Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Devotion - Living in the Fear

“The screams began at midnight.

I bolted to my feet, still in my sleeping bag. After an eight-mile, rain-drenched solo hike on a wilderness island in Lake Superior, I had reached the deserted campground at dusk. It was early in the season, cold and buggy. Most backpackers would wait until later in June to arrive, when the weather was more favorable and the mosquitoes weren't quite so ferocious. But I was hoping for quiet and solitude, away from cell phones, e-mail, and the demands of family life. After stripping off my soaked clothing and changing into dry longjohns, I heated hot water for coffee and ate some gorp, then fell into an exhausted rest.

Until the screaming.

I reached for my pocketknife and stumbled over my gear, peering out into the foggy dark. Now, it was quiet, the deep silence of wilderness. The only sound was my adrenaline-crazed heart, thumping loudly. Clutching my knife, I pulled my sleeping bag around me and convinced myself I had been dreaming. But in moments, the screams started again. Something wet trickled down my hand --in my terror, I had cut myself. Sucking the wound, I felt pure fear. And I realized I was helpless to do anything to alleviate it.”

These words are the opening paragraphs from a book review by a writer named Cindy Crosby. In that moment of "pure fear" as she calls it, she felt a powerlessness that we all fear; the realization that we are in the midst of something we have no control over. We are in deep and there is nothing we can do to get out. Most of us strive to avoid situations like this, but if we live long enough, we just might find ourselves in that kind of crippling fear.

Crosby goes on to quote another writer, Gerald May, about a similar experience he had, alone in a tent when a growling bear was brushing up against the canvas.

"For the first time in my life, I am experiencing pure fear," he writes. "I am completely present in it, in a place beyond all coping because there is nothing to do." When the bear leaves, he experiences overwhelming gratitude. "Fear like any other strong emotion, can make you exquisitely conscious of living, perfectly aware of being in the moment."

I especially like his phrasing, "in a place beyond all coping because there is nothing to do." Go into the ER waiting room and wait a few minutes and you will encounter people who are in this state. They have found their loved one not breathing, or collapsed, or burned or any other of a thousand scenarios and have done all there was to do by getting them to the hospital and now they sit, like the two campers described above with death rubbing like an angry bear, dangerously close to the thin fabric of their lives.

This kind of raw emotion is so intense, so searing and in many ways so foreign to us that often those experiencing it and those around them don't really know how handle it. In a culture with few acceptable outlets for so called "negative" emotions: fear, anger, frustration, sorrow it is hard to know what is normal and what one is "supposed" to do. We work so hard to "tame" our emotions that when they do pop up we sometimes miss what could be an opportunity to access a depth of life we often only scratch the surface of.

People in the hospital often talk about the way God "got their attention" by means of an accident or illness and the fear it brings. In that moment of stark reality facing the possibility of death or serious injury there is a vibrant, living energy that rises up and pierces through the cardboard mask the cardboard mask of being "fine" we so often wear. I don't think you have to necessarily say that God caused such and such a bad thing to come upon you just to teach you a lesson. But these moments when our terror has broken us out of complacency; out of our mindless marching through our daily routines; I think in these, our Father finds teachable moments. People have told me of things they have seen about their lives that they never had seen "until the accident." "I never knew how much I loved him until I almost lost him." "You never know what's really important in life until you face death." Many have said, and many other sentiments echoing the same truth that those moments of desperate fear crack open new insight into lives glazed over with the relentless monotony of daily pressures and stresses.

The God of scripture and the God I've seen at work in my life are about taking things that should never, by their own rights be able to work, be able to thrive, be able to grow and become good; taking them and like a master grape-grower, twisting, and bending them into something good, wholesome and beautiful. I think those moments of pure, living fear can be redeemed.

Not only can moments like these break down our normal barriers that keep us from seeing what is really important in life, but they can also remind us the value of being fully present. I've talked here before about the many ways we like to put up screens between ourselves and others; cell phones, computers, ipods, pda's, blackberry's all barriers to being really present in the here and now; really with who we're with. The screams that pierced Cindy Crosby's night set loose adrenaline and a heightened her senses. The bear by the tent made the other writer "perfectly aware of being in the moment." because all other possible future moments hinged upon the outcome of this one. If we could bring that presence into our everyday life, if we could harvest the way fear lets us dig deep into the here and now of life; If we could do that I think we could come a lot closer to living the sort of awake, un-anesthetized lives Jesus hinted at when he talked us having life and having it more abundantly; having an eternal kind of life; deep, rich and supremely real; not when we all get to heaven, but now in each blessed moment we're given.

The disciples got a hint at this after the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus tells them to set out on a boat on the Lake at Galilee. They leave without him and a storm comes. Seasoned fishermen, a wild windy night on a reasonably small lake probably wouldn't instill in them the sort of fear we've been talking about. But that wasn't all there was going on that night.

In Matt. 14.24
"But by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. and early in the morning he, [Jesus] came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear."

Now they are in that moment, in that crippling, blinding, yet eye-opening fear.

"But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

My prayer is that when we find ourselves in that moment, in that all encompassing terror that will sooner or later befall most of us that we will allow it to do what it is there to do: to open our eyes enough to really see. Not to linger in torturous despair, but to see through the living fear, to see the author of that life. To hear in that moment, over the screams, the growls, the howling waves, the voice of one we never expected to see there who says, "Take heart, it is I."

Let's pray.


"...and I've got really big hands." I'm sorry but the animated Jesus was just too good to not use. Hah!

1 comment:

Viator said...

Lovely, Matt.
You are gifted indeed, and it is to my discredit that the only praise I can think to lavish is to tell you that your devotion provided a timely and needed counterbalance to the three episodes of "House" I watched last night.