Fear Not!

Mother_and_Child_by_senseibushidoLuke 1

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[b]29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[c] 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[d] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

This morning, during my time of meditating while taking my dog Riversong on a hike up the Duke Forest trail, I was drawn to Gabriel’s words to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary”.

These words struck me in a poignant way because right now has been a time of facing into fears.

griefPersonally, the last year involved fear in ways that feeling became woven into the fabric of daily life.   The autumn before the new year, my wife of twelve years passed.  Everything after that felt like a new life – learning to live alone again in my apartment.  Learning who I was, on my own, without a partner.  Learning to rebuild friendships, since (as I discovered) the sort of friendships you engage in as a single person are so very different than the friends, who are often in couples as well, you make when married or partnered.   Then there was entering the world of dating again, in which fears haunted me: of opening up to another, trusting them with my heart and my body, trusting them with my life and its stories, of being rejected or abandoned.  I had fears all around me.   Recently I moved into a new home, my first home that is just mine since Katharine passed, and following my first relationship since her passing ending in a very painful way, begun to explore dating and romance again.   In both experiences, fear was right beside me.

There is also fear in the air in our communities.    This past election was about fear – fear of ISIS, fear of immigrants, fear of new ideas.  It led to the election of a man whom we all hope will not be the demagogue he has presented himself to be in the election season, but the borderso far seems intent on being a president who runs our country on fear of the other.   The national and even the state politics here in NC have had fear at the heart of their outcome.   My queer friends are afraid of their rights being further infringed on by a state legislature that does not acknowledge their full humanity and a new administration in Washington full of people who deny sexual orientation and gender identity as characteristics worthy of considering in protecting people from discrimination and hate crimes.  Friends who are people of color face fears related to the very racist voter suppression laws here in NC, with a legislature unwilling to sit down with leaders of the black community such as Rev. Dr. William Barber of the NAACP to hear their needs.   It is no wonder they fear.  Here in Durham, walls were graffitied the day after the last election with hate speech directed at people of color, threatening them.  I attend a bilingual worship service at the church where I am a member in Chapel Hill and, there, I hear the voices of Latino immigrants every week as our pastor, David Mateo, invites folks to tell their stories as a part of the worship service.  In that setting, I hear each Sunday stories about the fears immigrants are facing right now, as language of mass deportations and building walls on our borders paint them, good-hearted hard-working people of faith, as if they are enemies to be feared.   And I have good friends who work with the EPA, who are afraid the hiring of anti-science and anti-environmentalist politicians into places of power over the EPA and related departments by the incoming Trump administration will mean both the loss of their job but also irreparable harm to our environment.

Folks, there are real, legitimate reasons to feel fear.

AngelAnd yet this morning as I meditate I cannot but hear the words of Gabriel to Mary echoing in my heart as I listen to the rustle of leaves in the morning wind and the call of birds – “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God”.  Or, as some older translations put it, “Fear not”.

I do not think this means to ignore our legitimate warning bells in our hearts that say “danger”, which tell me to be careful with my heart as I open to others lest I or they get hurt, that tell me to be mindful of the challenges ahead of me in living single again in a new city, or even our feelings of danger in this changing climate in our communities which call us from deep within to be mindful, to be ready, to be aware.

Yet how we handle such feelings is what makes the difference.

Our natural response to fear can be to draw on what the book Wired for Love  calls our primitives, emotional-laden ready-made responses tied into what is called our “lizard brain”, the part of our brain wiring we hold in common with animals that act on nearly pure instinct.  The response wired into us in that part of who we are is three-fold: to fight, to flee, or to freeze.

monkey-brain-monkey-on-headIn the animal world, you see these responses in the animal that, when cornered, will attack before you can attack them back.  That is fight in action.  You can see flight any time you come upon deer hiking in the woods.  At the tiniest sound, their ears perk up and, like the wind, they run with all swiftness as far away as possible.   And freeze is what we called “playing possum” growing up: to lay still, quiet, as if dead so as not to be seen.  These three responses are wired into our brains and, depending on a mix of brain wiring and experiences with crises over the years, we prefer one to the other.

