Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Fear seems to be built into us. Even in the best of times, it lurks deep in our being. Like a stranger hiding in the bushes, it could leap out at any moment and snatch our predictable lives away. Well, in a sense, that’s what’s happened. In little more than an eye blink, we find ourselves facing a rapidly spreading, fear-inducing new virus, one that's flung our everyday expectations into an existential abyss while medical experts develop schemes to retard its spread, governments struggle to explain it and change continues to engulf nations, cities, neighborhoods, homes and lives.
Your favorite restaurant closes without warning, and the folks who worked there--people we knew and liked--stand on the sidewalk bewildered, without a job; families get quarantined; flights get cancelled; cruise ships can’t find a port that will take their passengers while churches close their doors, sports figures stand idle and governments grapple with economies that have fallen into a tailspin. People suffer. So we practice “social distancing” to "flatten the curve" and relieve the suffering, although we aren't quite sure if social distancing includes our parents, grandchildren and kindly Aunt Esther, who lives by herself on the far side of town. What’s more, the kids are housebound, bored with their digital babysitters and threatening to go over the wall (as we consider for a wild moment whether to let them). Overarching all of this, of course, is a word that heretofore had remained quietly in the background, except for its occasional appearance in history books, research studies, science fiction and chilling apocalyptic movies. Until now:
Pandemic. And there are so many questions!
Will there be work? Will there be school? Will there be travel? Will there be groceries? Will I get the virus? Or my family? Will there be toilet paper, for heaven’s sake?!
Even normal fears can upend our world--accidents, sickness, money problems, shattered relationships and other personal tragedies. But when something truly abnormal comes along, a turn of events so unlikely that it seems practically impossible (like a black swan), we can be stunned into becoming even more fearful.
It's fascinating to note that the word fear appears almost 400 times in Scripture (KJV). And, as if to punctuate that fact, Jesus promised his followers that they would see trouble. Yet, here’s something even more fascinating, pointed out by noted theologian R.C. Sproul in a radio broadcast shortly before his death in December of 2017: “The number one negative prohibition in the New Testament is ‘Don’t be afraid, fear not.'” Christ says it so often that “we miss it,” Sproul says. “It’s like hello and goodbye. Every time Jesus shows up it’s ‘Fear not’.”
Jesus knew all about fear. Picture him splayed on the ground, face down in the dirt of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, abandoned by his sleep-besotted friends and in anguish to the point of sweating blood. Jesus knew the cross was coming and, in his humanity, was still afraid. His disciples had no hint of the cruelties that soon would beset their Teacher, but neither could they see the new Truth glimmering unseen over the horizon, a Light that eventually would comfort them and, in time, reach through the centuries to comfort us, as well: "… the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding." (Philippians 4:6-7)
I experienced several emergency hospital stays during 2019. As I lay there connected to one medical device and then another, I felt unusually calm as the peace of God expressed in Philippians made its home in my heart. Isaiah also has spoken of peace to me over the years, especially during difficult times (26:3-4), so I knew that if I kept my thoughts on God instead of dwelling on my immediate circumstances, I likely (although not certainly) would be home from the hospital and recuperating within a few days.
Charles H. Spurgeon, the acclaimed Reformed Baptist preacher, told Londoners in his New Year’s message of 1884 that “If we will believe our God as he deserves to be believed … we shall be prepared for trials, and shall even welcome them as black ships laden with bright treasures.” When fear comes in the night its presence can batter our faith against the rocks. Yet, we know morning will come at last and spill its welcoming light over the horizon, pouring it into our lives, extinguishing the chill of night and banishing the darkness--just as Christ’s divine Light has done in the past, does now and promises to do in the future. It is this Light, this Bright Treasure, that gives believers the confidence to say with our Lord, even in the time of coronavirus,
As I was working on this essay, Pandora presented me with Natalie Cole’s version of one of the most recorded songs in American musical history, George and Ira Gershwin's “Love is Here to Stay”, written in 1937 during the waning years of the Depression. These lines caught my ear:
The more I read the papers
The less I comprehend
The world and all its capers
And how it all will end.
Nothing seems to be lasting …
(It all sounds so familiar here in the Spring of 2020 …)
The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time may go!
But our love is here to stay.
Sure, it’s a love song. Yet here we are in a situation where love is very much in order, a time when so much of what we’ve come to know as “normal” has flown far afield--so much so that it’s no stretch to suggest that at least some of the change being stirred up today will blend into a "new normal" that may in itself prove discomforting. But there is a Truth that never changes. Come what may, Light undiminished also reigns, an unchanging Gospel Truth anchored in a Love that over arches plagues and pandemics, failed businesses, fractured families or even diminishing freedoms.
