Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Homily: "Dark of Winter" (Delivered 12-16-12)


“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  This line is a quote from the existentialist author Albert Camus, a man who will never be accused of na├»ve optimism or of having a sunny disposition brought on by ignorant bliss.  “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  It was a dear friend who introduced me to this quote, a friend who had seen some real depths of winter in her day.  She was a survivor of abuse and a survivor of cancer, but also one of the happiest and most positive people I’ve ever known.  She lives that quote, not naively, not foolishly. 

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  It is a quote that makes me think about the winter solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year.  As UU minister Mary Wellenmeyer puts it in her “Solstice Meditation,”

Winter arrives at the moment
when the shifting ends and begins –
a moment of pause.

In these latitudes, increasing sun
blesses the coldest days,
and so it is in our hearts,
though our orbits are irregular.
We wobble, too, and grow cold in spirit,
Until the sun begins to brighten.

The winter solstice is held to be spiritually significant for earth-centered, pagan, and mythic religions throughout the northern hemisphere.  Those who religiously observe the winter solstice acknowledge the dark, but they also celebrate the inbreaking of light, that moment when the world has become as dark as it can possibly become, and the light breaks through.  In earth-centered and mythic religions, the winter solstice is often associated with the birth of the sun.  It is no coincidence that in Christianity, a day in December just a few days after the winter solstice was chosen to observe the birth of the messiah.  The sun’s birthday became the birthday of the son of god.  Listen to how the Gospel of John speaks of Jesus coming to the world, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Or, as Camus put it, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

When I first planned this sermon, I was planning to focus on the spiritual significance of darkness.  Poets, artists, and spiritual practitioners have plumbed the depths of darkness as metaphor and emotion.  But this is a reflection for another day.  There has been more than enough darkness in the world the past few days.  The thing I can do, the thing we can do, the thing we need to do is to keep lighting candles in the darkness, candles to remind us of the invincible summer that lies within, candles to remind us of hope, candles so that if we look around us we will grow aware of the inbreaking of light.

Fred Rogers, who was not only the star of a show for children on PBS but who was also a Presbyterian minister, knew about the importance of seeking out light in the midst of darkness.  He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”  Like candles in the dark, the helpers are there one hundred to one and one thousand to one.


Listen, I want to speak as a pastor for a moment here, as the spiritual leader of this church.  When our hearts are broken and our souls are shaken, when we grow sick with grieving and sadness for the world, and when we are confronted with unspeakable horror, we may respond as individuals in different ways.  Some of us seek out a place of tenderness and comfort, a safe place to weep and mourn, a place where our raw hearts are not alone and we find a hand to hold onto and a community that will hold us.  Some of us prefer for our anger and outrage to be matched from the pulpit and from the community that surrounds us.  We want action, real action, now, a way to channel the urgency of our love and our loving anger.  And others of us would rather not have anything said at all.  This is a reaction that should not be treated judgmentally and called avoidance or denial.  This reaction comes from a sense that this is what is healthiest; that it is best for the television to be turned off, and that too much attention is a form of unhealthy emotional manipulation and exploitation.  This response comes from the desire not to be retraumatized.

I think that we need to listen to our hearts.  I think that we all have within us some innate wisdom, a sense of what we need and where we need to be and who we need to be with.  I think we can listen to our hearts calling us towards that invincible summer in the midst of the depths of winter, calling us to mourn as a response to grief, or act as a response to grief, or keep calm and carry on as a response to grief.  Listen to your innate wisdom.  Trust that the people around you are also listening to the wisdom from within their hearts.

I want to talk to you a little bit about what I will be doing in the coming weeks and months.  The last time I met with worship leaders in our church, I sketched out my preaching schedule for early 2013.  My sermon title for the first service I lead in January is “The Race to the Bottom.”  I’ll talk about the consequences of living in a society that doesn’t invest wisely in health and education and the cost that this exacts on us.  That sermon idea was especially inspired by conversations with members of this church who work in the field of mental health and who can share stories every day of the enormous human cost of underinvestment and disinvestment in mental health services.

I also have to confess that although I’ve given nearly four hundred sermons, I don’t believe I have ever preached directly on the subject of guns and weapons and the role of violence in American culture.  This is a failure of mine and it is not something I can preach with any integrity because I haven’t yet done the work.  I don’t mean the intellectual work, the work of coming to favor a specific public policy position.  I mean the work of having actually lived my values by having done real work.  That is my pledge and my promise: to use the power of my position and the power of my voice to write to legislators, to connect with organizations working for different laws and trying to change the culture and then doing what these organizations tell me is the most effective thing I can do.  And if that is something you’ll join me in doing, then we’ll find this path of authenticity together.

