Do Not Be Afraid

I was a boy in suburban Birmingham when a man pounded on our door one night. We came to learn he was drunk and believed our house was his house. My dad was working overtime in the nearby steel mill, so I was the man of the house. My mother and sister were terrified. The man wouldn’t listen to us asking him to go away. Then he began to walk down the stairs to the basement entrance that I remember I failed to lock that night. I raced down the inside stairs and turned the lock just as he touched the outside doorknob. Then I ran out the front door to the retired police officer next door who came and held him at bay until the police arrived.

This intruder was so tipsy he probably wasn’t much of a threat, but we didn’t know it that frightful night.

I remember another boyhood fear. Pete, the neighborhood bully, somehow got me in his crosshairs. He never touched me, but he kept telling me what he was going to do to me.

My older brother, home from college one weekend, quoted FDR to me: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This may be where my love of presidential history came about!

The state highway department was in the process of buying our neighborhood to expand the interstate highway system, so we soon had to move, and I left Pete behind.

I’ve often wished I could see Pete again after all these years. I’ve watched every episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger” at least twice, and I believe I could defend myself!

Fear often makes its home in our lives. One website, phobialist.com, lists 530 phobias identified by psychology. Though some may sound a bit trivial, they nevertheless affect a percentage of the population.

It’s striking that an oft-repeated admonition of Christmas is “fear not.” An unnamed angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him “Fear not.” The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, and the angel said, “Fear not.” Gabriel then told Mary, “Fear not.” And yet another unnamed angel came to the shepherds in Bethlehem’s fields to say, “Fear not.”

And in each of these four cases, the individuals heard the command not to be afraid, and they obediently did what God asked them to do.

 The message to modern believers is that our creator doesn’t want us to live in fear. He wants us to have faith in and obey the Christ of Christmas—the one whom Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son, John, later called the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

On Getting Along With Others

My denomination invited me to write a series of three commentaries for Sunday School teachers to be used next year, and I was happy to complete the assignment a bit early and hit “send” last week. The editor said 90,000+ leaders will use this material. He said the Bible teachers range from college professors to truck drivers, and I was to write for the truckers! As I tell classroom students, the communicator’s task is to take  the complex and make it understandable, so I tried to do so.

Writing for truck drivers reminded me of an unpleasant episode many moons ago in the 90s. An editor asked me to write a lesson on stealing in a series on the Ten Commandments. As part of my assignment I gave some possible examples of stealing, including pilfering on the job, slacking in our work and cheating on taxes.

I also related a recent news account of a state official convicted of bribery. According to the story, this Department of Transportation employee alerted truckers when weigh stations were opened or closed. The implication was that drivers could overload their trucks when stations were closed. I suggested this might cause damage to the highways that are built and maintained by taxes, thus stealing from taxpayers.

Soon I got a call from a lady in Missouri. She asked if I were the writer of the lesson. I admitted so. Then she began to berate me for defaming her truck driver husband! At first I offered some defense. I told her my example was an actual news story published in our state. I also told her I wasn’t criticizing all truck drivers, of course, since the report didn’t reveal how many drivers were in this group. I told her I was truly sorry she was offended, and I was sure her husband was a man of integrity. But she wouldn’t be deterred. She was still seething when she ended the call.

This experience is as an example of someone whose mind was set in concrete and for whom an apology wasn’t effective. Very few of the interpersonal conflicts I’ve seen over the years are like this. I can remember only a handful of people as determined as she was not to be appeased. Most of the time people respond reasonably when we sincerely seek resolution.

A friend suggested to me that an apology needs only two sentences: “I’m sorry. It should not have happened.” Period. We inflame the situation when we add to this with “but you provoked me,” or “it wasn’t my fault.”

Getting along with others isn’t a goal we magically achieve one day. It’s a life-long learning process, and a Christian imperative.

Where Is God When It Hurts?

The ancient patriarch Job felt alone in his suffering. He said, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! (Job 23: 2).

I’ve heard people echo Job’s lament over the years. “Where is God when I need him?” or “God doesn’t hear my prayers!” or “What did I do to deserve this?” We’re human and forsakenness is a common emotion in our humanity. “Nobody knows the sorrow I’ve seen,” the old spiritual says.

But we find an interesting take from apologist C. S. Lewis. He knew loss when his wife, Joy, died of cancer. In “A Grief Observed,” he wrote about his sorrow and his questioning of God. But he came to trust God once again and wrote some tantalizing words about pain: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

The sufferings of life get our attention and make us see we’re not self-sufficient. We often feel so when things are going our way--when there’s health and money and all the attendant pleasures of life. But when we lose any of these things we’re reminded of our humanity and vulnerability to loss.

The apostle Paul knew pain as well. He called it a “thorn” in his body, but never explained what it was. My favorite theory is the stoning he received in Lystra where he was dragged out of the city and left for dead. Without emergency medical treatment we’re accustomed to, I can imagine he had internal organ damage and broken bones that never completely healed. Whatever his pain he cried out to God for its removal. It wasn’t removed, but he did get something from God: the promise of God’s presence and the promise of God’s grace.

This is why many faithful saints became so through suffering. Many of our hymn-writers wrote from personal pain, but also from the comfort they found in partnership with God. I’ve known many senior saints over the years who’ve wrestled with pain, but who, nonetheless, have developed an unshakeable confidence in the goodness of the Lord.

Scripture asserts that no one of us is truly forsaken despite our feelings that we are. The psalm writer said, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

Some of our pain is explicable, for we make bad choices. But some is inexplicable this side of heaven. We’re promised an accounting one day. Until then, we’re exhorted to trust in the goodness of God and his ultimate plan of fulfillment in our lives.

The Grandparents' Lament

Our six-year-old grandson wanted us to take him to see the Grinch movie on Friday, and he spent the night afterwards. The rain on Friday stacked my weekend workload, so I needed to rake leaves and wax a car on Saturday before winter sets in. However, I only got the leaves in the front yard because Sims wanted me to play soccer with him. An old man shouldn’t play soccer, but it was fun. The stiffness I felt the next day was a reminder that this was a better choice of Saturday projects.

Then I began to feel what might be called “the grandparents’ lament.” Grandparents take time to sit in the floor and play with toy cars, read books or play soccer in the back yard. When we’re parents we often don’t do this as much. Why? There’s always the pressure of work—climbing the corporate ladder—and feeling we must do more than anyone else at the company.

A friend once pointed out another anomaly; more years at the company bring more vacation days, but we need the vacation days when our children are at home, not when they’re grown!

A pastor I know was wiser than me. He arranged with his church that his work would entail morning and evening. He went home in the middle of the day, picked his daughters up from school and helped them with their homework since his wife’s work schedule was more rigid. Now in his 80s, his relationship with his daughters is exemplary, unlike some pastor families I’ve known.

Another man told me about a running argument with his wife when their children were small. She wanted a showplace yard, but there were bare spots with no grass where the children played.

“I can always grow grass,” he told her, “but I can’t always grow children.”

I suppose every parent looks back with some regret wishing we’d not become exorcised over things that in retrospect look trivial or stayed at the office longer than needed. We’d be better parents if we could go back and try again. But we can’t turn back the hands of the clock. What we can do is gently teach our children to learn from our mistakes. And we can spend time with our grandchildren, let them know they’re loved and guide them to faith in God.

A young person professed faith recently. She told me she’d been reading her Bible and began to think about becoming a Christian. And she said her Bible was a gift from her grandmother.

We boomers can’t do much about our past misjudgments, but we can ask God in our senior years to make us loving encouragers to others.