“These things I have spoken to you,” Jesus tells his disciples at the end of John 16, “that in Me you may have peace (despite the world’s) tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
Didn’t sleep well last night, something that happens every so often. My mind was awake chewing its cud far too late, so sleep got shoved in a corner and never fully took hold. I flipped this way and that, got up and remade the bed, said hello to our little cat (who had been thrashing around above the ceiling chasing something real or imaginary), hit the bathroom at least twice and finally gave into being fully awake around 2 am, after which I occupied myself with pondering and prayer and probably stayed awake longer than I might have had I not been mesmerized by a preacher on the radio who talked about blessing others.
I woke up in the morning an hour later than usual, still sleepy but oddly refreshed, turned on my device to see if the world had come to an end while I was away and found an essay by one of my favorite writers, Jill Carattini, managing editor of A Slice of Infinity (blog) at Ravi Zacharias International. Jill makes me think, her theology is strong and she’s a darned good word slinger. This time around, ironically, her subject was sleep, so I dove right in rather than put off reading her piece ‘til later in the day.
Some people describe a “sense of foreboding in the still of night that is irrationally paralyzing,” she wrote, citing the example of NPR personality Ira Glass, who was scared to go to sleep as a child. He equated the “fear of not being awake” to the fear of not being, because “sleep seemed no different than death … You were gone. Not moving, not talking, not thinking. Not aware. What could be more frightening?” Glass said. “What could be bigger?”
I don’t get that. Sleep has always been a solace for me. There’s great relief, almost joy, in letting go of the day and drifting off to dreamland. Guess that’s why I like naps so much, a habit modeled by my mother, who took a 20-minute snooze every day at 2 o’clock, and woe be it to any of us brothers foolish enough to wake her. Had the house been on fire, we might have tried to put the thing out ourselves rather than take a chance on interrupting her nap. Whether nap or night, I find sleep welcoming, just as Mom may have in seeking brief relief from four active boys. Most times, I can put down my reading, fluff up the pillow and fall asleep in a few minutes. Without worry. In fact, sleep and I have had so good a relationship that it’s never occurred to me that some people fear sleep like they fear death. As Jill Carattini points out in her essay, we as a culture are “generally uncomfortable with death and desperate for our accomplishments to distract us.” I know people like that, who must keep energized and entertained lest the chill side of their minds whisper quietly about what may happen after they die. But others appear to brush off the specter of death and sleep very well. “You die, then it’s oblivion,” one friend told me with a shrug. The possibility of a heavenly afterlife with the Lord of Light was simply dismissed.
When we were small, Mom instructed us to get on our knees before tucking us into bed. We prayed for each other, our parents and our pets and recited the little 18th century ditty, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I found the notion that God might sneak into our room and snatch one of us up during the night a bit discomfiting – but no more than thinking about what might have been lurking under the bed.
Shakespeare conflates sleep and death as Hamlet considers suicide in the wake of family treachery: “To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream--ay, there’s the rub,” he declares. But even dreaming seems no more promising to the prince than the “heartache and thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to.” The Bard himself, by the way, appears to have had more confidence in a beneficent Christian afterlife than his sweet Prince, as revealed in the playwright’s Last Will and Testament: “I commend my soul into the hands of God, my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, that through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.”
As Ms. Carattini writes, “(T)o admit there is no escaping the enemy of death is not to say we are left without an ally,” citing the claim in John 11: 25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live.”
“The one who made this claim,” the essayist concludes, “made it knowing that death would come to all of us, but (did so) longing to show the world that it is an enemy he would defeat. Perhaps sleep, then, providing a striking image of finite bodies that will lie down and cease to be, can simultaneously provide us a rousing image of bodies that will rise again.”
Now there’s the rub!
Read Jill’s essay here: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxvzKknhLPsNBRlzGCgcQjKcnGSK0
I was on a sales call. My prospect sold expensive late model cars. A luxury tax had been levied on high-priced automobiles and interest rates were sky high, throwing the economy into a tailspin. Business was bad, but this was nothing new. The dealership had been through enough downturns to know that for every valley there eventually is a corresponding high. However, they had several good salespeople on staff, and since customers were few and far between, they had to decide whether to let them go or keep the team together until the turnaround they knew was coming.
