Friday, March 11, 2016

A Reflection on Freedom from Fear

At the congregation I serve, I shared a sermon which many have urged me to share more widely. May it be helpful to you. The podcast can be accessed at

Freedom from Fear
delivered at Unity Temple UU
March 6, 2016

I walked into the room and saw a teddy bear. And then, lying on the bed, a young man with blue eyes, sandy brown curls, and freckles. As our eyes met, a smile broadened across his face. He told me his name is Josh. I introduced myself as Alan, the chaplain, for this was in San Francisco General Hospital. He was awaiting a spinal cord operation to relieve him from headaches and welcomed my company. 

We joked and quickly developed a warm rapport. He told me that his headaches are due to the onset of AIDS. He then said that his three best friends had recently died of AIDS. We talked about issues of rootedness, love, and loss. He said, pointing out the window, “See those hills? At night, I look out and watch the lights of cars weave down the same road that me and my friends traveled hundreds of times before.” He said that now that he’s lost his best friends, he’s scared of getting close to anyone. At the end of our conversation, I asked him if he’d like to pray. He said, “No not now, but pray for me this evening.” “What do you want me to pray for?” He said, “Pray for all the lost souls—and think of me.” Pray for all the lost souls. At times, I can’t do that without thinking of myself. 

Being lost is a natural state of the soul. It is a part of the human journey to lose our way. “Midway into life's journey,” Dante begins the Divine Comedy, “I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.” The experience of being lost is so common in contemporary American culture that encourages us to indulge our petty desires at the cost of losing sight of our true selves.

This month, our theme is liberation. What does it mean to take a path of liberation? This is a foundational religious question. For many Buddhists it has to do with letting go of attachment, recognizing how following our grasping nature, our base desires, leads to bondage while practicing mindfulness and cultivating greater awareness of what really are steps toward liberation. For many Christians, liberation has to do with giving oneself over to the will of God, to replace one’s self-centered consciousness with a god or christ consciousness that guides our actions.

I’ve been grappling with Thomas Merton, the late Christian mystic and maverick Catholic priest, who embodied and articulated a profound perspective about spiritual freedom that blends these Buddhist and Christian understanding of liberation. One of his great insights is the title of his book from which I took today’s reading, No Man Is an Island. “There is something in the very nature of my freedom, he says, that inclines me to love, to do good, to dedicate myself to others. I have an instinct that tells me that I am less free when I am living for myself alone. The reason for this is that I cannot be completely independent. Since I am not self-sufficient I depend on someone else for my fulfillment. My freedom is not fully free when left to itself. It becomes so when it is brought into the right relation with the freedom of another.”

I think Merton would say, “Modern life has become full of distractions to the point that it is all one great distraction from who we really are and what we are here to do.” It matters, and sometimes matters profoundly if we hew to a path of loving with courage.

I recently gathered with a couple colleagues. We meet intermittently to support one another. One of us had started therapy and another one of us asked how it was going, “Terrible,” he said, “you know how therapy cuts you down, makes you face what you’re scared of, Well, right now I’m confused, disoriented, and exhausted.” The first colleague responded “That’s wonderful!” We all laughed, aware that real growth often requires hitting a wall and a slog of discomfort to learn how to really love with courage.

Two and a half years ago, Antoinette Tuff faced a seemingly untenable situation. You may have heard about it. She was sitting at the reception desk at an Atlanta elementary school when a young man walked in with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition. No one got hurt because she talked to the man like a fellow human being and he heard her, and what’s wild is that she was on the line with 911 and everything she said was recorded. The police chief in Atlanta said there’s no question that this could have been another Newtown CT. But it wasn’t thanks to her. 

