“Someday you or I will die.”
“Lara, that won’t happen for a long, long time.”
“But, Mama, it really is going to happen.”
“Shhhh… it will be okay. We’ll just cross that bridge when we get to it.”
I was five or six years old and my mother was trying to comfort me. But, I remember how I lay awake, looking into the darkness of my room, and thinking about this bridge in the distance. It didn’t matter how far away it was; someday we would have to walk across it. It was real.
I can still be overcome at times with anxiety. It rises up when I hear that my husband has to travel for work, or that one of my children isn’t feeling well, or that a snow storm is due to hit town right when I need to be driving somewhere. I start imagining awful things and grieving for sorrows that haven’t happened yet.
I’ve felt tension between how overwhelming this anxiety is and the Biblical commands not to worry. Over and over again, my Lord tells me, “Do not fear.” And yet, despite that and all my self-talk about the futility of anxiety, I still fear.
This winter, now that the cold and snow have settled in, I’m cozying up to my winter project. In the spare moments, or evenings, I’m opening old books, sitting before hundreds of pages of interviews, magazine articles and newspaper clippings. There are faces in old photographs, letters with pretty slanted handwriting, and stories on old typewriter paper. I’ve been researching the history of my family and roots in Maine, and starting to piece together the old stories. As I do, the familiar sinks back into history; the hills and valleys, roads and ponds, set securely in their places suddenly are transferred back over the years to a time when my ancestors called them home. They were farmers and lumbermen, teachers, bootleggers, store keepers and mill workers. At times they were soldiers. Each name scratched on a family tree contains a lifetime of stories, though I’m often left with just a few dates to go with the name.
There’s something about letting my mind traverse the old stories that leaves me feeling both more grounded and somehow ethereal. I can imagine how my own name would look, written out in one of these genealogical record books. It would be next to the name of my husband, with the dates of our births and marriage, and below would be the names of four sons and three daughters. Truly, we aren’t separate from history. This is just our moment to breathe and work and love and pray and hope. And it’s really just a moment.
I’m drawn to the old things and their reminders that others have walked the same roads we’re called to walk. My children all learn to read holding a one-hundred year old primer, turning the thick, brown-edged pages with their fresh little fingers. An introduction to the teacher reads, “…The subject matter is within the range of the experience and the imagination of most children of five or six years of age. It is full of incident and action. It enlists at once the liveliest interest of children…” And somehow, though these words were written about children learning how to read while the Great War was raging in Europe, my own children have their ‘liveliest interest’ enlisted as well. My sons love that some of the old books still have pictures of little boys with guns and hunting dogs. I love the simplicity of the stories; the focus on nature and agriculture. And there’s something time-surpassing about the human desire for ‘incident and action’ and things that speak into our ‘experience and imagination’. We all love stories.
Last week, amidst unexpected events and accidents and with my husband getting ready to board a plane, with anxiety swelling, I prayed and asked God for His grace to obey his words concerning worry. I trust that God, who delights when we know truth, is willing to teach us wisdom in our secret hearts. (Psalm 51:6) I’ve experienced this digging and exposing and thought-shifting work of God.
When I was a young Christian, I heard someone say that the many ‘fear God’ verses in the Bible really mean that we are to be in awe of Him. We’re to just be reverent. He’s our friend. We don’t have to be afraid of God.
But if we’ve never been afraid, I don’t think we’ve ever encountered his glory.
I’ve stood on a rocky cliff and felt spray from ocean waves on my cheeks as the wind whipped through my hair. I’ve heard their roar below me, and known that if I ventured too close they could crush me and pull me under. There’s something awesome and to be revered and also something fearful about the waves and the weight of the water crashing against the shore.
I’ve felt the same sensation as I watched a storm rumble in from the west on a summer day. The wind picks up, the sky darkens, and soon thunder is shaking the house and leaving a rumble deep down in my bones. Nature is awesome and fearful and seems to be telling us an old, old story.
But how much greater is the weight of glory that the Creator of the waves and the thunder holds? A true taste of God’s glory makes us tremble. I’ve certainly found that true prayer isn’t safe. There’s a true, appropriate, healthy fear; a fear with a purpose of leading us to salvation.
Perhaps there’s nothing that makes me feel more small and vulnerable than looking up into the night sky. Sometimes I pause on my way back to the house from some errand that has taken me into a dark night. As I look up, higher and higher into the heavens, I feel myself shrinking into exposed insignificance. The stars are some of the most humbling witnesses of God’s glory. And amazingly, Psalm 103 says, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…” To truly come to know God is to fear Him; a heart pounding, knees knocking, trembling fear in the face of power. But to truly know Him and fear Him is also to receive a great and steadfast love that washes our fears away. The ocean waves, with their crashing power, don’t love me. The thunder doesn’t roar promises to hold me in the palm of its hand and cover me in the shelter of its wings. But God does.