“You know, you just don’t throw people away,” the wife business owner said to the husband business owner, the thought lingering in the air between them. They looked at each other and smiled. The decision had been made -- and was not lost on me. I had a decision to make, too, and in a flash of inspired decisiveness, my mind got made up.
It is said that God speaks to us in many ways, sometimes through others, sometimes directly. He has told me “No!” from time to time when the answer I had been seeking was “Yes”. No matter how the message was delivered, it was clear Who had sent it and what path I must take.
Which reminds me of the time, richly detailed in the first chapter of Luke, when the angel Gabriel showed up in the temple with a message for Zacharias. As the old priest approached the altar to burn incense, what surely must have seemed like an apparition appeared to him and began speaking. The passage reports that Zacharias “was troubled, and fear fell upon him,” which seems perfectly understandable.
“Fear not, Zacharias,” Gabriel said (no doubt in the lilting words of the King James), “for thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord … and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.”
I picture Zacharias standing with mouth agape, Bic lighter dropped to the floor, religious task forgotten. But that was not all. God had a lot more to say to his servant Zacharias through the angel. Among other qualities, their son would become great in the sight of the Lord, would turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God and prepare them for the advent of Christ. All told, less than a minute’s worth of angel talk appears in the text - plenty of time to turn Zacharias’ knees to jelly.
“Whereby shall I know this?” the priest asked, “For I am an old man, and my wife is well stricken in years.”
I imagine his voice either quavering or maybe dripping with sarcasm, in either case a response born of one who clearly had been grappling with the realities of old age for some time. No matter, Gabriel did not receive Zacharias’ incredulity lightly.
“I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold,” continued the angelic messenger, about to lower the boom on the old man, “you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in time.”
Zacharias was struck dumb and unable to say anything to the people waiting outside as he left the temple. One can only imagine the thoughts coursing through his mind as he headed home to write a note to his wife and let her know what had happened. In time, Elizabeth did deliver a son, whom his father did, indeed, call John (by tracing his name on a tablet). With that grace note, Zacharia’s voice was restored. The child was to become John the Baptist.
I think of these events and wonder what might have transpired had I not taken God’s cue after hearing my husband and wife sales prospects refuse to let good people go during a time that did not bode well for their business. My life probably would have been quite different today had I listened to myself instead of trusting the Lord. Who knows, I may even have lost my voice!
Perhaps the Lord has a message for you as you ponder some weighty decision. It may come directly or through another person – maybe even an angel. If so, I suggest you take heed, even if God's plan for you isn't what you had in mind and, on top of that, seems completely impossible. Especially if you’re like me and “stricken in years.”
Because the truth is that when God speaks, you should listen!
We got rained on here recently – possibly as much as ten inches in ten days, thanks to a train of tropical thunderstorms that threaded up from the Gulf and never seemed to stop.
They were welcomed at first because we needed the moisture but then became a problem as angry, deep orange blotches of weather continued to darken our weather radar map and dump their loads on Piedmont North Carolina before moving on to wreak havoc in southern Virginia. The rain not only flooded our yard but saturated the soil so much that several large trees in the neighborhood simply fell over from their own weight.
Water also invited itself into our basement. By the time we thought to check, enough had seeped through the cinder block walls to soak the carpet and made its way into piles of boxes that had sat on the floor for decades.
This was the basement we’d threatened to clean out since the kids finished college, the one chock-a-block with years of school work, report cards and drawings stretching back to kindergarten. Plus ancient records from my business, stacks of moldering old magazines, shelves full of slides and videotapes and other would-be treasures that we'd ignored for the best part of 30 years. Well, so much for that. It was now rubber-meets-the-road time.
Out went a dozen or so second hand cabinets we’d thought to make into a basement kitchen. Heavy furniture and filing cabinets got moved so carpet that smelled like a high school locker room could be cut out piece by heavy piece and get dragged around the house and up to the driveway (mostly by my 37-year-old son, who finished one nasty job and miraculously was game for another). Platoons of boxes got sorted through, some soggy, some not; some kept, some not.
In a way, it was … fun. Our adult children pitched in, including a daughter who’d arrived from Seattle for the family’s annual beach reunion the previous week. We had all threatened since practically forever to get together and dig into the 40-odd years of would-be treasures that had accumulated “down there,” and, as Providence and enough rain enough to float a boat in would have it, this was the time. So we enjoyed our togetherness in the basement and during trips to the recycling center and dump. Grandchildren spiraled in and out of the work, as well, adding their brand of energy to the occasion. And there was plenty of food.
