Be Not Afraid

SERMON      Be Not Afraid

Would you like to hear and believe the voice that declares “you do not have to be good” – to believe that

… the world offers itself to our imagination,
calls to us like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing our place
in the family of things.                       (Mary Oliver, from “Wild Geese”)

Whoever you are, the world offers itself to your imagination.  And perhaps, in newness of the calendar year, it offers an invitation to take wing, to use that imagination to re-invent or write a new chapter of your story.

Being good was a cardinal value in the family I grew up in.  No one would have said, “you do not have to be good” or have suggested anything so wild and far-reaching as one’s own “place in a family of things.”   Especially not to a little girl.  That might be a part of my own story that has needed re-inventing.  Maybe something like that is part of your story too.

We started our service with a re-invention of a nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Dan Santat wrote After the Fall, a children’s book that is as much for adults as children, in which he turned that nursery rhyme into a parable about overcoming fear.  A story about someone who discovers his true place in the family of things, who finds his wings and flies.   Santat isn’t the first person to have reinvented the character of Humpty for his own purposes.  

I’m fond of the Lewis Carroll version, in Alice in Wonderland.  Humpty and Alice have a bit of a philosophical discussion about language:

I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
“But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
“When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
“The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
“The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."[i]

The same could be said of fear, of whatever it is that holds us back.  Which (or who) is to be master?

Perhaps, in the new year, the world offers itself to our imaginations to re-invent our own stories, mastering, or at least confronting, some of our fears. 

“The moment comes,” writes the Reverend Sandra Fees, a UU minister and poet

“when a choice arises.

Do I remain as I am
or do I risk inching, leaping,
flowing in another direction?

Do I risk what I think
I already know and already am?

Can I let go of anger,
Can I forgive a friend,
forgive myself,
refuse what thwarts my spirit,
 or limits my mind

Can I let go of all that restrains me
so that I might pursue the impossible
and surmount the insurmountable.”

Marianne Williamson tells us, “the opportunities for infinite possibility exist no matter what age we are.”  That quote is out on our Wayside Pulpit this month. “The opportunities for infinite possibility exist no matter what age we are.” Do you believe her?

I don’t know if I believe her.  But I do believe that at every age and every stage there is something new to learn, some new boundary to cross.  New roles, new experiences, new relationships, old relationships to redefine.

My son Dan was here with his family for the Christmas week.  He has been in the army for ten years; married for eight.  In November the adoption paperwork was finalized for his wife’s two daughters, 13 and 10 – so they are now legally his as well.  Their son is 3. 

My son Daniel is a partner in raising three children and is supporting a family of five.  He has been in war zones in Afghanistan and Syria, and experienced first hand things that most of us have only seen in edited snippets, on a screen.  He has been a supervisor and trainer and project manager.  I’m telling you this to rehearse it for myself.  My son is a 30 year old adult with lots of life experience, most of it very different from my own.

The day after Christmas we drove over an hour and a half to let the kids jump up and down for an hour with their cousins at a trampoline park.  Most of the family was asleep in the back on the way home.  Dan was next to me the passenger seat.  Some things have not changed since he was small.  The best place to have a conversation with him is still in a moving car.  But this one was different:  He was the one asking questions. 

“Are you thinking about retirement, Mom?”  “Is Dad?”  “I work with a lot of people now who are older than you are, and they’re still working.” 

I was surprised at the question.  My first response was to redirect it back to him.  “Are those people contractors - are they people who work for themselves?” 

“Yes, sure.  A lot of them are still working because they have to.  But what about you.  It seems like you enjoy what you do – do you?”

This time I responded to what he was asking.  I do enjoy it.  I’m going to a seminar for UU ministers who are planning to retire within the next five years or less.  I hope I’ll learn something about how to do it well, and how some of my colleagues are thinking about it. 

We went on to talk about his work – beginning with how the army deals with mental illness.  He reflected on how he has processed some of what he has seen. 

We were on new ground.

Our conversation might not seem like a leap in another direction – maybe it was more of a gentle flow.  But something was different.  For him, starting a conversation showing interest in me as someone who was not just his mother.  For me, consciousness of a shift, a new way of communicating, an invitation, maybe, to interact in a new way.  Something that could have been stopped before or soon after it started by an old pattern, or even an old fear – on either side.

