Things That Go Bump In the Night

October 28, 2018

Unitarian Universalist Meeting House·Monday, October 29, 201824 Reads

The Rev. Quillen Shinn is one of my minister heroes. A Universalist who straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he was known as the “St. Paul of the Universalist Church,” and was credited with founding 40 Universalist churches and inspiring 30 people to enter the ministry. The passage I read a moment ago is from a sermon he gave in 1900, a classic statement of Universalist belief entitled “Affirmations of Universalism.”

And here in the waning days of October as we head into Hallowe’en, we have his explanation of the imaginary beings which decorate our houses, stores, paper plates and napkins and every other conceivable space for the next few days. He first says that science reveals that there is one force behind all we see, which manifests itself differently in different realms. He contrasts this world-view with the one which preceded science: “Way back in the benighted past, [hu]man[s], lacking foresight to see how the discords and conflicts of nature would result in harmony, came to ascribe things [t]he[y] called evil to evil beings; hence the world's belief in devils, ghosts, hobgoblins, and witches. All these are perishing; the light of science is killing them.”

This quote is a great example of nineteenth century optimism and belief in progress. Science kills superstition; good triumphs over evil. It’s so simple, so pat and as proven by subsequent events, so simplistic.

Take the epigraph which is at the top of your order of service:

“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties

And things that go bump in the night

Good Lord, deliver us!”

This prayer was first published in a church litany in Cornwall in about 1926, but is probably much older than that. I don’t know whether Anglicans praying this prayer in 1926 would have believed literally in ghosts or not.

But to me that literal belief is not particularly important. The important thing about ghosts and goblins, long leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night is that people were afraid enough of them to seek deliverance from them in a prayer.

I’m going to do us all a favor this morning, I’m going to put the whole point of my sermon into a simple sentence right here on page 5: things don’t have to be real to be scary. You may have never seen a ghost or a ghoul, and the only long-legged beastie you might have seen was a giraffe in a zoo. But you have heard something go bump in the night. And sometimes you have gotten up with a flashlight to check the basement, to make sure you didn’t have intruders in the house.

The haunted house may be all in your head, but that doesn’t keep it from worrying you. Science may prove that ghosts and goblins don’t exist, but science does not vanquish all our fears.

Science can help us tame our fears, though, if we have a deep understanding of fear. Fear is an essential part of normal human functioning. The toddler who puts her hand on the hot stove learns something about avoiding that which will stand her in good stead the rest of her life. There may be children born utterly without fear, but they are less likely to survive to pass on their genes; evolution favors people who have learned to put their fears to use to enable them, at least, to avoid things that really are dangerous. Of course, there are also people whose fear reaction is constant and triggered by everything, and those people might be too intimidated to engage in dating and mating, so would not pass on their genes.

Evolution would favor the golden middle: people whose fear level is enough to let them avoid the real dangers and yet not so acute that they spend their whole lives in their beds hiding under the covers.

Think of that thing that goes bump in the night. It might be a ghost, a goblin, a zombie, a witch, a terrorist, a burglar, a racoon or deer – or it might be the furnace coming on. If we listed all the possibilities on a sheet of paper, we’d see that most of them are imaginary beings, and the only things it could really be are the burglar, the animal or the furnace.

But when we have just come up from a deep sleep, logical is the last thing we would be. You may have just been in REM sleep, when your brain gets busy generating stories based on plots which could never happen, but which often have strong emotion attached to them. Somehow you hear a noise and that drags you out of the wedding where you were about to marry the person you thought you loved, except that when she turned around, she had the face of a sheep. And your brain, the same brain that has just generated the story of the sheep-bride, then turns to analyzing the possibilities for the noise you heard. Logic is not likely to be present in any quantity.

Now we love getting spooked on Hallowe’en. The word Halloween comes from All Hallow’s Eve, the day before the Christian holiday of All Saint’s Day. Halloween is the Christianized name of the Celtic pagan feast of Samhain, (pronounced “sow-en”) which was the Celtic New Year. The Celts considered that there were two worlds, one inhabited by the ordinary people and the other inhabited by the fairy folk. The two worlds were normally kept apart by a thick veil, but at Samhain it was said that the veils between the worlds was thinnest, and this allowed some traffic between the ordinary village and the fairy realms.

