In a Sunday school play about Jesus walking on the troubled waters of the Sea of Galilee, a little boy had the important line that Jesus spoke to his fearful disciples. "It is I; be not afraid!" Yet the little guy was so nervous when he came out on the stage and saw the audience, he took one look at the row of grownups and blurted out: "It's me and I'm scared."
Our gospel selection today brings home one of the most welcome messages from God in the Word that we can ever receive. Fear Not! Walk with the Lord and fear nothing. Fear no enemy, no health problem, no financial problem, no family problem. Walk sincerely with God, and know that nothing can harm you in any real way.
This is no puny promise, no irrelevant assurance. Fear is the worst, most unpleasant emotion we can experience. Fear is the most destructive force in our personalities. Fear fuels hatred; fear creates the monster of jealousy and the demon of envy; fear stirs free-floating anxieties. Fear stalks us ruthlessly in our neuroses.
Twenty-three years ago, psychologist Rollo May came out with a landmark book, Love and Will, in which he declared that love and fear are the two and the only two fundamental human emotions. All other emotions derive from them. Ever since then, the consensus of professional psychologist has solidified behind this very useful perception. Love and fear; innumerable variation of them make up our lives and our living. Only one of these fundamental spiritual realities can ultimately reign: love, with all its marvelous derivatives of joy, peace, goodwill, trust; or fear, with all its hideous derivatives of cunning, greed, selfishness and malice.
Christ offers us life without fear, pure and simple. It is the life of faith. Surely, we all would want this, but most of us, I dare say, are still very far from a profound absence of fear and a deeply abiding reservoir of faith.
Today let us bring some theological insights to bear upon this thinking called fear, so that we can do ourselves a big favor and send our fears packing. The first thing for us to realize spiritually is that perspective conditions perception. That's what Jesus was telling Peter. Peter's perspective created his reality in both the first and the second parts of his initiation into surfing, biblical-style--his perspective both allowed him to walk and also caused him to sink.
Fear is naturally tied to perspective and perception. For instance, almost anyone can swiftly and calmly walk the length of a 29-foot plank, 12 inches wide, if it's lying on the ground. But elevate that plank to the heights of a cathedral and almost no one can walk it, much less calmly and confidently. Why? The actual feat hasn't changed one whit. Only our perspective has generated a perception of possible disaster such that something that should be easily without our abilities suddenly becomes inordinately difficult.
Fear will do that to us, and that is a great deal of the message in this gospel story. Most of us most of the time will not perform well through fear. Any experienced performer knows that confidence organizes and skillfully directs inner energy, while fear scrambles inner energy into a disorganized chaos. Christ exhorts us to rid ourselves of fears. They do not belong with people of faith. He calls on us to build a dynamic inner belief system that can't be assailed, to believe that the Lord is always deeply, truly, fully with us. Count on Him, Christ says. He will always be there. The first spiritual insight in banishing fear from our lives is changing our perspective to one of real faith in God's providence.
Such a faith gives us a very special gift, and that is the courage to face a fear. Becoming a person of deep faith doesn't mean that we will never have to deal with fear again. At least for our life in this world, though real fear should continually diminish, we will still encounter challenges to our perceived spiritual well-being many, many times. Jesus often taught by example to face a fear directly, so that we can have the opportunity to expose them for the illusion that they really are. He did it in the beginning of his ministry with his stare-down confrontation in the desert with the Evil One; he did it over and over again with his detractors in his public teaching sessions; he did it right up unto the end of his earthly ministry, when he calmly faced his executors and passed through that experience with the supreme confidence that the illusions created by their ignorance would not ultimately stand and that the message of eternal life in God would triumph.