Which all sounds like a blessing to me.
Water is mentioned or referenced something over 700 times in the Bible, from Genesis, where God moved upon the waters, to Revelation’s, “pure river of water … clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.” But when I think of water in Scripture, the picture that comes most to mind is Jesus asleep on a cushion in the disciples’ fishing boat as a storm rages on the Sea of Galilee, with “waves breaking over the boat so it was being swamped." (Mark 4:38) The fear must have been great for them to dare awaken an exhausted Jesus (the unusually fierce storm appears to have arisen rather quickly and surprised the experienced fishermen). But awaken him they did, with words that don’t shout from the pages of Scripture as much as I think they could have but clearly must have been tinged with panic.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (I would have added a few exclamation points here, but Jesus appears to have responded to the crisis with equanimity.) “Then he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still.’ And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.” After which Jesus turned his attention to the storm raging in his disciples’ hearts.
“Why are you so fearful,” he questioned. “How is it that you have no faith? And they feared exceedingly and said to one another, ‘Who can this be that even the wind and sea obey him?’”
It’s so easy to panic when unanticipated storms blow into our lives, at least in my experience. And for believers it is so unnecessary, because our sovereign God - the Lord for whom all things are possible - is on the job, even when we’re so consumed with fear that we about fall over from our own weight. I’ve been there, and I’ll be there again, no doubt. But I can count on the Lord to show up every time, even if it takes a while for me to open the door of my fearful heart enough to let him in.
A little bit of water in the basement is no big deal, as it turned out. It was only a teacup full compared to the floods from Hazel, Hugo, Katrina and Harvey - or the monster hurricane that churned up the Connecticut River Valley in 1938. Our mom remembered watching from her front steps as river water bubbled up through the sewer grates, covered the street and ate the sidewalk before it climbed up the porch, snuck under the door, filled the basement and the whole first floor before leaving a mess that must have been leagues worse to deal with than our puny basement thing.
I never heard much about the cleanup part of her flood, although she loved pointing out the high water line on the kitchen wall. But I can still imagine her fear as the normally placid river reared up and invaded her life. But her flood passed, and so do mine.
Thanks to the Lord, asleep on a pillow in the back of my boat.
When we were kids, one of our summertime adventures was fishing in a water hazard at the Springfield Country Club. My friends and I would grind our fat-tired, single-speed J.C. Higgins bikes up a pair of seriously steep hills and arrive at our destination late on a weekday morning when there weren’t many players on the course. There were plenty of fish in the small pond we sought out at the far edge of the property, but the perch and small mouth bass were only of passing interest. We had something more profitable in mind: the golf balls lying in the muck at the bottom. The more we could fetch, the more we could sell for dimes on the dollar.
My buds worried about club authorities catching us so kept their eagle eyes out for groundskeepers and any golfers walking up from the fairway, which I recall was hidden from the nearby hole by a slight rise. My worry was of a different sort. I feared diving into the water and not coming back up because of a near drowning experience when very small and because of the Catholic Church and its emphasis on sin. Big sins, MORTAL ones that would guarantee a one-way trip to HELL in the absence of Confession, were things like murder and robbing banks, which I decided right off would not be in my future. I must confess to obsessing about what the Church called venial sins, however. These minor transgressions were said to add up quickly and earn greater punishment in the aggregate, whether smacking your brother in the head, talking back to your mom or (I assumed) stealing golf balls from somebody else's pond. I clearly recall the trepidation that accompanied each dive, during which I could either have drowned or heaped another venial sin on myself, perhaps the very one that would vault me into mortal sin territory.
“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows,” Jesus declares in John 16:33, and the trials and sorrows that haunt childhood are only the beginning, given the various forms of abuse adults regularly inflict on one another. Not much has changed since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, no longer perfect creatures living in Paradise but imperfect ones trying to make their way in a broken world. Pick up a newspaper and you’ll find nation pitted against nation, religion against religion, interest group against interest group, person against person. There’s a gnawing fear these days that things are going off the rails, evidenced not only by disruptive societal change and increasingly acrid political discourse (even families are not immune from this) but also in the growing madness of school shootings by young men who think it’s OK to act out their adolescent angst with a gun.
There's no surprise that people are fearful, a condition not unique to early 21st century America but pervasive throughout history. Theologian R. C. Sproul points out “that the number one negative prohibition in the New Testament is ‘Don’t be afraid, fear not.’ Christ says it so often “we miss it,” Dr. Sproul pointed out in a radio broadcast not long ago. “It’s like hello and goodbye. Every time he shows up it’s ‘Fear not ...’”.