What are you afraid of? What is the thing which will push your buttons, cause you to panic, make your heart race or your palms sweaty? If I can discover what you’re afraid of, I have a good deal of power over you. I can use my knowledge to get you to buy what I want to sell you or get you to vote the way I want you to.

You may be afraid of dying, or afraid of what’s going to await you in the afterlife. I can exploit that fear, as the Christian church has always done, by painting a picture of hell. Did you ever stop to think about how illogical Hell is? Given what science tells us abut how a human life comes into existence, the most likely place you go after you die is back to the state of nonexistence you had before the egg and sperm of your parents combined to make the biological being that grew to be you. The doctrine of Hell says no, you don’t get to rest in non-being, you are gong to continue to be you as you are now with your consciousness and memories and what’s more, it will be an extremely unpleasant form of consciousness with constant punishment and torment and separation from those you love and from God. The fear of Hell has been a principal motivating factor for the survival of Christianity for twenty centuries. But the good news, in orthodox Christian terms is that, if you believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God and that the meaning of his death was to atone for the sins of humanity, then you can escape the sentence to Hell.

Let’s face it, death is something most of us are afraid of to one degree or another. We have had to endure the death of people we love, and death cuts us off from them. Many have made their peace with their owns deaths, but many are still apprehensive. But orthodox Christianity raises the ante of fear by its vivid threat of hell and the promise of life eternal.

Buddhism takes a more enlightened view of fear. One Western Buddhist writes

“In Western society, we are taught to fear the unknown, change, death, loss and pain. Yet all these things are natural and inevitable facts of life. When we stop fearing them and instead embrace the impermanence and uncontrollable nature of everything that exists, we suddenly find that fear no longer controls us anymore.”

Buddhism shows how our fears can imprison us and can get in the way of enlightenment.

For twenty years, I have had a session with a Buddhist spiritual director about once a month. Two years ago, he came down with a serious illness. I well know how debilitating this illness can be. Had this happened to me, I could see myself entering into deep despair. Yet he has embraced it calmly and matter-of-factly. The way his life was laid out, he understands now, included this illness, and he accepts this as a part of who he is.

Fear can be a useful emotion because it alerts us to possible danger which we may be able to avoid. But fear can also be paralyzing. When I was doing the spiritual training called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, in my preparation for the ministry, I discovered when I looked into myself that I had pockets of fear so deep that I was not aware of them. It was like a complete denial: I had buried the fear in the ground of my being and had filled in the holes and grown grass where the holes had been so I couldn’t find them again. The content of the fear doesn’t matter – this was shortly after my divorce, but some of the issues go back for decades.

The best way I can explain it to myself is by analogy. When you have been physically wounded, you have a skin opening, and then it bleeds and then the blood makes a scab and the scab shrinks and scar tissue forms over the injury. That physical trauma can have an emotional component, and whatever injured you becomes an object of fear. I felt something like that fear moving through the emotional pain of the divorce, and I have counseled and legally represented enough divorcing people to know that is quite common. No one can hurt you as acutely as the person who is closest to you.

What I realized was that these deeply buried fears were choking off love, were keeping me from being open to the love of other people. And if I were going to be a minister, I had to confront anything which stood in the way of love.

These emotions I recall today from two decades ago are much more real to me than any ghosts, demons or witches conjured up by Hallowe’en lore. But they are not the fears we live with in our common life together, and now I want to say a word about those fears.

The light of science may be killing the hobgoblins, but the history of the twenty-first century shows that fear is still a potent force in politics. Remember, things don’t have to be real to be scary. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a catastrophic breakdown in the US Economic system by saying “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In many ways that is still true. The objects of fear are changeable; fear itself is constant.

I heard a commentator on the radio this week analyzing our history, who said that fear of a common enemy was a unifying force through much of the twentieth century. For two decades the enemy was fascism and the Axis powers, and after World War II it became Communism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we ceased to have a common enemy until the attacks of 9/11, and then the enemy became not a nation or a political bloc but something much looser called “terrorism.” We are now fractured by having multiple enemies thrown at us: terrorists, immigrants, LGBTQ people, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, women. It seems incredible that opposition to these very different groups could forge any kind of identity. For example, we might think that the anti-immigrant hysteria has a limit, for many businesses in America, and we have many here on Cape Cod, depend on a steady supply of foreign workers.

