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.”
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!
Late one Sunday afternoon, during a pause between worrying about one thing then another, I flipped through a couple of Reddit pages and came upon a video that turned my low mood into one of such high delight that I had to watch it several times.
It didn’t run much more than a minute. There was no voice over, just video, some light ukulele music and a few titles in what looked like made-up words but could have been Dutch.
Scene 1 was a grocery store shelf. We see someone inspecting half a dozen or more small mottled bird eggs nested in a cardboard container wrapped with plastic. Hands turn the package over, looking at it this way and that, as if saying, “Well, what do we have here …?”
Scene 2 finds the spotted eggs being placed in what appears to be a home-brew incubator. Soon, one egg gives a little wiggle. The shell breaks open, and two pink feet emerge (rather large ones compared to the size of the egg). A soggy-looking brown chick then makes its way into the world, where a man cups it in his hands.
In the next scene, the chick – that we know from the title to be a quail – is dry and fluffed up. And then is shown running on those big feet up the man’s chest, where it tucks itself under his chin and settles in the fellow’s curly black beard.
I recall standing on a beach many years ago. It must have been late autumn or early winter because an ice-edged wind was blowing from the sea and I was dressed more for snow than sun. Suddenly, a tiny bird flew in from the sea and landed on my shoulder, a songbird that somehow had found itself in flight over more ocean than it had bargained for and was hauling buggy back to shore. It stood there catching its breath for no more than ten seconds before flitting off toward the dune grass.
I recall the passage in Matthew where Jesus talks about how our heavenly Father feeds the birds without their having to plant or reap or stow their food in barns, which I take also to include little birds that almost get made into omelets and those that wander too far out over the ocean.
“Are not you more valuable than they?” he asks his disciples, who had been busy scratching at their own concerns. “Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air …”
It’s such a lovely and comforting image, worth recalling when worry comes and steals the sense out of you. Prayer on the wing.