Stepping Out of That Boat Called Fear

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, March 24, 2019.

In this season of Lent I have been making a practice of listening—trying to listen more carefully to those around me; and trying to listen more deeply to myself, to hear that inner voice it can be so easy to miss. Some months ago Julia Bethmann shared with me a podcast by the writer, speaker and former pastor Rob Bell, called “You Listening to You,” that’s been really helpful. I commend it to you (and here’s the link.)

You know what happens if you listen? You learn things! You even learn things about yourself! And this may be uncomfortable sometimes, but it’s good, and necessary, if you want to grow. Lately this listening has made me aware that my life has been shaped too much by fear. Fear of making mistakes, of letting people down. Fear of failure. I think of a person I admired in the Portsmouth UU church. She was in her eighties when she started saying, “I want to be less of a worrier, and more of a warrior.”

It’s part of our human condition to have doubts and fears, and to some degree they can help keep us safe and mindful of our limitations. If something in you is saying “Don’t go down that dark alley,” or if you hear a voice saying, “Don’t eat that food that’s been in the back of the refrigerator for a month!”, then it’s good to listen to that! And if young people getting their driver’s licenses have some sense of the risks they are taking when they get behind the wheel, then that’s a healthy fear that will help keep people safe.

But fear can hold us back from our true callings, from being fully ourselves, from doing and being what we called to and capable of. And that’s what I want to talk with you about today. Because I’ve become aware that fear has been more of a motivating factor in my life than I would like to admit. And I expect I’m not the only one. Too often I have kept running, kept doing stuff, even the stuff that wasn’t really mine to do, because there was this fearful voice inside me saying, “You need to do more, and move faster, to earn your keep and prove your worth.” Anybody else hear voices like that?

Now I believe in the goodness of work; that we are meant to find the work that is our own and do what we can to make this a better world. I’m just starting to see that, though fear can be a powerful motivator, it can lead one the wrong way. What would happen if we would stop doing things out of fear, and start doing what we love?

Within each of us there are these voices of those who taught us and helped form us, people and customs and institutions, and their voices can stay with us our whole lives, directing us, unless we engage with them and sort out which voices are useful and which are not. What are the voices that you hear? Are they helpful? Or do you need to start listening to a different voice?

The great spiritual teachers, they understand that we are not meant to live in fear. As we heard Jesus say to his disciples this morning, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27). For Jesus, the opposite faith wasn’t doubt, it was fear. Julian of Norwich reminds us that, in the midst of struggle and suffering, the invitation is to trust that “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” 

These teachers invite us to see underneath the surface of things, and to seek after balance in our lives. The Buddha initially undertook a practice of study, and then tried self-denial, but it was his practice of meditation that brought enlightenment. Jesus spent his ministry teaching and healing, but would regularly get away by himself, in order to be renewed and restored.

And we live in a faster, louder, more complicated world than they did! You have to find balance and be grounded if you are going to thrive in this world, and if you are going to be helpful to others. Desmond Tutu has witnessed some of the worst things humans can do to each other, and the Dali Lama was persecuted and forced into exile, but when those two get together they are like schoolboys, laughing and cutting up. Though they know plenty about injustice and suffering, the book they co-wrote is called The Book of Joy. They remind us that though suffering and fear are part of the human condition, they are not supposed to control us or define us.

In the story we heard today, about Jesus walking on water and Peter trying to do the same, I hope you’re not worried about the technical challenges here; I hope you aren’t taking this literally. It’s a story! It’s meant to be symbolic, so I hope you can enter it  that way. Jesus was probably kind of tired from a day of feeing 5000 people (another symbolic story—when you go Christmas shopping, and you say “Oh my God, there must have been a million people at the mall!,” no one takes you literally, right?) and Jesus, when he’s tired, he goes off to a quiet place to pray. Then, to catch up with the disciples, he takes the most direct route—straight across the water. Perhaps a symbolic way for the writer of the story to say, “Our hero is one special guy.”

What I find compelling is how David Whyte imagines this encounter between Peter and Jesus, and interprets it for our own lives, and invites us to do this too, to reflect and wonder about these things. For me, this poem is like a modern sacred text, and we printed it on the back of the order of service, so you can take it home with you today if you like. Let’s hear again this testimony from David Whyte:

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this 
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

Years ago in the Hebrides 
I remember an old man 
who walked every morning 
on the grey stones 
to the shore of baying seals

who would press his hat 
to his chest in the blustering 
salt wind and say his prayer 
to the turbulent Jesus 
hidden in the water

and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them

and how we are all 
preparing for that 
abrupt waking, 
and that calling,
and that moment 
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly
so Biblically
but more subtly
and intimately in the face 
of the one you know
you have to love

so that when 
we finally step out of the boat 
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted 
to drown you could, 
but you don't 
because finally 
after all this struggle
and all these years
you don't want to any more
you've simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you 
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

Is is possible that the one you have to love is not another person, but your own true self? Your own dreams and longings and hopes and faith that are waiting to take their place in your life? Is it possible that the life you are longing for is nearer than you think?

This is my prayer: that we will be people who are trying to trust in Love, that though we will at times be afraid, we won’t be stopped by fear; we will go where we need to go and not worry about the risk or the cost. My prayer is that we will know that we are not alone. Stepping out of that boat called fear, trusting that everything will hold; that with these companions, and by the light of the heavens, we will find our way home.