Beyond mental health services in our communities, which are absolutely necessary, and beyond rational gun policies, which are absolutely necessary, I think there is another part of our need as a society.  We live in a society in which there is too much anger and rage.  There are too many fantasies of cathartic violence.  There is too much isolation, too much disconnect, and too many black holes of pain in which people live, especially youth but adults too.  It is a spiritual disease.

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  In this mid-December darkness, this tragic time, find in your hearts that light.  Find those who have lit candles around you.  Light candles so that someone else can find their way through the dark.  Keep a vigil for the inbreaking of light, the promise of summer even in the midst of winter.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

How Come This Creature?


Here is my response to an email from a religious publisher asking me to comment on the selected cover art for a book by Pope Benedict XVI.  The original inquiry appears below my response.


William B. Eerdmans, Jr.
Owner/President
WM. B. EERDMANS PUBLISHING COMPANY
2140 Oak Industrial Dr NE
Grand Rapids, MI  49505


Dear Bill,

It is not every day that a Unitarian Universalist minister in the American Midwest is asked to provide commentary on a book by the Pope.  (Well, to be precise, you asked me to comment on the cover art selected for a book by the Pope, but let’s not ruin a good story.)  To make matters more mysterious, it seems that I was referred to you by a professor at a Lutheran seminary whom I don’t believe I’ve ever met.  Unfortunately, as I will explain below, I must refute the claim that the cover art you have selected depicts Jesus and the disciples eating guinea pig at the Last Supper.



The art on the book cover of Pope Benedicts XVI’s Holy Days is a detail from the altarpiece of the Sigena Monastery and is currently on display in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona.  It is believed to have been painted by Jaume and Pere Serra in the late fourteenth century, approximately one hundred years before the Spanish conquest of the Americas.  I suppose one could hypothesize that the painting is misdated or that this detail was altered at some point after Pizarro conquered the Incan empire in 1532, but such a theory would not explain why an Incan symbol would be included on the altarpiece of a monastery in Catalonia.  At this point we have overstrained the limits of credulity.

A few years ago while on sabbatical in Peru I dined on cuy (guinea pig) in Aguas Calientes, a tourist town at the end of the Incan Trail that is a staging area for visitors to Machu Picchu.  Souvenir shopping offered an exercise in pluralism; one could purchase votive candles emblazoned with images of the saints, jewelry with symbols of Incan deities, crucifixes, and T-shirts depicting scenes of Amerindian spiritual power.  One restaurant, in a fantastic feat of commercial syncretism, displayed a wall-sized mural of the Last Supper with Jesus joined by fourteen Incan Kings instead of the twelve disciples.  Naturally, they dined on maize and avocado.  You might also be interested to know that the specialty of this restaurant is wood-fired pizza, an unexpected culinary dish in Peru’s high-altitude jungle.




The Serra painting should not be confused with depictions of the Last Supper by Peruvian artist Marcos Zapata (1710-1773) that decorate the cathedrals in Cusco and Lima and in which a cooked guinea pig can be found on the center of the table.  It is possible to make the case that by featuring cuy in artistic representations of the Last Supper, the Catholic Church was intentionally seeking to appropriate Incan religious practices.  We might note that guinea pig is thought to have played a role in Incan religious rituals.  We can also make the case that the inclusion of cuy represents a symbolic resistance to Spanish imperialism.  Residents of Cusco believe that Zapata’s depiction of Judas Iscariot is a portrait of Francisco Pizarro.



While we can confidently say that the creature in Serra’s Last Supper is not a Peruvian guinea pig, we have not yet considered what it actually is.  According to Wikipedia (and please, Bill, let’s keep it between ourselves that I’m citing Wikipedia; my professors would be horrified) there are some 115 species of wild mammals native to Spain.  Unfortunately, while ministry is a profession that requires a wide range of diverse skills, I claim no special expertise in mammalian taxonomy.  However, allow me to propose a few possible options for your consideration.  It occurs to me, and to the members of the congregation I serve and to assorted fellow clergy colleagues, that the creature in question might be:

            ∙ a poorly painted lamb
            ∙ a very poorly painted fish
            ∙ a thin, suckling pig
            ∙ a weasel, ermine, or marten
            ∙ a rabbit or hare
            ∙ a dog (whippet? Whippet good?)

