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When I Am Frightened

When I Am Frightened

Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd
River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Sunday October 20, 2013

This is the era of the everyday violence, the time that we will remember for the frequency of the gunshots, the tearing of the fabric of things day by day, headline by headline until the unthinkable becomes commonplace and the devastation of senseless violence becomes an expectation rather than a searing exception to our essential sense of interwoven safety. Not since another generation dutifully ducked and covered under their desks in fear of The Bomb has it been quite like this.

The children, then and now, are trained. Then, we covered, because the bomb would crumble buildings and doorframes and basements were said to be strong. Now, you run, and in a zig-zag pattern if possible, because itís harder for a shooter too take out too many at once if the precious ones of our hearts scatter and scream and swerve. No more, we cry, no more, and our hearts break over and over again. No more.

The children of the bomb were well trained. And now the children of the gun. They know what to do. It is a hard-fought knowledge, a terrible knowledge, that we wish with heart and soul never had to be imparted. Itís a wisdom born of suffering and a fear that is increasingly not uncalled for.

Throughout the first decade of this century, from time to time I found it incumbent upon myself to preach against fear. The way it cripples us. The way it holds us down. The horrible fact that in the wake of September 11th, 2001, our fear was twisted into initial willingness to go to war as we found ourselves in the grip of what some called an "epidemic of fear."

That epidemic was best articulated at that time by a 2003 article by that title in the Boston Globe Magazine which said that since September 11, our "appetites have been sharpened to a fine edge by a reflexive anticipatory dread of inexplicable cataclysm... today we worry our memories like beads on an endless rosary on which Saddamís statue is linked with Laci Petersonís body and the sudden emergence of a virulent new corona virus from the Chinese outback, all of them linked to earlier sorrowful mysteries that include AIDS, Nicole Simpson, Chandra Levy, and the World Trade Center Towers Ė prayers rising out of a universe of ground zeros, where the serious canít even get heard now unless it shouts itself into the catastrophic."

Do you remember Laci Petersen? The bird flu? The worry beads of one fear clicking over into another, again and again. In that decade, I used to preach the old dictum that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, that if we could only stop focusing on the isolated, the sensationalistic and the overblown, we could rest in the great probability that everything is going to be all right.

But not now. Itís not that the probabilities have changed. Chances are everythingís still going to be all right, but today itís not fear itself that is twisted into the impetus for wars of words and attrition. Today I wonder if the only thing we have to fear is not fear itself but rather our own exhaustion. Our own exhausted inability to directly confront the sources of the heartbreaks that tear us apart over and over again.

For this is our life Ė where the serious canít even get heard unless if shouts itself into the catastrophic. And in the midst of that, we must make meaning. We must begin again. We must put pen to paper and write out a scrap of poetry that emerges not in spite of but because of our fear. Weíre not necessarily called to get over it and get past our fear, but live richly and courageously in the presence of it. Because itís not going away. And the power in this world, the power to change and heal and make miracles of the everyday does not rest with the unafraid, but with those who are willing to gamble big on this life and one another even in the presence of that fear which will not wholly let us go.

Let me tell you a story about a hero of our time. A hero whose story someone should turn into a poem, an epic poem perhaps, like the Iliad or the Odyssey for the 2nd decade of the 21st century, a hero who carved victory from certain defeat.

This is not the story of a warrior like Achilles or a king like Odysseus, but a hero of the people, whose story slid by too fast in the tragic news cycle of this fall. She is a bookkeeper at an elementary school.

Antoinette Tuff Ė do you remember her? Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper at the Ronald E. McNair Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia where 800 children were gathered in their classrooms busily going about their day when a 20 year old man named Michael Brandon Hill walked into the school office with an assault rifle.

Holding Tuff and another office employee hostage, the gunman told her he was sorry for what he was about to do but that he was ready to die. Loaded as he was with multiple weapons and enough ammunition to devastate the school, he was Death itself, the destroyer of worlds crammed into the seething eyes of an angry young man.

Tuff looked up at him from her place of utmost vulnerability and she started to talk. At the point of a gun, she told this young man about her life, about how her marriage fell apart after 33 years and she didnít know what was worth living for, her failures in business and life, her struggle to find a way through.

She told him that these seemingly impossible situations donít have to claim us entirely, that it was going to be OK and if she could recover, then he could too.

She did what seems so obvious but nobody ever does Ė she just asked him to put the weapons down and the bullets on the floor and she said she would stay with him through it all and then Ė here is the shocking thing Ė Antoinette Tuff, the hero of our age, she told this man who held her at gunpoint that she loved him. She told him she loved him. And no one died that day.

