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In the Valley of the Shadow – 10/2/2011

This morning, for the third year in a row, an assortment of American preachers, most of them theologically-conservative Christians, are preaching about politics. They are taking part in an intentional campaign to cross the line that tax exempt organizations, including churches, are held to by directly endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.[i] I want to let you know from the outset that I will not be participating. The reason is not that I fear the ire of the Internal Revenue Service, but that I do not believe that my handing you marching orders on how you ought to vote is the finest use of your time, or mine. To do so would break the covenant between minister and congregation, as I understand it. I am not here to issue edicts; we are here to work together. It is as though the power has gone out and we are all searching together for the fuse box in the dark. I may have a flashlight, but if I hold it over my head and declare that the lights have come back on, there are only two possibilities. The first is that you will see me for the fraud that I am, and it will not go well for me. The second is that you will believe wholeheartedly in my delusion of grandeur, and it will not go well for anyone. So I will not be telling you how to vote this morning, but because it is a popular subject for some of our neighbors across the nation this Sunday, I would like to begin with something political.

Last year, a gubernatorial candidate in California got a little bit of extra attention by releasing a particularly notable campaign ad. The video is over three minutes long, and is made up almost entirely of a series of mundane and frankly boring details about the record of one of her opponents. What made the ad notable was not the content but the packaging of the advertisement. The voice of a narrator is accompanied by sweeping, ominous music of the sort you might expect to find in one of those pseudo-religious horror movies, like the Exorcist or the Omen. What really stood out though was the imagery of a politician being vilified as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Pictures of the candidate’s opponent were intercut with video of someone – a hapless intern, I would guess – wearing a terrible sheep costume and crawling around in a field with actual sheep. Every once in a while this ersatz animal would stare into the camera with a set of glowing red eyes.[ii]

The ‘demon sheep’ ad was kind of a big deal, for about half a news cycle. But the attention came from the ad’s unusually clumsy concept and tacky execution. Its basic goal – to make you afraid of one candidate in the hopes you’ll vote for another – was completely common and normal. Fear is all over our national political landscape: fear of death panels and failing social safety nets; fear of ballooning debt and collapsing financial institutions; fear of climate change, terrorism and too many or not enough guns in private hands. While each of us might agree that different items from that list are real and grave concerns, a political process that is based on fear has poor prospects for producing the beloved community – the world of justice and liberty that we Unitarian Universalists have pledged to work towards.

Our faith compels us to confront the specter of fear, in fact, and neither to become nor to tolerate bullies who lead by promoting panic and distress. For perhaps as long as there has been religion there have been those who wish to wield it as a bullwhip – a persistent, menacing threat. Teachers have taught and preachers have preached to observe this practice or follow that rule out of fear for what will happen to us if we do not, describing in gleeful detail all the creative ways we may be punished for our transgressions. One of the most famous sermons ever given in the United States followed this pattern. In it, Jonathan Edwards preached the following:

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.[iii]

In just three sentences, Edwards uses the word ‘wrath’ five times. Such arguments from fear, based on the threat of punishment by a mighty and enraged deity were common in his day, 270 years ago. They still are, in many religious circles. And it was in response to this sort of spiritual fear mongering that our religious ancestors raised their voices. They offered an alternative vision of a God defined by love, and not by vengeance, and sought to build a world defined in just the same way. William Ellery Channing and Hosea Ballou, leaders in the two wings of our tradition during the first half of the 19th century both spoke of their God as a loving and perfect Father; one with high ambitions for all his children, who hopes, cries, and struggles along with them. The divine parent they worshipped was not a figure ever to fear, because all of us know, or ought to know, that when children live in fear of their father, the wrong lies in the father, and not in them.

So for generations our religion has offered relief from existential fear, even as the wide embracing arms of our faith have allowed many of us to experience the Holy in more varied metaphors. God as Mother, God as Friend, God as Stranger, God as Spirit; God as the impulse to seek what is true, and to do what is right. Some of us draw the strict line that we do not believe in anything we would be willing to call God, and that is fine, but it is also no escape. It remains our duty to answer the voice of fear with a message of hope, and if anything it is needed even more today than it was 200 years ago. For a culture of fear can be seen not only in the worlds of religion and politics, but in nearly every facet of our society. Particularly in these dire economic times when anxiety gnaws at our bones with worries over finding a job, keeping a job, making enough to get by on or seeing the social safety net that we depend on to live dismantled and destroyed.

We live in a time when the anxiety that follows injustice is literally killing us. An article in the Boston Globe a few years ago pointed to more than 100 studies documenting a link between being a part of an oppressed or marginalized group and a loss of physical health.[iv] Being treated inhumanely by other human beings seems to take a terrible toll on the body, especially the heart, and those studied showed evidence of accelerated wear and tear, and vulnerability to disease and deterioration. The most tragically acute cases run on a far shorter timeline. Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, and Jamey Rodemeyer are just a few among the far too many examples from the last year of gay youth harassed and tormented by peers to the point of taking their own lives. Living in fear is destructive to life. How, then, are we to help ourselves and each other, in a world so shaped by fear and anxiety?

There is a story from the Buddhist tradition about an elephant who was kept by a king.[v] The king sent the elephant to his animal trainers, so that they could teach her to do tricks. But the trainers were cruel and unkind to the elephant. They tied her with chains and they lashed her with whips, and she learned nothing from them but fear. Finally one day as she struggled against her bonds they gave way, and she escaped. She fled into the jungle, as far from human beings as she could go.

In the forest, everything frightened the elephant. She lived in constant terror of being recaptured. Even the wind rustling in the trees would send her running off again, afraid that it was the sound of her captors finally catching up with her. She could not eat or sleep for all her running in fright, and she grew thin and sickly. After many days of this, the being who would one day become the Buddha, who during this particular lifetime lived in the forest, and had been watching the elephant quietly from a distance, showed mercy to the elephant. The one who would become the Buddha whispered in the elephant’s ear, reassuring her she had nothing to fear from the wind, but she had much to fear from how she was living her life, wasting away anxious and afraid. The elephant was comforted by this message; she began to live more calmly, and stopped running from the wind. She found the courage to trust some of the other animals of the jungle, and over time she grew to be strong and healthy again.

Each of us has problems and traumas that weigh on us, fears that linger and hold us back from the fullness of who we might be. And one of the great gifts of being together in a diverse spiritual community is that we can remind each other of the times when we are only running from the wind. Fear is isolating, whether it is the fear of losing what we have, the fear of failing to meet our ambitions, or the fear of others discovering who we truly are. Our spiritual community seeks to set a space where none of these fears apply.

But lest you leave here today confident and comfortable in the idea that fear is always an obstacle to be overcome, I want to offer you one more angle on the subject, in the hopes that it will trouble you productively. In the Jewish calendar we stand today between Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. This window is known as Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe. And however we might romanticize it, awe is a form of fear. Somewhere in your life you have felt it, I am certain. There is a fragment of it in the sunrise, and a piece of the same in a thunderstorm. I have heard it described by women in childbirth, and people battling major illness. Artists point to it as the spark of inspiration, and anyone who has ever been truly moved by a work of art might agree. It is the moment that pulls you out of the ordinary, out of the familiar patterns of thought and feeling and exposes you suddenly to something startling and unthinkably bigger than yourself. Like the moment when Neo, the main character in the Matrix, wakes up to the hidden and frightening reality of his world for the first time, the entire order of things seems upended. The deep meaning, far below the surface of the everyday lands in the heart with a terrible crash. Nothing seems to matter, and yet everything matters more. The old certainties are gone, and until and unless we can replace them with new ones, we are left feeling profoundly vulnerable.

That is awe; it is a form of fear, and one that we dearly need. Awe, the terrible and inspiring wonder that flows from the grand vastness of existence, is a vital antidote to our anxious living. It is impossible to worry, in a state of awe – there is no room for it. The feeling of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the stars in the heavens, the destructive power of a tsunami or the startling depths of the human capacity for love – each of these can disrupt the hurried, worried patterns of our daily lives. Awe comes to us in unexpected fits. It is slippery and difficult to hold onto, and though it can be cultivated, it takes hard work to do so. Luckily, we have each other, because this is another great gift of our spiritual community: to provide a place in which to share and cultivate our moments of heartshaking wonder and soul-stirring fear. Mundane fear divides us, teaching us to be wary of each other and ourselves for reasons of religion, or politics, or simple survival. But the highest fear, the trembling awe: this feeling can unite us, if we will only let it. To help ourselves out of one sort of fear and into another; that is our work. May we be about the business of doing it, together.

[v] Versions of this story appear in several different Buddhist sources – it is one of the Jataka Tales, a genre of stories dealing with earlier incarnations of the Buddha. This particular telling was freely adapted from Sarah Conover’s collection, Kindness.


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