There is no better tool for life that we can pass on to young people and that we can do for ourselves than to face a fear. As the saying goes: You can run, but you can't hide. Soldiers on maneuvers in the Arctic are given instructions in an Army manual of what to do if they come upon a polar bear. They're not supposed to run; the bear can outrun them. Instead they're supposed to walk toward the bear and talk to it. The irrepressible New Yorker magazine asked, "Talk--talk about what?" Nevertheless, our spiritual and psychological fears are like those polar bears; if we try to escape them through any other means than confronting them, they've got us on the run, and we have lost our freedom. Fears go largely underground and torment us around the edges of our consciousness, causing us to make unintelligent actions to relieve the stresses caused from those fears--drinking too much, eating too much, watching too much TV, obsessing over unimportant things. We can't out-run our fears: They gnaw constantly at our heels during the day, and they stalk us relentlessly at night in our dreams.
There's a powerful spiritual technique you can use in your dreams. A well-documented fact is that virtually all of us have three or four fear-dominated dreams a night. Nearly all of us also have recurring themes that are fear-based, especially situations in which we are being chased, in which we are about to get caught and probably killed. The fear becomes so intense in these nocturnal episodes that we often wake up.
Years ago I read a book by the Episcopal priest-Jungian psychologist Morton Kelsey, who recommended the technique of learning to enter into the scene of a fear-based dream from a quasi-wakeful state of consciousness. One can learn to move into a dual state of consciousness in a dream, and actually have the chance to direct the flow of the dream and face that which is chasing you, instead of running from it. I have done it several times, so I know that it is not all that difficult. But whether you are the kind of person who is in touch with your dream-life much or not, I want to share this with you because it communicates a crucial spiritual insight. Let's say you are in a typical dream of being chased: Being chased is probably the most universal and common fear dream throughout every culture. The funny thing is, we never actually die in nightmares. As the perceived danger approaches and it becomes increasingly evident that we cannot escape, either we wake up, or the scene flips to something else.
Now here's the trick. You train yourself to become more sensitive to fear emotions in dreams, so that when a certain level of fear registers emotionally, you wake up just enough to realize you are being pursued by something very fearful, but you don't wake up enough so that you completely leave the dream state. This is called lucid dreaming, and it is very easy to learn to do. In lucid dreaming, you can enter a dream's flow and interact with it. So you tell yourself that the next time you have the opportunity to become aware in a fear-dominated dream, you are going to stop running from whatever is chasing you and instead turn around to confront it. You know what? Every this this is done, whether in case stories told by Rev. Kelsey or in my own dreams, that which is doing the chasing never attacks the self when it is confronted. I am unaware of even one lucid dream encounter with a fear dream in which the self of the person in the dream is harmed by the person or thing that had been causing all the fear. I remember one dream which I was able to enter lucidly; I was being chased by three women with knives! And when I turned to face them and ask what they wanted of me, it turned out that they simply wanted to talk! I learned form the experience, as with several others, that our fears present genuine learning opportunities.
Christ has taught us to face our fears. There is nothing that can hurt us, except a life of turning our backs on the Divine. As the Martin Luther hymn puts it: "The body they may kill, God's truth abideth still." The early Christians possessed this faith and this power totally, and they gained the admiration of all cultures around them for their courage. Our fears are illusions. With Christ, we can confidently face them all.
Love conquers death, love conquers fear. We can live, flowing in confident harmony with the powerful, freeing, joyous love of God. This is not snake-oil medicine. It's the only way to live, and Christ came for no other reason than to give us the keys to a realm in which this is the permanent and radiant reality. No matter where we are, we can believe this today. We can believe this gospel message, and walk out of here free, our fears left behind right there upon God's altar.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Reading from Swedenborg:
No one is reformed in a state of fear, because fear takes away freedom and reason, or liberty and rationality; for while love opens the interiors of the mind fear closes them; and when they are closed one thinks little, and only of what then presents itself to the mind or the senses. Such is the effect of all fears that take possession of the mind. It has been shown above that we have an internal and an external of thought; fear can in no wise take possession of the internal of thought; this is always in freedom because in its life's love; but it can take possession of the external of thought, and when it does this the internal of thought is closed; and when that is closed we can no longer act from freedom in accordance with our reason, and therefore cannot be reformed.
Divine Providence, n. 139