That’s just a tiny example – a step suggesting that maybe Marianne Williamson is on to something when she ways that opportunities for infinite possibility exist no matter what age we are.

Williamson is a spiritual teacher, lecturer, author and activist who is apparently acting on her convictions.  In November she announced that she is forming a committee to explore running for President in 2020.  In 2014 she ran for a seat in California’s 33rd congressional district, and came in fourth, with 13% of the votes.  

She is also the person who wrote the lines Nelson Mandela famously quoted (I’m abbreviating them slightly):

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small
Does not serve the world.

We are all meant to shine,
As children do.

And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

Do you believe that you are afraid of your own power?

Whatever your fears may be, have they held you back? 

Held you back from letting your light shine?  From hearing the call like the call of wild geese?  From knowing this rose will open?  From taking an unfamiliar step in an old relationship?  Do they hold you back still?

Fears come in many forms.  They appear in childhood, some hardwired, like the fear of sudden, loud noises, or looming objects.  Others appear at various developmental stages, latent in our genes, perhaps, but learned in specific form:  fear of ghosts or witches or monsters, fear of creepy crawly things, fear of the dark.[ii] 

The fears I want to understand better are the fears that keep us from letting our light shine.  From hearing and answering the call like the call of the wild geese.  The fears that keep us stuck in patterns that don’t serve.

Someone who has experienced trauma, or a major loss, or has in childhood or later been consistently discouraged or devalued or disappointed, may keep their light hidden in self-protection.  Their fear is the fear of being hurt again.  Their fear may also be a fear of having their light permanently extinguished, if they let it be seen.  Or they may believe that their light has already gone out, or never existed from the outset.

The fears that keeps us from letting our light shine are not easily shaken by poetry or affirmation. 

They can find validation in what Howard Thurman calls our disquiet – the yearning for peace of mind and spirit – that he points to when he speaks of “a natural longing deep within us for a life that is free from the cares that worry and distress us.”[iii]

And those fears are certainly not fully addressed by psychology.  Buddhism, and other world religions, have something to say about fear.  From a Buddhist perspective, all ages are ones in which there are cares that worry and distress us, all ages are ones of violence, and suffering.  We grapple with the reality and fear of death.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a revered Zen Master, spiritual leader, and peace activist.  He doesn’t necessarily see fear of death as the parent of all fears.  He does agree it has great power.  

Buddhism teaches us that, through mindfulness, we can see and accept what is and be liberated from the grip of our fears.  Through mindfulness we can learn to live contentedly in the present moment, to let our lights shine.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a practice called “The Five Remembrances.”  Each remembrance names a basic fear.  By stating it aloud and meditating on it, he says we can engage the fear, acknowledge it in ourselves, and thereby begin to release ourselves from its power.

  • We remember that we are of the nature to grow old. We cannot escape growing old.
  • We remember that we are of the nature to become ill or infirm; we cannot escape infirmity or ill health.
  • We remember that we are of the nature to die. We cannot escape death.
  • We remember that everything we cherish, and everyone we love, is of the nature to change, and that we will lose them. We cannot escape those losses.
  • We remember that we inherit the results of our bodies, our speech, and our minds.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that “The practice of the remembrances helps us accept many of our deepest fears… as realities we can’t escape.  When we practice accepting these truths, we can realize peace and have the capacity to live compassionate lives.” 

“Fear,” Yoda says to Anakin Skywalker, “is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”[iv]

But through facing fear with compassion, we may find a path to lessening the hold of the fears that hold us back, whatever they may be, however well or poorly we understand them.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests this:

“Invite your fear into consciousness, and smile through it;  Every time you smile through your fear, it will lose some of its strength. …. We use the practice of mindfulness to embrace our fear.  Every time fear is embraced by mindfulness, its energy decreases.”[v]

I see that smile as a smile of compassion.  Compassion for ourselves and each other, in our moments of disquiet, and in our moments of joy and peace.

May that compassion lead to awareness, may awareness open the imagination, may that imagination allow us to take wings, let our light shine, and live into a new chapter of the story.


[i] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865.

[ii] Mathias Clasen, “How Evolution Designed Your Fear,” Nautilus, October 26, 2017

[iii] Howard Thurman, untitled Meditation, adapted

[iv] From Star Wars:  The Phantom Menace.  (Yoda to Anakin Skywalker)

[v] Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Five Remembrances” chapter in Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm.  HarperCollins, 2012 (reprint edition)