Overruling Fear

Today is a sad and somber day, and it probably always will be. The 9-11 Memorial services are going on now, as family members read the names of the loved ones they’ve lost and continue to grieve, and firefighters ring the bell commemorating each precious life. Every September 11th I feel echoes of the sadness, the shock, the grief, the heartbreaking injustice of that original day, that beautiful fall morning that turned so unexpectedly into an unthinkable nightmare. It became one of those “before” and “after” events that forever after mark and catalog our memories.

I was in the checkout line at Marsh when I first heard that a plane had flown into one of the Trade Center towers. I remember the clerk’s face as she told me—very pale, her eyes wide. She said with a kind of shock and bewilderment that it sounded like a pilot had made a terrible miscalculation. Neither of us knew in that moment how much worse the situation really was.

Those of us who were old enough to have the memory and images and feelings of 9-11 emblazoned in our memories may have felt a type of fear that day we’d never felt before. A deep vulnerability that made us question our safety on a large scale. Hopefully we haven’t felt such terror since–although the early months of COVID, before a vaccine became available, was likely a close second. Unless we grow up in a war zone or live in circumstances that continually put us in harm’s way, most of us deal with fear on a much smaller and more personal scale than the fear we experienced together on 9-11 and the days following.

Fear is something we all deal with in our lives to greater and lesser degrees. Some of us are worriers and some of us aren’t; some people have the ability to make a basic decision about fear and put it out of their minds: “I’ll deal with it when and if it happens.” But however vulnerable we feel to it, fear—and its quieter and more chronic cousin, anxiety—touches our lives often; for some people, daily and almost continually. We know from research that when we live in fear, we close down; our lives get smaller; we trust fewer and fewer people; we don’t venture out; we focus all our energies on trying to stay safe. We feel we need to stay vigilant, always assessing the threat, which keeps us tuned into our social media feeds and television channels, listening for more news telling us things are going from bad to worse in our world. We feel we need to be ready, so we keep watching. On social media there is a term for that: doomscrolling. It’s an understandable and natural response to the deep fear and anxiety triggered by an unstoppable torrent of upsetting news. And advertisers of course capitalize on that and are making record profits from the fear they are helping to perpetuate.

But thankfully there’s another way to live in the world that doesn’t keep us a prisoner to fear. There’s another way to see, to test what’s true, to determine what’s really there, to live our lives with hope. Isaiah spelled it out for us in our Old Testament reading:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah understands what it means to be weary from trying so hard, from worrying so much, from feeling so threatened. In fact he uses the word weary three times in this short passage. The people of his day—and the people of ours—are bone weary; weary with grief. We’re tired of the confusion, the fear, the division and chaos.

A few days ago on the Quaker Morning mini-podcast I’ve been doing, I shared that I awoke one night this week at 2:30am and had trouble getting back to sleep because my head was full of worries about my upcoming trip to see my kids in Charleston. I was worried about all I had to do before I left and feeling guilty about leaving the animals and just generally unsettled about being away from home. For the last several years, I haven’t traveled much; I am as happy at home in my garden as I am anywhere in the world. But not long ago my youngest son and daughter-in-law moved to South Carolina, so now love calls me forth, and anxieties or no, I have a journey just ahead.

Laying there in the dark, my mind swirling with worried thoughts, I reached out to God for a thought about it, like how to respond to it, and it occurred to me that my anxious thoughts were a painting picture of a situation where God is not—where I feel alone and don’t know how to solve a problem or I’m too far away to help. All my anxiety was related to that idea of feeling alone and somehow outside of God’s reach, which I know to be not ever true. We are never, ever outside of the reach of God’s love.

So right there I knew I could say to those anxious thoughts, Peace be still, I saw they were simply images of illusion I was using to scare myself. I also saw that for me anxiety often has a fear of judgment attached—that I’ll judge myself or someone else will judge me for what I did or didn’t do. Picturing judgment, from ourselves and others, makes us feel vulnerable and uncertain, and heightening our anxiety and making us afraid to take risks and be bold.

But, there in that moment in the middle of the night, in answer to my simple, heart-felt reaching out to God, I saw something different. If God is everywhere and God is love and there is that of God in everyone, then judgment also must simply be an illusory thought, not true, not something I need to worry about. Judgment must be a thought I use to scare myself.