During the first half of the conversation, Ms Tuff is speaking both to the 911 dispatcher and to the gunman by her side, conveying his demands and his questions. He tells her that he intends to kill dozens of people. He also acknowledges that he’s mentally unstable, off his medication, and has nothing to live for.  Ms Tuff an African American women in her mid 40s addresses this 20 year old white man as sir, and talks to him matter of factly, respectfully, as if she was speaking to a teacher. In the second half of the conversation, she begins speaking to him more affectionately, “sir” becomes “baby.” “What’s your name Baby?” Michael. Michael Hill. She responds, “My mother was a Hill!” She also calls him sweety and sweetheart. She says, I know. We all go through something in life. I almost committed suicide myself last year when my husband left me, but I didn’t and look at me now. It’s gonna be all right, baby. You’re gonna be all right. They’re not gonna shoot you. 

By now she has got Michael to lie down and lay his gun aside, assuring him that she will stay standing so that the police will know that he hadn’t hurt her. She kept saying, You’ll be alright. I love you. Her love literally disarmed Michael Hill. My colleague Victoria Safford, from whom I first learned about this incident, notes that in the days that followed, a talk show psychologist praised Ms Tuff, telling CNN that she had deployed excellent instrumental strategy and an exemplary negotiating style. All this may be true, but she herself had a different explanation and it involved no strategy at all, and it was certainly not about her style. She said what got her through was the teaching of her church to “anchor on the Lord in tough times.” She anchored on the Lord. 

Safford asks, What could that mean for us? What does that mean? The love she talks about sounds a lot like Universalism, like standing on the side of love, but how are we to talk about it? Anchor on the Lord probably may sound a little to religious to you, or way too religious; too old-fashioned, too theistic, too Christian. Safford asks, “So what would you call it, standing up in what Ms. Tuff called “tough times?” What do you call that courage, that radical love, radical empathy, radical grace? What holds your moral roots in place? What holds you to your highest aspiration, your deepest truth, your calling your longing, your conviction?”

These are questions about the nature of freedom, the courage to love, the courage to enter into commitments with others for the sake of lifting up all of our lives. When we love with courage we open up the space where true freedom beckons. Whether we call that which beckons God or not is beside the point, what matters is that we as human beings have the capacity to live freely and dedicate ourselves to what is good.

But contemporary American culture has so many lures to lose the path that does not stray. As Merton says: “It often happens that an individual’s true self is literally buried in the subconscious, and never has a chance to express itself except in symbolic protest against the tyranny of a malformed conscience that insists on remaining immature.” 

A path of liberation calls us to grow our soul and cultivate our conscience. I said earlier that being lost is a natural state of the soul, it is also a necessary state on the path of spiritual maturity. When we grow, we must leave behind certain routines or ways of seeing the world, and before we fully mature into a new ways, we must confront ambiguity, disorientation, uncertainty. It is at just these times we become all the more aware of our fears. Our anxieties ramp up. Like many of you, I think I must measure up in some way. I must achieve some level of measurable success. And I lose sight of what is truly of value. Merton reminds us to not depend on the hope of results but more and more to concentrate on the value, the rightness, the truth of our work, to struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. For in the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

Ms Tuff said she was praying through the entire encounter with Michael Hill, that when she heard the recording afterwards, she couldn’t believe how calm she was, that she hardly even recognized her own voice. Safford says she chalked it up to praying, praying for sufficient love, love large enough to hold Michael, to see the other person in the room, whatever the circumstance, not as a deranged gunman nor even as a threat, but ever and always as a humang being, someone with a story and struggle, just like her, and also a child of God, a person full of his own worth and dignity. 

When I returned to visit Josh at San Francisco General Hospital, he was gone. The nurses told me his operation had gone well, but that another patient had died, leaving his eight year old son, and his son was there in the hospital wailing, the nurses unsure what to do in that horrible moment. Josh had heard the commotion, came out of his room and gave his teddy bear to the young boy. The young boy stopped crying and just clutched the teddy bear and hugged Josh. After an extended hug with the child, Josh left the hospital with more than relief from headaches. He left knowing he could still give of himself and connect with other human beings. 

In this life, pain is unavoidable. Misery is a choice. And compassion is a choice. Committing to learn to love, and love with courage is a choice. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

Blessed be. Amen. 

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