Three months ago, “COVID-19” was unknown to the world. Now it is center stage. It has emptied public spaces, paralyzed businesses, led to 13% of Americans unemployed, sent us all into lock-down. It has turned our lives upside-down.

It has become no less than a form of world-consciousness. Think about that. Through our individual fear, we can connect to the fear being felt by people all around the globe. Because all around the globe, you better believe it is being felt.

So now more than ever—the need to learn what to do with fear.

And, right at the start, what I want to say is that we are going to be in a world of hurt these days if we are buying—lock, stock, and barrel—into a certain cultural myth which is very rarely questioned, or questioned enough: call it “the myth of happiness.” (This is not Universalist “happification,” I hasten to say at the outset. You’ve heard me preach on happification before and that’s not what I’m talking about here.)

I’m talking about a wider cultural myth which essentially says that to be a healthy and well-functioning human is to be perfectly EMPTY of fear–filled with perpetual joy instead, perpetual fun, perpetual peace, perpetual contentment, and other pleasurable emotions. Perpetually.

That that, in fact, is the right state for all human beings, and not stress or anxiety or frustration or depression or FEAR.

Something is wrong with us when we’re not feeling good inside.

That’s the happiness myth.

From this flows the action plan: to preserve health and wellness, we must be vigilant in weeding out all our negative thoughts and feelings at the very moment they pop up, and we must replace them with positive ones. We must tape a permanent smile upon mind and heart.

We tell our kids, “Don’t cry.” “Don’t be gloomy.” “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

We tell ourselves, “Chill out!” “Snap out of it!” “Get over it!”

Entire mental health and pharmacological industries are raised up to eradicate all the difficult emotions—difficult being interpreted as a sign of defectiveness and depredation. Eradicate all of them, so that we are brought back to what should be our natural undisturbed state.

That’s the action plan, based on the happiness myth.

But, oh, there’s a fly in that ointment.  Multiple flies in that ointment….

One is suggested by a simple thought experiment. Right now, as you listen to me speak, try not to think about your favorite food. Try not to. Don’t let thoughts come into your mind about the amazing flavors or textures of this food in your mouth.

Don’t. Let. It. Happen!

Ah, how many of you were abject failures at this?

Fact is, our minds have a life of their own. Buddhists call this “monkeymind.” Thoughts of all kinds pop in from nowhere, uncalled for by us. We completely overestimate our power to control what thoughts come.

Even more to the point is that no less than 80% of these thoughts have some degree of negative content. There is a reason why the Buddha begins his philosophy with the First Noble Truth of “Life is Suffering.”

Thousands of years later, evolutionary biologists give a scientific explanation backing up the Buddha. As psychiatrist Russ Harris puts it, “Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger. […] The number one priority of the primitive human mind was to look out for anything that might harm you—and avoid it. The primitive human mind was basically a ‘don’t get killed’ device.”

In other words, evolution has tuned our minds towards the negative. Saber-tooth tiger threats are long gone, but these days we can be constantly worried about the other shoe dropping in the form of an IRS audit, or the kid bullied at school, or being diagnosed with some disease—and now, catching COVID-19, and/or dealing with all its impacts on our lives, our relationships, the economy, and this Beloved Community of West Shore.

“Evolution,” says psychiatrist Russ Harris, “has shaped our brains so that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, to evaluate, and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen.”

And then he says: “No wonder humans find it hard to be happy!”

But the happiness myth is so entrenched in culture and in ourselves that we press bravely on, and for every unpleasant thought that pops randomly into our minds and depresses us or frightens us, we see it as our duty to chase it down and wrestle with it and replace it with a smile. But this steals away time and energy that could actually be devoted to doing something constructive. It also ends up hurting our self-esteem because we are constantly failing at preventing the unpleasant thoughts and feelings from being in our minds. Furthermore, our reactive control strategies often result in behaviors that just end up hurting us or hurting others.

In the active (or maybe I should say reactive!) pursuit of happiness, we are creating unhappiness!

How insane!

Let us return to sanity. Monkeymind is going to happen and we can’t stop it. Evolution has hardwired our brains to be fear-filled. So enlightenment cannot possibly be a complete absence of difficult emotions but this instead: a way of holding the space of one’s heart open enough that fear does not crush out love.

That’s what enlightenment is and that’s what health and wellness is: Holding the space of one’s heart open enough that fear does not crush out love. That’s the best we can hope for, and it’s good enough.

The fears are going to come:

Fear of doorknobs, handles, faucets.
Fear of surfaces of all kinds. 
Fear of what’s on our hands but is invisible.

