Water on the Flames of Fear

Sawdust and fish.

That’s what my grandfather’s shed smelled like. The memory was so strong that I escaped there from the reality of life in remote Papua New Guinea, where the days pressed in and my chest burned with anxiety. In my mind I could see Pappah’s workbench, his tools all in their places, his tackle box and fishing pole against the wall. I could hear him whistling though his dentures as he checked on his beefsteak tomatoes and swept mulch back into the plant bed.

Nearly every day I closed my eyes and my thoughts fled there until my breathing slowed again. Maybe it was because Pappah had been a shelter for my young heart. Or maybe life had just felt simple and safe in that shed.

My life had become anything but simple since the last time I’d stood there inhaling the scent of Pappah’s favorite things. We had moved to the other side of the world, and before I could find my feet in our new community I had taken on too much responsibility. I know now that most of it wasn’t even mine to carry. But at that point all I knew was that I felt like somebody had suddenly handed me an armload of bricks to cart across a frozen pond. I was sure that if I slipped and dropped even one thing, the ice would break and I would go down.

Before I realized it, fear became part of my daily rhythm. Some of the fear was a legitimate response to real danger and actual trauma. A lot of it came from the loss of control and familiarity. All of it smoldered in my chest until I was choking on the smoke of chronic anxiety.

You’ve got to hold it together, I told myself. You have to be available for the people who need you. Pack down the fear and keep moving.

I tried. I packed the embers of fear in tight until my whole internal world was ablaze.

It took some time, a little anti-anxiety medication, and a lot of good counseling for me to identify the fuel I’d been feeding my fear:

The belief that my life was about me.

What I could offer people.

What I could produce for God’s Kingdom.

My choices, my interactions, my reputation, my ministry.

As I healed, I still thought a lot about Pappah’s shed, not because I needed to escape, but because it reminded me of his humility. He had no platform, no aspirations for greatness, no plans to change the world. Just gentle, quiet rhythms of working hard, caring for my disabled grandmother, and serving the people around him.

I can’t count the number of times I walked through my grandparents’ back door and asked Mammah where Pappah was. She’d almost always answer, “Oh, he’s out helpin’ the old people.” She meant he was changing a lightbulb for a neighbor in their retirement community or driving someone to the doctor. The “old people” were all around his own age, from a wide variety of backgrounds and belief systems. Pappah loved each of his neighbors as himself because it’s what Jesus said to do. His days were simple, humble, fearless.

I’ve wondered this week what Pappah, who’s in Heaven now, would say about the events at the Capitol that have left our nation stunned. I imagine he would shake his head at all the fear-driven rage and then whistle though his dentures as he washed dishes.

Humility is water on fear’s flames.

The morning after the assault on the Capitol building, two verses in Psalm 112 caught my attention: “Hallelujah! Happy is the person who fears the LORD, taking great delight in his commands,” (v.1, CSB). And then verse 7: “He will not fear bad news; his heart is confident, trusting in the LORD.” These two thoughts are directly connected. If we fear God, we don’t fear bad news.

For a long time I thought that the biblical admonition to fear God just meant we should respect and revere Him. Then one day I realized that definition of fearing the Lord would fall flat with Jesus’ disciples. They saw God’s raw power in Jesus as He raised the dead, fed thousands from the contents of one boy’s lunch, and walked on water. The disciples’ reaction to the way Jesus handled a violent storm is especially telling:

They came and woke him up saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to die!”

Then he got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves. So they ceased, and there was calm.

He said to them, “Where is your faith?”

They were fearful and amazed, asking one another, “Who then is this? He commands even the wind and waves, and they obey him!” (Luke 8:24-25, CSB)

When the disciples were “fearful and amazed”, there certainly was an element of respect and reverence, but that’s not where it ended. The Greek word translated “fearful” here, phobeo, means exactly that — fearful. Overwhelmed. Terrified. Left in heart-pounding awe over something completely outside of their control and frame of reference.

When we begin to focus on the bigness of our God, we realize how small we are. We’re not the center of our own orbit. We begin to learn humility, the posture that recognizes God for who He is — our all-powerful, good Father — and ourselves for who we are — His deeply loved children who are completely dependent on Him.

And here is where humility extinguishes fear. If our days, our families, our nations, and our futures are in the hands of the One who stole the fury from the storm, we have nothing to worry about, no matter how upside-down the world gets or how evil shows its hand. Our lives don’t orbit around us or depend on anything we bring to the table. The future doesn’t hinge on news headlines or social media posts or government responses or the reliability of any human. We can rest.

And when the fear-smoke clears, we can actually see the people around us, not just the issues, differences, or fallacies they represent. We can love them the same way Jesus loved, with courageous humility, truth, and compassion, firmly rooted in His dependence on His Father.

Come to think of it, Jesus spent a lot of time smelling like sawdust and fish, too.

1 Comment

  1. Brenda Southard
    Jan 12, 2021

    Oh so insightful! Thank you, Beth, for this encouragement and sweet remembrance of Brother Jim.

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