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That Paralyzing Fear
September 26, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 6:34; JOHN 14:2

I like to walk at night at 11 or 11:30. It's quiet. The stars shine, the sky is usually clear. Manteca is quiet at that time of night. I like to walk; that's when I plan my sermons. I suppose some of you wish I'd walk a little longer! That's when I get my ideas. One evening, just a week ago, I was walking down Milner and around the corner came a pickup squealing its tires, swerving. The headlights came right at me. And I feared. How many of you have ever been afraid? Certain things happen to the body when we are afraid. What are some of the things that happen to the body? Adrenalin flows. Your throat gets dry. What else? You get chilled, shake, perspire. You've all been afraid. What happens in the stomach? You get a knot right down there in the stomach. 

There's also a psychological fear, an emotional fear, that affects our mind. At times not only do we have physical reactions, but we have mental reactions. A kind of paralysis sets in on our minds. I talked to a woman several years ago in the Bay Area. She was telling me that she no longer attended her own church, she had transferred her membership to another church. She had left her childhood church where she was born and grew up all through those years. She finally left her church to join another one. I asked, “Why? What was wrong?” She said, “Well, my home church is controlled by a small group of people. These people over the years had so tightly controlled that church, they would not allow any new ideas.They resisted all kinds of change. They stifled all new ideas. They excluded all new people. They excluded all the younger people.They only allowed themselves to hold the positions of leadership.They held a tight rein on the money. As a result, the church was declining. Its attendance was way down. The finances were down. There were no youth. There were no young couples. The church was dying. And she said, “I finally just couldn't take it any longer. I changed churches.” She said those people were not bad people. They were good people. She'd known them all her life. She loved each one of them as individuals. They didn't mean to be destructive. But they were afraid.  

Now there are certain kinds of fear that are good and necessary. Fear is good when it allows us to be more cautious, to be more careful. When a person is afraid of having an automobile accident, he will drive more carefully. When a pilot is afraid of crashing, he will be more cautious about checking his plane, checking all the controls, seeing that everything is working properly. A small amount of fear is good for it causes us to be more cautious, to go carefully, to make sure we've examined all the facts, make sure we've examined and taken into account all that needs to be taken into account. 

But I'm talking about that paralyzing fear when fear gets out of control, when fear gets hold of us, grabs us and paralyzes us. Fear can paralyze us as individuals and groups. Fear can paralyze churches, it can paralyze communities, it can paralyze a nation. Fear is rampant in our nation today. We in these last few years as a nation have reacted in fear so often. Things are changing rapidly—rapid changes, technological advances, revolutions, new lifestyles, women not taking husband’s names. Times have changed. Times are changing and many people react in fear. They see things slipping away. They don't know what the future holds. They are afraid to try, they are afraid to risk. That kind of fear can paralyze and stifle creativity. It can starve the spirit. Joylessness, unfulfillment, meaninglessness results. Take a youth who really wants to try out for the team, or cheerleading, or those lovely dance groups who strut in front of the band. Some youths really want to try out, but they're afraid. A knot comes in the stomach, the palms get sweaty and they quit. They are paralyzed by the fear. And they quit. They don't try. 

Sometimes people fear success. I was at a meeting last week in the Bay Area. The meeting was evaluating one of the most successful things that's been happening in our conference. Pastors School has grown from attendance of 40 to 300 in three years. But this group kept picking on the leaders, kept raising quibbling questions about how they are spending the money. Are you spending too much on honorariums? What are you doing about this? What are you doing about that? We heard all these questions, the gossip, uneasiness. Why? Because it was successful. There's something about success that causes us to be afraid. We feel maybe it won't continue. Maybe it won't last. There's something about success that makes us afraid. I pointed this out to the group. I wasn't very popular but I pointed out to the group that when things are failing, when there are problems, we all know what to do. We all know what to do with failure. We can be big heroes and heroines. But success.  I don't know how I can relate to this. I don't know how I can fit in. I don't know how I can belong. Some people are afraid not only of failure, but of success. Senior members of our society are afraid so often of losing touch. They see clubs, groups change. They see the family changing, going off in other directions, and they fear they're going to lose touch. They don't know where they belong. They don't know how they relate anymore. Out of fear so many of them either try to control, try to force themselves into the situation, or they quit and retreat into loneliness.