With those clear and loving new thoughts, I was flooded with relief and quickly slipped off to sleep, worries gone, the love of God wrapped around me like my blankets. What I take from that late-night learning is that reaching out to God is a sure antidote to fear, a light that helps us see and a presence that comforts us. Whenever fearful thoughts arise, we can recognize them as the phantoms they are and look through them to the Love that is God’s reality.

I’ve mentioned before that as part of my role at hospice I give workshops on mindfulness, which teaches us how to be fully aware of what we’re experiencing in the present moment. This helps lessen anxiety and also helps with hurts and regrets from the past, because when we focus our thoughts only on the moment we are actually living, we typically see that we’re safe and reasonably content. When we replay things from the past, we go over all the hurts and slights that may still feel unfinished and unforgiven, and that dredges up emotions that upset us. If we look forward into the future, we may feel pressure or anxiety about things that could happen or might happen or have a chance of happening, which increases our sense of alarm and fear. But right now, here in this beautiful space, we are probably feeling pretty peaceful, mostly okay; safe, at ease, relaxed. This moment we are living precisely now is the only one where we can truly with God and feel God’s love—for us, for those we care about, and for our world. This moment, now, is the one in which God welcomes and embraces us.

In John’s first letter, we heard how he reasons out his conclusion that there is no fear in love and perfect love drives out fear. Fear, John tells us, has to do with punishment, and the person who lives in fear has not yet been made perfect in love.

John goes on to say that all love comes from God and that all people who live in love are living in God, and God lives in them as well. It is a seamless, ongoing flow of love, from God, to us and through us into our experience exactly where it is needed. Fear would tell us to build walls to keep the world out—how else will we be safe? But in order for God’s kingdom to come, the love has to flow and keep flowing outward. It’s the most powerful force in the universe. Love will ultimately shine away all walls and obstacles built against it. Each of us are given the opportunity to be part of that healing work even now.

When the inspiration for this message occurred to me this week, I wondered whether I could change the title of “Overrulling Fear” to perhaps “Calming Fear” or “Overcoming Fear.” But inside I felt a sense of no—overruling was supposed to be the word. I didn’t particularly like it because it brought to mind a picture of a court of law, with one attorney arguing against another. But as I wrote this message yesterday, it became clear to me that that is just what we’re talking about here: How choosing love overrules our belief in fear. When we turn toward God for help in a moment of fear or worry, God’s Love frees us of the phantom thoughts that were scaring and upsetting us and wraps us in comfort and peace.

You can imagine how the trial would unfold. The attorney for fear would tell us, the jury, to simply look around at that world today for evidence–consider all the anger and division, the ugliness and violence and lack of care and respect people have for one another. The attorney would paint a picture of a world falling apart, a global community that is irredeemable, much too far gone to ever return to caring about goodness and peace and justice for all. Look at that world, the attorney would say, there’s no God out there.

But then love’s attorney would stand, smiling, patient, and kind, and speaking would remind us of something important we’ve temporarily forgotten: that God is love, and that God is present in every kind and lovely gesture, in every heart that looks out for another, and that God is with each of us, personally, always. What’s more, God is everywhere, all at once—none of us can ever be outside the embrace of God’s love. As the attorney speaks, our hearts and mind would hear and remember: Perfect love casts our fear and God’s love is perfect. George Fox said in 1678, “The love of God has been poured into your hearts, so let it banish all fear.”

I think our verdict would be clear at that point. Fear puts on a good show, but that’s all it is–all show with no substance; Love alone is God’s reality. And it is in God’s image, we are made.

In closing I’d like to share a lovely poem from Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a retired pastor:

There are those who hope to get through life unaffected, untouched.
But I say: life, affect me. God, touch me.
Let this life and all its pains and beauties shape me.
For whatever genius you place in the wrenching hands of fate and all that befalls me,
you also work your art in me;
and it is only in the dance between hand and clay that the masterpiece is born.

I'd rather be shaped by life than by my own little self.
So, yes, I will let beauty shape gratitude and wonder in me,
and suffering shape patience and gentleness,
and failure shape humility and perseverance,
and pain shape sensitivity to the heart,
and even loss, oh, the firm hand of loss pressing on the clay,
shape love and more loveliness, and attention to this day.

I will be shaped, molded and remade a thousand times,
because all the Artist ever means is to perfect me,
I who have always been, ever from the beginning,
dust of the earth you have gathered up,
shaped with loving hands, and breathed your life into.
Shape me, God, create me again, and keep breathing new life into me.


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