I recently came across an unofficial Top 40 of worries, some humorous, some life-altering serious. Concern about narrow-minded people is high on the list, followed by personal health, relationships, terrorism, bullies and war. When I was a kid, WWII had only been done for a few years, and movie and television images of theretofore unimaginable cruelties by the Axis powers still linger in this child of the ‘50s. Add to that memories of the Cold War with its A-bombs and the apocalyptic threat of today's information-driven warfare and it’s clear than only the time, place and weapons have changed. Other concerns in the unofficial Worry Top 40 include what other people think of you, pandemics, addictions, car trouble, aliens, the devil, what your teenagers are doing at night, love and sex, people looking at your diary and “peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth”.
Not long ago, two of these worries merged into one for me, a dark green Buick my father had given us when he grew too old to drive. My mechanic liked seeing the car pull up to his shop because it no doubt paid for a generous slice of his sons’ college tuition over the nine years we had it. The car was a lemon. From the start. We found it parked along the dealer’s back fence waiting to be wholesaled. But that’s the one Dad wanted. And passed on to us. Because it looked nice, was comfortable, low mileage and had belonged to my father, I kept tossing money at it when it broke hoping the car would change its miserable ways, until the engine quit and could not be redeemed short of a major infusion of cash. Sin is tenacious like that, and we can become addicted to it. That car was an addiction. My wife said we should get rid of it many times over. Even the mechanic recommended selling it while it still ran and the air conditioning worked. I didn’t listen, however, and because of my intransigence got only $300 for the thing when it conveniently wheezed to a stop on a used car lot.
Worry is a mind game that blots out common sense and keeps us awake at night. We’re aware of that, of course, but sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter. So, like me with the car, we keep plowing ahead until something breaks down - mentally, physically, emotionally or relationally and life gets really tough. Sometimes so tough there seems no way around whatever fix we’ve gotten ourselves into. Of course, some situations just befall people, dilemmas far more serious than throwing good money after a bad Buick: a depression that knocks the pins out from under you, sudden loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, just plain thievery, a business failure and/or children who have fallen into wantonness. We beg for reprieve as our fears overwhelm us. We pray for it, and when relief doesn’t come, we lament our circumstances and shout to the heavens for relief.
When Isaiah was first called as a prophet, King Uzziah had for many years presided over a relatively peaceful period in Israel’s history. Their neighbors, however, Egypt and Assyria, had experienced a great deal of internal strife, allowing both the northern and southern parts of Uzziah’s kingdom to expand their territories. But soon after Isaiah’s calling, storm clouds began gathering in the north with the ascension of a strong Assyrian ruler. Amid the strife that followed, Ahaz, king of Judah, responded with fear (and unbelief), casting aside God’s will in favor of a political solution that seemed to his advantage: an alliance with Assyria against Israel. Isaiah’s plea to trust in Yahweh went unheeded. It was at this time that Isaiah gave Ahaz a sign: that at some time in the future a young woman would conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel, or God within – the same Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace who would bring Light to a dark world many centuries hence.
Later, under Hezekiah, Jerusalem itself came under siege, but this time Hezekiah trusted in the Lord and was delivered. However, God’s judgment awaited the people of Judah and Israel during the latter days of Hezekiah’s reign, a time during which Israel “paid double for all her sins.” Like happens sometimes to us, even after we have seen the Light and changed course.
I have to remind myself from time to time that the Lord has promised to see us through our trials but has not promised to magically pluck us from our misery and set us down in Perfect Land without regard to the consequences of our actions. Because he is a Holy God, the Father demands justice. We must pay for our sins, if not precisely in the manner presented by the Catholic Church of my youth. Those who accept the promise of Christ, compelled to do so by workings of the Holy Spirit, are forgiven and redeemed. Those who do not, people who choose to disregard God's plan, are condemned (perhaps even including those we love, which is gut-wrenching to consider). One way or another, however, God’s justice is served.
Remember the Top 40 worries? These two fears were at the top of the list, exceeded only by concern about narrow-minded people - which says a great deal about societal discourse of late:
But "take heart, I have overcome the world,” Jesus says to his disciples in John 16:33 as his crucifixion looms, the sacrificial act by which he not only provides relief for the fearful but a redemptive path through which believers at last transcend the pain and suffering of this world and find rest in the infinite presence of God.
"In me you may have peace,” Jesus proclaims. Now there's something you can count on!