The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? Psalm 27: 1
In the beginning of today’s Gospel when the Pharisee came to Jesus and said, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” do you think they were trying to warn Jesus or fill him with fear? Or perhaps both – because in an odd sort of way the warning does create fear. I remember when I was learning to drive my mother would begin every lesson with “now be careful, watch out, pay attention” while my father handed me the keys and said, “Let’s go get gas and then we’ll rotate the tires.” Mom, in all of her love, instilled anxiety, while Dad encouraged self-sufficiency.
Fear is one of those emotions that when it gets ahold of us it can take over. It arouses awareness of danger and puts us on high alert. Neuroscientists links fear to the amygdala in the lower, primitive brain, located at the base of our skull. This almond sized mass scouts for trouble and when it detects is, sounds an alarm and throws us into fight or flight mode. It produces intense vigilance, riveting our attention on the object of fear, but in doing so creates tunnel vision, allowing the threat to completely take over the brain, leaving little capacity for advanced reasoning.[i] Fear does this in the short term, but also in the long-term. Four months ago, 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh and then on Friday during prayer at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, 50 of our Muslim sisters and brothers were gunned-down, because of long-term, overwhelming, deeply instilled fear. Debilitating fear was also at the heart of the college entrance debacle, where seemingly well-intentioned parents lived in so much fear, they cheated their children’s way into college and in the process humiliated them. College counselors call them “snow-plow parents” who seek to eliminate any obstacle in their children’s way and in doing so, wind up crippling their children and robbing them of adulthood.
Everyone needs to learn how to rotate tires, how to deal with a flat, how to overcome disappointments, how to respect, even love, people who are different from them, how to manage the “Herods” of this world who use fear to manipulate and control. And when fear gets a grip on us, how to move beyond it.
Jesus doesn’t even give Herod a chance. He calls him out, names him a fox and then says, “I’m busy. I have no time for you. There’s work to be done. I’m on my way to Jerusalem.” Jesus has a mission and he stays focused on that. I’ve been listening to a wonderful book called Team of Rivals by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin about Abraham Lincoln and the men who made up his cabinet. Lincoln intentionally included his rivals for the presidency, Republican and Democrat, in those very important posts. And then whenever conflict and strong egos threaten, he gently, but firmly, brought them back to the mission of saving the union and ending slavery. Even in the disastrous early days of the Civil War, when it seemed as if everything was going wrong, instead reacting in fear, Lincoln sought counsel from his team of rivals and then, reflected, pondered and prayed for guidance when making difficult decisions. Neuroscientists would say he moved from being controlled by the reactive amygdala to the frontal cortex of his brain where he could access his imagination. In doing so, fear was cast out.
This is what Psalms do – they cast out fear by moving us from the scary present to the things that might be. They are easy to find too. Just open your Bible to the middle and chances are high that you’ll discover a psalm to save you. I did, on the longest night of my life when with Psalm 130, “out of the depths I cried to the Lord, hear me.” The Lord waited with me like those who watch for the morning. And even though the next day brought grief and sorrow, there was also hope and steadfast love. I think of the comfort found in the words of the Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” Words that carry the dying through death into life and the grieving from despair to hope.
Psalm 27 is especially effective with dealing with fear. It begins with the proclamation that God is our light, our stronghold, that there is nothing to be afraid of. Then it addresses evil doers, adversaries and foes. This makes me wonder if the psalmist was asserting what was already known, perhaps learned through childhood prayers like “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep” words that are deeply held in memory. Only then is the threat mentioned, an encamped army, war and all hell breaking loose. At that point the psalmist bravely moves back and forth from remembered promise to the current challenges. We can almost see what’s happening in the psalmist’s brain – the amygdala reacting to the threat, but then deep memory sets in and instead of fear, there’s confidence and out of the confidence comes imagination. Isn’t this what the life of faith is like? This give and take, threats by enemies and our own worst selves with our pile of grievances and unrelenting shame — followed by pleas to God to be with us, not to cast us out, not to forsake us. Even if our parents abandon us, God takes us in. God teaches us and leads us, God is with us.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After being convicted in plotting to killed Hitler, he was imprisoned. About eight months before his execution in a letter to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich remembered a conversation he had with a young French pastor in America in 1931. He wrote, “We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one.)” He continues, “At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him and said, in effect that I should like to learn to have faith… I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith…. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, success and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith, that is metanoia – a change of heart, a transformation, and that is how one becomes a man, and may I add, a woman, and a Christian.[ii]
The Psalmist puts it this way – believe that we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Then we are told to wait for the Lord; to be strong, and let our hearts have courage. We can dare to do so, because of that mother hen who, even when the foxes get in the chicken coop, refuses to run, just as she had refused to become one of them through threat and fear. Having loved her own who were in the world, she loved them to the end. Her wings nailed to the cross, she died a mother hen. The foxes could not kill her love for her chicks, nor could it steal them away from her. They might have to go through what she went through in order to get past the foxes, but she would be waiting for them on the other side, with love stronger than death.[iii]
She was there for Abraham Lincoln, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, and Martin Luther King, Jr. There for all the martyrs of every time and every place: Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Las Vegas, there for our beloved ones and promises to be with us now and forever.
Let us be strong, take heart and wait for the Lord! Amen.
[i] Peter Steinke, Living by the Word: Fear Factor, Christian Century, February 20, 2007, 20.
[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Eberhard Bethge, Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Macmillan, 1953, 369-370.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Chickens and Foxes,” Bread of Angels, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1991, 126.