Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fears and Trembling

To paraphrase the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, “I am a man of fearful mind and I live I amongst a people of fearful mind.” That is not all I am but I'll admit to many bouts with fear over my nearly fifty years.

The first thing I remember fearing was a well-house that was attached to the back porch of the Michigan farmhouse my family lived in during my 4-5th year (1961-62). My grandmother’s grandparents established the farm after they moved there from upstate New York. We came to live there upon my parent’s return from their elopement to California.

[That is another story.]

My mother believed that the well house was unsafe and that I was important to her. So she painted a profoundly scary picture in my mind of what would happen to me if I ever went in there. The old boards that covered the shaft would give way when I stepped on them and down I would plummet into the cold dark water. Though I became instantly curious, I never ventured inside. The farm has since been sold so I will never know whether I had good reason to be afraid or not.

The Christian and Hebrew scriptures direct us to “fear the Lord and keep His commandments.” They also counsel, “fear not, for I [the LORD] shall be with you.” I think this is one way of saying that we live in a world of “good” and “bad” fears and that how we choose to respond will become our life.

Dealing with fear is not all there is to life, but it is a start.

In sixth grade I feared making a speech. In junior high I ran scared from a couple of bullies. In high school I feared failing to make Varsity in wrestling. In college I feared being turned down for a date. It is what I do with fear that makes the difference. I went ahead and made the speech. I survived the bully. I managed to wrestle varsity as a senior. I married the girl I dared to ask out.

Fear has sought to keep me in small places and away from the adventure that makes life worth living. Fear has also kept me out of unnecessary danger and suffering. Example -- I credit the healthy fear I had of my mother when she discovered me staying up to watch TV and smoking a cigarette I had sneaked from her purse.

I believe that understanding this difference is important to arriving at a more mature faith. I also believe that there is a fate worse than falling into a well.

What have you learned from your fears?

Russ Jarvis

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Death Defying

On a sunny morning during fifth grade, I was walking up my street to the bus stop at the top of the hill. Out of nowhere eight pounds of white short-haired dog appeared, bouncing along on short legs that carried its round belly only a few inches above the gravel. His smallish ears pricked forward as he approached me and when his doggie mouth turned up in a smile, I bent down and petted him. His tail wagged quickly back and forth and his lips curled up in a broader smile. He had a black spot between his ears and I scratched him there as a final gesture of goodwill. A quiver of delight passed through his little body. A similar pleasure passed through my young soul as I believe God smiled over two of His creatures who took the time to make a connection. It was right, decent, and good. I remember it as a holy moment in my young life.

The other kids were already at the bus stop. The sound of the approaching school bus rose from beyond the houses behind me. I stood up and started off into the rest of my day and life.

A narrow shoulder marked the border between the pavement of the street and the yards. There was no sidewalk in those days. With a sixty-six passenger bus barreling up the street, I continued up the hill walking along the grass. The little dog paced me to my left where the pavement met the shoulder, oblivious to everything beyond the moment. Behind us, I heard the bus gear down and gun its engine for the climb to the top of the hill.

I was looking right at the dog when the bus caught up to us. Its right rear tire caught the dog as it drove through the curve. I remember it in slow motion as his little body rolled beneath the wheel. He bounced and then lay still.

My world went gray as I took in the awfulness of what had happened. He had just let me pet him!

The bus continued up the hill, its engine roaring until it reached the stop and turned on its flasher. The neighborhood kids started getting on as I stood over the body of the little dog. I felt something rise in me that I had never felt before. I knew in my core that this was not the way things were supposed to be.

I ran up the hill toward the bus. My fury gave me plenty of air to shout at the driver. “You just ran over that dog! Didn’t you see him? He’s dead!”

Forty years have passed since that day and I know that the innocent animal was in the right place at the wrong time. Nor was the bus driver evil. He was just a man with a job to do and a family to feed. He could do nothing about what happened except to look in the rear view mirror and then turn to me and say, “I’m sorry, Rusty. I didn’t see it in time.”
Since then I’ve lost loved ones and presided at more funerals then I can count. I know that it is necessary to comfort the grieving. I know that there are essentials things I have to learn by means of suffering. But that doesn’t mean I have to lose my ability to become positively angry over what death does.

I think this is something of what went on inside of Jesus as he imagined the cold body of his friend Lazarus (John 11:34-35). Jesus had no patience for the idea that death is “just a part of life.” He had stayed at Lazarus’s house just a few weeks before! He wouldn’t allow this death to stand.
He wept as he confronted death. “Lazarus! Come forth!” he commanded and his friend lived again.

My confidence as a Christian is that the day will dawn when this intruder and enemy is put down with a shout as Christ raises all of His people up (I Thessalonians 4:16-17). Because of that, I live my life in defiance of the physical death I inherited from Adam. I will protect my hope because I need it to care:
for my family, for friends, for animals, and for stories. I will keep my faith focused on the One who won the victory.

And on that glad morning, I believe that a little eight pound short-haired dog will smile at me and I will scratch him between the ears.

Monday, October 1, 2007

First Encounter

My first conscious encounter with God happened at a carnival.

It was late afternoon in 1967 when our car entered the parking area. I could see the towers of the midway rising above the fencing. I envisioned myself riding the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Scrambler. I already smelled the popcorn and could taste the cotton candy. I was ready for a great evening under the lights.

A variety of “side shows” stood next to the midway. Garish posters invited me to spend money to see “The Bearded Lady,” the “Siamese Twins,” or “The Man of 1000 Piercings.” I was curious, but not so much that I would risk encountering what lay behind the curtain. What if I paid my quarter and it was a joke? Or what if it was frighteningly real? I opted for another turn on the Dodge’em Cars.

I was working through my second corndog when my mother and sister met me next to the "Ring Toss" game. They led me to a tent at the end of the row of sideshows. A Christian group was holding services there. It was free and the next service was in five minutes. They were going and wanted to know if I wanted to.

Our family had never gone to church and I could not figure out why Mom wanted to do this. I began to feel something and it was not the excitement of the roller coaster or the pleasure of a funnel cake as I stared at the entrance to the “Jesus tent” -- a flap of canvas that was pulled aside exposing a black hole leading to something strange and unknown within. It seemed as threatening as an alien world to my nine-year-old way of life.

I knew that if I acted scared, they would ask me what was the matter. “Nah,” I said nonchalantly, “I don’t want to go.” They accepted my refusal and did not pressure me. When I met them thirty minutes later they were smiling. They told me there had been some music and someone had told a story from the Bible. My sister showed me a write/erase board they gave her at the end. The church’s name was embossed across the top.

My nine-year-old response to the presence of God was appropriate, given what I did not know then. Now it is forty years later and the main thing I have learned is that I have nothing to fear in the “Jesus tent.” To this day, God has not pulled a “bait and switch” on me. Nor has God’s holiness been too much to bear. At this point in life all I want to do is to take God more and more honestly.

In a culture where 2/3rds of us do not attend church but nine out of ten of us still believe in God there are a lot of mistaken assumptions about spiritual/religious matters. These assumptions can separate people from the life God intends. One of the people who knew Jesus personally was a man named John the son of Zebedee. His counsel stands true over 20 centuries: “Perfect love drives out all fear.” Fear is what keeps so many of us ignorant of the roller coaster and the Ferris Wheel. It kept me out of the “Jesus tent” for too long. But God believed enough in what He had to offer me that He arranged another time and place.

Maybe today is the day when God’s carnival will set up again in your town.
Do you smell popcorn?