Most insidious is the fact that the phenomenon of funky brain is not limited to individuals, but can afflict whole communities, and even nations and entire cultures. Indeed, we seem as a nation to be experiencing just such a case of collective funky brain right now, tied in knots as we are about threats—either real or imaginary—that we perceive to be all around us. And as you would expect, it limits our collective capacity to think dispassionately about what real choices there are in front of us—just listen to the volume of the political rhetoric in the press.
Fear is one of the most prevalent causes of funky brain. When we are afraid, our minds become preoccupied with guarding against that of which we are afraid, and so our mental focus becomes narrowed and our capacity to take a longer view becomes limited. We become tempted to say and to do things that, were we in our right frame of mind, we would know to be wrong and contrary to our most deeply held values: we know this lesson all too clearly from history.
How interesting, then, that fear should figure so prominently during this season of Advent and Christmas in the story of Jesus and his birth. In fact, the phrase “Fear not” becomes something of a leitmotiv for this season: when Gabriel first announces to Mary that she shall conceive and bear a son, what does he say? “Fear not.” When an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to accept the condition of his pregnant young betrothed, what does she say? “Fear not.” When the angels appear to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth, bringing glad tidings of great joy, what do they say? “Fear not.” And these admonitions not to be afraid are something more, I think, that just words of reassurance and encouragement: they have the deeper meaning of being a warning against falling through fear into the condition of funky brain, wherein neither Mary nor Joseph nor even the shepherds would be able to fulfill the role they had each been given to play in the world’s redemption.
Take Mary, for instance. More than anyone, she had every reason to be afraid—what with the mysterious angelic visitor, an unexpected pregnancy, the challenge of an arduous journey to Bethlehem, the experience of homelessness on the night of her delivery, and then the urgent flight into Egypt to escape the terror of Herod’s jealousy. One can easily imagine that Mary might have become consumed with a level of worry and anxiety that would push her into funky brain, closing her spirit off from the mystery of what God had called her to be and to do. Yet throughout, she remains poised, focused, and resolutely unafraid—choosing instead to ponder these things carefully in her heart so that she would be able to rise above the moment and persevere in what lay before her.
In today’s gospel, we catch a glimpse of one such episode in Mary’s odyssey: her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who is herself pregnant with the future John the Baptist. Elizabeth was an elderly woman whose desire for a child—seemingly a futile dream—had now been fulfilled through the promise of God. Perhaps because she too is the recipient of God’s grace, she quickly perceives Mary’s own confidence and quiet dignity in her situation, saying to Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Together, Mary and Elizabeth share an intimate moment of acceptance and mutual reassurance, which enables Mary to respond that her soul “magnifies” the Lord, that is, it extols and lauds God’s graciousness to her. Moving through her fear to a place of quiet confidence, Mary is remarkable for her embodiment of self-confidence and determination.
In rather sharp contrast, the gospels also offer examples of other people close to Jesus who let their fear get the better of them. The disciple Peter is chief among them. Peter, you remember, is notorious for his impetuosity, and that impulsiveness might often be understood as a sign of an underlying case of funky brain. As Jesus is arrested in the garden, for example, Peter’s unthinking fear causes him to react with rather silly violence, reaching for a sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave (an action for which Jesus quickly rebukes him). Then when Jesus most needs Peter’s loyalty as he is tried before Pilate, Peter’s fear causes him instead to deny Jesus three times—a decision he later comes to regret bitterly. Funky brain makes Peter violent, it makes him untrustworthy, it causes him to betray not only Jesus, but his own integrity.
And that is the great danger of fear: it causes us to behave in ways that are not true to ourselves. It causes us to react before thinking. It causes us to find scapegoats, to rationalize injustices, to turn away from the stranger. That’s why when Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the American people in his first inaugural in 1933, during the darkest days of the Great Depression, that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was not simply trying to evoke their confidence and courage. He was also warning against the fact that if we let ourselves be afraid, that very fear can cause us to lose sight in a time of crisis of what we value most as a nation—namely our commitment to freedom and the common good—and therefore to turn against one another, to lose our sense of compassion, to ostracize the stranger, and to erects walls and barriers rather than to extend a helping hand. Fear, in other words, can be a greater threat to our common life, than that of which we are afraid, for fear attacks us from within, and the resulting mental confusion makes us powerless to guard against it. That is why fear is the ultimate aim of the terrorist: it is a far more effective weapon for undermining an enemy than any bomb or gunfire: as FDR warned, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
This then is the lesson that Advent and Christmas hold for us this year: faced with violence that has the potential to evoke our fear, it would be good instead to take time (like Mary pondering things in her heart) to step back and ask the harder questions, to take time to do the hard work of thinking more carefully about what is at play in the world around us, and to take the time to let the clarity and insight which come from such thoughtful deliberation ward off the debilitating consequences of fear. It would be good, in other words, for us as a people and a nation to head this season’s refrain of “Fear not,” and to realize that it is addressed not just to the actors at Jesus’ birth, but to us as well. That is the message that we as Christian people have to offer to our community in this season of watching and waiting: “Fear not.” As Psalm 37 so astutely warns us, “Do not fret yourself because of evildoers … [but] put your trust in the Lord and do good. … Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; [but] do not fret yourself; [for that] leads only to evil.” Amen.
© Joseph Britton 2015
1 I borrow this phrase from Rob Voyle of the Clergy Leadership Institute and his courses on “Appreciative Inquiry.”