Fear of what a cough might mean.
Fear of other people coming too close.
Fear for loved ones.  

Fear of loss and how long this will go on.
Fear of not having enough. 
Fear of what’s next.

All these fears and more. And my point so far is: Spiritual beings having a human experience experience fear. There is nothing wrong with being afraid. Difficult need not mean defective and depraved.

So now we turn to the second half of this sermon and the more practical question of how to relate to our fears without being overtaken by a spirit of panic. What can help us listen to what our fears have to say without being overwhelmed?

So far, I have been drawing on the wisdom of science and of Buddhism, and now, in characteristically Unitarian Universalist fashion, which is unapologetically eclectic, I’m going to bring into the mix wisdom from the tradition of Judaism and one of its most famous poems (or what the Hebrew Bible calls a “psalm”). The world knows it as the 23rd Psalm. Say it with me, wherever you are:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures:
he leads me beside still waters; 
he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’ sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 
I fear no evil:
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; 
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. 


Let the language of this immortal psalm wash over you. It is so beautiful. It is a voice to us from 3000 years ago, and part of its wisdom (which echoes the wisdom of the Buddha as well as wisdom of contemporary evolutionary science) is to acknowledge that, emotionally, we are sheep-like, we are fear-filled, and that’s ok. We each have an inner sheep that goes BAA, and this proves that the perfectionistic happiness myth that’s so easy to get caught up in is a lie.

But we’ve got to listen to that ancient voice and allow it to speak to where we are today, 3000 years later.

And the voice only intensifies, once we become more acquainted with the ancient cultural context out of which the speaker spoke. Take that evocative line, “You anoint my head with oil.” Writer W. Phillip Keller, author of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, says that in the Middle East summer time, hordes of insects emerge with the hot weather. “Sheep,” he says, “are especially troubled by the nose fly…. For relief from this agonizing annoyance, sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush…. In extreme cases of intense infestation, a sheep may even kill itself….  And so, at the very first sign of flies among the flock, [the shepherd] will apply an antidote to their heads…. Once the oil is applied, there is an immediate change in behavior. The sheep will start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment.”

Or consider another line of the psalm: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” W. Philip Keller explains: “Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. If left to themselves, they will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes; pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites. And so, the greatest single safeguard which a shepherd has in handling his flock is to keep them on the move.”

It all speaks directly to our present moment.

Fear thoughts swarming like a horde of insects: what comes to mind are people these days turning xenophobic, people talking about the “Chinese Virus,” people verbally or physically abusing Asians. Because fear.

As for people getting stuck in a rut: the spreading contagion of fear can lock us into rigid habits and patterns. We throw ourselves into attempts to control what can’t be controlled. One example is our Presidential administration for far too long denying or minimizing the fear, pretending that everything’s fine. For far too long. Another example—cliché by now—is people rushing the grocery store for toilet paper when it’s not absolutely necessary. But I see the empty shelves and you see the empty shelves and so we buy the TP up whenever we can even though there’s no need, we add to the spreading contagion of fear.

This is sheep-like behavior, but the message of the psalm is exactly that sheep don’t have to live like this. Life could be so much better.

Sheep need a shepherd.

Sheep need a shepherd.

Now comes the all-important question: who or what is the shepherd in our lives?

Most people who read the 23rd Psalm immediately interpret the shepherd as God—as a transpersonal being who envisions the larger pattern of existence and supports us as we live in it, finite, fragile beings that we are. Most people see this as who the shepherd is, and understandably so, since Judaism generally teaches the existence of God (although there are exceptions—can’t get into that here).

If that speaks to you, beautiful. May it be so. I honor that. Absolutely.

And what I want to do here is to expand our collective imagination about what else the shepherd might mean for us. There may be way more shepherd wisdom and energy available to us than we think….

As I see it, the shepherd is anything that gives us strength to enter into our fears mindfully, to listen to what they are saying without blindly reacting to them, or banishing them, or numbing them. The shepherd is whoever or whatever goes with us into even the scariest places.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 
I fear no evil:
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Note especially the psalm’s imagery of rod and staff. W. Philip Keller says that for practicing shepherds, “The rod is a symbol of [the shepherd’s] strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation…. If the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away from its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger of one sort or another, the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch…. [In addition to this, the] good shepherd, the careful manager, will from time to time make a careful examination of each individual sheep. As each animal comes out of the corral and through the gate, it is stopped by the shepherd’s outstretched rod. He opens the fleece with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see if all is well. This is a most searching process entailing every intimate detail. It is, also, a comfort to the sheep for only in this way can its hidden problems be laid bare before the shepherd.”

