“Fear Is the Mind-Killer”

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

“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.”

—Frank Herbert, in his novel Dune

Opening Words:

From Jalaluddin Rumi:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty

and frightened.  Don’t open the door to the study

and begin reading.  (not the New York Times, not People Magazine, not even the list of ingredients on your cereal  box)…

Take down a musical instrument.  (Maybe a Steinway piano, or sing a song or hum a tune or whistle something….)_

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Reading:  from Jumping at Shadows, The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream, by Sasha Abramsky


A couple of weeks ago, I officiated at an outdoor wedding at a camp in Vermont.  The groom was Sam Holland who grew up in this church, and in the course of planning the ceremony with Sam and his fiancé Jessica, they told me that an important quotation for them was from the science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert.  “Fear is the mind-killer.” The full quote is at the top of the order of service. For Sam and Jessica, their relationship and their love for one another enabled them to face their fears together and be, not deadened, but enlivened.

This wedding theme fit rather nicely with things I often say at weddings.  No matter how long or how well a couple may have known one another, I almost always say, “You have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into!”  They really don’t! Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Almost always, my wedding benediction is “through all the chances and changes of life, trusting each other, may you trust life and not be afraid.”

And just for good measure I sometimes include a fine poem titled “Marriage is a Bungee Jump,” by Walt McDonald.  I won’t read it all to you but it begins:

Marriage is a bungee jump off some box canyon

in Colorado, concession manned by a minion

from the fifties high on weed, beard he hadn’t brushed

since high school.

You see, the stoned concession operator makes the couple sign a waiver and pay in cash, and the couple tugs on the ropes, the knots of which appeared to have been tied by someone who flunked that lesson in scouts.  The poem ends,

We’d checked the charts, the geology of cliffs

and canyons, but no one knows which fibers split,

which granite ledges crack. On the edge of hope

for nothing we’d ever done, we tugged at the ropes,

both ropes, blessing the stretch and strain

with our bodies, a long time falling to the pain

and certainly of stop. Hand in hand we stepped up

wavering to the ledge, hearing the rush

of a river we leaped to, a far-off

cawing crow, the primitive breeze of the fall,

and squeezed, clinging to each other’s vows

that only death could separate us now.

Yes, marriage is a bungee jump, and coincidentally at this Vermont camp there was a ropes course.  Have any of you done a ropes course? It’s a tree-level exercise in team-building and fear-facing; and, well, I have no intention of ever doing a ropes course.

Fear, nonetheless, is a mind-killer.  I have since learned that this quotation is so meaningful to another young adult who grew up at First Parish that, on his forearm, he now has it forever tattooed, “Fear is the mind-killer.”  I’ve thought this might make an interesting service, or possibly a wall calendar, “The tattoos of First Parish.”

Fear, lately, has been on my mind.  “Millennials Are Wary of Freedom” was a recent op-ed: “Young Americans seem to be losing faith in freedom.  …Only about 30% of Americans born after 1989 believe it is absolutely essential to live in a democratic country, compared to 72% born before World War II. …. What unites so many young Americans?  …The answer is fear.” The author says, “Parental culture has become increasingly guarded and safety focused…the rise of ‘helicopter parenting’…protecting children from needless harm has become conflated with shielding them from stressors and uncertainties…Young Americans report higher levels of anxiety.  Fear pushes people to adopt a defensive posture. When people feel anxious, they’re less open to diverse ideas and opinions, and less forgiving and tolerant of those they disagree with. When people are afraid, they cling to the certainty of the world they know and avoid taking physical, emotional and intellectual risks.  What can be done?

We must liberate them, let them be free to navigate the world, make mistakes, fail, experience emotional pain and learn to self-regulate fear and distress.  If we want future generations to have faith in freedom, we need to restore our faith in them.”  (Clay Routledge)

And then, indeed, there is the fear-mongering that seems to have America by the throat.  As I read to you earlier, “How we work to make our dreams of a fairer, less divisive, less fear-driven world come true will be the defining challenge of our time.”

