Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Letting Go of Fear

Jesus said, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Amen. (Matt. 10:27)

No doubt many of you saw the media coverage of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons at their wedding this past week. They were the first same-sex couple to be married legally in California, following the state Supreme Court’s historic decision in favor of marriage equality. Now, Del and Phyllis actually have been married since 1953. It just took the state 55 years to recognize de jure the de facto reality of their committed and courageous love.

At a time when the truth of same-sex love was whispered in the dark, Del and Phyllis were shouting it from the housetops. When they co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, the first lesbian organization in the United States, the nation was in the grip of an anti-Communist and anti-homosexual witch-hunt. As editors of The Ladder, the D.O.B.’s magazine, they brought hope to thousands of women who were living in the shadows of society, enslaved by self-doubt and fear. Great daring was required for them to advocate for the dignity of gay and lesbian people in the face of persecution and ridicule.

Later, they would become leading activists in the National Organization for Women, at a time when lesbians were marginalized within the feminist movement. They would publish landmark books on such hot-button issues as lesbian rights and domestic violence, derided by some who persisted in the false belief that “domestic violence” was a “straight women’s issue.” They helped found the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club in San Francisco when many thought that political party activism was too mainstream and bourgeois. And they championed the rights and dignity of elderly people long past the time when they had every right to enjoy a quiet retirement.

What accounts for such patient and persistent struggle for justice in the face of great opposition? What kept them going when others succumbed to despair and cynicism? Pondering their story, it occurs to me that the secret of their success was their refusal to be beholden to success. In other words, they were able to persist in the work of promoting human life and dignity without being attached to any particular outcome. Whether or not they succeeded was beside the point. The point was to bear witness to the truth of their lives, and to the lives of people too often denigrated and ignored, regardless of the cost.

In simple terms, they were not afraid; at least, they did not allow their fear to determine their lives. They did not submit to the power of fear that either renders us timid and invisible, remaining in the shadows, or else drives us to manipulate, intimidate and control others to secure our idea of success. Del and Phyllis were not so afraid that they refused to take risks for truth and justice, but neither were they so afraid of loosing that they would subvert the very principles for which they struggled in the effort to defeat their opponents.

Fear leads to withdrawal, isolation, and despair. Or it can lead to a cynical justification of whatever means are necessary to secure one’s desired end. It is very difficult to find the third way in between despair and cynicism, the way of engaging conflict without anxiety or attachment to outcomes.

I don’t know anything about Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons’ religious views, but their ability to walk this third way through fear illustrates well the teaching of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching was written to a Christian community that was facing great opposition. Fidelity to the truth of one’s experience of the Spirit of Jesus was tearing apart synagogues, communities, and families. In the midst of rejection and persecution, the early followers of Jesus were tempted to give in to their fear – either hiding the truth of their lives altogether, or else seeking to impose that witness on others rather than endure suffering.

In this context, Matthew’s Gospel recalls Jesus’ teaching about how to deal with conflict. First, we must get clear about our expectations. Conflict is normal and inevitable. Jesus begins by saying, “Look, the servant isn’t any better than the master. If I was treated so badly, why do you expect any better? Don’t think I’ve come to bring peace, but rather division. There are real risks involved in seeking truth, justice, and reconciliation in the world. Get used to it.”

At the same time, Jesus urges us to not be afraid of these risks. We can come out of the closets of our lives when we realize that God loves us deeply and intimately just the way we are. Our meaning and value is determined by God’s compassionate embrace of us – not by what anyone else thinks of us. There is a terrific saying in AA – “What other people think of me is none of my business.” The spiritual death that results from isolation and despair is far worse than the opposition and rejection we might face.

God’s compassionate embrace also frees us from preoccupation with outcomes. Since our life’s meaning and value is not determined by our success or failure, we are free to engage in the struggle for justice and peace in Jesus’ name without worrying about winning or losing. It really is much more about how we play the game. The spiritual death that results from cynicism, manipulation, and domination of others is far worse than any failures we might endure along the way.

There is life and then there is life. There is death and then there is death. We sometimes must lose our life in order to live. We must die to our fear of rejection or failure so that we can live with joy and freedom.

This spiritual struggle with fear is a daily challenge. Letting go of our fear to make room for God’s unconditional and abiding love isn’t a one time event. It happens in ways large and small over and over again, each time we choose to stay engaged with life’s challenges without anxiety – neither running away from conflicts nor running over other people in the process of resolving them.

I saw this spiritual struggle in action while I was on vacation in New Mexico last week with my step-father, Jay. Jay has been living with MS for more than a decade now, and his condition is slowly deteriorating. He becomes exhausted easily, with each movement of his arms and especially his legs feeling like he is moving underwater tied down by heavy weights. He can no longer walk without the help of a cane, and requires wheelchair assistance to travel any distance.

Over the years, I’ve watched Jay struggle against the tendency toward isolation. Early on, he was afraid to be seen in public, worried about what others would think about his uneven gate. Would they think he was drunk? Would they take advantage of him? I wondered if he would give in to despair and become a recluse.

Today, he struggles against the tendency toward cynicism and manipulation. It is hard to gracefully accept vulnerability and dependence. He is no longer in control of his own body, of his ability to get from one place to another. In such circumstances, it is tempting to want to blame others, to manipulate people to get one’s way rather than ask for help. Having overcome his fear of rejection, he now must confront his fear of failure. “Can I succeed in life by trusting others rather than controlling them?” This is a question with which all of us must struggle at some level.

Jay’s successful struggle with fear, like that of Del and Phyllis, has been a paradox: he has gained his life by loosing it, by embracing risk and vulnerability regardless of the result. Their struggles highlight a common feature of our spiritual condition. As a parent, I come up against it each time I ask myself anew: “Will I trust my ten year-old son so that he can grow-up, or try to control him to assuage my fear? Do I let him walk down to the corner store by himself? Middle school is just around the corner. Will I walk with him through his own inevitable suffering the pangs of adolescence, or will I distance myself from him to manage my own anxiety?”

As a congregation, we are in a period of transition in which conflict is inevitable. “What do we do about the budget deficit? What should our mission focus be? Can we trust the diocese and neighboring congregations enough to ask for help?” Here too, we are beset by the temptation of fear. Some of us may feel like running away, or whispering in the dark about this or that rather than confronting conflict directly. Some of us may be tempted to want to impose a particular solution right now, no matter what the cost, as a way to manage our anxiety.

Our spiritual challenge, individually and collectively, is to take to heart Jesus’ teaching about conflict: stay engaged without anxiety. Don’t worry about what other people may think. Let go of your attachment to particular outcomes. Trust that God loves you and accepts you regardless of success or failure.

Lose your life for the sake of Christ, for the sake of his way of justice and peace, and you will find new and abundant life. Do not be afraid. Amen.

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