That’s how W. Philip Keller amplifies the images of rod and staff in the psalm. And with this amplification in mind, we can ask, “Whose rod goes whistling through the air, to send us scurrying back from a bad place? Whose staff searches our hearts and minds for signs of trouble?”

How about Gov. Mike DeWine of the great state of Ohio?

How about Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health?

How about Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases?

How about the nurses, the doctors, the myriad medical personnel who are on the front lines in tending to the sick?

These people shepherd us these days. These public authorities who deserve our respect.

I so want our President to be our shepherd, but he doesn’t know how. I deeply grieve this. It doesn’t mean we go without, though.

The shepherd is with us.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 
I fear no evil:
for you are with me;

Our West Shore church community also shepherds us. Think about it: Here in this place we can experience oil rubbed into our fleece, repelling anxiety flies that get in the way of clear thinking. Here in this place, we can give voice to our fears, personal and global; feel validated in this; be heard into speech; and then together, we can decide what we can do about them—what strengths and resources we can draw on to make a difference. Right now we are discovering ways of doing this that don’t require the regular face-to-face. Especially in this time of social distancing, we are being reminded that a church is not really a building or even a group of people under one roof. It’s a spirit of connection. It is a spirit of mutual commitment and caring. It is a spirit of belonging. A spirit that

makes us lie down in green pastures:
leads us beside still waters; 
restores our soul.

Our church shepherds us too.

And there’s still more.

Just as we have inner sheep that go BAA, we have an inner shepherd, an inner wisdom, an Inner Light. The shepherd is not just something outside ourselves, but inside us also.

When the world gets too much, when monkeymind fear thoughts start to swarm, let the Inner Shepherd throw its rod at us, to get our attention, to cause us step away from the edge.

Let the Inner Shepherd in each of us be a calm, soothing voice.

Let the Inner Shepherd be a voice that encourages us to find a spacious center large enough so that fear does not crush out love. To breathe in, breathe out, slowly, deeply.

Let the Inner Shepherd invite us to do something that distracts us from our fear thoughts—perhaps by listening to music, or going outside for a walk, or reading a book, or even watching the Netflix show Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. Nothing like being distracted from your own worries by being engrossed in the outrageous affairs of others!

But when fear thoughts swarm and you can’t solve things immediately and you are about to beat your head against a tree or a rock for relief, you do what you gotta do.

Sheep need a shepherd.

Let the voice of the Inner Shepherd speak up, and let it be kind.

I am so grateful for all the shepherds who are with us, in this time: God; local, state, and national authorities and powers; this church community right here; the shepherd that is within.

In so many ways, the shepherd comes. And the shepherd is GOOD, for this is what he does: he “prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.” Now just listen to that. Isn’t this an amazing image? An odd one for sure, for in the face of the enemy, who might jump up and grab us anytime, how can we eat? How can we actually put food into our mouths, and swallow, when we are in full fight or flight mode?

Yet the good shepherd knows something—the good shepherd that is an inner wisdom, a church community, a respected external authority, a God: this: That life is truly abundant when one learns how to dwell richly in the midst of one’s worst fears. You can’t get to joy in life if you can’t feel the fear. The truly good shepherd teaches us that. Not escape. Doesn’t smooth away the wrinkles of our lives. Doesn’t solve it for us, doesn’t dumb down the complexity. The shepherd can’t do that anyway. But what she CAN do is invite us into a deeper relationship with our world, and she does this with a sense of wonderful flair. Lays out the finest tablecloth and china. Polished silverware, napkins folded into swans. Pours the drinks, serves the food. Says, “I know you might feel totally out of control right now. I know about all about the infections across the globe, all the deaths, all the ways the economy has crashed, all the lost jobs, all the discomfort of daily routines crashing too, all the cabin fever everyone’s suffering through; all this, on top of all the other problems that pre-existed COVID-19 and will post-exist it too. There are all sorts of dogs, coyotes, cougars, and bears out there, just licking their chops to get at the sheep. I know that,” says the good shepherd. “The world is scary all over. But it’s not going to help to just thrash about and hurt yourself and others. It’s not going to help to get into a rut, or hide out. Sit down. Relax. Continue the small sustaining rhythms of your life. Sustain that which sustains you. Be grounded in the remaining abundance of this world. Rediscover a sane routine. Find your center, be at peace, and then: accept your fears. Let them come. Let them wander over. Let them find their own seat at the table. Let them become known, and look them square in the eye. Be curious. Talk to them, and let them talk to you. Share in the hospitality of the table, your fears and you, and that’s how you will find your cup overflowing. That’s how your cup will overflow. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. That’s how.”