An abridged Sermon on Fear from September 29, 2013 from Psalm 91
I was thinking about fear, and how the most often repeated phrase in the Bible is “do not be afraid,” and how this well-known psalm is meant to be an antidote to fear. My 14 year old daughter asked me if I felt safe in this post- 9-11 world. I don’t feel any more or less frightened by this life than before we had terrorist attacks, or Homeland Security, or I had to take my shoes off to get on an airplane. I do know that since then, all the news that comes to us has taken on an intensity of crisis and importance. Everything is presented as life or death. We live in a world now where everything is communicated in a way deliberately to trigger our fear. Everything feels like a crisis; everything needs to be attended to right now; everything is urgent; every day has the potential for code red, lock-down.
Scaring someone is probably the very best way to get our attention – Nothing makes our amygdala in our brain sit up and take notice like a threat. After all, that highly developed part of our brains is designed to constantly scan our environment and decide split second if we need to be on guard or not. And it’s done an amazing job at keeping us alive; but at the same time, it does a lousy job at thinking about whether or not we should be afraid. And so we are quick to respond to non-life-threatening events as though our very life is being threatened. All the time – the list of things we are, or could be, or we should be, afraid of – It’s bearing down on us, weighing us down, and our brains respond as though our very lives were in danger – all the time. And it’s hard to be compassionate, or calm, or faithful, when we are so afraid.
So how do we ward off this constant barrage of fear? First off, it’s good to recognize it and name what’s going on. You can practice this way: Next time you are listening or watching the, pay attention to the intensity and gravity in the announcer’s voice. Ask yourself, are they overplaying the drama here? Yes, I know we are two days from a possible government shut-down (Note: We are NOW in furlough mode!) and I know this affects folk in this room directly, and is especially bad news to those of you already affected by the sequester. But as you listen to the news, and the hand-wringing, ask yourself, from a perspective of faith: Does all talk of crisis mean my life is in danger?
Because at the same time God created our brains with these hair-trigger response amygdalae, we’ve also been gifted with a mind – our prefrontal cortex – You know how every Sunday I say, “And may God take your minds and think through them?” That’s the invitation here in this psalm – Our brains make us twitchy and see everything as a threat; our minds – That’s a different story – Our minds have the power to analyze and consider and name what is going on. Our minds, when we remember, can hear urgency and intensity and life-or-death overtones of the news, and see it as an opportunity turn to this psalm as an antidote of calm and security. Our trust in God comes through our minds.
The first 4 verses of this psalm express God’s shelter, security, refuge, protection. This psalm opens by placing us right squarely in the palm of our Maker’s hand – That’s the place we start, and the place we end. Even though it’s hard to remember that essential truth when we are frightened. But if we’ve practiced staying calm when newscasters are trying to stir us up, we know how to stay calm when we recognize we are scared.
It isn’t easy – Fear is such a powerful presence in our lives; it is so pervasive we are all probably walking around more frightened than we know – We might think we’re worried, or anxious, or crabby, or irritable – But are those just disguises for the fear that has us in its grip? And how can these nice words and images from this well-known psalm loosen the power of the fear that grips us?
It takes practice – Practicing when we hear the intensity of the news coming at us. Practicing when life is good. Literally, rewiring our brain so that when our fear is triggered, our faith is triggered as an antidote to that fear. So when we go through the many dangers, toils and snares, of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” the next line is on the tip of our tongues – “I have already come,”
That is what it means to practice – Are you scared? Going through many dangers toils and snares? Remember how many you’ve already come through. And grace has brought you safe thus far, and grace will see you home –
That is what it means to practice faith – it means using our minds – letting God think through them – to connect the neural pathways of trust, so they are so deep, that is what comes to mind when we are scared.
This is what I am learning about the brain, and the intersection of neuroscience and spirituality: Our brains – our amygdalae – are designed to have a knee-jerk reaction to what is coming at us, in an effort to keep us safe – but we’ve been given this powerful tool of our prefrontal cortex – our minds – So that as soon as we can name what is going on, that is the space we make for God to show up. When fear has us in its grip, if we can say “O hello fear,” then we’ve deliberately invited God in and our fear goes down and up goes our ability to remember: We trust our Maker first. We begin and end in the shelter of the Most High – Under the eagle’s wings – who will bring us safely home.
As soon as you catch yourself anxious, worried, or afraid, you’re halfway there – Then remember these words, “I dwell in the shelter of the Most High. No need to fear the terror of the night. God’s love will deliver me home.” May it be so.
(for full text, or other sermons by Amy, click http://www.laurelpresbyterian.org/PastorsMessage/Sermons/tabid/29300/Default.aspx
Sermon podcasts coming in future.)