Monday, February 28, 2011

A Modicum Of Boldness In The Age Of Anxiety

Our opening prayer is called the collect of the day,
because it collects the themes from each of the lessons
into a single point.
The single point is in the first line,
“Most loving Father whose will it is for us . . . . to fear nothing
but the loss of you . . . . Preserve us from faithless fears
and worldly anxieties.”

Today’s lessons are about fear.
A funny thing happened to our culture a few decades ago.
During the Depression, the President used to tell us
that we had nothing to fear but fear itself.
Courage and hope were the backbone of life itself.
Courage and hope were national policy
and core values of our culture.

But as we entered the next era,
we were taught to be afraid.
The government taught us to be afraid of communists
lurking behind every bush.
We were afraid of the atom bomb for decades.
Then we learned to be afraid of all sorts of things.
The poet W. H. Auden captured the new spirit
of our time in his poem The Age Of Anxiety.
The composer William Bernstein saw Auden had pegged
the mood of our time, so he wrote The Age of Anxiety symphony.

Jerome Robbins picked up the idea and wrote The Age of Anxiety ballet.
And philosopher Alan Watts titled the first chapter one of his early books,
“the age of anxiety.”

Soon, corporate marketing learned to play on our fears.
They made us afraid of criminals to sell us alarms for our window,
afraid of accidents to sell us insurance,
afraid of body odor to sell us soap.

The escalation of fear has been accelerating.
When I left Idaho to move to New York,
I found people there were afraid o being mugged.
That made sense to me.

But 3 years later I moved to Macon, Georgia,
a sleepy little Southern college town,
and found that people were more afraid there
than New Yorkers.

Today, the P. A system of every airport I go through,
tells me that various precautions are being taken
because of “heightened security.”
It sounds as if something especially dangerous is happening that day.
But it says that every day.
The security is perpetually heightened.
“The security level is orange” an ominous voice says.
That’s bad. Almost red. But it’s always orange, always.
We should always be afraid.

Clergy training is grounded in fear.
Do not let a child sit on your lap at the parish pic nick.
You may be accused of child molesting.
Never meet with a church member of the opposite sex
without the door open, a witness present,
and a tape recorder running.
And it might be best do use the same precautions
with church members of the same sex.
Churches close their doors to AA groups
and others who want to use our buildings
because we are concerned about potential liability.

Risk management is a leading science.
I wonder what today risk managers would have said is
to Ferdinand and Isabella when crazy Columbus
said he wanted to sail around the world to India.
What would they have told Lewis and Clark?
What would they have told Jeremiah Johnson
about his career choice to be a mountain man.

I have been one of those crazy people singing songs
and carrying signs for this cause or that cause for decades
– end the war, desegregate, ban the bomb, you name it.
Next month I am participating in a rally against human trafficking,
but this is the first time I have been required to register as a participant
and – get this – sign a liability waiver in case I fall off the sidewalk
or another demonstrator pokes me in the eye with his sign.
We built a culture, we formed a civilization,
with courage and hope.
We formed a free society by daring to take risks.
But that culture built on the foundation of courage is crumbling
from a studied and deliberate practice of cowardice.

Fear is a tool of manipulation and control.
Fear and intimidation keep people from exercising power politically.
Fear is used to sell everything from cars to mouthwash
not to mention alcohol and xanax.
And the price we pay is our very lives
because life requires a certain modicum of boldness.

I don’t expect congregations to be major Biblical scholars.
But I want you to know this.
If you don’t know anything else about the Bible I want you to know this.
What instruction did Jesus give people more than any other?
What was the one imperative sentence he said more than any other – by far.
It was this very simple sentence – “Do not be afraid.”//

The bottom line central message Jesus taught was “Do not be afraid.”
He didn’t make that up himself.
It was an old teaching in his religion.
When God first called Abram to leave his home in Ur and travel to Canaan,
God said to Abram “Do not be afraid.”
When God called Moses to liberate his people in Egypt, God said to Moses,
“Do not be afraid.”

Every time God sent the judges or the kings into battle,
he always said, “Do not be afraid.”
Prophets like Isaiah said, the Lord has inscribed you on the palm of his hand.
"Do not be afraid."
So it went down through the centuries
until one day an angel appeared to the Virgin Mary,
and the first thing he said to her was “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus’ mother probably taught her little boy
the words of that angel, “Do not be afraid.”

That’s what today’s lessons are about.
Paul was under attack at his church in Corinth.
People were calling him a fraud and a swindler.
But Paul was not afraid of their accusations.
He was not afraid of the judgment of the people.
He would not be silenced, shut down, or driven out by fear.
In Matthew, Jesus says not to be afraid of poverty,
not to be afraid of not having the necessities of life.
Don’t let fear consume your life.

Well, it’s easy enough to say “do not be afraid.”
But there really is danger in the world.
There really are threats to our safety.
There really are criminals, terrorists, drunk drivers,
and carcinogens.
And there are plenty of forces in society
to play on our fears, to rev them up, to amplify them.
How can we possibly not be afraid
especially when we live in the age of anxiety.

We are going to feel afraid sometimes.
That’s human.
But when Jesus says “do not be afraid,”
he does not mean never feel fear.
He means do not “be afraid”
– do not let the fear become your identity.
It’s one thing to have a feeling.
It’s another thing when the feeling has us.

We can feel fear without believing our fears.
We can feel fear without letting the fear control our lives.
We can be aware of a risk but not live our lives
like mice hiding in the dark.

Of course we need to be reasonable.
We need to take sensible precautions.
Having faith does not mean leaving our wallet in the car
with the door unlocked.
But faith means daring to live our lives trusting God
to bring us through life and even through death
into his love and blessing.

Faith is knowing that the God of love and mercy
who created us is also our destiny
and nothing can take that from us.

Paul wrote,
“If God is for us who can be against us. . . .
For I am certain of this:
Neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities,
nothing already in existence and nothing yet to come,
nor any power, nor heights nor depths,
nor any created thing whatever, will be able
to separate us from the love of God.”

He was echoing the teaching of Isaiah 800 year before,
“Surely it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For he is my stronghold and my sure defense
and he will be my Savior.”

There is a way to pray into that faith.
Just close your eyes and let your fears come to mind,
all your worries one by one, summon them up,
and as each one comes to mind hold it there and say
“Even if . . . “ then fill in the blank with your fear.

“Even if this happen, I am a beloved child of God
and all will be well.”

However great our fear may be,
whatever disasters may actually befall us,
God is bigger. God’s love is greater.
And God will be our Savior.
That’s the Christian way of risk management.