In the book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson suggests that a part of the purpose of spiritual practice is to help us learn how to retrain our brain, to embrace responses beyond these pure primitives.    Other parts of who we are, based on more evolved response systems in our brain, can help us tap into what Wired for Love calls our ambassadors, tendencies which are wired into us as instincts at caring for others, building community, nurturing, resolving differences.   These tendencies are what allow us to have the instinct to care for and nurture a baby, help someone recover when sick, seek peace rather than argument.  These responses are a part of one response to fear which counselors have begun to discuss not grounded in the lizard brain of instinctive knee-jerk reaction called “tend and befriend”.

Such responses pay attention to our feelings of fear, of danger, but choose to embrace those feelings as ways to pay more attention to caring for ourselves and caring for others.  To choose to lean into the pain and danger as another opportunity to open up to others, to life itself.

For me, this is the heart of the call  “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God”.   Each of us have upon us the Holy Spirit too, just as Mary.  Each of us have the potential for something life-giving, holy, and healing to be birthed in us and also through us to others and this world.

When that happens, we live out the story of Advent and Christmas, becoming vessels for God, becoming instruments of God’s mending presence in the world.

So I am challenged this morning, after my hike, to face into and feel the fear all around me, but not let it consume me.  Rather, as the Dalai Lama said that in his meditations he takes the pain of himself, of his Tibetan people who were persecuted by China, and of the Chinese people and transforms it to compassion to all three, so we can take our feelings of fear and transform them into a deep openness to life and others, which bears in mind our and other’s danger as a cause for reaching out, for standing in each other’s corners, for being friend and advocate.

As I think about this call deep in my soul, I cannot but think of two songs, which I share in passing. May they invite you to embrace this call of Advent.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

All my life

Been running from a pain in me

A feeling I don’t understand

Holding me down

So rain on me

Underwater

All I am, getting harder

A heavy weight

I carry around

Today

I don’t have to fall apart

I don’t have to be afraid

I don’t have to let the damage

Consume me,

My shadow see through me

‘Cause fear in itself

Will reel you in and spit you out

Over and over again

Believe in yourself

And you will walk

Now, fear in itself

Will use you up and break you down

Like you were never enough

Yeah, I used to fall, now I get back up.

I’m up here

I’m looking at the way down there

I’m staring through the I don’t care

It’s staring back at me

The beauty is

I’m learning how to face my beast

Starting now to find some peace

Set myself free, yeah

Today

I don’t have to fall apart

I don’t have to be afraid

I don’t have to let the damage consume me

My shadow see through me

‘Cause fear in itself

Will reel you in and spit you out

Over and over again

Believe in yourself

And you will walk

And now, fear in itself

Will use you up and break you down

Like you were never enough

I used to fall but now I get back up

I’m moving on

Oh God just move on

Today

I don’t have to fall apart

I don’t have to be afraid

Get back up

Get up

Feel it, fear, wow

And now fear, fear in itself can use you up

And then breaks you down

You’re never enough

And I used to fall

Breathe

Ask for more

If you’re bitter still

Ask him to help you carry on

 

the Universe, she’s wounded

she’s got bruises on her feet

I sat down like I always did,

and tried to calm her down

I sent her my warmth and my silence

and all she sends me back is rain . . . rain

the Universe, she’s wounded

but she’s still got infinity ahead of her

she’s still got you and me

and everybody says that she’s beautiful

the Universe, she’s dancing now

they got her lit up, lit up on the moon

they got stars doing cartwheels, all the nebulas on the tune

and the Universe, she’s whispering so softly I can hear all

the croaking insects, all the taxicabs, all the bum’s spent change

all the boys playing ball in the alleyways

they’re just folds in her dress

the Universe, she’s wounded

but she’s still got infinity ahead of her

she’s still got you and me

and everybody says that she’s beautiful

and everybody says . . .

(ron scott)

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