06 April 2010

The Flight of Fear

One of the most powerful reflective words in the English language is "fear." It strikes a discordant note in the hearts of the most stalwart persons. Accusing another of being afraid has caused wars and untold pain. The emotion that is described as "fear" can paralyze entire groups of people and obscure/distort the images and events directly in front of them.

On the other side of this coin, "fear" is the most misunderstood and misused word in the English language. It is adequate to describe one type of emotional response to a circumstance, but the word is used to describe a whole range of emotions that really aren't fearful. It is a word used to provoke others into actions that may have absolutely no grounding in the reality of the moment. Human emotions are the most shallow and least trustworthy bases for action known in creation. The law describes certain types of murder as "crimes of passion" (read: emotion).

In his first inaugural address in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself..." Those words were spoken at a time considered to be the worst of the Great Depression. Fear was rampant, and the American spirit at one of its lowest in history. Yet, Roosevelt -- himself suffering the slow but steady ravages of polio -- stood tall and spoke those words with a kind of authority that began to transform society and move it to a place of confidence and security.

Theologians and psychologists have been trying to get at the roots of human fear for generations. Both Carl Jung and Murray Bowen (MD, Psychiatrist who began his research at Menninger Clinic and later founded the Center For Family Process at Georgetown University Medical School) have been modern pioneers in placing fear appropriately within the frame of human character and sequential actions. It was Murray Bowen who isolated the "lineage" of fear, which is: anxiety leads to fear; fear leads to anger; anger leads to hatred; hatred leads to destruction. (Star Wars fans will remember Yoda quoting an abridged version of this).

To state this in a more practical way: We get worried, which raises a lot of fearful responses regarding the outcome of events about which we are worried. Fear festers like an inflammatory infection and finally bursts. This bursting forth is recognized as anger, which can take a variety of ugly forms. Anger can also fester and, like bone cancer, strike at the very heart of our character. The product of that process is hatred. Hatred can be expressed from benign neglect or prejudice to an outright hostile bigotry, judgmentalism and targeted aggression. Hatred, once released, is always destructive....to persons, property, environment, civilizations. Pure hatred knows no bounds in its destructive rampage.

The next time you get anxious, think of the experience as being the embryo of what could become a murderous debacle. Remember, also, murder includes actions which have nothing whatever to do with ending a physical life.

As I cast my thoughts and prayers toward Easter last week (I was preparing the sermon I preached on Easter Day), a little bit of sociology emerged. In the last three decades I have noticed that the generation represented by my parents ("The Greatest Generation" as termed by Tom Brokaw), were very invested in the totality of what we call the Triduum of Holy Week. These are the Holy Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and The Great Vigil of Easter. As a child, the church would be nearly filled on these days...and then again for the Sunday Easter liturgies.

Now that The Greatest Generation is thinning out, we still see a number of folks at the Maundy Thursday Liturgy. It is bright and has a ring of confidence as we reflect upon and respond symbolically to the three commands of Jesus (servanthood, remembrance, watch/pray). Good Friday has become a truly lightly attended day of rites. Our subsequent generations are anxious and fearful people, when it comes to dealing with death, emptiness and desolation. There is a question to this that I will post out later.

Realizing the above is an over generalization, it reflects the reality that we are Easter people who don't have any idea what makes Easter happen. When I was a cathedral dean, we were having Easter Vigil after sunset on Saturday evening. The lights would be out, and ushers helped folks find seats in the darkened cathedral nave. One year, a newcomer who had never been to an Easter Vigil, entered the dimmed Narthex and looked into the dark, cavernous space. With wide eyes, he looked at us and exclaimed, "Wow, it's like a tomb in there!" Without missing a beat, my Honorary Canon (Leonel Mitchell, retired professor of sacramental theology at Seabury-Western Seminary) smiled broadly and said, "Yes, isn't it?" That was the idea.

We fear the dark, because we often fear what we cannot see. That's why agnosticism, cynicism and complacency about things spiritual gains a foothold in our lives. St. Paul said it well, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God." Try this line of logic: compassion leads to healing; healing leads to threat to the control of others; threat to control leads to conspiracy; conspiracy leads to uprising; uprising leads to false accusation; false accusation leads to death; death leads to resurrection. THAT is the Easter logic. It continues to often be the way of humanity and, unfortunately, the Church (take this on faith).

The compassion of Jesus created the circumstances around which many were healed. It was an outward sign of spiritual wholeness. This infuriated the Sanhedrin, because it threatened the control they had over the general population in Israel. The Sanhedrin conspired to have Jesus brought up on trumped charges (sedition). That conspiracy stoked the fires of doubt and judgment. Jesus was condemned, crucified and laid to rest, by his friends, in a tomb. There it is, the bloody tomb! Can't get around it folks.

The gateway to healing was opened by an act of God's very deep love for every person. Consider how small we are in the scope of the universe...possibly smaller than the size of the smallest bacteria on our planet. We cannot fathom that we are microscopic in the larger scheme of things. YET, we are not lost to God, who infuses us with love so intense that God invested Self among us in Jesus and opened the gate to experience the expanse of Kingdom. Ponder this for a time. It is transformational.

I close with part of a blessing attributed to St. Clare. Clare with the dear friend of St. Francis. She founded the Order of the Poor Ladies as a companion order for Francis's Order of Poor Friars. Both were later known as the Order of St. Clare and the Order of St. Francis. The quote below was part of a reflection by Clare, completed around 1249.

"Live without fear: your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road, and may God's blessing be with you always."

Easter Blessings!

Fr. Fred+

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