It is not necessary for something to be real to be scary. Fear of the “other” has always been a key driver in American politics, from long before the English settlers declared themselves a separate nation. The first “other” was the Spanish and French, European rivals for the spoils of the great land. The land was wrested from the Native Americans who were at first welcoming, and then, as it became clear that the English did not want to live peacefully with them, began to push back and a fear of Indian reprisals drove a genocidal push by the US government to ethnically cleanse huge areas of the new land and restrict natives to small reservations. The Africans were brought here in chains and forced to work without compensation and when some finally revolted, it struck fear into the hearts of the slave power, such that they took political measures to make sure that they outnumbered the forces of abolition.

At the base of the fear in each case was a consciousness by the oppressors that the system they were maintaining was an injustice to the oppressed people together with a denial that this was the case. Moral schizophrenia has characterized American politics for much of our history as a nation. In the antebellum south, it was a crime to advocate abolition of slavery, and the slave power had such influence as to outlaw debate in the US Congress on the issue.

So there is a tragic historical context for the fear-driven politics of the present time. We’ve seen this movie before. At its base, the fear today is that white people or American-born people or heterosexual people or Christian people or men are losing their dominance in the system, so we must strike out at people of color, foreign-born, non-Christian, LGBTQ people and women. The fear being stoked is really fear of equality itself, which is supposed to be the founding principle of this Republic. As at Gettysburg, the nation today, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal, is engaged in a great contest as to whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

The rhetoric of fear espoused by politicians to attempt to shore up their base and get them to the polls has consequences, which were put on display for all to see this week. Determined individuals in this system can do a lot of damage. A man living in a van in Florida sends a dozen pipe bombs through the US mails to key political targets of his hatred and fear, some of whom are former Presidents. Thank goodness no one was hurt. A shooter in Pittsburgh walks into a synagogue which is known for helping immigrants and opens fire; his particular fear appears to be not only Jews but immigrants. A white man in Louisville, who has gotten divorced from his black wife, arms himself and attempts to enter a black church, but when he can’t, walks into a supermarket nearby and kills two black customers.

I am not saying that any politician condoned these violent acts, and I am heartened by the fact that law enforcement has responded appropriately and is treating these as hate crimes. My heart goes out to the victims and their families and anyone who feels threatened.

Fear, fear itself, is a potent force in our own personalities and in our political life.

This Hallowe’en, I am not scared of the ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties nor the things that go bump in the night. Nor am I scared of immigrants taking my job or committing crimes, of women, people of color, LBGTQ candidates running for office, of same-sex couples wanting to marry, of trans and nonbinary and genderfluid folks wanting to live as who they are. But I am scared big time of those who exploit fears of “the other” in order to steal our votes and acquire the power to loot our public treasury, which is happening as we speak. I am more scared of them than of the unbalanced individuals who act out these fantasies with violence.

I pray for our country and I pray that those who cast ballots next week vote their hopes and not their fears. Let us remember the words of the Talmud:

Do not be daunted

by the enormity of

the world’s grief.

Do justly, now,

Love mercy, now,

Walk humbly, now.

You are not obligated

to complete the work

but neither are you free

to abandon it.


Reading for “Things That Go Bump In the Night” from Rev. Quillen Shinn, “Affirmations of Universalism” (1900)

“We believe in this world, in the book of nature. All the laws of nature are God's laws, and are working out his purposes. They point to fulfillment, to victory, and not to defeat. This glorious prophecy is in every movement and evolution witnessed by the eye of science. The divine writing is on every page of this great volume; earth and cloud and sky all teaching the ways of God. Everywhere is the impress -of benevolence and the radiance of eternal beauty. What a joy to live in God's beautiful world, with its teaming fields and waving forests and fruitful valleys and towering mountains and flowing streams! How thankful must we be for the thronging delights in this lower mansion of our Father's House. Let us cultivate a love for this world, and try to live here and enjoy it as long as we can. Its victories will fit us for higher victories, and there will be compensations for its defeats. Restorative and compensating laws are ever active, making good the losses. Science, penetrating to the heart of nature and unsealing its hidden laws, teaches man that there is but one force, with different manifestations. It manifests itself in magnetism, in electricity, in heat and motion, in chemical affirmity, etc.; but there is but one great central force, and that is good. Way back in the benighted past, man, lacking foresight to see how the discords and conflicts of nature would result in harmony, came to ascribe things he called evil to evil beings; hence the world's belief in devils, ghosts, hobgoblins, and witches. All these are perishing; the light of science is killing them.”

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