DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Hot Spots in the Dirt

Written by: on September 28, 2020

A friend of mine embarked on a 23-day hike along the John Muir Trail earlier this month. Just days into the trek, wildfire smoke became a prohibiting factor. She and her fellow hikers were forced to leave the trail. Not to be deterred, they traveled to eastern Oregon so as to keep their feet moving along a worn path. A couple days along those new paths, they had to ditch efforts again because of hazardous air quality. As they hiked out, they were alerted by a group of hikers about a wildfire. Having walked by the area where it emerged just an hour before, they were surprised of its existence. With water bottles and packs in hand, teams of hikers extinguished the fire. Their best guess was that the fire originated a few hundred feet away from an extinguished campfire. It did not spread by wind or spark, but rather through the ground, traveling through soil until it found something to ignite. Upon putting out the fire, a forest ranger in the group had everyone put their hands in the dirt to check for hot spots before leaving the scene. No hot spots were detected; all was well.

In How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century, Frank Furedi explores the historical understanding and containment of fear, and examines reasons why fear is such a driving force in our current culture. For millennia, fear was “regarded as an emotional state that meshed with moral concerns…a medium for cultivating moral values through…the right kind of fear. Today, fear is often abhorred, dreaded, (and) medicalized as a disease to be avoided.”[1]

“Many historical thinkers believe it is the fear of death that serves as the foundational frame for the public articulation of fear in general. Anxiety about death, which is a very private fear, is said to lurk in the unconscious and is bound up with a basic concern with existential security.”[2] Because of the ubiquitous nature of fear in humanity, fear was something to be manipulated and controlled through philosophical, cultural, or religious narratives. Socrates, concerned with Homer’s description of afterlife horrors, believed language of eternal damnation should be removed, and only courageous portrayals of death supplied.[3] This was primarily to encourage warriors to enter fearlessly into battle, knowing any death that comes to them would be one of valor and honor, as they die for something bigger than themselves. Within religion, fear of God was considered good fear, a driver of moral virtues that lead to earthly benefits, eternal rewards, cultural norms and moral order.[4] Theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, believed this cultivation of fear was actually rooted in love, and to remove fear from its religious context would produce a “disorienting and destructive dimension.”[5]Evidence of Aquinas’ prediction abounds as the decline of religious influence is countered with a “lost sense of common story” and an increase in “anxiety and naked terror.”[6] In short, modernity’s displaced focus of fear on God, has moved toward an “unfocused, confusing, and meaningless force: the fear of fear itself.”[7]

This “fear of fear itself” infuses every aspect of society. It fuels words we speak and actions we take, whether in politics, medicine, religion, parenting, business, or education. Fear is an emotion, a dis-ease, a reaction to life that is to be avoided at all cost.[8] As the quest to eliminate fear increases, so does the anxiety that surrounds how exactly to do that. Tirelessly, we work to eliminate uncertainty by increasing knowledge and minimizing risk.[9] This grasping for knowledge has proven ineffectual as knowledge itself is contested. In our fast-paced culture filled with increased knowledge and decreased moral grounding, the answers to big questions continue to elude us. Confusion abounds as we no longer have effective tools for navigating a society which is unable to agree on shared meaning of life experiences.

Fear travels like fire, ready to ignite the next available fuel source. A spark of fear spreads like wildfire when blown by just the right media spin. Pandemics, war, economic destruction, civil unrest- those are the big flames of fear. What is less obvious, more insidious, and just as destructive is the spread of fear below the surface, stealthily moving through and heating the dirt, waiting to emerge in unexpected places. The police officer on edge, the mom waiting for medical test results, the CEO that drinks herself to sleep every night, the pastor addicted to praise of his people- here is where under the surface fears quietly move.

Until we reach our hands down into the dirt to find the hot spots, we aren’t going to be able to extinguish the fear of fear’s flames, which are ultimately fueled by our fear of death. In truth, we may never be able to fully eliminate those fears, but if we are willing to dig our hands deep into the dirt and look for those hot spots, we can gain clearer understanding of our humus, our “from the dust” origins, and discover that embracing our impermanence cools the heat-filled dirt of fear.

What would it look like to embrace the ever present reality of death in a way that no longer moves us toward anxiety, but rather transforms us into a non-anxious, well differentiated, grounded “in the soil of ourselves” presence that reveals goodness and grace to the world?[10]

There is One who walked the hardest of trails, through tears, suffering, and death. But through that difficult journey, eternal life emerged. Jesus is our example. Following him along the trail is the way. It will not be an easy hike, as hot spots of fear will be discovered, dug up, and allowed to cool. In time, at the end of all things, as we fearlessly trust in Jesus, all will be well.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)



[1] Frank Furedi. How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, Plc. 2018) 35.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] Ibid., 37-38.

[4] Ibid., 50-52.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Ibid., 52.

[7] Ibid., 53.

[8] Ibid., 61.

[9] Ibid., 26.

[10] Edwin H. Friedman. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York, NY: Church Publishing, Inc., 2007) over-arching theme of the text.