As a community of faith, I believe we are called to love and be our best selves, to face our fears and to cast out fear.

And so, in the time-honored manner of getting you to write my sermon for me, I asked you to tell me “What do you fear?  Or what did you fear but fear no longer? How would you encourage someone who is fearful? Can fear motivate us or is it just a mind-killer?”

Ask and you shall receive!   You said…

“Honestly John, I would rather face a firing squad than have to write and deliver a sermon….I’ve seen your hands shake up there as you turn the pages.”

I’ve told you this before:  My hands right now are ice cold.  All the blood has gone to my brain, because I never know when you’re gonna turn on me.  I’m the lion-tamer with the chair and you’re the lion! Ten minutes after I’m done my hands will be nice and warm.  But not yet!

“Sometimes,” someone says, “I think about the things I

used to fear the most.  Although I ran like a rat in a maze to avoid them, most happened anyway.  Let’s see:

didn’t measure up to society’s standards

lost job

lost home

lost possessions

lost loved ones

got sick

none of these killed me.

These are my more recent fears:

That I might drink again

The shame of letting people down, not treating the right

Afraid to give unconditional love

Failed to show love when it was needed

Nagging questions about myself

Afraid to be uncomfortable.

“These are the fears that could do me in, make me walking dead.  To work on them I need to step forward, not back.

I was going to say that fear is never motivating to me but that wouldn’t be true. I can run way faster when I’m scared! When it comes to outside forces trying to frighten me, like political fear mongering or bullying, it often triggers a stubborn inner justice meter response in me. An angry ‘screw that’ hot bravado that sends me to the barricades and then seeps through my shoes into the pavement leaving me with either a cold resolve to keep going or the bare strength not to cut and run.  I am always braver when I see fear in the eyes of a companion, but I’ve never been tested. I hope I would have someone’s back to the best of my ability. The way things are going I may soon find out.”

– – – –

I fear being truly alone.

Fear of not being good enough, not knowing enough, not doing enough.

Fear of losing it all.

– – – –

One of our 104-year old members at CWV said when she was just a toddler, her mother taught her to be afraid of boys.  By the time she got to kindergarten, however, she had gotten over that fear.

– – – –

On the other hand:

Several women wrote to me of persistent fears in the aftermath of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.  “Me too,” they said. “Me too.” “I couldn’t tell anyone because I feared it was my fault. With therapy and the support of amazing friends, I confronted my abuser.  I took back my power. I have even forgiven him. I have forgiven but not forgotten. I’m not paralyzed by fear. Past events do not define me. And by sharing with others, I learned I am not alone.”

One of you saw the truth in the generalization, “Women are taught they should be afraid; men are taught they should not be afraid.”

– – – – –

“I fear that my memory and my mental competence will go before my body is ready to die.”

– – – – –

“I am really, really, really, really (insert “really” about 100 times more) afraid that Donald Trump will get us into a nuclear war.  And almost as afraid of what Pence would do…

– – – – –

Many of you expressed fears for the safety of your children.  “We live in such an unpredictable world now….”

“I fear my child is never going to be able to let her guard down because she is a person of color.”

One of you referred me to a comprehensive survey of America’s Top Fears 2017.

#10: Air Pollution

#9 North Korea

#8 Global Warming & Climate Change

#7 The US in another World War

#6 High Medical Bills

#5 Not having enough money for the future

#4 Pollution of Drinking Water

#3 Pollution of Oceans, Rivers and Lakes

#2 Trumpcare


#1 American Fear of 2017: Corrupt Government Officials!

Bogeymen were not on the official list, but on some of yours.  Also not on the official list but on one of yours was a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone where all the neighbors tried to beat down the door.  Someone said, “Realizing we had no fallout shelter in my house, I freaked out!” I mentioned this at CWV and was startled to learn that, Hanscom allegedly being targeted, more than a few of us actually built and stocked fallout shelters.

It was at this point in my sermon writing that I took a break and watched a 1951 film on YouTube featuring Bert the Turtle and the snappy song, Duck and cover!  Duck and cover!

