Deeper Than Fear

NWC Experiment #4Some of you know my dog Onyx.  She has black fur and weighs about 45 pounds. Some people think she looks like a small Labrador retriever, but any resemblance is only skin deep. Actually, Onyx is a mixed-breed dog with strong traits of the Schipperke breed. The Schipperke – meaning “ship keeper” – is a breed developed in Holland and Belgium to battle rats on water barges. Whereas Labrador retrievers love to play in water, Schipperkes hate it. That probably has something to do with the fact that when a dog fell off of a moving barge, no one could turn the boat around to pick it up. Any Schipperke who loved the water was left behind or drowned. But the ones who feared water lived quite well with their people, and passed along the fear of water to their pups. At the beach, Labradors jump in the water, but Onyx barks at the waves like they are her mortal enemy. If I wash the car, and there’s a trickle of water running down the driveway, Onyx will stand on one side of a narrow stream of wet cement terrified to cross over to the other side.

God’s people in the Bible would have understood Onyx, because they, too, feared water. Many of the Bible’s most memorable characters were desert nomads or shepherds in the hill country. Sure, there are stories that take place out on the water, but something bad always seems to happen there. The disciples are caught in a sudden squall on the Sea of Galilee, memorably calling upon Jesus to save them.  Jonah is swallowed by a whale, Paul is shipwrecked. There were enemies out sailing on the waters of the Mediterranean, people like the Philistines, the Egyptians, and the Romans. Our biblical ancestors would have judged Schipperke dogs to be a very wise breed.

The Israelites’ fear of water probably also had something to do with what happened when God brought them out of Egypt.  They had barely crossed the Red Sea on a tenuous little footpath when the weight of the waters closed in behind them.  The waters crushed the breath out of Pharaoh’s army, and left the Israelites running breathlessly for higher ground.  That experience marked Israel so deeply that they were still talking about it 700 years later.

In the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to the new dilemma of Babylonian captivity in the name of the God of the Exodus, “who makes  a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” Like Moses before him, Isaiah is building up the people for the time when God will nudge them toward the water. The water is dangerous, and they would rather not get too close. But only by entering the water can they get to the Promised Land on the other side. God encourages those who step forward in faith to cross the water: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you  … you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you …. Do not fear, for I am with you.”

It’s difficult to hear a message like that when we’re facing gigantic forces that make us feel small and out of control. Practically speaking, there are some things of which it seems natural and even wise to be afraid. We hope:

  • that our leaders never lose fear of enemy nations that threaten to attack us,
  • that our communities never lose fear of criminal activities diminish our safety,
  • that our children never lose fear of strangers who may be predators,
  • that our pets never lose fear of jumping out of the windows of moving cars.

But fear comes in different varieties and dosages, some of it unhealthy and even irrational. Fear can paralyze us in a dangerous place. Fear can rob us of our ability to decide and act on things that are in our best interest. Some fear is so persistent and deep-seated that it requires special treatment. We never should be ashamed to seek counseling and medical treatment if such fear begins to dominate our daily existence.

Most of us carry with us fears that occupy a kind of middle ground between rational, healthy fear and irrational, debilitating fear.  Sometimes, I think, these are unexamined fears, fears based in stereotype and prejudice. Our new worshiping community experiment has reminded me about fears of this type. A few years ago, when I began to hear reports about pastors preaching from new electronic-tablet-equipped pulpits, I feared the development. I thought to myself, “How trendy to place the emphasis on a hip new method of delivery, rather than the timeless content of the message.”  But as the years have passed, and iPads and iPhones are more part of daily life, my fear has receded. I’ve been reminded that long ago, Presbyterians were divided over the introduction of the organ, some appreciating the beautiful tones of the instrument, others calling it the Devil’s tool. From our perspective today, fear of the organ was based in prejudice against something new and unfamiliar. When examined and challenged, fear receded. Sometimes, our worries are like my dog Onyx’s worry about crossing the narrow trickle of water in the driveway.

Regular attendees at traditional worship aren’t the only ones who carry such fears. I read a comment this week on the Facebook page for our denomination’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities. It was by a Presbyterian who had a conversation with an unchurched person while getting a haircut in a salon populated primarily by people in their 20s. As they ventured into the topic of faith and church, the unchurched person said, “Are you a Christian?” and then “Religions can be so weird and creepy!” I’ll admit that there are weird and creepy things that go on in the name of religion, and that you’ll find such things at the edges of many religious movements. But most Christians I know are neither weird nor creepy. They’re people who experience the challenges of life, but also believe that there is a God who cares about those challenges, and that God in Jesus Christ has done something about them. If we could just get together in the same worship space, whether in a church building or the middle of a student center, I think we would find out that we have more in common than we know, that we all struggle with fear:

  • fear of losing our dreams for love or career,
  • fear of expectations that demand more time or energy than we possess,
  • fear of change so rapid that we simply can’t keep up,
  • fear of religion that is too narrow-minded and harshly judgmental.

I am indebted to my colleague Lonnie Lee for a story about Howell Raines, who was an editor on staff of the New York Times. Raines wrote a book about his mid-life crisis, during which he recognized that he was deeply afraid of death. This fear, he realized, manifested itself in other anxieties, including fear of a supervisor with whom he interacted daily. He was troubled and embarrassed that he, a man nearly 50-years old, should feel that way. He began to scribble a sentence every day, again and again. It was the battle cry of the Cheyenne Indian warrior: “It is a good day to die.” The feared fighters among their tribe had often used this death song to control their lesser fears by confronting what they feared most. Raines taped the sentence to the intercom so that every time he spoke to his supervisor he would see the sentence: “It is a good day to die.” It worked. As Howell Raines learned to accept the inevitability of his own death, other fears faded away.[1]

The good news of the gospel is that such a transformation is possible for you. Transformation comes when you realize that some of the things you think will drown you are only a trickle of water in the driveway, and that when you move into truly deep water, there is a God who goes with you, from whose love we are never separated, whose grace is deeper than all our fears.


[1]Howell Raines, Fly Fishing Through the Mid-life Crisis, New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1994, pp. 202-205. Lonnie Lee related this story to the same text in his sermon “Claimed By God,” delivered to Westminster Presbyterian Church, Springfield, IL, 11 Jan. 1998.

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~ by JohnH1962 on March 17, 2013.

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