Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Must Not Fear — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on July 17th, 2011


Yogi Berra once said that “The Key is authenticity…

once you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”


As I was thinking and feeling about this sermon,

I kept coming back to that intentionally funny quote

from the baseball legend…

no, not because this sermon feels inauthentic to me,

but because my personal relationship with fear

can be captured by that quote from Yogi

if you change one word…


The key is confidence…

once you can fake that, you’ve got it made…


A few weeks ago, a member of this congregation told me

how much they admire my confidence.

I’m always surprised when someone describes me as confident,

because that is absolutely not my internal reality.

Internally, I am always afraid.

Afraid of taking on the new responsibilities

I will have as a minister in California.

Afraid of all of the possible things that can go wrong

with a 2600 mile move across the country.

Afraid of a phone call that brings me into a situation

in a congregant’s life I’m not prepared for.

Afraid that my stances on social justice

will mean a short career as a military chaplain.

Afraid that when I tell the clerk at the used bookstore

what church I serve, it will open me up to ridicule.

Afraid, Afraid, Afraid…

I’ve also been afraid to preach this sermon…

for I’m going to be showing you all more

of my internal reality than I’m really comfortable doing.

It is nice to be perceived as being confident in today’s society,

and there is a fear in me showing you all

that this confidence is not as internal as it is external.

People react to confidence in ways

that are often useful to a minister, especially an interim.

As the old country music song goes,

“We have a long way to go, and a short time to get there”,

and appearing confident in my own abilities

and in my assessment of where we are

and what we need to do is an essential skill in an Interim Minister.


So, of course I wait till my last sermon to name that internally,

this year with you has scared me to death.


It’s scared me to death, and it’s been beautiful.

Both of those realities are true, at the same time.

It’s scared me to death,

and it’s been beautiful to be your minister, your pastor this year.

It has been a honor for me,

and I have learned and grown so much by serving you.

Next week we will have a sharing service

that will hopefully let us capture

some of what this year has meant,

both for you as a congregation and for me as a minister.

I’ve been a minister in a lot of settings and places…

yet here is the first place I’ve been able to be “the” minister,

and for that you will always hold a special place in my heart.

Now, fear has kept me from intentionally telling you

many of the stories of my early military career,

because as a minister I am afraid

of being perceived as only “that military guy”

and not as a UU Minister in the fullness of our tradition.

Yet, I need to tell you all one such story,

because it is essential in my personal journey with fear.


We all know the aphorism that young men are fearless.

It is not true, young men have a lot of fear…

it’s just focused on a few things, not life in general.

As we grow older, we learn there are more things to fear.


My early military career got a little out of hand.

In the space of 18 months I went from being

a rather immature high school senior,

to living in Latin America doing things

that would make the Colombian drug cartels

quite angry with me.

The Army taught me to be an intelligence analyst,

assigned me to a special forces group,

and sent me to Latin America

to fight the shadow war we call “the War on Drugs”.


I thought I was physically invincible,

in my teenage confidence in my immortality…

right up until an altercation

with a member of a narcotics transportation organization

made it very clear to me that they could,

and if I didn’t get a lot smarter very fast,

they would kill me and never think about it again.

It was the first time in my life I came into contact

with what Frank Herbert calls

“the deadly moment of awareness”,

the reality that I could very easily not exist anymore.


The night of that awareness,

I was sitting up in the dining room of the apartment I shared

with my commander and other members of my team,

discussing my recklessness that lead to the earlier altercation.

After it had begun to sink in,

and I had begun to feel fear

for my continued existence considering the line of work I was in,

I remember saying something like

“Sir, I don’t know if I can do this anymore”.


I was scared to death…


I have never forgotten what he said to me,

and it has become something of a mantra in my life.

He said David, courage is not feeling no fear.

Courage is feeling the fear, and doing your job anyway.”



I’ve preached here before about a military psychologist

whose work I admire, Col. David Grossman.

Now, before any of you go look him up on the internet,

he is not a UU.

His politics are somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun,

and I’m still pondering some of his theories

on the justification of killing in war…

but I think he has captured the psychology of a soldier,

and more importantly to today’s sermon,

I think he has captured the psychology of fear

in a way that few others have.


You see, almost all people feel fear.

Fear is good.  Fear protects you.

Fear is your natural instincts telling you

where to be cautious, where the danger lies.

My commander, that day of deadly awareness

in the Republic of Panama,

needed me to be in touch with my fear,

so that I would quit challenging someone

who was just as likely to shoot me as look at me.

In fact, if I could not connect with my fear,

I’m convinced he would have sent me home,

my military career in tatters.


Why? Because we have a name for people who do not feel fear.

We call them Sociopaths…


After a year of sermons from me,

I think you all know that I think of myself as a social critic,

as someone who turns a reflective eye

at the society and cultures we live in,

and tries to show the places

where we are less than we could be, than we should be.

In truth, when I read the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures,

this is what I see them doing…

and it is much of what I perceive that Jesus did.

So, since it has been my modus operandi all year,

I have to do it in this, my last Midland sermon…


Our society instills in us a dysfunctional relationship with fear.


I’m not going to go into the fullness of what this means,

because to do that would be

about three sermons just on the dysfunction.

Let me just point out a few things.

Our culture places a stigma on being afraid,

and we teach that stigma to our children.

We set up an ideal of courage, or of being brave,

as if it means we feel no fear.

We have disconnected people from their fear and anxiety

so much that we are losing the ability

to let our fear and our anxiety teach us…

leading to millions of people having not learned

a healthy relationship with fear and anxiety

now suffering from very real anxiety disorders…

for which we give them more and more medication.


Knowing fear is somehow important to us,

as indeed all of our emotions are in one way or another,

we seek socially approved and acceptable

ways to experience such fear.

Billions of dollars each year are spent on horror or thriller movies,

so we can experience our fear

in the nice, safe laboratory of a movie theatre.

Others seek the fear and the adrenaline that comes with it

by risky behaviors, from extreme skydiving

to unprotected sexual encounters and more.

Much human creativity goes into finding

safe ways to feel our fear.


And, I’ve come to believe, through study,

through my practice of pastoral counseling,

and through my own life,

that most of us are feeling fear each and every day of our lives,

without the benefit of society teaching us healthy and whole ways

of living with that fear,

of making it our protector… our friend.


And not having befriended our fear,

we are often trapped by it, living lives of “quiet desperation”,

if I dare quote Roger Waters…

someone who knows a thing or two about fear.


The psychologist I admire gives fear

and the physiological functions it inspires a name..

he calls it “the puppy”.


The puppy is with you all the time, on the lookout for threats.

Its job is to keep you safe.

It is very eager to do this job.

The puppy is speaking to each and every one of us all the time,

pointing out dangers and potential dangers

we might not have seen.

Not just physical dangers, but spiritual

and emotional dangers as well.

When it sees a danger,

it gives you extra energy to deal with the danger,

by making your heart race, your senses become more clear,

and your breathing increase, among other adrenaline reactions.


We know this as the “fight or flight” response…

but it is the puppy giving you what you need

to deal with the danger.


Now, the puppy is not always right

about how serious the danger is…

and the puppy can sometimes get impatient

with you not dealing with the danger.

Anyone ever been in an argument with someone,

and your emotions get engaged,

your heart gets racing, and the next thing you know

you are saying things, sometimes hurtful things

that you don’t mean  and should never have said?

Like someone took over your body for those few minutes?


Because that is exactly what happened…

the “puppy” was in charge.

Your fight/flight response from the portion of the brain

we call the amygdale took over,

and over-rode your conscious self.

Think about it, you’ve seen this happen to people, have you not?

Not just in arguments, but in many different situations

where a person felt threatened,

physically, emotionally, or spiritually.


In fact, I think some people have felt at threat so often,

and so deeply that it is very difficult for them

to separate the puppy from their conscious minds,

and they end up living their lives with the puppy in charge.

It is part of the reality of those who suffer

from an anxiety disorder…

and it is also the reality for those who have turned to hatred.


There are four wise people I wish to quote on fear today.

One is a baseball legend, one is a military psychologist…

but the last two are Science Fiction characters…

and if you don’t think my puppy was warning me

about quoting Science Fiction characters in a sermon,

then you don’t know my puppy very well.

I think I fear being perceived in the ministry

as the “Science Fiction Geek”

more than I do “the military guy”.


Yet, though others have certainly taught these truths about fear,

I learned them from Science Fiction.


The first is George Lucas, through the wisdom of Yoda.

You may have heard this quote from “The Phantom Menace”…


Fear leads to Anger, Anger leads to hate,

and hatred leads to much suffering.


Those of you who have been in pastoral care with me this year

for any significant period of time

have heard me say that emotions we feel are good.

They are, I believe, messages from the soul.

They are the deepest parts of who we are communicating with us.

Fear is that part of our deepest self

that Dave Grossman calls the puppy communicating with us.

Every emotion has a message attached to it,

and learning to read those messages

can open up a whole new avenue into understanding who we are.


Several people in the congregation,

including the paraministry team,

have been introduced to the

“feelings as messengers” model of pastoral care,

and if you ask them I’m sure they will talk about it with you.


Yet, there is a danger in our emotions,

and that is when they get stuck.

Fear, when it gets stuck, is terror.

Happiness, when it gets stuck, turns into apathy.

Jealousy, when it gets stuck, turns into envy.

Sadness, when it gets stuck, turns into depression.