Back to the 2017 list:

Terrorism? #22

Sharks? #41

Public Speaking? #52

Police Brutality? #59 (Well, it depends on who you ask!)

There are 80 fears on this list.  These are the last, least fearful 5:

#75: Significant other cheating on you

76: Clowns

77: Blood

78: Zombies

79: Ghosts

#80 (the things Americans least fear in 2017): Animals! Dogs, Rats, etc.

Now, let’s turn to the antidotes to fear.  Some of you recalled FDR: “All we have to fear is fear itself!”  And Eleanor too: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.  You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the think you think you cannot do.”

Another of you took note of a modern prophet, Rev. William Barber who some of us spent time with last week.  “Barber did not offer optimism,” one of you said, “but he does offer hope. And I think hope is a wonderful antidote to fear.”

You know the UUA slogan used to be “Standing on the Side of Love” but has now shifted to “Love Resists.”  In that spirit, those of us working with Barber are now planning, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s last campaign, a New Poor People’s Campaign, to begin on Mother’s Day and continue for 40 days with 1000 arrests in each of at least 25 state capitals, this civil disobedience to focus the nation’s attention to the moral sins of Racism, Poverty, Environmental Degradation, and Militarism.  Mark your calendars!

And, yes, there are still everyday fears:

Long afraid of dark parking lots, one of you studied karate for 5 years.  “Skills of self-defense – have made me less fearful. I’m still practical and cautious, but less fearful.”

Someone recalled something taught by a nurse at the Benson mind body institute: “The opposite of fear is gratitude.  Ask what is the learning and when I can find an answer and be grateful for the learning, I would not feel so much fear.”

In Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell a hell of heaven.”  What is fear but another kind of hell?”

“I’m not sure that love stops fear,” one told me, “but trust might.”

With his tongue only somewhat in his cheek, one of our CWV members said that the best antidote to fear is…Propranolol! He was a psychiatrist and often prescribed Propranolol to musicians and performers with performance fears.  Like he had discovered the Holy Grail, “Propranolol,” he whispered to me, when our meeting ended. “Propranolol!”

That’s not the word this sermon will end on.

“Being fearful alone,” one of you said, “is worse than fear in community.  I am grateful for an amazing family, incredible community, including my First Parish small group ministry for being a place to process fear ands worry.”

And, finally, one of you reminded me of words in our hymnal.  Words by the great naturalist and writer Wendell Berry. Turn to #483 and let’s read them together in unison:

“When despair for the world grows in me, and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be — I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought or grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

The natural world is a kind of sanctuary, and an antidote to fear.  And now, in conclusion, I remind us that we, the First Parish in Bedford, are also a sanctuary: a sanctuary for ourselves and a sanctuary for others.  Most recently and notably, as a congregation we have affirmed that we will give shelter to those who unjustly are threatened with imminent deportation, people whose freedom is in jeopardy, and whose very lives are at stake.  Our love will resist the defensive stranger-fearing nativist impulse . We’ve prepared a place, organized ourselves, made coalition and allies. We welcome the stranger. We protect the vulnerable. We accompany the oppressed.

On Thursday, three days ago, in response to the unanimous recommendation of our Sanctuary Committee, our Parish Board unanimously approved a motion to welcome someone into sanctuary.  This could happen imminently.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

We are walking our talk.  

I end with the words I read to you earlier:

In this fearful world, “How we navigate this brutal reality in the years to come (and in the hours and  days to come) will be the dominant question of our age.  How we work to make our dreams of a fairer, less divisive, less fear-driven world come true will be the defining challenge of our time.”

As individuals, as families, and as a congregation, in these fearful times is our opportunity to be our best selves.  May we be grateful for the opportunity to make our dreams of a fairer, less divisive, less fear-driven world come true.

Through all the chances and changes of life, trusting each other, may we trust life and not be afraid.

Closing Words:

I will not die an unlived life.

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible;

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom,

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.