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How should the Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministry respond to an era in which fear is not only a personal issue, but also a destructive force in our national politics? That was the question raised and discussed Thursday morning by Forrest Church, Rob Eller Isaacs and Sarah Lammert in the worship service "A Ministry of Love in Fearful Times" sponsored by the UU Ministers' Association.
In his welcoming remarks, Isaacs pointed out how the national "culture of fear" had affected General Assembly (GA) itself: Because the Convention Center lies inside the security zone of a port, GA participants must show photo IDs to enter, and there is at least the theoretical possibility of being searched. He recognized two opposite principled stands UU ministers have taken in response: some to protest by not attending, and others attending in the belief that "to refrain from coming together was to submit to that very cultivated culture of fear."
Church began the sermon by recalling a time when an American president, Franklin Roosevelt, responded to a climate of fear by attempting to dissipate it rather than exploit it. Roosevelt's most famous line—"We have nothing to fear but fear itself"—comes from his first inaugural address in 1933, at the height of the Depression. "Times were darker than they are today," Church observed. "The whole fabric of society was unravelling before a hapless nation's eyes." And in 1941, when war raged in Europe but America was not yet involved, Roosevelt listed "freedom from fear" as one of the four great freedoms, along with freedom of speech, of worship, and from want.
Church then explored how fear functions within the individual as "a fundamental danger to human experience. Only when fear lifts can the human heart open and thrive." He acknowledged fear's tempting aspect, while rejecting its ultimate results: "We can eliminate a world of trouble from ourselves just by closing our hearts. But the trouble from which we are liberating ourselves is necessary trouble. Take no risks, and we still run the danger of living a sorry life." And even if we submit completely to fear, we will still die: "Fear protects us not from death, but from life and from love."
But rather than simply demonizing fear, Church cast panic and fearlessness as two extremes to be avoided equally. He presented prudence—the "wisdom to know the difference" from the Serenity Prayer—as the golden mean between them.
On the national stage, security and freedom are two conflicting values that similarly call for a golden mean. "We must therefore decide just how safe we wish to be. When our alarms warn us only against threats that imperil our safety, they fail to alert us to threats that may jeopardize our humanity." He compared those who "obsess over threats to safety while ignoring threats to liberty" to a man who tries to stay warm by using the walls of his house for firewood. "By tending his hearth, he destroys his home."
"Fear," Church charged, "has become the chosen instrument of our national leadership, dividing our nation." But he took hope from the example of Roosevelt, which—while far from perfect—demonstrated that "we can be liberated from fear, even in the darkest times." Roosevelt "led by faith, not fear, which in this imperfect world makes all the difference."
The conclusion of Church's sermon brought the focus back to the personal, and in particular to the role of the minister. He charged his audience "not to ignore security, but to banish fear, so that love and the enlightenment it brings may once again open our hearts, not only to those like us, but also to those with whom we disagree. To practice spreading light in the darkness does not mean extinguishing the darkness. This we cannot do. But we can nurture love."
After the sermon, Sarah Lammert instructed the audience to break into twos and threes to discuss moments when they had overcome fear.
After a question/comment period, Church's concluding remarks responded to the issues raised. He noted that the immediate effect of 9-11 on his fellow New Yorkers was to unite them in a sense of their common humanity, and that the corrosive effects of fear emerged only gradually. He emphasized this overcoming of boundaries as the antidote to fear, and charged UU churches to achieve "radical openness...as the one home where all people are welcome."
It is not prophesy, Church warned, to speak only to those who agree with us. "It is not prophesy to preach to the choir and feel morally superior upon finishing one's sermon. The only way we can begin to enter that world of prophesy is by recognizing our own idols and dashing them down."
"We as human beings have a task to be humane, and to be as humane as we can possibly be means to open our hearts to hearts that otherwise might be closed from us. And if we can do that, we can break down fear."
Reporter: Doug Muder; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis
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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.
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