And anger, when it gets stuck, turns into hatred.


And hatred leads to much suffering.


Remember what I said about our society

having a dysfunctional relationship with fear?

Many of us are taught, at a very early age,

that fear is a bad emotion.

That we should not feel fear, that we need to be brave.

Well, one of the ways that we humans learn

not to feel a particular emotion

is to change it into another emotion that is more acceptable.

And, believe it or not, in our society it is far more acceptable

for us to feel anger than it is for us to feel fear.


Yoda outlined what happens for many people…

one of the greatest of the soul sicknesses of humanity.

We feel fear about something,

perhaps gay people, or a black man in the oval office,

or even a liberal church.

Yet society does not allow us to feel fear,

so we substitute anger for that fear.


Then, that anger gets stuck,

it ossifies into an immovable set of opinions and beliefs…

and the next thing we know,

our fear has turned into anger, anger into hate,

and hatred leads to much suffering.


And often, when that fear turns to anger,

and that anger turns to hatred,

it is no longer the person’s self-consciousness in charge…

it is the puppy.


Let’s not get self-righteous about this…

we of liberal faith are by no means immune to this pattern.

I could sit here and tell you stories for the next hour

on how we sometimes relate to conservatives,

or even Christians in exactly this same pattern.

Being a UU Christian has given me a bit of a front row seat.


So, what do we do?

How do we learn from the puppy,

let the puppy teach us and be there to protect us

when we really need it,

without letting the puppy be “in charge”

when there is no real pressing need?


I have a favorite Science Fiction novel.

I often say that I am a Unitarian Universalist

because of this novel…

not because it is a UU work, it is not…

but encountering it at 12 years old inspired me

to think outside of the boxes I was born in,

and begin to imagine the world around me anew.


I have made it a tradition

to read this novel at least once a year since I was 12 years old…

and I’m reading it again right now.


The novel is “Dune” by Frank Herbert.

It is an amazing vision of a future so far away

as to be completely disconnected from the world we live in today,

and yet with characters who are on the surface more than human,

and yet just as human as we are.


In the novel there is a religious order of women,

known as the Bene Gesserit.

They are priestesses who can sense truth,

who can see into the past,

and who dream of being able to see into the future.

They are loved, feared, and hated by many

in the society around them…

and yet the most profound common act among them is a litany,

a meditation that helps them to deal with their own fears…


I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.


I was profoundly affected by this at 12 years old…

for I was a very afraid child.

I had just moved to a new school,

and no one seemed to like me or want to be my friend.

Every day of going to school

was an exercise in creative fear management…

and I found this litany in this science fiction novel.

As a character in the book,

the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam says,

“The litany really does help”.


When I felt the puppy taking charge,

I would recite the litany to myself, and my fears would ease.

They puppy would fade back a bit,

still speaking to me about the dangers, but not taking over…

not making me say or do things

that might make the situation worse.


Of course,  I did not understand

that was what was happening at the time.

I only knew that after I said these words,

I was in control of my fear, not my fear in control of me.


Military psychologist David Grossman

teaches something even more simple than the Litany…

he teaches a breathing technique

that keeps the conscious mind in charge, and not the puppy.

It is very simple, it is simply

to breath in through the nose for four seconds,

hold for four seconds,

out through the lips for four seconds,

and then hold for four seconds…

try it with me…


Col. Grossman teaches soldiers and police

that it works because breathing

is one of two things we do that is both automatic

and that we can control.

You are breathing all the time, like your heartbeat,

but unlike your heartbeat,

you can consciously change your rate and pattern of breathing.  This is known as the “Autonomic / Somatic boundary”.

Crossing it intentionally reminds the puppy

that the consciousness is in charge.


Try it the next time when you are feeling

the puppy taking charge…


Col Grossman tells soldiers that this is nothing new…

that Buddhists and other meditative traditions

have known for thousands of years

that controlling breathing has this effect,

and I just love that there are now

thousands of soldiers learning a form

of Buddhist meditation as a way to work with their fear.


Because our fear, the puppy just wants to be listened to.

I believe that the increase in anxiety related disorders

arises from our having been taught by our society

to ignore and suppress our fear,

instead of befriend and learn what it has to teach us.

Because, if we ignore our fear,

if we ignore and suppress much of our emotional self,

those emotions will do whatever they have to

in order to get our attention… including take over.


And so, as I am moving to California and a new ministry,

and as you are welcoming Jeff into ministry among you,

I caution you and myself to remember the puppy,

to honor what the puppy has to teach us,

to look where it thinks the threats are

and evaluate them honestly,

and to share with one another what you find.


I must not fear, for fear is the mind killer…


Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate,

and hatred leads to much suffering.


Courage is feeling fear and doing your job anyway…


They key is confidence… once you can fake that…


So may it be, blessed be, and amen…

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