What do you do with fear, the dynamic of fear? What really is going on when we're afraid? I think the dynamic underneath our fear is the fear of loss. We're afraid of losing something, something we've gained, something we've earned, something we're enjoying, or even something we're not enjoying. But we just can't visualize losing it. We can't visualize what it would be like without this thing, without this group, without this club, without my role, without my relationship, something I've earned, something I've built over the years. I've given my heart to it, given my life to it over the years and now it's changing. Now it's going on without me. That's a great fear. I cannot imagine it going along without me— fear of loss, loss of power, loss of place. I don't know where I belong. I don't know where I should be. Fear of extinction. What if they could get along without me. When you push extinction just a little further, you get down to probably the heart of the matter. Afraid to try, afraid risk, afraid to accept the changes is really a manifestation of the fear of one's death. I can't imagine life going on without me. When one cannot face and deal realistically with one's own death, one cannot really deal realistically and creatively with one's life. We have not learned to let it go, and trust in God. 

What do you do with fear? The first thing to do with fear is to repent. The biblical concept of repentance means to look something squarely in the eye—honestly and openly deal with it. Admit it. Ask of whatever you are afraid, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen?” When you ask that of a situation, usually the options are not that bad. Face it. Consider the church where the people are acting out of fear. They're hanging on to it. Ask what is the worst possible thing that could happen to that church? It could fail, it could die. But that's what's happening to it now. So is that so bad? Try something new. 

Take the youth who are afraid to try for the team. What's the worst possible thing that could happen? Not make it and be laughed at? Well, you're not on the team now so what's there to lose? Is it so bad if you try and don't make it? You're not on it already! And is it so bad to be laughed at? That's the risk. Wasn't it Calvin Coolidge who said, “If you never say anything, nobody will quote you?” Well, if you never try anything, nobody will know you're around. If you never try anything, you'll never fail. But is that really what you want? Or what is the worst possible thing when you fear success? What is the worst possible thing that could happen? It could fail and fall back to what it was before it started to grow. You'd be right back to where you started from. So is that so bad? 

Or what about fearing loss of place? To see the family going on without you, to see the groups, the clubs going on without you. What's the worst possible thing that could happen? To be alone. But when you try to control, manipulate and force your way, you'll end up alone. The option is to find a new relationship, to trust the future and find a new situation, find a new place to belong.

Or what about one's death? What is the worst possible thing that could happen? To die. If you're a Christian, is death so bad? Get an eternal perspective on this life. When we really believe in eternity, in heaven, in eternal life, when we really believe that existence on this earth is only a small part of the whole, then doesn't what we're so worried about and what we're so fearful of shrink in importance and significance in the light of God's holy eternity? Get an eternal perspective and fill your minds with what is eternal, with what will last. Instead of worrying and getting all anxious about petty little things that don't matter, fill your mind with peace, love, what is lovely, gracious, and beautiful. Take time to pray every day. Take time to meditate. Take time to put your mind in neutral and let God fill it with the Holy Spirit. Fill your mind with what really counts and then those little things that bother you and make you afraid will become insignificant. 

Get an eternal perspective and trust Jesus. Trust him with your future. Trust him with your present. Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Our true home where we really belong is in the place he has prepared for us. It's not in any institution here. It's not in any intimate group here. It's not in any relationship on this earth. Our true home is in God. “I go to prepare a place for you. Do not be anxious. Do not be troubled. Don't worry about tomorrow. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for today.” Trust Jesus with the future and trust him with the present. Let the anxieties, the cares, the worries fall away. “He's got the whole world in His hands.” And that includes you and me. 

I would like to sing during the offertory one of my favorite songs. I've sung it before and I'll probably sing it again. On the day when Martin Luther King was assassinated, he leaned over the balcony talking to the song leader for the evening meeting. He asked the song leader to make sure that his favorite song was sung. And this is it. I sing this song a lot. I sing it to myself. I sing it when I'm walking down the street at night. When I feel depressed, when I'm afraid, when I'm worn, tired and discouraged then I sing, 

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I'm tired, I’m weak, I’m lone

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear, precious Lord linger near

When my life is almost gone

Hear my cry, hear my call

Hold my hand lest I fall

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris