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Fear Itself

Last autumn my partner, Jennifer, and I took a long weekend in Cape May, New Jersey. You might know the town. It is a pretty, Victorian-era, seacoast town. One night we decided to take a ghost tour by bus. The tour drove us by house after house and the tour guide would tell us about the ghostly sightings in each place. As the bus rounded the bend the tour guide said, "Now Jackson Street is the most haunted street in Cape May and the most haunted place on Jackson Street is the third-floor suite of the Merry Widow Inn." Would you care to know where in Cape May my partner, Jennifer and I were staying?

That night I found that I was restless and did not sleep well. I was listening for the ghosts. It is not that I believe in such things consciously but spirits and monsters are the creation of the subconscious mind—that part of ourselves which psychological theories say is in control when we sleep. It was not rational, but some fears are like that.

Fear is sometimes irrational like my uneasy sleep after learning that my room was supposed to be haunted. I do not know if ghosts exist but I probably should not be losing sleep over it. Such belongs more to the world of children than to the world of adults. If you are sometimes restless at night then you are not alone. Those fears and others try everyone now and then. I can remember too many nights when I thought something was too great to sleep; too many nights when I fretted and could not find my way out of my fear. Sometimes the fear that I felt motivated me to plan for some consequence.

Fear is a powerful thing. In his first inaugural address to a nation suffering through the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Americans that, "all we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Roosevelt probably knew more about fear than most people imagined when he spoke those words. He led the nation through one of its most tumultuous eras from his wheelchair. He feared that one day the American people would learn that their leader was physically disabled and that the knowledge of his infirmity would cause them to lose confidence in his leadership. Had Roosevelt let go of that podium, he might have fallen and the entire nation might have seen through his elaborate fa├žade. Somehow though, I doubt that knowing that Roosevelt was physically handicapped would have lessened his amazing leadership.

Yet, in saying that "only thing we need fear is fear itself," Roosevelt was trying to turn the nation's attention from the anxiety that had overtaken every aspect of life at that time. He was trying to revision, to name, the fear that he felt Americans should experience. He was confronting the fear directly.

That is the necessary way that we have to deal with our fears. If you remember when you were a child and knew that a monster was in the closet, only opening the closet with the light on let you know that your fears were groundless. You probably did that when a parent was nearby. As you grew older, you gained the confidence to turn the light on yourself and open the closet yourself. You learned to confront the fear directly. Eventually you no longer opened the closet at all seeking out the monster.

By confronting the fear, you were able to diminish it. Knowing the truth set you free from your fear. Is it any different now that you are an adult?

My late colleague, Fern Stanley, used to speak of "wasting dread." She meant that we spend time worrying about something and later discover that the fear was worse than the reality. We consume energy fretting about something and later discover that it was not worthy of our anxiety.

Fear can cripple us if we let it. It can prevent us from seeking out opportunity and new life. Our anxiety can prevent us from reaching for beauty and love and justice. If we permit fear to overtake us we turn from the adventure that life is presenting. If we permit fear to overtake us we think in terms of scarcity rather than abundance, preservation rather than mission.

I will not pretend that I do not experience fear. I experience some degree of fear every day. But I know that fear should not be shaping my life nor yours nor ours together in this church. The most important thing that we can do is to live boldly, without even the fear of death.

Yes, even the fear of death. Martin Luther King, Jr. tells us what it is like to live abundantly, without fear, given the night before he was assassinated. He states, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place." In the closing words to his speech he seems to acknowledge that his life is in danger and he faces his own death. Prophetically he  closes:

. . . I've looked over and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I'm so happy tonight; I'm not worried tonight; I'm not fearing any man.

King seemed to know that his death was imminent but he had to live without fear of death. He had to struggle for justice for all in this nation. It was a force in his life that was stronger than fear. Yes, he did die the next day but the courage of his life is still with us and his voice is heard echoing through the many people who have followed him. Without King's fearlessness, his courage, we could not be where we are today.

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Yet, it is our ability to confront our fears that offers us the possibility of connection and transformation. When I first entered the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga nineteen years ago I remember being really scared. I grew up in a more conservative, very Southern, religious tradition and I had been afraid to attend church for years. I feared that I would be pressured to conform to someone else's expectations. I feared that I would discover that, despite their idealistic pamphlets, that the Unitarian Universalists would be as dogmatic as every other religion I had encountered. I also feared that being with the Unitarian Universalists would change me. (And it did! Look at what happened!)

Connection and transformation; those were the forces that moved me to walk into a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They were stronger than the fears that I had. Perhaps your journey into the Unitarian Universalist movement was less anxious but I imagine that it was also shaped by the need for connection and transformation as well.

An older minister once told me that people often come to church in crisis because they need connection. They need to know that whatever they fear—divorce, loss, death—they come to know that they do not travel with their fear alone. Even if it is death that they face, they need the reassurance that the congregation will be with them as they experience their fear. It seems so simple but the most important words that we can offer to each other might be, "We will make it through this together." With that commitment and connection, most people can make it through their crisis, even if that crisis is death.

That simple connection is probably one of the greatest gifts that Unitarian Universalist churches give. Few communities can promise to walk together through that fear without setting preconditions of specific theological belief or other qualification. We can say that we will walk together through our fears without having to say that all of us share the same theology. We can say that we will care unconditionally because we believe in the human spirit. Our connection enables us to be bold. It changes us.

There is a much deeper antidote to our fears though. In his most recent book, Forrest Church, the minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City speaks about fear. He writes that most people believe that the opposite of "love" is "hate." Church argues though that the opposite of love is not hate but fear. Fear, Forrest Church tells us, makes us close up ourselves, turning away from new possibility, connection and transformation.

That love that overcomes fear is our religious heritage. The Universalists, the people who established this congregation, believed that all people were eventually destined to be united with God after death. They did not believe in eternal salvation because of human nature but because God was full of love for all. They believed that God's love was greater than the wrath of God preached from so many pulpits then and now. They believed that when their love for humanity was expansive, that they modeled it in their own lives and churches much in the manner of the God they worshiped.

We who follow them in this faith are challenged to remember our Universalist forebearers example and not to permit our fears to close us off from a better future. Certainly, whatever fears we personally might have about our future in this church, this city, and this nation, we can know that the people who were here before us also were afraid and yet we are here because they risked all for love.

Today we have traveled through fear and, I hope, that you have the tools to work through some of your fears. Franklin Delano Roosevelt told us that fear itself was all that we should fear. We learned to examine our fears by confronting them. We discovered that connection with each other and the Spirit of Life enables us to cope with our fear. We remembered those transformative experiences that changed us into people who could face our fears. We considered that love is the opposite of fear and that love is still the foundation of this faith and this church as it was in the past.

Whatever you fear, I hope that your fears do not consume you. There are worse things than dying—and not living boldly and not loving to the depths of your being are two of them. Take courage, friends, whatever fears are with you, you are not alone. Take courage, we will make it through our fear together.

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The Subtlety of Water
"We Remember What It
   Means to Be Irish"

Fear Itself
Lessons from the Edge
I'm Here to Recruit You
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  © 2017 Larry W. Smith, Unitarian Universalist Minister. All rights reserved.