This 1928 Prayer Book that I use during the Mass was my father’s. He received it when he was confirmed in 1935. He was born and raised in the small town of Monroe in Upper State New York Sate. (In terms of importance to me, Monroe ranks right next to the holy city of Jerusalem because it is also the birthplace of Velveeta Cheese).
My father grew up during the Great Depression and joined the Navy at 17 when the US entered World War II. He had only a high school education but he was a very smart man and he rose through the ranks to Lt. Commander. After retiring from the Navy he earned a college degree and started a small business. It was difficult watching him age and become frail because he was quite the jock growing up. I had the privilege of being with him when he died. I administered last rites to him. A day or so before he died he looked me square in the eye and said, “Ray, I’m not afraid to die.” And he said it with such calm conviction that I absolutely knew that he was speaking the truth. His death was a gentle passing. That experience made me wonder if I would be able to say the same thing about fear when it was my time to go.
King David was of the same mindset as my father according to today’s Psalm. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil….” That is significant because David wasn’t just waxing poetic. From fighting lions and bears as a shepherd, to slaying Goliath, to being hunted by Saul, to the rebellion of his son, to the many battles that he fought, David had multiple opportunities to be afraid. And yet he was fearless when facing death.
This presents us with a question. How do we come to a place where fear is not ruling our lives? Of course given the time that we are living in, that is a purely theoretical question, but let’s ask it anyway. The other day I was reading the alternate Old Testament lesson from last week, which was a portion of Isaiah 43, and some points jumped off of the page that provide us with some answers.
Verse one says, “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” So the first point is this; Do not fear because you are the Lord’s possession. And that really is the major point of Psalm 23. You may have heard the story of a little boy who has memorized Psalm 23 in Vacation Bible School and was chosen to recite it on the final day before parents and visitors. He stood and said, “The Lord is my shepherd…” and then he froze, his mind went blank. His VBS teacher encouraged him to try again. “The Lord is my shepherd…..” Nothing. She said, “Try one more time.” “The Lord is my shepherd….and that’s all I need to know.” And truly that is all we do need to know. When fear shows up don’t try to battle it head on, look to your Shepherd. As He tells us that as a Good Shepherd He will lay down His life for us so what will He not do for His flock? Do not be afraid, you are the Lord’s possession.
Verse 2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.” Point two is this; Do not fear because you are always in His presence. The LORD say, “I will be with you.” Jesus added, “And I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
This point is where I frequently need my perspective adjusted. A wrong expectation that slips its way into my thinking is that if He truly loves me then there would be no waters or rivers of fire to pass through. But God does not promise that does He? What He promises is that He will be with us. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” Why? “because Thou art with me.”
Years ago I was trying to catch a flight out of Atlanta. It was supposed to leave at 11am but we were notified that our plane was delayed because it was snowed in at Chicago. The delay ended up being over 11 hours. What they did not tell us was that our plane would not be able to leave Chicago, so rather than canceling the flight they worked all day repairing a grounded plane in Atlanta. Finally as we were nearing midnight we boarded. As we lifted off and were banking out of Atlanta, the engine on my side of the plane exploded and sent fire the length of the entire fuselage. Because it was so dark the flames were particularly dramatic and foreboding. Chaos broke out. People were screaming, the old man across the aisle from me wet himself and the flight attendants were all crying. If I told you that at that moment I was not afraid I would be lying. But to my surprise I was not frozen in terror. Instead I began to pray and I prayed and prayed and prayed. Much to my chagrin I had a good amount of time to pray because the airplane had to circle Atlanta to dump most of its fuel before we could make an emergency landing. I remember praying for the pilot’s math so that he wouldn’t dump too much fuel because two weeks earlier a pilot had made that error in California and they dropped in the drink. When we finally landed the crew took over a red eye flight to the West Coast and offered it to us but about half of the people refused to get on another plane. Now again I would be lying if I said that I was not afraid but I believe that I was not panicked because the Lord was present with me. I believe He is the One who gave me the grace to pray when my natural reaction would have been to be in fetal position under the seat in front of me.
