Note from CM: I wrote this post in 2013. I don’t recall off the top of my head what prompted it, but I do know why it speaks to me today.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, indeed as it continues to surge here in the U.S. without any signs of abating, I have never felt so unsure of the future as I do now. I find myself increasingly bored, depressed, and anxious. I feel an unrelenting sense of anger at those not taking matters seriously, along with despair regarding political “leadership” that seems intent on engendering our own self-destruction, and utter helplessness knowing there is nowhere to escape, nothing to do but wait and hope for something to change.
And then I feel guilty. Oh God, how many people have felt this way in much more dire circumstances over centuries, without ever enjoying even a small percentage of the freedoms and blessings I enjoy!
But it doesn’t stop the aching fear.
• • •
Hello. My name is Mike, and I am afraid.
I am afraid of life, and I am afraid of life’s end. I am afraid of being alone, and I am afraid of being with people. I am afraid of hatred and I am afraid of love. Truth and beauty frighten me even as I delight in them. I especially fear pain, loss, unbearable sorrow, and death itself.
It has taken me years to realize how afraid I am, and I’m sure I still don’t know.
I do not always feel this fear, mind you. It is not as though I am consciously obsessed with it or paralyzed by it.
But the fear is there and I know it. Every once in awhile, it pokes its head around the corner and startles me.
I fear my past. There is a reason the psalmist prayed, “Remember not the sins of my youth.” At certain moments, mine haunt me, even though I believe I am forgiven in Christ. I am not afraid of God’s judgment, but I do fear the corrosive effects of regret, guilt feelings, and unprofitable preoccupations.
And then, here I am, six decades and more into my life, and I am still afraid I will disappoint my parents.
The older I get, the more I see that I have an interpretation of my life. It is generally favorable and approving, but my own understanding is limited and skewed. Occasionally, one of my children or an old friend or even a stranger makes a comment that opens my eyes. They see me differently. They have an interpretation too, and it is not always as flattering as my own. I fear my mirror lies. I fear I may be looking at a stranger when I think I am seeing someone I know deeply.
I fear things present. I fear the beautiful and terrible things of life. My current vocation finds me in companionship with those who are dying. I have learned that life surprises, and not always in happy ways. I have shaken my head and said, “I wish I had answers, but I don’t” more times than I can count.
I fear chaos. Crippling accidents. Losing a job. Making bad, life-altering decisions. Being the chance victim of crime. The death of a child. Missing opportunities to love. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hearing that most unwanted diagnosis. Speaking words I can never retrieve.
The profound beauty of life frightens me. The beloved ocean. The austere mountains. The night sky. Billions of light-years and space we cannot fathom, and an entire unseen quantum world besides. And I, a speck of dust — I fear absolute anonymity.
I have been able to fool myself for many years, having known so much good fortune. My health and that of my family has been extraordinarily good. We have never truly suffered material loss or devastating circumstances. In my saner moments I realize that there are storm clouds on the horizon and that the wind may blow them our way at any time.
As I visit with older folks, I hear the stories of veterans, and marvel that any of us have survived such human cruelty. I read the news and weep to know that the drumbeat of war goes on. I fear for my children and my children’s children.
I am realistic enough to know that every human being leaves this world with unfinished business. I am also foolish enough to imagine that I could be the first to buck the trend. But I won’t be, and the best I can hope for is that I can whittle my unfinished business pile down to something those who come after me will find manageable. Will I have time?
I don’t want to die. At least not for twenty or thirty more years. I don’t want to lose my parents or others I love. I’m afraid family members are going to ask me to officiate their funerals, and I’m afraid to say yes or no. It is a dreadful task to tell a life’s story, to attempt to summarize something so wondrous with words few and poor.
One of the things Michael Spencer wrote that drew me to him as a kindred spirit was his article, “Death, the Road that Must Be Traveled” —
Near number one on my list of things I don’t like about Christians is the suggestion I should have a happy and excited attitude about dying. “Uncle Joe got cancer and died in a month. Glory hallelujah. He’s in a better place and if you love the Lord that’s where you want to be right now. When the doctor says your time has come, you ought to shout praises to the Lord.” Or this one. “I’d rather be in heaven. Wouldn’t you? This earth is not my home. I’d rather be with Jesus and Mama and Peter and Abraham than spend one more day in this world of woe.”
Not me. Not by a long shot. I like this world of woe, and I really don’t want to leave it.
That’s why I love Michael. He wrote things that few other Christians have the honesty to say out loud. But then, Michael died. May he rest in the peace that knows no fear.
I am afraid of the kind of “faith” that won’t acknowledge fear. This is the reason I write at Internet Monk. I hope to honor Michael’s legacy by refusing to settle for the life-evading, truth-denying, Polyanna BS that too often gets passed off as “Christianity” in our day. No amount of shouting, “Perfect love casts out fear!” can change the fact that human beings live with the daily reality of being afraid. No triumphalist trumpeting of victory and “overcoming” can eradicate the gnawing anxiety that besets us all.
Yes, there is hope. Yes, Jesus has risen. Yes, in the end nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ. The reason I need these great and precious promises every day of my life is because every day has its fears. Accepting the Gospel does not inoculate me from being afraid. It helps me. It encourages me. It braces me. It does not eradicate my humanity.
Perhaps seminaries ought to require every person who wants to become a pastor or minister of the church to memorize and internalize the Book of Psalms. Here is the complex reality of the utterly human life of faith:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1)
Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. (Ps. 55:5)
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (Ps. 56:3)
If you are not afraid, I doubt if you are awake, or maybe even human. For all our talk of “conquering our fears,” we remain captives. Can we just admit it? Can we just be real? Can we just stop pretending we’re past that?
I am afraid that few will listen.
And then the end will come.