Is an understanding of our fear necessary for confession?
Psalm Reading: Psalm 27
For Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011: Year A – Epiphany 3
What are you afraid of? Spiders, the dark, heights, closed in spaces, wild animals, a violent attack, the government? With the exception of the last two, these are among the most common fears, along with swimming in the ocean, flying, death and going to the dentist; but according to an article by American Demographics the most overwhelming fears of people are speaking in public (number one at 56 percent) and getting fat (46 percent). One should never have speakers sit up on the platform and eat before a presentation. That is just cruel; it is speaking in public while you are getting fat.
Psalm 27 is a study in the human reaction to fear. The two distinct sections of this Psalm display a stunning pre-scientific understanding of how the brain processes fear. The brain processes fear two ways simultaneously. There is a so-called, low road and a high road (my apologies to anyone that actually knows anything about this subject).
The low road is the fight or flight response. This response is instantaneous, developed to keep you from being eaten by lions or hit by a car, it is triggered, you react. The high road takes longer, but is more rational. The brain analyzes the treat and compares it to other similar circumstances, determines what the actual threat might be and then responds accordingly.
One definition of anxiety is that it is a prolonged, low-grade continuation of the fight or flight response. It keeps your heart rate elevated and your muscle tensed, but most importantly does not engage rational thought.
Which Road to Take?
Psalm 27 seems two contain both these reaction. The first part takes the high road. The psalmist seems to see some threat approaching, but has complete confidence that the Lord will protect him, though his enemies surround him and rise up against him.
The second half of the Psalm is defiantly the low road response. The writer is kind of freaking out. He is begging God to answer him, to not hide from him, to help him and not abandon him. He is afraid that his father and mother are going to abandon him and that people are slandering him, even breathing out violence against him.
The Hardest Question
Some interpreters of this text find the attitude of the author in the first half and the second half so different that they conclude that this is actually two distinct Psalms. Could the tension between the two reactions to the Psalmist’s fears be the point? What does this juxtaposition say about who we are, or about who God is? During the Jewish month of Elul, the time of preparation for the Day of Atonement, Psalm 27 is added to the daily prayers. Is an understanding of our fear necessary for confession?
Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.