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September 13, 2009–Facing Our Fear

We explore the ways in which fear, conscious and unconscious, affects our lives, with Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris and worship associate Sonja Christopher.  This is part of an occasional service on spiritual traps that Leslie will be offering this church year.

Facing Fear

Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris

September 13, 2009



Spirit of life and love, we come together seeking comfort in a world that can seem harsh and uncaring.

We come together seeking a time of peace in a world that seems full of strife.

We come together seeking connection at times when the spaces between us and others can seem unbridgable.

We come with fears that we cannot shake and full of witnessing the fears of others.

We come to find a place where we can bring our highest aspirations—for ourselves, for our human communities, for the natural world which supports all life.

We come bringing our highest aspirations, those which we sometimes shield from the judgment of others.

Let us take a moment of shared silence together to be present to our hopes, those which we often keep hidden from the harsh realities of the world.

Let us be willing to be present.  Let us be willing to bring hope.  Let us hold our aspirations in the heart of this loving community.  So may it be.

Sermon:   “Fear, not hate, is the opposite of love,” writes Forrest Church, minister of public theology at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City.  He wrote it after watching his city grapple with the aftershocks of the attacks on September 11, 2001 and yet, what a timely statement it remains for us all today. Fear, as we have been reminded in the last couple weeks, touches our lives in many ways.  As a parent, hearing the unimaginable details in the 18-year struggle of an abducted child held captive in our county.  As a believer in democracy watching the most somber occasions of state debased by heckling.  As an uninsured or marginally insured person or an immigrant listening to the national debate around health care.   In the face of so much fear, we become afraid—afraid to hope, afraid to trust, afraid that the future we thought was coming may never come, afraid to look at our fears.

Fear is always part of the fabric of our lives—yet recently its particular pattern is more obvious. Listening to the news one morning last week, I was driving behind a car with a “Got Hope?” bumpersticker and found myself musing that if we had a little more self-awareness in this nation, someone could make a lot of money off of a more accurate bumpersticker, reading “Got Fear?”

I’m talking this morning about fear as part of an occasional series of sermons this year on what I am calling “spiritual traps.”   And again, if the word spiritual is its own trap for you, remember etymologically, it means “breath” so I’m just talking about those things that take your breath away.  Fear does that.  And in case you are wondering how anyone can catch their breath with all the yelling at the town hall meetings and on so-called news shows: our culture teaches us that it is better to be angry than fearful so many of us find it much easier to transform our anger into fear.

For the last eight years—a mostly breathless time—we have been living in a culture of fear and the societal fear touches the fear we carry in our own hearts.  We are afraid that we are not as good as we wish to be.  We are afraid that what we want and need will slip through our fingers.  We are afraid that those we love will be hurt, that we will be hurt.  We are afraid to let go of our certain truths, of things that served us once and which may trap us into a corner of our range of thinking now.  We are afraid of speaking directly.  We are afraid of remaining silent. In his book, Freedom from Fear: Finding the Courage to Act, Love and Be, Forrest Church talks about five kinds of fear:  fright (which he describes as fear centered in the body); worry (fear centered in the intellect); guilt (fear centered in the conscience); insecurity (fear based in the emotions); and dread (fear centered in the soul.). Fear is hard-wired into us, part of our deepest protective animal nature.

In fact, Church’s first kind of fear, fright, is a physical reaction and one I had last week while actually working on this sermon.  Sitting outside by the Pleasant Hill Park Pool,  I realized I was being watched.  A thirsty squirrel had climbed down beside me and was staring hard at me, whipping his long sleek tail to let me not to mess with him.  And then his eyes met mine and we both froze—he aware of my threatening existence and me of his. I felt that physical wave of fear that is fright.

The practical nature of fright as a survival mechanism is clear and also, to some extent, we can see the need for worry, the second kind of fear.  As a parent, I use this with embarrassing regularity.  This is the dubious ability to use one’s mental capacity to project forward—sometimes to head off real problems and sometimes anticipating catastrophes that do not come.   Because our society encourages us, as I mentioned before, to mask fear as anger, my children often see it as irritation, as nagging, as a full smorgasbord of controlling behaviors.   In the current health care debate, this same sort of conjecture forward—that we are abandoning capitalism, that we are giving the country over to outsiders, that we are going to create a federal bureau of death—that has made it feel as if we had been hit by an intellectual Katrina, for when fear centered in the intellect paralyzes that intellect.

Guilt is the third forms of fear and insecurity is the fourth kind.  In the winter of 2001 I flew quite a bit, going back and forth to seminary and on consulting work.  This was unfortunate because I was on the mandatory search list that the fledgling Homeland Security teams had assembled, perhaps because of some petition I had signed at one point, more likely, as we all heard later, because my name had more than the acceptable number of vowels.  In those anxiety-ridden times, the search was done at the gate with a weapon-toting soldier attending.  The other dozen or so passengers in Charlottesville’s tiny airport would file pass, staring at me or trying to see through me.  When I got on the plane, quite a few minutes later than they, most would not meet my eyes for the remainder of the trip and I found myself full of fear and guilt, even though my conscience was, of course, clear.

That same year I flew with two-year-old Liam who became scared by the whole procedure and asked me to pick him up.  When I was not allowed to do so, the nature of his crying, not angry—the deep fear of insecurity—was heart-breaking.  My Arab-American friends have much harsher stories to tell—and we seem to have instilled a semi-permanent national insecurity which is vented by attacking immigrants.