I wish you good luck in solving this mystery.  Please do not hesitate to let me know if I can be of any further assistance.

My kindest wishes to you and yours for a peaceful and joyful Christmas,

Rev. Thom Belote
Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church





Dear Father Thom:

I’m sending you a copy of Holy Days by Benedict XVI just published, the cover art of which must raise questions for many people, speaking mainly of the rather live animal on the platter on the table surrounded by Christ and the Disciples.  It would be nice for our next printing to be able to add an explanatory historical note about how come this creature.

The painting of The Last Supper is by Jaume and Pere Serra.  I’m advised by Ted Peters, New Testament Professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, that you can supply an explanation of why the artist chose to put somewhat central to the depiction a guinea pig, or cuy.  Such a contribution by you would be helpful to all who view this cover art.

Thank you for whatever you may supply, I am

Very cordially yours,

William B. Eerdmans, Jr.
Owner/President
WM. B. EERDMANS PUBLISHING COMPANY
2140 Oak Industrial Dr NE
Grand Rapids, MI  49505

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sermon: "The Spiritual Practice of Rest" (Delivered 12-9-12)


Call to Worship
The theme of this morning’s service is “The Spiritual Practice of Rest.”  There were a few ideas for this worship service that were considered and rejected.  I believe they deserve to be shared with you.

In keeping with the theme of rest, hold our first ever wear your pajamas to church day.

Extend the time of silence after the meditation by twenty minutes.  Turn down the lights in the sanctuary for everyone to take a nap.

Invite those sitting on the bleachers in the back of the room to bring pillows and sleeping bags.

Have the minister show up without a service prepared and explain to the congregation, “I took a few days off and boy do I ever feel refreshed!”

During the sermon, point out the person in the congregation who has fallen asleep and is snoring and declare, “He understands what I’m talking about.”

Come into this place.  Step away from the noise and crowds.  Put aside hurry and worry and the flurry of demands for just this hour.  Take time to laugh and sing and breathe and be still.  As Kathleen McTigue puts it, “Resist the headlong tumble into the next moment.”  Let us worship together.


Reading
This reading comes from the book Local Wonders by former Poet Laureate of the United States Ted Kooser.  Ted Kooser is a member of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, NE.

Lots of people on the Great Plains pack up and go south from November through February, but my wife and I enjoy winter in Nebraska.

Spring is downright impatient with people in their fifties and sixties: we’re under steady nagging pressure to turn over and plant a vegetable garden, to gas up and check out the lawnmowers, to wait endlessly while the other party selects bedding plants at the greenhouse, and to begin the five-month-long, everyday chore of picking wood ticks off the dogs.

Summer is one weary, endless, hot, dry, mowing of grass, with interludes of garden weeding and chigger bites, and after every thunderstorm there are fallen branches to cut up with the chain saw and drag from one place to another.  It is also a time when nature’s weedy disorder reclaims the little bit of territory we thought we had cleared for ourselves.

Autumn is beautiful, my favorite season, with its clear skies and long shadows arrowing across the red hills, but it is also a time when the lawnmowers have to be drained and stored, when the pressure tank in the well house must be drained and checked, when the block heaters need to be installed on the cars, and when the dead plants in the garden must be pulled up and burned.  It is also a time of sighing and regret, of the admission that during the spring and summer we didn’t get done what we had hoped to.

The winter sets in, and the obligations of our sixty-two acres are buried under the blessed somnolence of snow and ice.  It is the time of lingering over suppers of meatloaf and squash and of wrapping ourselves in shawls in our chairs and reading books and nodding off at eight-thirty or nine.  Then to bed under heaps of blankets and comforters, my wife in wool stockings, sweatshirt, and sweatpants, and I in the long flannel nightshirts my mother made.


Sermon
The goal of religion, it’s been said, is not to get you to believe in God.  The goal of religion is to help you to see that you are not God.  I might add that even God rested, so what makes you think that you don’t need to?

The amazing singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock has a song called “Ella’s Song” that begins and ends with the lines, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.  We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”  I last heard this song performed at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association several years ago, a gathering held at the end of June when many ministers and church leaders are feeling most exhausted and worn down from long and eventful church years.  “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”  Yes, I do believe in freedom, I thought to myself.  But, I’m still going to take the vacation I had planned to take in early July.

