes the birth of Jesus with the angels and the shepherds and song of peace on earth, good will to all. My favorite line, a line that always stands out in my mind causing me to reflect, is when the angels tell the shepherds to not be afraid.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.” -Luke 2:8-10 (NRSV)
In the King James Version the angel says “Fear Not!” So blunt, so succinct. Fear Not! Fear is one of those strong basic emotions we all feel, it catches us at times and throws us off center. I am not at my best when I am caught up by fear. It is almost a meditative balm to hear those words each winter: Fear not! At this cold and dark time of the year when the world and my spirit turn introspective, the worm of fear is more present – at least it is for me. What are you afraid of?
I remember a ‘getting to know you exercise around this point from years back. It was my first September in this congregation, back in 2003. The Board of Trustees held a retreat, a ‘deep chair meeting’ it was called. As the opening activity we broke into triads to talk together about the question: “Do you live your life based more out of faith or out of fear?” It is possible I am misremembering the question because it seems like an obviously loaded question with only one correct answer: faith, not fear, is how I live.
But notice the irony of my situation. I was new to the community and here I was meeting with the leaders of the congregation for the first time as the minister. What fears might have an effect on my life? How about: the fear of the Board leadership seeing me as fearful. I don’t remember what I said during that exercise over ten years ago. I suspect I claimed faith over fear. But I also suspect I took the risk to wade into an exploration of where fear lived in me as well. What are you afraid of?
In that nativity scene, the fearful response of the shepherds is understandable and reasonable. The story says angels appeared suddenly, God’s full glory was shining all around. The shepherds were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? Fear and being afraid comes up often enough in the Bible, it is not just this regular nativity passage. Much of the time the Bible refers to fear as one of our strong emotions as human beings along with love or jealousy, grief or anger. Sometimes people are afraid.
Another major use of the word in scripture is linked to the fear of God, an odd use in my experience of life and faith. But it is there, many times! The faithful are exhorted to fear God. The more complex interpretations of those passages talk about the fear as being linked to awe. And this is a fascinating experience to explore but I’ll save it for another day.
More often, in scripture, the word fear comes up in a third way, not as the simple observation fear as part of the normal range of human emotion, and not as a complex response to the raw experience of God. The passages most people focus on are this third type of scripture passages that say ‘do not be afraid, God is with you.’ “Fear not” is considered by some to be the number one command spoken in the Bible in part because it comes up so often.
In Genesis God says to Abraham, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield.” (Gen 15:1) To Isaac he says “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you.” (Gen 26:24) And he says much the same to Jacob a few chapters later (Gen 28:15), and again to Moses (Ex 33:14). All the major prophets hear this exhortation in one form or another (Isaiah 41:14, Jeremiah 1:8, and for Elijah in 2 Kings 1:15.) And many of us are familiar with David’s statement along these lines in the 23rd Psalm, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” And there is the iconic Christian image of Jesus calming the storm. (Mat 8:26) Jesus is asleep in the boat with the disciples when a storm rises; the disciples wake him and he says, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”
That last one is a bit of a spin on the usual formula. “Fear not, I am with you,” turns into “Fear not, have faith.” Fear is often contrasted with faith. People say the opposite of faith is not disbelief but fear. Do not be afraid, only have faith. The piece in all this scripture that leaves me unsettled is the way fear can be seen exclusively as a religious response to life, or more pointedly – as an unreligious response.
Yet fear is a natural and common experience in our lives. Anyone with a basic range of emotions will experience fear. The concept found in these various scripture passages that fear is something that can be faced with the strength and aid of God is a great concept. The layer of interpretation implying that fear is a faithless response, that fear is proof of a lack of faith, that if only you had more faith you would not be afraid – that is going too far and does not fit my experience of life.
We all experience fear. What are you afraid of? My critique of the dominant scriptural perspective is that is seems to say ‘don’t have fear.’ To exhort: “Fear not!” is to say, ‘get rid of that fear, have none of it.’ My experience is that we all have fear and the better message would be ‘overcome fear.’
One of these most well known quotes on the topic of fear is from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” And many remember and take strength in the equally famous quote from his spouse Eleanor Roosevelt. It is less pithy but more helpful:
You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson has written something similar: “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.”
In the epic fantasy saga, “Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin, the one that has been turned into the TV show “Game of Thrones,” there is a character named Arya Stark who learns the mantra “Fear cuts deeper than swords” from her ‘dance’ instructor.
In the epic science fiction saga Dune by Frank Herbert, the Bene Gesserit use the Litany Against Fear. There is a prominent scene early in the first book when Paul Atreides uses the litany.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
All of these examples from contemporary literature say that fear is a reality we all face. These perspectives help deepen what scripture offers about fear. The true goal is not to achieve a state of fearlessness, to have no fear. The goal is to overcome the fear, to be in control of the fear rather than allow the fear to be in control of you.
Being afraid is not a choice, what we do with it is. There is a biochemical experience that our bodies have for fear. The main component in this is the amygdale, a highly connected neuron bundle in our brains.
