“Get away from here,” some Pharisees told Jesus, “for Herod wants to kill you.” “Death to America!” we see and hear on the news. ISIS posts gruesome videos of beheadings. We proclaim a “war on terror” and find ourselves more terrified than ever. African American brothers and sisters live in fear of the police, mothers nad fathers fearful for their children being killed. Signs and hashtags and voices shout, “Black Lives Matter!” because there is so much evidence from city streets and jails and prisons that they don’t. Fear is the air we breathe, the water we drink–literally, as our planet and its resources are threatened. Supergerms and diseases like zika lurk invisibly. We live in fear for our children, as they face challenges and are growing up in a world that so often seems to be spinning out of control. First-graders are gunner down in classrooms, theaters and shopping malls no longer safe. We fear for our jobs, so tenuous in this struggling economy. We fear the debilitating effects of aging, for ourselves and our parents. We worry about the future of our church. We worry that we are not enough, that we are not up to the challenges and expectations others have for us. It could well be said that we are living in a wilderness of fear, always struggling up rough slopes of challenge and impossible tasks, always seeming to be on the edge of some precipice of disaster.
From that ancient story of Adam and Eve in the garden, discovering after they had disobeyed God that they were naked and vulnerable, we find “the ancient taproot of fear in human life [as one writer puts it]. At a primal level of awareness we know that before God and in the world we are completely and distressingly naked, vulnerable to assaults against our person, our place, our relationships, our sense of meaning and purpose.” [John S. Mogabgab, Weavings, Mar./Apr. 1999, p. 2]
“Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you,” they told Jesus, but Jesus chose to stay, to continue his work, casting out demons, healing people, exposed and vulnerable to Herod’s men, courageously choosing that vulnerability. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” the psalmist wrote. “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, Yet I will be confident.” Jesus would have known that psalm. Oh, to have that kind of confidence and courage!
David Lose points out that there are two kinds of courage–the first is courage in an immediate situation. Courage doesn’t mean we are without fear, and in fact, as another writer puts it, “In healthy fear, what little power we may have is wonderfully concentrated. It is the mother of wisdom and the companion of courage.” [Robert Morris, Weavings, op cit., p. 21] To have courage in an immediate situation is being willing and able to act, even though we are afraid. Such courage doesn’t just “pop up” in the moment, but it is the manifestation of character, the accumulation of practice and behavior. The second kind of courage is the kind that anticipates and walks toward a situation of adversity, choosing not to turn away. This too, says Lose, is the manifestation of “character that has emerged from a lifetime of facing fears and shouldering burdens and that is also being forged in the very moment of accepting challenges and responsibilities that one could avoid.” [inthemeantime, 2/17/16] Thus we see Jesus “setting his face toward Jerusalem,” even though he knew what awaited him there.
Through her research on shame and vulnerability, sociologist Brene Brown has con- cluded, “You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.” It seems counter-intui-tive–isn’t vulnerability exactly what we fear? That our vulnerability will be exploited by those who wish us harm, that vulnerability will expose our true weaknesses and faults and we will be seen as the imperfect, flawed human beings or even nations that we are? Don’t we have to build walls and impenetrable defenses around ourselves, never apologize or admit weakness or error? Otherwise, surely we will be taken advantage of. Vulnerability is for weaklings, for losers.
Interestingly, researchers studying the effects of marketing and advertizing on those who claimed to be invulnerable to their siren songs found that “far from being an effective shield, the illusion of invulnerability undermines the very response that would have supplied genuine protection.” [Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 40] When we do not face our fears and vulnera-bilities squarely, we actually shut ourselves off from the strengths and resources available to us which can help us live more fully and wholeheartedly.
It was perhaps this refusal and loss of support and community that drove Jesus to lament over Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Able to see those, like Herod, who wanted to kill him not just as enemies but as those who had chosen to cut themselves off from any true healing and source of power, Jesus’ words also challenge us to see the multiple layers within those who would do us harm–those who would inflict terror perhaps have also been humiliated, perhaps have seen their loved ones killed or cut off. Not to make excuses, but to be mindful of the many-sided responses that might be available to us.