At gatherings like General Assembly we sing all sorts of songs and hymns that declare our intention not to rest.  “Gonna keep on moving forward, never turning back” are the words of one song.  Another declares, “One more step, we will take one more step, ‘til there is peace for us and everyone, we’ll take one more step.”  I don’t think the Sweet Honey in the Rock song and the various beloved songs and hymns of our religious movement are meant to be taken so literally as to suggest that believing in freedom means we cannot take a coffee break or sleep in or get away for the weekend.  To say that we who believe in freedom cannot rest is not the same as saying that we who believe in freedom cannot nap.  No, in reality these songs are about having the type of long-term commitment that will last for the long haul.  They’re songs about having the depth of dedication that can only really be sustained by habits of regular spiritual practice, renewal, and rest.

My message this morning is that rest and work are not mortal enemies.  They are complementary, not combative.  They are not polar opposites engaged in mortal combat, but elements of a natural cycle that need one another.  Work is to rest as yin is to yang.  Work is not to rest as God is to Satan.

Are you following so far?  Is this something you can agree with so far?  If this is how you feel, I invite you to say it along with me.

“Rest is not bad.”
“Rest is not a sign of weakness.”
“Rest does not make me a bad person.”
“I shall not feel guilty about rest.”

OK, how many of you said it and really believe it deep down in the depths of your soul?  And, how many of you said it but still harbor some doubts and reservations?

That’s OK.  We live in a society, after all, that doesn’t have a particularly good relationship with rest.  The other day I ran across a document entitled We’re Number One that compares the United States to other industrialized nations.  According to this document, quote, “among industrialized nations, the United States has the lowest average number of days for paid holiday, annual leaves, and maternity leaves.”  In fact, unlike most industrialized nations, United States employers are not mandated to offer paid vacation days.  Even though workers in the United States receive less vacation than workers in other nations, many US workers do not take even the small amounts of vacation that they do receive.

This past summer I read an article about a software company in Denver that tried to motivate its employees to take better vacations by offering a vacation bonus.  The $7,500 vacation bonus is given annually to employees under three conditions.  First, you have to promise not to do any work while on vacation.  Second, you have to unplug from cell phones, computers, and the internet for the duration of your vacation – so no spending your vacation making Facebook updates.  And third, you actually have to travel somewhere – so no staycations.  The head of this company wrote an explanation of their vacation policy, saying that their employees were less likely to take good vacations if they had to pay for them, so the $7,500 was about overcoming that barrier.  He also wrote about how this vacation policy was good for his employees as individuals, but also better for them as a team.  As individuals, they returned refreshed, reinvigorated, more creative, and more positive about their work.  As a team, though, the reality of vacations that involved people actually getting away created a culture where the members of the company had to work better together, share information, and nobody could afford to become a savior, a person whose presence was so crucial that the entire company would suffer if they were gone and unreachable for several weeks.

The goal of religion, it has been said, is not to get you to believe in God.  The goal of religion is to help you to see that you are not God.  And even God rested.

If it seems that I spent a lot of time talking about that software company in Colorado, it is probably because ministers as well as priests, rabbis, and imams have proven to be bad examples when it comes to rest.  A 2010 New York Times article reported that “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans…  Public health experts who have led studies [on clergy health] caution that there are no easy answers… but a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.”

The story goes on to mention that apparently in the United Methodist Church, ministers who are known to skip taking vacations can expect a call from a denominational administrator bugging them to schedule a vacation.

As much as I may feel tempted to compare Unitarian Universalism favorably to other religion traditions, I have to say that, anecdotally, we fare no better than these other traditions, and possibly worse.  The other day I remembered the story of an overworked Unitarian Universalist minister who died of a heart attack in the pulpit, but I was a bit fuzzy on the details of who and when and where.  So, I threw this question out to the email list of UU ministers.  The responses I received were troubling.  You must be thinking of a minister a few years back in Massachusetts, one person wrote.  Something similar happened in New Mexico, offered another respondent.  I believe it was a UU minister in Minnesota, wrote a third.  One colleague shared the story of a 19th century Universalist minister named Thomas Whittemore who suffered a stroke while preaching that paralyzed the right side of his body and left him slumped in the pulpit.  At that moment the preacher decided to abandon his notes and deliver the rest of his sermon extemporaneously.  Only during the final hymn did Whittemore allow a friend to help him to the hospital.