The amygdale also connects to parts of the brain responsible for physical activity (the autonomic system). Thus when we experience what we think is a threat, several things occur. The first thing that happens is our attention is drawn to the object; we become hyper-focused on what we believe to be a threat. In tat moment of focusing, we briefly freeze as our blood flow increases, our heart pounds, and our body tenses. We become pale as a ghost in these moments as the blood drains from our faces and into our muscles, readying them for a defensive movement.
We might feel our mouths turn dry as our digestive system shuts down to conserve energy. Furthermore, a rush of hormones enters our bloodstream, heightening our sensitivity to the world around us. All of this happens in milliseconds as the brain searches our memories in order to recognize the object or experience before us. (Redeeming Fear by Jason Whitehead, p46)
But while there are automatic reactions that happen, we can still choose to respond differently. For example, I am afraid of bugs. I do not like them but have developed a measured response over the years. I can walk around outside just fine with all manner of bugs around me. The second I sense one on me I sort of freak out. I can see a bug crawling around uninvited in my house and most of the time I do not immediately squash them. I am training myself to help them out of the house. I have grown quite deft at the cup-and-paper-scoop.
There was one morning maybe two or three years back, I came downstairs to see a huge spider near the front door. We occasionally have wolf spiders in the basement that can be quite large. This one was about 3 or 4 inches across. This spider lived through those next few moments mostly because I had not yet had any coffee. I can attest to the hyper-focus amygdale response. I stared at that huge spider as I inched past it, never letting it out of my sight.
I know spiders are technically not bugs, they eat bugs. I am grateful for spiders, I really am. But that thing was big. I did not kill it. But neither did I have the wherewithal to get close enough to help it back outside. So I called my son Keenan to take care of it. He’s a good boy.
What are you afraid of? Public speaking, car accidents, enclosed spaces, dogs? Fear is natural and common. The iconic adventure movie from the 80’s Indiana Jones was made that much better when we knew the title character was afraid of snakes. It made the character more human.
But it seems to me there must be another level of fear in this conversation. The bible passages that speak of knowing God is our strength and aid are surely referring to something deeper than a fear of snakes. The immediate, emotional reaction to circumstances is one form of fear. But when we are asked “Do you live your life based more out of faith or out of fear?” we are not considering my reaction to bugs. There is a big-picture, long-term attitude of fear we are capable of as well.
Wendell Berry says,
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
Do you do that? Do you wake at night worrying, fearful of the trouble in the world? I do. I wake at night concerned for ‘what my life and my children’s lives may be.’ I worry some nights about the world my children are growing up in. It is not exactly a fear for my children’s safety or personal welfare. It is more a fear about the world and what’s gone wrong. Dealing with greed and injustice, heartbreak and cruelty is hard enough for me personally. Helping my children learn to deal with it too is that much harder.
And as an outgrowth of that, my concern grows beyond myself and my children to include all people around me that I care about. I want to make the world a better place for everyone I care about, and I also want to strengthen everyone I care about to be better able to get through the hard times.
What am I afraid of? Yes I’m afraid of bugs, but that’s not something that rules my life or constricts my capacity to live freely and fully. I’ll tell you the fear that occasionally creeps into my heart. I am afraid that all my efforts to preach inspiring sermons and create helpful programs and foster a warm and healing community of faith will be irrelevant and meaninglessness in the face of ongoing environmental degradation, societal bigotry, global terrorism, and just the basic apathy of our times. In naming this fear I see its companion of faith that what we are doing does make a difference. These fears live in me but they do not control me. I have a counter-faith that holds these fears.
What are you afraid of? And does it drive your life? Or can you face it and overcome it? Can you see the companion of faith that resides alongside it? Naming your fears and owning them is a big piece of overcoming them. How can you face it if you can’t name it? Then as Eleanor Roosevelt suggest, “Stop and look fear in the face.” As the Bene Gesserit litany offers: you can permit it to pass over you and through you but not hold you. In other words, simply facing it is most of the work of overcoming it. The rest is done by faith. Trust that you can get through it, that the fear will not determine your living.
And perhaps most helpful of all, at least what has proven most helpful for me, is to recognize fear as natural and normal and in its own way even helpful. Like the ebb and flow Meg Barnhouse wrote about in the reading we used this morning (A Time for Darkness.) “Maybe the ebb and flow of Spirit is a rhythm that is good to feel. Maybe in our growing into wholeness there is a time to feel dusty and dry, “Hard as iron” like the winter ground, and stony as winter water.”
Maybe fear is one part of the ebb and flow of life, and part of faith is trusting that the fear is not the whole picture. As poet Sarah Williams says in the last lines of her poem “The Old Astronomer,”
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light.
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
If you have been in the darkness so long – acknowledge your fears, shine your light upon them, don’t let them linger unnamed and free. Face them and let them pass through you. They won’t disappear or vanish, but they will fade and they will lose their power. Even the fear can be transformed into a messenger in the service of hope and Spirit, in the ebb and flow of life. And a light shines out in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. No amount of darkness has ever yet extinguished a single light.
In a world without end
May it be so.