The last fear, dread, is known to all of us who have walked to the cusp of death with a loved one, who have been confronted with news we never wanted to hear, who have seen things we did not want to see. A flavor of this is in the conversation about health care, perhaps because these are, quite literally, matters of life and death.

Whether you find Church’s taxonomy helpful, perhaps you will agree that whatever its type, fear is pervasive and is, by its very nature, hard to defeat.  Fear has its roots in absolutes—good and bad, right and wrong.  It is polarizing and it is viral.  Perhaps the greatest power that fear has is its spread.  The fears that opponents of health care reform express as anger and condemnation threaten to leave those of us who support reforms paralyzed by fear.  Fear is an epidemic—a pandemic—far worse that those against which we all are now taking precautions. And fear breeds fear.  Indira Gandi said “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.” Fear is a closed fist.  It cannot reach beyond itself.

So what do we do in the face of pervasive fear? How do we counter them, in others or in ourselves?  Every religious tradition has suggestions about how to deal with fear which have embedded in them a note of caution.  Perfect love casts out fear, the Christian tradition says.   Buddhist teacher  Pema Chodron in one of her many talks on fear, notes that the fully enlightened person is the one who knows no fear.  I’m kind of an agnostic when it comes to the idea of full enlightenment:  I KNOW I will never achieve it—however, I’m keeping open an option for some of you!  Chodron talks about this connection between no fear and perfect enlightenment to illustrate that, since most people are like me, far from fully enlightened, they are unlikely to be able to live a life without fear and so must learn to approach it with intention.

Chodron suggests that the first step is to acknowledge fear, in ourselves and in others, to accept that it is a part of our natural life and our collective life, for family relations with fear go very deep.  One does not have to be a very astute student of history to understand that we have never faced a time when people were not willing to use fear as a tactic.  In 1915, efforts at national health care reform were labeled as part of a German plot and defeated.  In the 1920s, another set of proposed reforms were called “socialized medicine” by their opponents.  Sound familiar? Got fear?   How different might those discussions then or now be different if they had been framed with honest fears instead of angry paranoia?  Only if we acknowledge fear can we begin to grapple with it.

If fear is inevitable, then we must be willing to remain present in the face of it. Not to withdraw from debate, not to abscond, not to walk away in disgust.  To stay.  Forrest Church calls this the “courage to be.”  In the Buddhist tradition practiced by Pema Chodron, this is the courage of presence.

We must not allow ourselves to be rendered powerless by fear.  Irrationality, by the way, is the kryptonite of those of us who value the intellect.  Remember Superman who could only be done by one substance, kryptonite?  When we encounter the irrationality of fear in people who are afraid of change, whose natural fears are whipped to a frenzy by a sensationalizing and manipulating media, our response can be to lose all hope.  How can we ever overcome that, we despair.  We throw up our hands and we leave the debate to its least common denominator.

We become like my son, who a few years into our Code-Orange, post-911 world, was completely undone when, in another airport line, the spreadable cheese we had bought to have for lunch was confiscated at security as being a “gel.”  “Mommy,” he asked.  “Why are they taking our cheese.  Cheese is NOT DANGEROUS!”

Cheese is not dangerous.  Fear is.  And after years of being fed it as a steady diet, we as a nation will not turn easily towards healthier fare.  Fear always an innate human quality, has always had the ability to be magnified through the lens of those who are willing to use its power.  Yet the debates that are going on now—especially those centered around the health care and immigration shouting matches—are about something even larger than the vital issues they address.  They are about retaining a moral and ethical base to how we are together as a society, they are about whether we will breathe life into the last embers of the dying fire of our public life together.

Courage, Forrest Church points out, has many forms and one is action.  Fear can be countered by action and many avenue exist for us as individuals and as a congregation to take action.  The Unitarian Universalist Legislative ministry here in California has plenty of suggestions about what we need to be doing on health care and you can learn about them after the service.  And our Association of Congregations has launched a Standing on the Side of Love campaign to counter the fear-baiting tactics against the bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender community, against immigrants and against other marginalized groups.

We are the people who affirm our right to seek the truth.  We cannot allow our lives to be choked by the creeping tendrils of fear.  We cannot allow our communities to become safety and unsafety zones instead of living places. We cannot relinquish our nation to those who would rule it by demonizing which is, after all, its own form of terror-ism.

We need to be willing to stand for what we believe.  We need to go out and take our chances.  We need to stand in the face of our fears that someone who is fearful and angry will shout at us, that they will claim our cheese is dangerous and that who we are is bad.  Those of us who believe in the worth and dignity of all need to stand up for those who are being used as pawns in a fear-oriented chess game.  We who believe that government has a role in ensuring that all have access to health care need to continue to stay engaged in the fight and be sure, in every opportunity we have that our voices for hope are heard as loud and clear as the voices of fear.  Those of us who believe our public square is as or more important than our private concerns need to be willing to stand strong in its defense.

If fear is the opposite of love, love is the anecdote.  Love and courage, presence and action.  Let us find the courage to stand in love, the courage to name our own truths, the courage to hold onto our hopes and dreams—as individuals, as parents, as citizens of communities, as co-creators of a nation that is no less ours than anyone else’s and keepers of the natural world that sustains us all.

May we be the ones to make it so.


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