In actuality, I wasn’t thinking of the minister in New Mexico or Massachusetts or Minnesota.  I was thinking about a minister from New Hampshire.  When Bob Karnan became the minister of the UU Church in Portsmouth, the congregation numbered about 100 members.  A decade later the church had 750 members.  If you’re interested, you can find an essay by Bob Karnan in the book Salted With Fire in the church library telling the story of how that congregation grew.  Let’s just say that rest does not seem to have been a part of his recipe for success.  The church he served was the fastest growing church in Unitarian Universalism and, as Karnan himself wrote, he had the scars on his body and soul to prove it.  Some of his minister friends told me that they had grown concerned about his well-being and expressed their concern to him.  “Bob, you sure seem like you’re pushing too hard and not taking time for yourself.”  And, a few months after the essay he wrote was published, Bob Karnan died of a heart attack.

I haven’t told you all this because for the purposes of shocking or worrying you.  Rather, I mention these sad stories to say that if you are in a career or have loved ones in a field where burnout is common and workaholism is rampant, believe me, I understand you.  Lots of people in my chosen profession are really awful at the spiritual practice of rest.  I also tell these stories as a kind of confession.  For a host of reasons, it is hard for people to rest, even though it seems like it should be the easiest and most natural thing in the world.  Even the people who are supposed to know better, the people who, you know, should be expected to model healthy living and a life of balance, struggle, and I mean really struggle, with the basics.

I should also tell you, in the interest of full disclosure, that while I’m far from the best when it comes to taking as much time to rest as I am given, I am also far from the worst.  I admit to being imperfect and could stand to do better when it comes to the spiritual practice of rest.  I give myself a C+, not an F.

Call it what you will – rest, vacation, time away, down time, renewal – what I’m talking about here is something that I think very few of us would disagree with if we put it in strictly rational language.  Rest is a human need.  Nobody is going to argue with this.  So, if we understand this intellectually, then we might puzzle over why people don’t do what they know to be good for them.  Why do people not do what they know they should do?

Three years ago I took a three month sabbatical.  I was eligible for six months.  Like I said, I’m far from the best but I’m also far from the worst.  During that sabbatical I traveled to Ecuador and Peru.  Why did you go there, someone asked me.  Because it was just far enough away that I wouldn’t be tempted to do church work.

I have a friend, another minister, who never took a sabbatical in his quarter of a century in the ministry.  I asked him about this once and he said that the timing was just never right.  There was always something happening in the life of the church that was exciting, important, urgent, or critical.  He either had the world’s most thoroughly exciting quarter century of ministry or he had deluded himself.

I want to read to you part of what Bart Lorang, the CEO of the software company in Denver, wrote about his philosophy of vacation.  I invite you to translate what he writes into language that works for your situation.
I love [this company.]  I love the people.  I love the problem space we’re in. I love our customers.  I love inventing solutions. 
However, if unchecked, love can also have a smothering effect. 
Just as parents can smother their children when they leave the nest for the first time, founders, managers and employees can do the same: 
What happens if a key customer calls?
I’m the only who knows this! What happens if my people need me?
Did you think about X? What about Y?
Perhaps it is a sense of ownership or desire to feel needed, but in many company cultures (especially startups), there is often a misguided hero syndrome that encourages an “I’m the only one who can do this” mentality.
That’s not heroic. That’s a single point of failure. It’s not good for the employee or the company.
But here’s the thing: If people know they will be disconnecting and going off the grid for an extended period of time, they might actually keep that in mind as they help build the company and empower others to make more decisions.
At the end of the day, the company will improve.
As an added bonus, everyone will be happier and more relaxed knowing that they aren’t the last line of defense.

How many of you feel like he could be talking to you?

My message this morning also applies to our life as a church.  For the previous year and a half, leaders in this church have worked incredibly, incredibly hard to make this move into our new church home possible.  Each stage has been important and intense and exciting in its own way.  Now, we’ve been here for a month and a half.  And the work and the possibilities and the opportunities for ministry now are important and exciting.  And six months from now there will be more things happening that are exciting.  And a year from now…  Do you see where I’m going with this?  There will always be something happening that is urgent and exciting and critical and important.  Which speaks to our need to be mindful about rest, to share work, to love but not to smother.

