What to Do with Fear


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

January 14, 2018

Texts: Psalm 2; Acts 2

      The cover of last Sunday’s  New York Times Book Review had a drawing of fearful persons peeking out from underneath an underground shelter with the title “End Times” listing some of the natural disasters we have faced over the past year: Fire, earthquakes, rising seas, storms, mass extinction, and just general run of the mill doom. The books reviewed spoke to pretty much most of those issues. This was not one of the more feel good issues, to be sure; however, in spite of the front cover of the Book Review, even the most pessimistic of the books reviewed provided a Plan B, or how to move beyond the fear our greed has created.

       Then, of course, there was the cover of the New Yorker several weeks ago with a drawing of Kim Jong-il as a toddler playing with planes and nuclear bombs. Al-though, as many New Yorker front covers, it contained a measure of truth, it did little more than to contribute to the increase in the not-so-new fear of nuclear annihilation. Some of us are old enough to remember those duck and cover drills, where we cowered beneath our school desks with our arms over our heads so that we would not suffer concussions from the nuclear explosion sure to come.        And having grown up in Washington, D.C., we were continually told that we would be the first hit.  So duck and cover was our way to safety.  

       This morning’s Psalm, portions of which were so beautifully set to music by Georg Friedrich Handel, speaks to many of our fears and concerns as it did to the ancient Israelites.  Although the Psalm speaks of the attacks against the Lord and the Lord’s anointed, one would find it hard put to draw a comparison to the present situation in the United States.  As Abraham Lincoln once commented during the Civil War, “my concern is not whether God is on our side, my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

       It is indeed always easy to claim that God is on our side, as our leaders have often done when faced with external threats as well as war. Most leaders of nations try to tell their people just that when faced with divisions and threats.  And when the “God on our side” language doesn’t ring true, there’s always the call to crass patriot-ism even by presidents who can’t remember the words to their own national anthems. But even for those persons, the call to fear is still effective.

       Human beings – all human beings – have certain physiological responses to fear whether the cause is real or imagined. As soon as we feel fear, a small almond shaped organ in our brains called the amygdala sends signals to our central nervous systems causing an increase in heart rate and blood pressure combined with an in-crease in adrenaline and cortisol, moving us to be ready for action.  These responses are a holdover from pre-historic days and served us well so that we did not be-come somebody else’s dinner. Other animals have the same responses.

       What served us well in the past can be detrimental to us now. This is primarily because the brain shuts down as the body is ready for action. The cerebral cortex, the part of the brain most involved in thinking, planning, and judgment becomes impaired as the amygdala takes over. Some people claim there is even a tunnel vision, an inabil-ity to think cogently when one feels rank fear.

       Fortunately, not many of us find ourselves in the situation of feeling rank fear because of a direct physical threat, such as facing a person with a weapon, such as a gun or knife. Sometimes bodily impulses take over and a person facing such a situation will involuntarily urinate.      Fear without any controls, without any way of addressing the situation causing the fear, can be a terrible thing.

       We are now in a time when elected officials believe they can stoke fear in people as twigs in a fireplace, but the fire will engulf them in the end. Tomorrow we remem-ber a man who faced fear but who continued a struggle for equal rights in this society.  Martin Luther King cer-tainly knew fear. Following the success of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, his home was firebombed. King was not home that night but his wife and newborn were; luckily, they were not harmed.

       Shaken but determined, he faced the angry Blacks and urged them to put down weapons because, as he said, “We must meet violence with nonviolence.” Quoting the Sermon on the Mount, he urged them to love their enemies, bless those who curse them, and pray for those who despitefully used them. In this terrible situation, he took control of his fear. And that is what we can do: take control of our fears. And we do that the same way King did: through unending direct action for change.

      King was able to do that not because he believed that God was on his side, but that he was on God’s side. Yes, King showed courage, but even more, he showed perse-verance.  Neither of these actions denies that fear exists or that one fears what might happen. I remember the March on Washington on that hot August day 1963. The government closed; shops closed. Seems strange now, but many people were afraid that there would be bloodshed and violence.

       The organizers of that march acknowledged the fears of the community and acted to assuage them, to assure people there would be no violence. My church at the time, First Congregational under the leadership of David Colwell, set up an assembly line of peanut butter and jelly sand-wiches and cold drinks and helped to make that day one that was orderly and memorable. In that way, the church acted to take control of people’s fears.  

       It is important to both acknowledge and then to take control of the fears that many people have today, even though any one of us may find them ridiculous. If we simply dismiss them, then we cannot take ownership and shape a response that mitigates, assuages, reduces and finally eliminates the fear.  We need to be able to assess what is the real cause of the fear and then to address it.

Look at the fear of immigrants, for instance, or of the looming loss of jobs in rapidly changing industries. Or we could consider the fear generated by the six-gun diplo-macy practiced on the international stage. We fear be-cause we feel we have no control and because our elected leaders hardly inspire confidence. That New Yorker cover hit the nail on the head: a toddler playing with what could destroy the planet as if they were toys. And we feel that the whole thing is beyond our control.

      “Now therefore, O kings, be wise,” the Psalmist warns, telling us that the rulers of the earth should serve the Lord with fear. I would not imagine that Kim Jong-il would ever consider that he serves the Lord with fear; the problem is that neither does Trump. How else could a person elected to such high office use such vulgar language to describe more than half the world?

       The beauty of the Psalms is that they are timeless. Clearly we are not in ancient Israel beset on every side by kingdoms that want to destroy it. But we are beset on every side today primarily by fear, and we feel that fear because we believe we have lost our moorings.

       How to regain our moorings? This Psalm builds on the first one we read last week: “happy is the person who follows the advice or counsel of the Lord.”  This is a Psalm of fear over events that we cannot control. Thus we hope to take refuge in the promise of God that the rulers of the earth will face judgment. But they will not do so until we bring them to task.  

       That is the lesson Martin Luther King taught us.  We can overcome fear with action, determined nonviolent action. This is not just something that happened in the 60s. It can happen today if we are but are determined to make it so. So, on this weekend that honors one of our prophets of facing fear with actions of nonviolence to transform our society into one that accepts all men and women as created equal, children of God, let us continue that process of transformation.

      Let us pray: Transforming God who takes our fears and works them into a power for change, help us to continue to shape our world into the kingdom of peace and equality Jesus of Nazareth opened to us. Amen.