After this, people kept asking how it was possible that Antoinette Tuff was not overcome by her fear. Why was she not afraid? What kept her fear at bay? But those questions get the whole thing wrong.

The 911 call she made while the shooter was still in the building, a call he actually asked her to make, while the children of the school streamed out the back doors to the safety of waiting busses, explains otherwise.

"Let me tell you something, babe," Tuff told the dispatcher, "I've never been so scared in all the days of my life. Oh, Jesus."

Itís not that she wasnít afraid. She was in fact mortally afraid. She was living in the laser-like focus of these days, and the epidemic of our great national fear from Columbine to 9/11 and Colorado to Sandy Hook was, for a moment, centered precisely on her own person. How could she not be afraid? She was terrified and she did not bother denying it. Yet out of that fear came astonishing courage and, perhaps even more radical than that, heart-rending compassion. Courage is one thing, but compassion Ė thatís heroism on a whole different level. And that is why someone should write an epic poem about Antoinette Tuff. In the presence of this great fear, she was not for one moment blinded to her own great compassion. And that alone, that alone, could save us all.

Stephen King has written that fear has the power to render us, if only in moments, virtually insensible, so attuned to the beating our hearts and the continued flow of our own blood that we are incapable of much more than the fierce hope for our continued existence. Fear, he says, "is the emotion that makes us blind" because underneath it all, all of our fears are really one fear Ė namely, the one great fear of our mortality, and in the face of it we are stopped still, blinded to the more sublime things. Done. Most of the time, he is quite right.

And yet there are moments in the midst of such stultifying dread when we are anything but blind, times when we are even more awake and aware than perhaps we ever could be otherwise, when fear has a way of illuminating the necessary. There are also times when the only remaining necessary thing is a comprehending sense of compassion, a compassion that can arise right in the middle of our moments of greatest fear.

Many years ago, I heard a sermon where the preacher asked if there was any single doctrine, any idea or concept that was so achingly important that you would hold onto it no matter what. Even if the evidence proved otherwise, even if the facts all pointed to the opposite and everyone else around you patently disagreed, was there one thing, one single great surmise, that you would hold onto even unto the gates of the hell you do not believe in?

Basically Ė he was asking if there was one idea that so compelling to you that you must choose to live as if it were true? Choose to live as if it were true, no matter what. And I think Antoinette Tuff personifies my particular Great Surmise Ė that which I choose to assert in spite of all the evidence.

The great preacher Carl Scovel once said that, for him, the Great Surmise was simply this: "that at the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, to which we shall at last return. And that this Ė this deep well of purposeful goodness is the supreme reality of our lives."

For him, that was the choice Ė to live as if this were true, even if it werenít, because to live otherwise would break his soul. He made his choice and he chose to live as if we are loved beyond measure. I have always found that surmise, not the fact of it, but the choice to live as if it were true, fundamentally compelling.

But lately I have pondered a different surmise. Not to live as if we are loved beyond measure, but to live as if we ourselves are capable of loving beyond measure, no matter what. Can I prove this is true? That fear might illuminate in the human spirit not only the desire to survive but the capacity to bless and indeed, to love those who hurt us? Can I prove that fear does not have to blind us to compassion? No. Most of the evidence probably points to the contrary, in fact.

I cannot prove that we are capable of loving beyond measure even in the direst of circumstances. I cannot show that fear and does regularly coexist with deep compassion, but I choose to live as if it is possible, because if I donít, then fear leads only to fear and pain leads only to pain and there is never a day in the office of a school in Decatur, Georgia where nobody dies because one woman has pure unquenchable compassion enough to tell the man on the other end of the gun that she loves him.

Now, Iíve asked myself, did Antoinette Tuff really mean it when she said that? Did she really experience compassion for this tragic young man or was she merely brilliant, a born negotiator, innately wise enough to know that this boy and his cry for help just needed to hear a little something warm and fuzzy to keep him from pulling the trigger? Maybe she didnít, doesnít love him or have compassion for him, but is instead a total freaking genius. Fair enough.

But in these fearful days I shall make a great surmise Ė I shall choose to live as if she really did see the pain behind his angry eyes. I shall choose to live as if she really did, in that moment, feel some love for the man who threatened her and the 800 children whose lives she protected.

All is not lost. Fear doesnít have to blind us. It can hone us to a fine point of laser-like love. Did Antoinette Tuff really mean it when she told that shooter she loved him? It is my Great Surmise Ė not that we are loved beyond measure but that we are capable of loving beyond measure, and that love can emerge in even the most tragic of circumstances.