About the Author


Darcy Hansen

12 responses to “Hot Spots in the Dirt”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Darcy, I wonder if having that non-anxious presence at death would serve as a testimony to confidence we have in the resurrection of Christ. Just musing, but could it be that death may be the ultimate form of evangelism? I think of the ancient martyrs who willingly went to their deaths with peace. Thinking of Stephen in Acts 7 who cries out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” before “falling asleep” (vv. 59-60, NIV), a great persecution broke out that scattered the believers. But it was also this scattering that served as a catalyst for moving the Gospel beyond Jerusalem.

    Have you come across any thoughts or observations regarding death in this way?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Henri Nouwen has a book called Our Greatest Gift. In it he he writes, “Our death may be the end of our success, productivity, fame, and importance among people, but it’s not the end of our fruitfulness. In fact, the opposite is true: the fruitfulness of our lives shows itself in its fullness only after we have died” (36). Nouwen leans into legacy and how our death, actually more importantly, how we die, impacts those who remain. Jesus died well. It was an ugly death, but he did it well. That seed falling to the ground has yielded the riches of harvests. So yes- in many ways how we die (not just extreme suffering like Jesus and the martyrs) but how we go through that process matters. But I would agree that the process begins long before we reach our death beds- it infuses how we live, which is also something Nouwen touches on in his book.

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    I have had the honor of coming from a family where family is together as much as possible at the bed side during the transition from life to life. Several years ago my Down’s syndrome aunt moments before her passing was insistently joyous that my mother remove year night gown so she could be prepared put on her heavenly gown when Jesus came to get her. My dad on the other hand voiced regret up till his passing. I have often wondered if the difference was that my aunt had a child like expectation toward the process. How do you see life experiences (good and bad) mold our attitude toward death?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Thank you for sharing your family’s beautiful and hard stories. I cannot speak confidently in how our life experience’s shape how we die. I have read stories about people who lived wretched lives who enter into death with the utmost peace and joy, and those who lived happy lives enter into death with anger and regret. While ubiquitous, death is also absolutely unique to each person. There are common threads, but in the end, each person makes choices. My thoughts move to how do we begin to form those choices in advance so that in some supernatural way, death comes along as a friend, not a foe? I think your aunt exemplified this in the loveliest of ways.

  3. mm Jer Swigart says:

    This summer, I sustained an injury in my left eye. While I was in the opthomologist’s office, his small talk included this quip: “You know…most people’s two greatest fears are death and losing their sight. You’ve navigated that later quite well.”

    What do you say to that? Thank you? 😉

    I remember accompanying my dad to the finish line. He knew that it was coming to a close. Quickly. And as I recall, his anxiety wasn’t connected to the actual dying part, but to th no-longer living part. He anguished about the life that he would miss. He wondered with me about whether or not my boys would remember him. He lamented that he wouldn’t live to see my daughter grow up.

    What are you finding, Darcy? Are folks more afraid of the actual dying or the no-longer living?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      How we navigate “little deaths” seems to be an indicator as to how we will navigate our physical death. So you are doing well if your eye situation is any indicator:)

      A common thread in my research reveals people are definitely more afraid of being forgotten than actually dying. Most would say they are afraid of the pain of dying, but when that is managed, which it often is, the fear of being forgotten surfaces. I have noted fear of not living is also woven into many of the stories. But I wonder what role mystery and practice plays in reframing what it means to live? Maybe in someway, our loved ones are still “living” with us, still present in the growing up of our kids? Other cultures incorporate holistic practices of remembering the dead, so that those who are dying, know they will not be forgotten, because their loved one will carry on their memory in very tangible and communal ways. I’m not sure, but I have to think this must impact how they cross the finish line.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Darcy, the question you posed is so powerful! I think it could be one way to frame your whole work –

    What would it look like to embrace the ever present reality of death in a way that no longer moves us toward anxiety, but rather transforms us into a non-anxious, well differentiated, grounded “in the soil of ourselves” presence that reveals goodness and grace to the world?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      I think that question is definitely a fancier way of asking what I think is the why under all the why’s behind how we understand and enter into the reality of death. How do we embrace our humanity in such a way that we are better able to care for those dying, dead, or grieving? Mystery, ritual, community, and more, all play a role. But what’s at the heart of it? I’m still pondering the questions and waiting for answers to surface.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    That’s a powerful image- hot spots lurking just under the surface that can ignite without warning from just the slightest bit of fuel. I often remind those who have recently experienced the death of a loved one that grief is unpredictable. Some seem terrified of letting loose of their emotions, but eventually, everyone does. Preparing can help to keep the grief from becoming debilitating or destructive, and in many cases, can help to bring something redemptive.

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Thanks Darcy, great post! Thought-provoking.

    I have been thinking on this ‘fear of fear itself’ quote of Roosevelt’s. Wondering about the focus on the thing that creates the inner upset, the thing that leads down the rabbit trail of anxiety.

    The fear of fear itself…eventually, immobilising? Existence becomes a living death.

    I appreciate the focus on courage, to reach down, to find the hot spots. Linking the subject matter into the story of fire, the fear of fire, so awesome! I just want to keep reading. Can there be connection (somehow) with God as our ‘Consuming Fire’ and the Spirit of God as ‘fire’?

    It takes courage to identify where the fire is coming from, even to enter into it (ref. Daniel).

    Obviously, so much heart and thought poured into each of your posts Darcy. Next level 🙂

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