Thursday, January 9, 2020


Dear People of Holy Comforter,

FDR famously said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” He may have overstated his case. We know good and well there are threats and dangers about. International affairs, domestic terrorism, climate change, wildfires, mystery drones over Weld County, just daily traffic are enough to make us uneasy. And we are uneasy. But Roosevelt did have a point. The “fear itself” usually poses a greater danger than the things we are afraid of. 

Emotional states tend to become habitual. We get stuck in them. That restricts our capacity for new experiences. It stops our life. The saying goes, “To a hammer, the world looks like a nail.” If we habitually see the world through a lens of fear, even innocent things look scary. We become frozen and unable to move forward. Physically, chronic anxiety is not good for us. We have long known about its direct effect on blood pressure. Newer research suggests chronic anxiety is a significant factor in increasing inflammation and that excessive inflammation adversely affects how our bodies respond to various health threats. Auto-immune disorders are one area where inflammation, though not necessarily the cause, is decidedly not helpful. Bottom line, fear is bad for us. 

My fear isn’t just my problem. Systems theory teaches us what common sense already knows: fear is contagious. It isn’t clear how this happens. But we are more like cattle than we’d like to think. If one jumps, the group stampedes. We may not stampede but we do catch each other’s feelings. When we are feeling someone else’s fear, it’s all the scarier because we don’t even know what we’re afraid of, so we have no clue how to defend against it. 

Faith is the opposite of fear. But faith lives in tension with the unsettling nature of life. We know we have a “firm foundation laid in (his) excellent word.” Then our children have troubles at school, and we don’t know how to help. Or we hear about a crime committed too close for comfort. Or an important work project starts to veer off track. 

The Bible has a lot more to say about fear than it does about sex or other issues we think are religious concerns. It says “Do not be afraid” 365 times, once for each day of the year. The command Jesus gave his disciples more than any other, was “Do not be afraid.” But the Bible knows our ability to live into that command is spotty. In Mark, the angel at Jesus’ tomb announces the resurrection to the women there, tells them “do not be afraid,” and instructs them to go tell the disciples the good news. But they ran away “and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” That’s the last line of the original version of Mark. “They were afraid.” Curtain down. The end. Oh, well. We aren’t going to do this perfectly. 

So what then can we nervous, fallible mortals do? This is not an authoritative or comprehensive  Rx for fear. But here are a few suggestions for starters from an old clergy person who has had his share of panics and walked beside a lot of other Episcopalians through theirs:

1.     Jesus did not say, “Do not feel fear.” He said, “Do not be afraid.” We feel what we feel. There is no point trying not to feel it. But we don’t have to live in it. We don’t have to identify with our fears. We don’t have to believe them without calmly checking the facts. We don’t have to act out of fear instead of faith. We can have our fears without letting our fears have us. A subtle truth of psychology is that feelings often come before thoughts. We feel afraid. Then our mind generates thoughts to justify the fear. If we can catch the process early, we will at least recognize those thoughts as secondary effects of our fear, not the causes of it. 

2.     We can take our  basic existential stand that the ultimate meaning and value of everything is God, and God is not at risk. In God all that is good, true, or beautiful are preserved for Eternity. That is why we trust in the face of all threats that, as Lady Julian assured us, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well.”

3.     We can step out of the frantic pace of life, which is essentially anxiety driven, to notice “the still point of the turning world.” (Eliot). Various prayer practices are effective for returning us to the stillness. Centering Prayer and yoga are two examples. There are also effective breathing exercises. In The Healing Power of the Breath, Drs. Brown and Gerbarg prescribe several simple exercises that proved effective in their treatment of 9/11 first responders for trauma and related physical symptoms.

4.     We can find where we feel the fear in our bodies and just attend to it, not trying to banish it or change it or talk it into feeling differently. Just sit with the fear without being swallowed up by it but also without judging it. It’s just a feeling, not a sin. Hold it as you might a frightened child and let it be.

5.     We can practice intentionally being a community of faith – instead of a community of fear – for each other. That means being a community in which it is ok to feel afraid. The community of faith is strong enough to handle that. But we shape our practices to accept and reassure one another that despite all the scary stuff, our God reigns and all shall be well. We are better together. We can get each other through this life.

Blessings always,