In the wilderness of fear, we can practice courage by facing our fear and seeing the multiplicity of responses we might make. Psychologist Maria Sirois writes, “As we turn to face fear, our vision of the worst shifts and our heart calms. We can bring ourselves back to the present moment where choice abounds and let go of the terror of what might yet be or what has been and attend to the moment that is.” [A Short Course in Happiness After Loss, excerpted on Wholebeing Institute website]. So in practicing mindfulness in meditation, honing those skills to examine our emotions, we might see what comes up alongside fear– like sadness, or anger, or powerlessness, or disappointment, or frustration, OR possibility. We might see our adversaries as complex figures who not only hate us but may also experience grief, hopelessness, humiliation. So, mindfulness is one practice we might adopt so that we do not have to be paralyzed by that overwhelming, monolithic, red-face of FEAR.
Brene Brown suggests that our culture is so dominated by the fear of scarcity–of not having enough and not being enough–we are actually contributing to our on-going dissension and dysfunction, instead of having the courage to admit and honor our sense of vulnerability.
There are enough of us struggling with the issue of worthiness [she writes] that it’s shaping the culture…From 9/11, multiple wars, and the recession, to catastrophic natural disasters and the increase in random violence and school shootings, we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma even if we weren’t directly involved….Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress. It happens when we’ve been through too much and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats.” [Brown, op cit. , p. 27]
Sounds something like this campaign season, doesn’t it?
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and your were not willing!” What a wonderful maternal image for God–a hen who would gather her chicks under her wings–”strong and tender,” as our bulletin covers say, courageous and vulnerable. One Biblical scholar tells the story of a “barnyard fire…in which those cleaning up have found a dead hen, scorched and blackened, and live chicks sheltering under her wings.” [NT Wright, cited by K. Matthews in Sermon Seeds, 2/21/16] That is the fierce, courageous, vulnerable power of God’s love for us. This is a God whose presence and power is to be reckoned with–that is, before whom we ought to experience a holy, healthy fear–but this is not a God from whom we should fear vindictiveness or random assaults of power. Rudolph Otto called this the mysterium tremendum–”a Tremendous Mystery.” [The Idea of the Holy] This is the God who took on human flesh and shared all the frailty of human life, even death on a cross, for us.
So in this wilderness of fear, during this season of Lent, we have choices of a number of different practices, in addition to the traditional ones of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, study, and worship. We can practice courage, as Brene Brown says, “by showing up, by letting ourselves be seen, and by honoring vulnerability.” We can practice being mindful by meditating, and in that mindfulness, examine those things we fear and maybe become aware of other emotions connected to that fear. In our meditation and prayer, we might hold those people we fear in the presence of God, seeing what light might be shed upon them.
In that practice of mindfulness, we can also take note of the things we have to be grateful for–another practice of resilience. In the midst of our fears about ageing, we can give thanks for the wisdom we’ve obtained through the years and for the abilities, though different, still available to us. In the midst of our worries over the security of our jobs or our retirement funds, we can be grateful for the jobs we haveand the skills we’ve gained, for the funds that are still there. In the midst of our worries over our “enoughness,” we might make a point of noting and expressing our thanks to those friends and loved ones who love us as we are.
In our national conversations, what energies and creativity might be released for problem-solving if, instead of focusing solely on all that’s wrong with our country, we celebrated and reinforced all that is right ? “Make America Great Again” is the slogan of one of the presidential candidates’ campaign, but Nancy Rockwell urges us not to lose sight of the ways that the U.S. is great now– we have the largest, most capable military the world has ever seen, she says, a large, strong economy which though it has been rocked, is better than most; we earn the most Nobel prizes, we are the “purveyors of the stuff the world gets on its knees for: medicine, cars, hi-tech, Coke, Levis, rock and rolls, movies, and perhaps the ultimate Most, as every third world citizen will tell you, the greatest thing about America is so many grocery stores and all the shelves are full” [The Bite in the Apple, 2/18/16] –unless, of course, you live in the inner cities which are wastelands for real food]. “So,” Rockwell asks, “how will ramping up fear of immigrants and purging the country of Latinos and Moslems, reducing wages, repealing Affordable Health Care, and denying climate change make us greater?” We must acknowledge and addres the things that are “wrong” or not working in our national agenda, but we must not lose sight of our gifts and strengths. One of the skills of resilient people is their ability to face both the negative and positive aspects of their situation and not succumb to the negative. We can choose to put our energy into the positive.
The way that Jesus taught was the way of vulnerability and courage, the way of gratitude and perseverance, the way of self-awareness and the ability to see others in all their multiplicity, the way of trust in God in the face of adversity. Even in the wilderness of fear, we have choices. Remember that Mother Hen Jesus longs to shelter us beneath her wings in a community of love and belonging. In the wilderness of fear, know that we are not alone and without resources. So may we “be strong, and let our hearts take courage.”
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark