Beyond Fear

A Sermon by Barbara Wells
Paint Branch UU Church
January 25, 2004


I Give You Back
By Joy Harjo

I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear.
I release you.
You were my beloved and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you as myself.
I release you with all the pain I would know at the death of my daughters.

You are not my blood anymore.

I give you back to the white soldiers who burned down my home, beheaded my children, raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.

I give you back to those who stole the food from our plates when we were starving.

I release you, fear, because you hold these scenes in front of me and I was born with eyes that can never close.

I release you, fear, so you can no longer keep me naked and frozen in the winter, or smothered under blankets in the summer.

I release you I release you I release you I release you

I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved,
to be loved, to be loved, fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice my belly, or in my heart
my heart my heart my heart.

But come here, fear.
I am alive and you are so afraid of dying.

Sermon: BEYOND FEAR (Barbara Wells, PBUUC, 1/25/04)

"I know this rose will open. I know my fear will burn away. I know my soul will unfurl its wings. I know this rose will open." [Song prior to sermon.]

It is likely that my colleague and friend Mary Grigolia wrote this song out of hard, personal experience. It is a song of hope in the face of fear. It is confident and bold, but the unresolved nature of the melody says to me that she wrote this song to sing over and over in her head when she was afraid. It is a song about courage in the face of fear.

I remember the first time I ever felt really afraid. It was in April, 1968. I was just a few weeks shy of my 8th birthday and generally had led a happy and peaceful life. But my world, as it is for most children, was small, made up only of my family, friends and school. Those worlds were, for me at least, secure. But in 1968 something broke into my safe haven and made me afraid and showed me for the first time that the world could be a dangerous place. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead at a Memphis hotel. And I, a child, learned what it was to be afraid.

I remember watching TV with my grandmother and seeing her cry. I knew in the way that young children do, that my parents were involved in civil rights. I knew that my father had met Dr. King on numerous occasions. And because I knew this, King's murder scared me deeply—because I thought, as children do, that if Dr. King could be killed, so could my father.

As I reflect on my childhood, it is interesting for me to note that from that day forward I began a relationship with fear that has haunted me ever since. And because it haunts me still, I felt it important to explore. For fear is, I believe, one of the most common human challenges. And fear is also one of the biggest blocks to spiritual growth.

In the poem Nancy and I read earlier, Joy Harjo, a poet of Native American ancestry, writes eloquently of the power of fear. She also shows how hard and how critical it is to face it.

"I take myself back, fear. You are not my shadow any longer. I won’t hold you in my hands." These words were the ones that caught me when I first read Harjo’s poem. My childhood experience of the violent 60s planted seeds of fear in me that blossomed as I grew. As a young teenager, I often dreamed of nuclear war. My apocalyptic dreams were not of bombs and fire but of what would come next: the agonizing weariness of standing in long lines for water; the bleak world of dust and blood; the knowledge that all I loved was lost.

Joy Harjo’s poem reminds me of these dreams. Her nightmares are equally horrific. Emerging from her Native American experience (and that of her ancestors), she conjures images of rape and pillage that are real. With "eyes that can never close" Harjo insists that we look at fear without blinders. Yes, death and destruction happen, in all cultures and at all times. But she knows that such awful occurrences become even more powerful to hurt us if we let the fear of them keep us from living.

So she lets fear go. Not eagerly, for she releases her fear "with all the pain I would know at the death of my daughters." But release it she does, in order to take herself back from its dark shadow. And her fear is released and she is able to own it but not be controlled by it. As she says in an interview [with Bill Moyers in The Language of Life p. 167], "I guess what I am having to learn is to make fear an ally instead of just an enemy."

Perhaps this poem speaks to me because the poet understands that fear is a living thing that manifests itself physically. I want to say to my fears, "Go away! Leave my body and let me live in peace!" But I recognize that the only way to overcome fear is to face it, to acknowledge that some fears come from what is quite real—the human tendency and far too great ability to hate and destroy. Yet, other fears come from deep within the heart—the fear that I won’t be loved, that the people I care for will leave me, that I will fail at my task of living a meaningful life.

The first kind of fear is faced with eyes that never close. And a willingness to say, "I am not afraid." The second kind is subtler, thus perhaps more difficult to release. For to let go of these kind of personal and usually irrational fears is to acknowledge the power fear can have over us. To quote Harjo, "Oh, you have choked me [fear], but I gave you the leash. You have gutted me but I gave you the knife. You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire." Such fear is strong but its strength diminishes when we release it and own it.

I expect that everyone sitting in this room today knows something about fear. Each of us will have our own relationship to it, based on our own experiences. Fear is not, in and of itself, a negative thing. In fact, fear can be entirely appropriate in some settings. Psychologist Thom Rutledge, in his book Embracing Fear, claims, and rightly, I believe, that "fear is an essential part of our nature… an alarm system. It is there to get our attention, to push us in one direction or another, out of harm's way. Fear is not pathological; it is part of our intelligence, part of an ingenious guidance system to help ensure our survival" [pp.4 –5].

Rutledge draws a distinction between what he calls healthy and unhealthy fear, and he uses two human images to help us understand them. Healthy fear, he says (echoing Joy Harjo), is an ally, "ready to inform you of real dangers, as they come into view" [p. 8]. Healthy fear suggests you get out of the way of a speeding car, go to the doctor if you feel a strange lump, and run like the dickens if a person is chasing you with a weapon. Healthy fear is clear, concise, and usually pretty obvious.

Unhealthy fear is another story all together, and it is what concerns me more. Unhealthy fear is the kind that keeps us from being fully ourselves, that stops us in our tracks when we try to take a risk, that whispers in our ear that the world is just too dangerous for us to try something new or make a change. Unhealthy fear is, in Rutledge's view, a bully. This bully is the inner voice inside us that tells us we aren't good enough or smart enough or together enough to be whole. This bully is fear run amok; it is Chicken Little and the boy who cried wolf. But like real bullies, the best way to approach this unhealthy fear is to face up to it. And then learn to embrace it as a part of who we are.

Such an easy thing to do, right? Would that it were so. Yet, it is essential. So, where do we begin? The first step is to identify our fears. Rutledge uses a process he calls, "climbing down the ladder" to help people identify what their real fear is. When people come to him for help, they usually have a sense of what they are afraid of. But Rutledge invites his clients to dig a bit deeper under the surface of their fear to see what is really going on.

Let me explain this technique by using an example from his book. Nancy will help me role model this. While this is scripted, it is based on real life experiences. In this brief scene, Nancy has come to see Thom Rutledge because she is having trouble making the decision to start her own business. I will play the part of Rutledge while Nancy plays the part of his client. (From Embracing Fear, pp. 39-40.]

B: Nancy, what are you afraid of?
N: I'm afraid of failing, especially since I would be giving up a successful and stable career to make this job change.
B: Let me use an exercise to see if we can unpack that fear. I want you to respond with the first thoughts that come to mind. If I change careers and fail, then…
N: I will feel terrible.
B: If I fail and feel terrible…
N: My husband will never forgive me.
B: If my husband never forgives me…
N: I will lose him.
B: If I lose my husband…
N: I'll be alone.
B: If I am alone…
N: If I am alone…..I am nothing.
B: If I am nothing…
N: If I am nothing…my whole life will be wasted.

This example from Embracing Fear shows the challenge of really understanding what lies beneath what may seem like a rational fear based on making a change. But the character Nancy played is not working out of healthy fear when she keeps herself from doing something risky but potentially very positive (like starting her own business). Instead, her unhealthy fear springs from a deep place inside her that says if she fails at this new career her life will be wasted. A huge leap but one that many of us might make in the face of fear.

I for example, have the tendency to leap extraordinarily quickly from a friend being a few minutes late to that friend being dead on the road in a car accident. And because I have this fear, I became a profound worrier. Worry is one of fear's offspring and it can be extremely destructive to the spirit, as it keeps us from living in the moment and trusting that all will be well. To help us offset this tendency, Jaco and I use these two excellent reminders we discovered some years ago: "Worry is a misuse of the imagination;" it is also "praying for what you don't want."

When I first did a ladder exercise like we just modeled, I had to come to terms with the fact that my deepest fear really had nothing to do with car accidents. My fear was that I might end up alone and abandoned, which may have emerged from that scary day in April when I was sure my father would be killed like Martin Luther King, Jr. While I cannot say that I have given up my worries, I do know that the more I understood the deep place from which they sprung, the less control they had over me. Today, I worry less and trust more and my spirit is stronger because of it.

At the heart of unhealthy fear lie profound spiritual issues. Thom Rutledge has noticed in his work how two themes emerge again and again: the fear of aloneness and the fear of being without purpose, two deeply religious issues [p. 195]. He believes that these two fears speak to the human need for community and meaning. Thus, our fears can be our teachers. But we cannot learn from them unless we are willing to face them and release them.

Here is where faith enters in. Everything I read this week about fear kept pointing back to this: fear is the biggest block to love. Fear can be a prison, keeping us from having the trust to reach out to others. Fear makes us, as a nation, build walls instead of bridges. Fear can keep us, as a community, from sharing our vulnerabilities and offering our gifts. Fear can hold us back, as individuals, from being fully who we are.

Many years ago, my friend and colleague Wayne Arnason wrote these words: "Take courage friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone."

His words remind me of why we are here today. Despite the inherent dangers of being alive in the 21st century, we in this place have chosen to come together in community to care for each other. All of us, I expect, have fears that come with us, both known and unknown, healthy and unhealthy. But, when we bring our fears into the light of community, allowing ourselves to "unfurl our wings" and be who we are meant to be, wondrous things can happen. It doesn't mean that we stop being afraid because others are with us. But remember what it felt like when, as a child, your nightmare was eased when a parent or sibling held you while you cried and told you it would be OK? It's a little bit like that here. We need each other to remind us that trust and hope and love are possible, even when it seems like the world is falling apart around us.

Do you remember what it felt like in those days after September 11, 2001? How scared and sad most of us were? I do. But I also remember how powerful it was to come here, week after week, to be held in the heart of community. During those hard days, I was afraid a lot. But the healing power of community allowed me to move beyond fear to a place of hope and trust.

While it is true that we live in a world that really is, at times, very dangerous, we also live in a world where fear is used to keep us from engaging with people who are different in healing ways. We live in a world where fear is used to teach hatred and intolerance. We live in a world where we are taught that courage means meeting violence with violence, and where bullies are held up as role models. What a difference it would make if we, as individuals and as communities could release our fear and learn instead to trust and love.

I know it is not something easily done. I do not think that our "fears will burn away" just because we wish them to. But I do know from hard personal experience both the toll fear can take on a person and the powerful strength that comes from facing fear and releasing it. Many years ago, I realized the power that fear has over me and began the work of letting it go. It still grips me. But, like the poet Joy Harjo, I find hope in the act of releasing my fear and in the knowledge that even I can be brave. "I am not afraid to be hated," she writes. "I am not afraid to be loved." And I would add, I am not afraid to live, fully and lovingly, even in this world that we are taught is such a dangerous place.

When our music director David Chapman heard about this service on fear, he found a piece of music that is all about living in the face of danger. Before we sing it, let me share the words with you. Though written originally for a Broadway musical in 1978, the composer Jerry Herman did a new arrangement after the events of September 11. Here are his words. May they serve as a reminder of the power of hope and trust in the face of fear and danger.

"I'll be here tomorrow, alive and well and thriving.
I'll be here tomorrow, it's simply called surviving.
If before the dawn this fragile world might crack, someone's got to try to put the pieces back.
So, from beneath the rubble you'll hear a little voice say,
'Life is worth the trouble, have you a better choice?'
So let the skeptics say tonight we're dead and gone,
I'll be here tomorrow simply going on."

May we have faith enough, and love, to simply go on even in the face of fear. Amen.

Sunday Sermons | Newsletter Columns
What is a PBUUC Sunday Service Like?
| Upcoming Sunday Services at PBUUC | Texts of Previous Sunday Sermons

Back to PBUUC's Home Page

Click here for more advanced search options.

If you are experiencing any technical problems with this page, click here.