For bears rest comes instinctively.  They know when it is time to hibernate and they trust that they’ll wake up again just in time for excitements of the spring.  Birds don’t need a monetary incentive to head to the tropics.  We humans have the flaw of needing to be convinced to rest.  May we have the compassion to remind one another.



Monday, December 03, 2012

Sermon: "Be Not Afraid" (Delivered 12-2-12)


Less than two weeks ago the Pope released a new book about the childhood of Jesus of Nazareth.  I haven’t read it.  But, you may have heard that the contents of the book have provoked a bit of controversy.  For example, the Pope points out that the Gospels make no mention of the presence of barnyard animals at Jesus’ birth, and that the scriptures say that the angels speak rather than sing.  Further, the Pope explains that December 25th was most certainly not the date of Jesus’ birth.  None of this is new information.  One tabloid newspaper decided to run with the headline, "Killjoy Pope crushes Christmas Nativity Traditions."   That seems more than a little unfair.

Beneath this manufactured controversy, there is a deeper question that has to do with what sacred texts are and how they’re supposed to be read.  I don’t read the Bible in order to become informed about what happened thousands of years ago.  The point of reading scripture is not to find out about things that took place in the past.  For me, the point of reading scripture is to become a bit more thoughtful about the human condition.

As Unitarian Universalists we have an exceedingly broad definition of what constitutes our scriptures and holy texts.  This past week we were visited by a comparative religion class from a Catholic girl’s high school that was taking a field trip to learn about worship practices in different religious traditions.  They stopped here and I spoke with them about what our worship services are like.  One girl asked whether we had a sacred text.  I had each of the students open up to the back of our hymnals where, in the span of just two pages, they could find readings from a contemporary female poet, an Inuit shaman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, a Catholic liberation theologian, a Bengali author, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, and a guy whose named I confessed to them did not even recognize.  (I looked him up later and discovered that he was a British nature writer from the nineteenth century.)  Ours is a very broad understanding of scripture, indeed.  We turn to many sources to inform our understanding of human experience and the human condition.  In just a minute I’m going to get around to talking about fear, but I think this broad understanding of scripture says something about a lack of fear on our part.  We are not afraid to imagine that the holy might speak in many different lands, in many different tongues, in ways that are alien to us.

I want to tell you about how I chose the subject of my sermon this morning.  Each year when the calendar turns to December, I always find myself rereading and revisiting the accounts of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Luke.  Each time I reread those stories, I’m always struck by the repetitive appearances of angels, and by the fact that each time an angel appears in the Gospels, the first words spoken by the angel – or sung by the angel, because we don’t have to be scriptural literalists – are always the same.  Spoken or sung, the first words are always, “Be not afraid.”  I always find these words to be somewhat striking.  For one thing, I think it is an interesting thing for an angel to say.  And, for another thing, the spoken words of the angels always remind me that we live in a world where fear exists.  They say something about the human condition.

So now you have an idea of how the brain of a minister, or at least of this minister, works.  Only, I’m pretty sure it’s not just me.  A few days ago I was having a conversation with an esteemed minister in our movement.  We were talking and she suggested that I should preach a sermon on the subject of fear.  What a coincidence, I replied, explaining to her that it was the theme for my service this morning.  She shared with me that she once did an entire sermon series on fear in the month of December.  And did I know, she asked, that whenever an angel appears in the Bible the angel’s first words are always…  “Be not afraid,” I said, finishing her sentence.  It’s like there was this uncanny, freaky, Vulcan mind-meld going on between us.

Fear, as we all know, is present our society today.  Incidences of senseless and random violence in public places lead some to a certain degree of nervousness or a heightened vigilance.  Economic confidence continues to be shaky and people experience economic insecurity.  From arsenic in rice to mercury in fish to concerns about the genetically modified foods, there is fear about what we put into our bodies.  Our fears have to do with weather and climate, with privacy and identity, with health and wellness.  For some in our society, shifting racial demographics are seen as a threat and as cause for alarm.  In the past four years our nation has seen a troubling increase in the activity and number of hate groups, a fact that is appropriately frightening to people of color as well as anyone who cares about racial justice.  To these fears we might add our own personal ones that lurk in the dark recesses of our imagination.  That fear is so abundant might strike us as perplexing if we would only take a wider view and realize that we live at a time and in a place that is extraordinarily safe in comparison to most of recorded human history.