It’s this weight of power and love that is the only match for my anxiety.
Too often I’m trying to grab the pen and write my own story. I want to control the plot line, because I feel like I’m the main character. I want to keep the story pretty tame, without much incident or action, but with plenty of comfort, security and just a little poetic romance springing up from purely happy things. This is the story I want to write for all of those that I love.
But there’s an Author already and He holds the pen. Do I trust him?
He wrote a story that I don’t always understand. I don’t know why he allowed sin and suffering to stain the pages when it seems he could have kept it out. I want a beautiful ending and I want it now. But what He’s given me is a stunning climax. The crushing, fearful holiness of God met in full force the deep, steadfast love of God when he wrote himself into the story. This is the gospel.
I keep thinking I understand this. While I’m reading the Bible or listening to a sermon or praying in earnest, this greater story will suddenly break into me and I’ll feel my fears being swept away as I see Him. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything…”
But so far, without fail, my anxiety flares up once again. I start telling myself stories about all of the what-ifs and dwelling on the sad or scary things that could happen to me or my loved ones.
When that happens, and I start to sink, I’m learning that my lifeline is to spend some time sharing stories with the Lord. I need it over and over again. I come to him in prayer and tell him my heart story. I tell him how I’d like the next few pages to go. And He holds me close and whispers back the time-surpassing, fear-stilling story He’s been telling his children from the beginning.
A few years ago I was drawn to a tiny, old book at the thrift store. I brought it home and found an inscription written neatly inside the front cover.
Jacob Langdell, New Boston, N.H. May 29th 1862
When I typed the words into an internet search, I found that Jacob wrote the inscription less than four months before he enlisted as a soldier in the Civil War. The New Boston historical society website showed a picture of him, sitting tall in his uniform with his legs crossed. Twenty-four men from New Boston volunteered along with Jacob to serve in the 16th New Hampshire Regiment. They were sent south by steamship, and ten of them died from disease (likely malaria) while in Louisiana. From the hospital there Jacob wrote a letter home to his mother, dated January 27, 1863. I saw his handwriting, the same neat, slanted letters as in the book I held. “… if I live and prosper I shall be at home before many months. I am contented for I know that the same Providence watches over me here that does you at the north.”
I looked again at the hands in the photograph, a farm boy’s, long and lean against his musket. I marveled that they once held this book now resting in my own, maybe even carrying it to war and safely back to New Boston once again. On one of the well-worn pages was a prayer.
“O Lord, I know not what I should ask of thee. Thou only knowest what I want; and thou lovest me better than I can love myself. O Lord, give to me, thy child, what is proper, whatsoever it may be. I dare not ask either crosses or comforts, I only present myself before thee; I open my heart to thee. Behold my wants, which I am ignorant of; but do thou behold, and do according to thy mercy. Smite or heal; depress me, or raise me up; I adore all thy purposes, without knowing them. I am silent, I offer myself in sacrifice. I abandon myself to thee. I have no more any desire, but to accomplish thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.” (Mirror of Thought, pg 112)
A century and a half after a young soldier may have done the same, I spoke these words aloud. My voice was soft as my heart struggled through each line. This was once again the whispering story of providence and the beckoning call to trust Him. Here was the only assurance that quiets my anxious thoughts and lets me rest deep in contentment. God loves me. He knows better than I do. It is safe to abandon myself to Him. He is intentional about every ‘incident and action’ that He allows into the story of our lives, and wants to use our experiences to enlist our liveliest interest in what will bring us the most joy. He’s made us to live in His story, and He’s willing to tell it to us over and over and over again. It’s the old story that breathes new life into the present. It stirs my heart and lifts my voice so that I can say, “Teach me to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.”
Jesus did this. He spent time sharing his heart story with the father. The night before he was going to die on the cross he prayed in such distress over the wrath he was about to bear, that his sweat contained blood. He was honest about his desire to be spared from this suffering if there was another way to save us, but he was willing to be obedient to the point of death. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Jesus drank that cup of wrath and has handed me the cup of communion. There is nothing left to fear. Jesus died profoundly alone on the cross. But because of this, as for me, God draws near even in the darkness. There will never be a bridge that I’ll have to cross alone. My fears are really calling out a question to God. His answer is the only thing that will quiet them as He holds me close, and in all His glory He says to His child, “I am with you always…“