I gave this sermon this morning at First Congregational Church of Oakland.
Today's reading, from Romans 8, verses 12 through 15 (from the SENT translation) says:
"So the conclusion, brothers and sisters is this. We have no obligation to the flesh: we don't have to live in line with it. Because if you live in line with the flesh, you're going to die. But if you make the bad behaviors of the body die off with the Spirit, you are going to live. All of those who are led by the Spirit of God are God's children. After all, you haven't received a spirit of slavery that leads you into fear all over again: you've received the spirit of adoption!"
Paul talked about flesh in Romans, and so I'm going to talk about flesh. Really. In particular, a little part of your flesh called the Amygdala. The Amygdala is a small part of your brain that is the center of emotions. It's part of what is often called the "Reptilian Brain" because it's very primitive, and has been around for a long time. Over the course of evolution, mammals and primates built up all of these layers of what is called the "neocortex" - neo for "new." That's where all the sophisticated sensory processing and thought stuff happens.
Fear, in its essence, is a survival mechanism. When we get afraid, lots of things happen. Our heart rate rises, the blood is redirected from less essential areas, like our digestive systems, to the muscles. We secrete a couple of different compounds: Adrenaline, and Cortisol, both designed to make physiological changes in our body so that we have resources available to us to keep us alive. That's the "fight or flight" response - what gets us running or fighting when our lives are at risk. Fear is actually a good thing. Really. In an evolutionary sense, if we didn't have it, we couldn't have survived long.
The Amygdala is involved in this fear response, and, in fact, mediates a process called "fear conditioning." Fear conditioning is the process by which we learn to predict when events that might hurt us will happen. Again, evolutionarily, this was a good thing, but as you might imagine, it has real negative consequences in modern society.
How many of you have heard of the book "Dune"? It is a science fiction classic. It has a scene, early on, that I'd like to describe to you. A young man is given a test by a priestess. There is a box he must put his hand in. A box of full of pain. It will make his hand feel like it is being flayed. Also, after he puts his hand in the box, the priestess holds a poison needle near his hand, so that if he removes his hand, he will die. Nice test, eh? I'm sure most of us would prefer the SAT. Anyway, he's been well trained, and says in his mind, over and over, "Fear is the mind-killer."
So what does that mean, exactly, "fear is the mind-killer?" Fear is a mind-killer in the sense that it does have a way of taking over our mind. And, if you define the mind as what happens in the neocortex, it's true, fear is most definitely a mind-killer for good reason - we don't want to have to spend time thinking when being chased by a lion, tiger or bear. But the problem is that even when we aren't being chased, or in any danger at all, fear is still a mind-killer. I'm sure that you know this from personal experience - acting out of fear, for instance, in a relationship, or in an organization, is almost always a mistake - we can't think clearly in a state of fear. We can't act out of love or generosity in a state of fear.
How does acting out of fear really manifest itself today? It's in the small things, and the big things. A tiny thing that I deal with myself all the time - I can spend the entire trip somewhere (like into the city, or to some event) being afraid that I won't find parking when I arrive. That's sort of trivial, but it certainly can affect one's mood and attitude. Another one, more significant, might be saying something to a loved one that you regret because you are afraid of abandonment, or not letting a child do something fun for fear that they might get hurt.
But the truth is, in this society, we are fed a diet full of fear - and I don't just mean horror movies. We are supposed to live in fear that our neighbor has a better car, or a better kitchen, better hair, or a better spouse. If we didn't have those fears, capitalism as we know it might well collapse. We are told to be afraid of the aliens who come across the border to take our jobs, or the black men in hoodies who are supposed to be dangerous to our neighborhoods.
I know that we often talk about homophobia as hate. But in fact, science has now shown that it's actually more fear than hate. Fear of what? Fear of one's own desires. Those who are more actively, vocally, homophobic are people who themselves have unacknowledged homosexual desires. My bet is that people who talk about (and, sadly, preach about) putting gays in concentration camps, and killing us, are people who want to wall off their own internal desires, or kill the person inside of themselves that has those desires.
In this time in the Christian liturgical calendar, we've been talking a lot about the disciples, and what's been happening to them. Their teacher was executed, and any of his followers are considered suspicious. Any thoughts they had of Jesus being a military or political messianic figure has permanently become dust, and they are not sure what the heck they are going to do now that he's left them. I can imagine that they were very afraid. But they were clearly brave. Bravery is not at all the lack of fear. It is feeling fear, but doing the right thing anyway. It is not acting out of that fear - because acting out of that fear is really cowardice.
The truth is, we are often completely unaware of when we are acting out of fear, because we've been trained to ignore it, to repress it, or push it aside and to pretend it doesn't exist. Many of us have not allowed ourselves to feel fear in a long time. Or sometimes those fears have been mutated into kinds of avoidance, or unhelpful behaviors. We have many responses to fear, and, sadly, most of them aren't very useful. And many of us fear the feeling of fear itself.
So what does it really mean to "live in line with the flesh" or "be led by the Spirit of God?" Often Paul's passage is interpreted to mean all sorts of things about bodily functions, especially sex. For me, Paul's comment about "living in line with the flesh" is, about letting those reptilian-brain emotions, like fear or anger, determine how we act, and what we do. My general interpretation of this passage connects with the Buddhist concept of the "Three Poisons" which are greed, hatred and delusion, and they all have connections to fear.
Greed, in a sense, is both the desire for pleasure, as well as a response to the fear of loss of pleasure. We are afraid that we will run out of money, so we are always looking form more. Hatred is connected to the fear of something unpleasant. Delusion is holding onto a wrong view purposefully, perhaps because we are afraid of the truth. Thoughts fueled by these poisons are considered by Buddhism to be unwholesome. To me, "living in line with the flesh" as living life being fed by these poisons - and being "led by the spirit of God" means being led by generosity, love and awareness opposites to these three poisons.
Like most people, I never liked my fear. I didn't feel it often, mostly because I didn't allow myself to. When I did feel it, it was like going into a sort of a pit - I was afraid I'd never get out. Although I have always been able to take risks in my life, like leaving a comfortable life to go to seminary, and earlier than that, leaving a tenured faculty position to strike out on my own, I've always been afraid of my fears, and did my best to ignore them. Finally, though, I couldn't ignore my fears any longer. If there is one thing I have to say about the ability to live well with a chronic illness, it means getting really comfortable with fear.
I would not say it's been an easy process - and it is still a work in progress for sure. But there is a way that I am more free from my fears, now that I know them better. I think everyone can benefit from getting to know your fear, whether you are healthy or not - because we all have to deal with loss and death, and the fear that those things bring. We need to understand fear. It is in that process of understanding fear, and dare I say, befriending fear, that we can better know how to not act out of fear.
Back to the Amygdala for a moment. As I said before, it's an important component in the fear reaction process, and in fear conditioning. But science has also learned that meditators know how to modulate the responses of their Amygdalas. This is good news. It means that these responses can change - we can learn to live differently with our fears.
So I'm going to help you take a tiny baby step in this direction today.
Please close your eyes, and settle into your seat. Feel the support of the pew under you. Feel your breath come in... and out. Let any thoughts drift away with your breath out. Think of a situation that you know scares you. It might be being afraid of spiders, or heights. It might be fear of loss of a loved one, or fear of death. And if thinking of any of these things feels like too much, just notice how you feel in realizing that. And sense what's in your body. Perhaps you feel your extremities get cold. Maybe you get restless legs, or feel it in the pit of your stomach, or maybe it's something completely different. Whatever that feeling is, pay attention how the fear feels for a moment. Just notice it for as long as you can, and if it goes away, that's OK, try to remember even the brief feeling.
Next, I'd like you to thank your fear. Really. Thank it, be grateful for it. That fear of yours has helped you. Maybe it helped you to survive an abusive childhood. Perhaps it helped you to leave a damaging or traumatic relationship. It might have helped you get sober. It helped you avoid some accidents, or saved you from being more hurt when you were mugged. Helped to motivate you to make some change in your life. Your fear has helped you survive this life. Give it gratitude. Thank God for your fear.
You can open your eyes now.
After you've have gratitude for your fear, you can have a virtual cup of tea with it. Why? Because you need to know it better. The more you know, and understand your fear, the better you will be at seeing it when it happens, and seeing how you act around it. If you ignore it, and don't know it, you'll never know really when it comes calling, and what you do when its around. Sometimes, having a cup of tea with fear seems like not the right thing. Maybe sometimes you need to wrestle with it. But the wrestling should not be the kind of wrestling to try to push it away - it should be the kind of wrestling where you're watching it - seeing what it does, how it moves, and, in some ways, embracing it.
You can ask questions of your fear. Are you a little kid fear, born of a time when something happened to you as a child? A loss, or a trauma? Or is it more of an adult fear? Is this a fear of something real, or a fear about something that happened before? What do you need around that fear?
This is not a simple process. One day, you might be close buddies with your fear, and the next day, you might well forget what that fear looks like, or felt like, as you go about your day. But if you keep a commitment to awareness, slowly, but surely, you'll learn to recognize the fear when it arises, and be able to say, "Hey, fear. Thanks for being around. You can sit over here while I handle this." And as you keep getting to know your fear, insist on that cuppa with it. Encourage it to sit down with you, and teach you about itself.
In facing, learning about, and having a cup of tea with our fear, we are able to see the ways in which fear leads to unwholesome thoughts and actions, and this can make room in our lives to be truly led by the spirit of God - the spirit of generosity and love.