Yesterday was World AIDS Day and earlier in our service we heard from a member of the congregation who spoke powerfully and passionately about observing this day.  In addition to his words, I might observe just how linked HIV/AIDS has been with fear and how important dealing with fear is when it comes to combating the spread of HIV.  Those of us who remember the eighties and early nineties may remember what a scary time it was, especially for those of us who happened to come of age during those years.  We’re aware in the fight against HIV/AIDS that this disease is not just physical, but there has also been a social stigma to address, and I think it can absolutely be said that fear has played an enormous role in stigmatization and discrimination.  I don’t claim any public health expertise, but I would have to believe that addressing fear and denial, which is a form of fear, are probably an important part of public health strategies.

In his book Freedom from Fear the late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church offers a typology of fear:

Fear, when it is located in the body, is called fright.  It is instinctive fear that causes a fight or flight response within the body.

Fear, when it is located in the intellect, manifests itself as worry.  It is “produced by our worst imaginings.”  Worry is a thinking form of fear.

Fear can be located in our conscience.  When our conscience is troubled by fear, the result is guilt.

In our emotions, fear shows itself as insecurity; it is “prompted by feelings of inadequacy.”

Finally, fear can be localized in our souls.  Such fear takes the form of dread, an existential “fear generated by life’s fundamental uncertainty.”  “Dread,” writes Forrest Church, is “a particularly crippling form on anxiety driven by the desire to control things that lie beyond our control… [Dread] takes our entire future – which really does lie beyond our control – and casts a pall over it.  The epitome of negative thinking, dread paints such a bleak picture that any attempt to shine a light on the subject seems in vain.”

Fear, Church continues, darkens the future and ruins the present.  He writes, “Even if safety should become our primary objective in life, to keep ourselves safe is impossible… To be free of acceptable risk is not life’s goal, but its enemy.  By inviting non-being to the party years before one’s own death day, fear protects us not from death but from life.”

Fear protects us not from death but from life.  One of my professors used to bring his family’s golden retriever with him to the office, the gentlest and dopiest creature I’ve ever met.  In conversation one day I learned that some days his dog went to work with his wife, a psychologist whose practice specialized in helping people to overcome their phobias.  Her patients were people whose lives had become paralyzed by fear.  A fear of dogs meant not being able to walk around the neighborhood.  A fear of flying meant separation from loved ones.  Other kinds of fear led her patients to obsessive-compulsive behavior, depression, isolation, loneliness, and lack of success in romantic relationships, work, and other life pursuits.  “Fear protects us not from death, but from life.”

In Forrest Church’s book, he talks about courage as the key to facing fear.  He talks about cultivating the courage to act, the courage to love, and the courage to be.  These forms of courage do not insulate us against pain, loss, or struggle.  They do not guarantee a life that is easy or a life that is always pleasant.  However, these forms of courage move us in the direction of being able to make our own lives worth living.  With the courage to act, “the story of our life will be something we are eager to develop, not something we are apprehensive to watch unfold.”  The courage to love involves making ourselves vulnerable, but it turns out that this is a necessary risk.  “To avoid the risk of love is to cower from life’s only perfect promise.”  And, the courage to be involves having the maturity to live in the face of uncertainty and to accept that most things are beyond our control.

In my conversation with my esteemed colleague she said something that I think is incredibly wise.  Great blessings spark fear, she said.  And this is the meditation I’d like to conclude with.

In the Gospels, whenever an angel appears, whether the angel appears months before Jesus’ birth or days after Jesus’ death, the angel always speaks the same message, “Be not afraid.”  And then the angel announces a wonderful blessing.  It is not that after the angel arrives everything turns out perfectly or becomes easy.  Rather, the angel announces a way forward that is deeply meaningful, filled with awe and wonder and the possibility of joy.  When the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.  Chill out.  Relax.  Don’t panic,” I don’t think it is in reference to the fright of seeing of angel.  It is more of a way of saying, “There is a blessing before you that will require love and courage from you.”

Great blessings spark fear.  Has this ever been your experience?  You get the job and then you wonder, “Am I really up to it?”  You start a project and you think not what if this fails, but what if this succeeds?  What then?  You receive love and you worry that love will demand more from you than you could possibly imagine.  Has a blessing ever made you afraid?  Has the threat of blessing ever made you shiver?  What fears have blessings awakened?  I write these words in awareness that this fall for me – having become a father and having moved with the church into this new church home – has included blessings and the fear awakened by great blessings.

Life is before you.  Be not afraid.  May you face it with the courage to be and the courage to love.