How Much Protection is Enough?

Sept. 18, 2011

[This sermon closely follows the thinking of Pamela Haines in an article sent by e-mail this summer]

           Football season has started again.  I know some people get weary of sports analogies in sermons, and I would not advocate for paying any attention to football before the exciting baseball season is completely finished, but there was an interesting discussion about football during last year’s season that got me thinking about what I want to talk about today. You may remember the discussion – about the danger of contact sports like football, and the long-term problems from concussions in those sports.

            If you followed this discussion, you may have heard the suggestion that football players would be safer from concussion if they didn’t wear so much protective head gear.  That is certainly a counter-intuitive statement, isn’t it? Back in the days with thin leather helmets and everyone’s face exposed, people took more care about how they treated each other. The pads and helmets make the players feel like they can do anything – and they use their defensive protection as offensive weapons – throwing themselves and their helmets into other players’ bodies.

Our society puts an enormous amount of energy into protection. Our fears after 9/11 have increased our attempts to protect ourselves every way we can.  How much of that energy we put into protection actually ends up making us less safe? Just as in football, some of the defensive actions we take, supposedly to protect ourselves, we can’t help using offensively, not just for protection.

Think of parents who hover over their children, trying to shield them from all danger – and the children who grow up never having developed their ability to judge risk or respond to danger.  Think of the obsessive parent who bleaches all the toys and sanitizes everything to the extent that children never build up critical antibodies and internal protections.

Think about how we wall ourselves into gated communities and isolate ourselves from other people and end up losing our judgment about what is really dangerous and who is really a friend. Sometimes we drill into our children’s psyches the danger of trusting any stranger even a little bit. They end up losing their capacity to trust, their ability to make accurate judgments, and sometimes get abused by someone they know, which is a much more common occurrence.

Fear of danger can actually increase the danger. Sometimes when I have my dog in the park, people who are scared run from her.  She runs right after them. She doesn’t hurt them, but some dogs do. People who keep guns in their home are more likely to have an accident or be involved in a shooting. The more we try to develop foolproof helmets, the more concussions there are. The bigger we build our defense systems, the more insecure we are.

Our urge to protect ourselves and our loved ones is natural and understandable. There are real dangers out there, but our fear gets in the way of thinking well about the real risks. Scripture, like our reading from Psalm 27 this morning, urge us not to put our faith in our own systems – precisely because of the way our fears skew our judgment and actions. The Psalm urges us to trust in God instead: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Since September 11, 2001, we have gone through a time of greatly increased fear in our country. Obviously there are some very scary realities out there. There are reasons to be scared. The Psalmist urges us to hold our fear next to our faith – to hold them together and be patient for the word and the work of a Higher Power. Our fears of Muslim people will not be the best guide for the next steps in coming together as a country. That seems obvious doesn’t it, when we see where our fears lead us? Trusting in God, giving our fears to God and asking God’s help to sort out our fears and help us think about what makes sense will lead to a totally different way of acting.

The last words of the Psalm give us some direction and advice. “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the Living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” We will have to have patience and discernment – listening for the guidance of the Living God. I believe that God is the power who sees the whole picture, who looks at the whole earth and the whole situation, so that when we put our faith in God’s direction, our fears sometimes have to be put aside as we learn to live again with each other.

There was a yard sign/door sign that I saw many years ago, in another time of fear and decisions based on fear of nuclear war. The sign said, “This house has no bomb shelter. Peace is our only security.” I thought there was real wisdom in that. When we live our lives in fear, trying to cover every eventuality – thinking only about ourselves and protecting ourselves – the world becomes a more and more dangerous place. If we place our trust in God, our lives get more secure, and our world may become a safer place.

Paul wrote from prison the people of Philippi and encouraged them to have hope no matter what prison or challenge they faced in their lives. He felt a dilemma, wishing he might go ahead and die to be with Christ, yet constantly choosing life and the chance to continue to teach other people to live!

I’m not holding my breath for a time when football goes back to leather helmets. I still lock the door to my house most of the time. I know that most of us live inside our fears and can rarely distinguish between our fear-filled desire for personal security and the advantage of thinking long term and trusting in God’s power and presence. But it makes a difference when we wait for the Lord. It makes a difference when we practice with our children, helping them learn to take reasonable risks and cope with the dangers they may face. It makes a difference when we wait for the Lord and allow our sights to be a little bit higher and broader – taking into account the needs and desires and perspectives of other people, not just ourselves, thinking about the whole rather than just our own loved ones.  It makes a difference when we believe God’s promises that we will experience life and life in abundance if we learn to live a life that trusts God even in the face of our greatest challenges. It makes a difference – replacing padding and over-protection with flexibility, intelligence and skill, and trust in a higher power. We’ll be safer: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.”


Responsive Hymn: 2032 My Life is In You, Lord