(subject: personal growth) UU Congregation at Montclair
Montclair, New Jersey
23 October 2016
Ancient Reading: The Second Letter of Paul to Timothy, Chapter 1, Verse 7
Paul wrote to Timothy, “. . . God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and love and self-control.”
Modern Reading: “Touched by An Angel,” Maya Angelou
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
Sermon: Face Your Fears
Many of you know that I am an avid SCUBA diver. It’s more than just my favorite recreational pastime; it informs my spirituality and restores my soul. Within my religious framework, the unfolding of creation included all life on this planet emerging from its oceans more than a billion years ago. As humans, we are far removed from our oceanic origins, but 60% of our adult bodies are saltwater. We sweat saltwater; we weep saltwater. In a medical emergency you can substitute saltwater for our blood and it will save our lives.
For me, being 60 feet below the ocean’s surface with a tank of compressed air on my back and a tube in my mouth is a sort of homecoming. All my worries in life get left on the surface when I dive and I am fully present in the moment. Which is really what all religion is trying to teach us: be present to your own life now, practice mindful breathing, stop worrying, act thoughtfully, move placidly, and feel your deep connection with this world, of which you are a part. I do all these things when I dive. Underwater, I feel held by the Holy and closer to the God of my own understanding.
It may surprise you to learn that I am not a very good swimmer. My father loved to swim. He was a tremendous swimmer; graceful, comfortable, and confident in the water. Taught to swim as a boy by an Iroquois chief named Logan, my father, in turn, tried to teach his sons. But we had another teacher: our mother . . . who was, for reasons still unknown, deathly afraid of the water.
My father took my brothers and me to the pool to teach us how to swim, accompanied by our mother who – a safe distance from the water – anxiously watched on. So on one hand I felt the “spirit of power and love and self-control,” to quote Paul’s letter to Timothy, and on the other hand the “spirit of fear.” As a boy, fear won. SCUBA diving has taught me a lot about life and one of the most important things that it has taught me is to face my fears.
Looking back on my childhood, I see clearly that fear is communicable, consciously or unconsciously. Children learn to be fearful, and what to fear, from their parents and community. Sometimes this is a good thing. We are the genetic inheritors of people who learned to fear lions and crocodiles and poisonous snakes. The bloodlines of people who did not learn these lessons from their parents died out back in Africa somewhere tens of thousands of years ago. So, the intergenerational communication of fear can have some value. It can also lead to homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism. We can learn to fear anything; the water, the dark, dark people, gay people, foreigners. Our capacity for fear is endless. The seeds of fear can be planted in us by others or we can cultivate them all by ourselves.
I was 14 when I read the novel Jaws, but it was the movie that instilled in me a fear of sharks. Diving has helped me confront that fear too. The first shark I ever encountered was a harmless little carpet shark – or Wobbegong, as they are called in Australia – and that peaceful little creature almost gave me a heart attack when I happened upon it in the murky water of Sydney Harbor. I was conditioned to fear sharks and I saw danger where none existed. Unfortunately, that’s common.
One sad truth that permeates our society, with devastating consequences, is that white Americans have an irrational fear of black men and boys. Nobody consciously teaches a course on “fearing black men” in elementary school, but it is clear that the message is getting through somehow. This is why the mortality rate of black people at the hands of police officers is so high in this country and why there is not a louder outcry against it in white, suburban communities and urban neighborhoods. White people are afraid . . . and when fear informs our actions, we usually make bad decisions.
You’ve probably heard F-E-A-R used as an acronym with different meanings. When it dominates your reactions, F-E-A-R means, “Forget everything and run.” That’s what saved our ancestors from lions and crocodiles. You don’t need to outrun the lion, you just need to outrun the guy behind you. Fear . . . it’s powerful. F-E-A-R can also be an acronym for “False evidence appearing real.”
So how do we know which fears are appropriate (lions) and which fears are not (racism)? We have to face them and confront the object of our fear. Just as I told the kids in our Story for All Ages this morning, we need to examine what is underlying our fear. The great French author and Nobel Prize winner André Gide wrote, “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”
It is important to distinguish between fear and anxiety. The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage To Be, made this point clearly: “Anxiety and fear,” he wrote, “. . . are not the same. Fear . . . has a definite object . . . , which can be faced, analyzed, attacked, endured. Courage [and love] can conquer fear. But this is not so with anxiety,” Tillich continued, “because anxiety has no object . . . Therefore participation, struggle, and love with respect to it are impossible. [A person] who is in anxiety is, insofar as it is mere anxiety, delivered to it without help.”
We live in the New Age of American Anxiety. People are anxious about job security, their health, retirement, aging parents, children’s education, political gridlock, terrorism, global warming, and the future of organized religion or labor or our democracy or whatever else seems disorganized or dysfunctional in our world. People are anxious today in a way that they were not 20 years ago.
When I talk with anxious people, I ask, “What are you afraid of?” Turning general anxiety into specific fears allows us to confront our fears rationally, realistically, and courageously, if need be. That’s why our Ministerial Transition Team asked people during its Quantuum Leap program last month: “What are you afraid of losing, if this congregation were to grow?” The answers reveal what people value most about this community. “Change” makes us feel generally anxious; fear of losing something specific allows us to focus on how best to preserve it.
Two key sources of fear in our lives are feelings of vulnerability and being out of control. Fear breeds freely when we feel personally, professionally, and politically powerless. Some people try to capitalize on these feelings and play on our fears out of selfish interest. A healthier response is to examine the cause of our fear, and claim the power we do have to either overcome our fear or protect ourselves from real threats.
Of course, the greatest unknown that we fear is death. Every human culture since time immemorial has tried to address this fear. Today some people’s solution is to upload our consciousness – our soul, some say – into a computer and maybe reload it into a new body. Death has the ultimate power to evoke our feeling of vulnerability.
American author of horror fiction H.P. Lovecraft observed that, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” When we cultivate real relationships with people of other races, religions, and sexual or political orientation or fears naturally diminish. If I have an irrational fear of black men, of which my new friend “Joe” is one, and Joe isn’t scary, then maybe my fears are unfounded. Knowledge is the first step toward freedom from fear; relationship is the basis of love and the source of courage. In the video I showed the children during our story this morning, Daniel Tiger and his friend, Prince Wednesday, are EN-couraged to face their fears by the presence of the Prince’s mother. We are stronger, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, than we imagine we are, but we need help sometimes.
Patron saint of Unitarian Universalists Ralph Waldo Emerson advised, “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Keep in mind that this was the man who visited the tomb of his beautiful, beloved 20 year old wife and removed the lid from her coffin 14 months after she died, because he was struggling to reconcile himself to the reality of her death. Talk about facing your fears.
Sometimes our fears are not objects outside ourselves that can be confronted, but rather obstacles inside ourselves that must be confronted and overcome. Sometimes we are afraid of our own fallibility; paralyzed into inaction by a misguided desire for perfection. We are so afraid to be wrong – to say or do the wrong thing – that we do nothing and life, or that person or that opportunity, just passes us by.
Some times our fear of failure is exceeded only by our fear of success. We fear losing an old, familiar identity, even though it isn’t healthy and won’t serve us in the future. We become stuck in old patterns of thinking about ourselves. Our fear of personal growth and change – to say nothing of transformation – leads us to live according to the Old English proverb, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”
Sometimes our fear is that deep down we are really unworthy, unlovable, and/or unforgivable. These can be the hardest, most powerful fears to confront. They are so potent that it can be hard to admit them to another person, but these fear can never be overcome without the support and encouragement of people beside us who tell us again and again that we are worthy, we are lovable, we are forgivable . . . in fact we ARE loved and are already forgiven.
Maya Angelou wrote,
“. . . if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light . . .
. . . it is only love
which sets us free.”
Sometimes our fears are justified and sometimes they come to pass. But sometimes they are monster made by our imagination, nurtured by voices – our own and others – which we should not heed. We need to turn our general anxiety into specific fears, which we can face. Then, we need to look at them, determine whether they are appropriate, and – if they are – confront them with love and courage. I try to use a mental flow chart when examining my fears; I ask the following questions:
Is it a reasonable fear? Yes or no. If “no,” then forget it. If “yes” . . .
Is what I fear likely to happen? Yes or no. If “no,” then don’t worry. If “yes” . . .
Can I prevent it? Yes or no. If “yes,” then take action. If “no” . . .
Can I withstand it?
At this point, I remind myself that we are all stronger, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, than we imagine ourselves to be. But, ultimately, we must accept our powerlessness. The truth of our human existence is that we are vulnerable and most of life is out of our control. The only thing that is really within my control is the space between my two ears, and controlling that limited space is a challenge that occupies a lot of my time. There are still things that I fear, but I try to practice what I preach. I can change my thinking and behavior with the support and encouragement of people who love me and believe in our human potential for transformation. Some of my old fears I can confront and overcome on my own.
This coming Wednesday, I’m flying down to Mexico to go SCUBA diving with friends. If I’m lucky, and I hope to be, then I will encounter the most dangerous species of shark on the planet. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not the Great White shark of Jaws fame, but rather the Bull shark. What I’ve learned over the years is that the overwhelming majority of shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity; sharks bite people, because they mistake us for fish or seals. But Bull sharks are the most unpredictable species of shark, which makes them scary to me. I want to face this fear of mine. So, I am going looking for sharks. I will be guided by divers experienced with this species of shark, our group will have an underwater safety plan, I’ll have crucial emergency first aid equipment with me, and a medical evacuation plan if things go desperately wrong . . . which they are very unlikely to do. If all goes according to plan, I’ll post a photo of a Bull shark on my Facebook page.
As Paul told Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and love and self-control.” Most of life is out of our control, which can leave us feeling anxious, vulnerable, and frightened. When we allow that spirit to dominate our lives, we fail to really live fully the life that we have been given. “. . . if we are bold,” Maya Angelou wrote, “love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls . . . it is only love which sets us free.”
Go forth today and be brave, be bold, face your fears – whatever they may be – and live fully and joy-fully this precious life we have been given.