But what do we do about the times when we are passing through the river or fire or valley and we don’t feel His presence. What do we do then? We trust that He is there nonetheless because He said that He would be. As one teacher put it, “We are already in the presence of God, what is absent is awareness.” You may remember a poem from a few years ago called “Footsteps.” It’s about a guy looking over his life and seeing two sets of footsteps in the sand, one set his and one set the Lord’s. But then he asks about the times that he only sees one set of footsteps and the Lord says, “That was when I was carrying you.” The poem was repeated so many times that it became a little trite but it remains so true. I can definitely look back at my life and see many, many times that He was carrying me and I don’t know that I would be here today if He hadn’t done so. So do not be afraid, you are in His presence.
Verse 4 says “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.” We know now that this prophecy was ultimately fulfilled when He gave the Son of Man in exchange for our lives. Therefore point three is this; Do not be afraid because you are precious in the sight of God.
For some that can be a hard concept to wrap our minds around. “Me? Precious to God?” I don’t really know why but as I was growing up, and would think about God, my first thought was that He was disappointed in me. I imagined Him sitting with a big book in His lap and marking down every time I messed up. And because that was so often I could see Him shaking His head at me in disapproval. That misconception of God was deep within me, most of the time on an unconscious level, but it was there. When someone from Campus Crusade said to me, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” my immediate reaction was “Really?” rather than “Of Course!” It turned out that He does love me and He did have a wonderful plan for my life but I wasn’t convinced of that then.
What started to break down this terrible misconception about our Lord was an experience that I had one morning during a daily devotion. I was reading through the Bible and was in the prophet Zephaniah. (Look it up, there really is such a book). I read these words. “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” I was blown away. It hit me like a revelation. Instead of being disappointed with me and shaking His head, when God sees me He breaks out in song. What? That is what the text says. “He will exult over you with loud singing.” Not just singing but LOUD singing. What a concept!
If you find it difficult to believe that you are precious in God’s sight then I want to encourage you to do three things. First if you are not regularly reading through the Scriptures then add that discipline to your life. This is important for several reasons. You have some powerful forces warring against you. They are called the world, the flesh and the devil and the last thing that they want is for you to be convinced that you are loved by God. You need a defense against their influence. St. Paul says in Ephesians we are to “take up the shield of faith, with which you are able to extinguish the flaming darts of the evil one.” How do we get this shield of faith? St. Paul tells us in Romans. “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.”
A second reason that regular reading of Scripture is so important is because our world is filled with mental and spiritual pollutants. This pollution comes to us all day every day through multimedia, the internet, the printed word and talk around the water cooler. The pollution comes to us in the form of distortions, half-truths, gossip, propaganda, and outright lies. In Ephesians St. Paul speaks of Christ’s love for the Church and how He sanctifies her “having cleansed her by the washing of the water with the word.” Daily Bible reading therefore is like a daily shower only instead of cleansing your body it cleanses your heart and your mind.
A third reason for the disciplined reading of Scripture is it becomes the hammer that breaks your chains. We become enslaved when we are not walking in the truth. I was enslaved by the misconception of God that I just spoke about. I was imprisoned by a lie. Jesus said it is the truth that sets us free and so the more we expose ourselves to Scripture, the more truth fills our lives and the freer we become. So read your Bibles. Doing so in the context of the Daily Office of the Prayer Book is a great start for us as Anglicans.
The second thing I would suggest is take every opportunity when we offer classes that are about or developed from the four pillars. I am not sure yet when we will be able to offer classes again. It may not be until the fall. Time will tell. But these four pillars of Sacramental Living, Joyful Discipleship, Radical Love and Gracious Evangelism are grounded in Christ and they will establish you in His love.
The third thing that I would highly recommend is that you read about anything that you can get your hands on by Brennan Manning. He was a very broken servant of God but boy howdy did he get the Good News. One of my favorite quotes of his, that is a goal for me, is this. “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to deserve it.” That is about as solid as “The Lord is my shepherd and that is all I need to know.”
How do you conquer fear? You do so by knowing that you are His possession, that you are always in His presence, and that you are precious in His sight. If you can get those truths planted deep into your heart then you will be able to say with St. Paul, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Amen.