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God's Promises That Keep Us
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNO FEAR OF THE DARK
The Lord is my light and my salvation; / whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1)
If you visit me in my seminary office, you will find a wall hanging with this centuries-old English prayer:
From Ghoulies and Ghosties and Long Leggity Beasties and other things that go Bump in the night Good Lord—Deliver us.
I like that! The quaint language makes me smile, even as I try to capture more fully the pictures it evokes. I don't give much thought to ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, but I think I understand those who did—and those who do. The ancient soul who wrote that prayer was afraid of the dark and of whatever creatures might inhabit the dark. And so it is with us all, at one time or another in our lives, especially when we extend the meaning of the "dark" to those aspects of our future that are unknown—and by that very token, threatening. We may describe our fears in different, and by our judgment more sophisticated, language than that used by the unknown medieval soul. One of the gifts of modern psychology is that it gives us pseudonyms for what our ancestors described in mystical or superstitious terms. But the fear is there—the fear of the dark. And all of us sometimes have to walk in the dark. Every one of us.
So it is that I love the testimony of an ancient saint. I want to claim the promise of that testimony for my life and for yours, just as others have for several thousand years:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1)
If your Bible carries notations over the psalms, it classifies this psalm as one of the many attributed specifically to King David, the sweet singer of Israel. If that tradition be true—a conclusion I am happy to accept—it is easy to imagine a long list of instances when David might have spoken these words. Indeed, I suspect that he spoke them not once but many times over the long and varied years of his life, perhaps beginning as a shepherd boy protecting his flock against a wild beast and continuing to a day in old age when he looked back on some of the errors of his life with the kind of shudder that only the past can evoke.
Some of the psalms tell us the circumstances under which the psalm was written. This one leaves that question to our imagination. The psalm offers us enough details, however, that we can imagine David in a variety of dark and threatening places. One thinks naturally of David the military man, a warrior in the storied traditions of the past, since in the psalm he speaks of enemies and foes that have threatened "to devour my flesh" (27:2). Was he recalling the day he challenged the giant Goliath, who boasted, "Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field" (1 Samuel 17:44)? Or might the words in Psalm 27:1 refer to those occasions when David was fleeing from the armies of King Saul, compelled repeatedly to hide in wilderness caves? Or perhaps that even darker night (conceivably the worst of all) many years later when David was pursued by the armies led by his own son Absalom, who had mounted a revolt against him? The words of this psalm—"Though an army encamp against me, / my heart shall not fear" (27:3)—would fit any of those occasions.
Whatever the specifics, this psalm comes from someone who was familiar with peril. One can almost hear the sword and shield crashing beneath the rhythm of the psalmist's words. And remember this too: whatever the circumstances when first these words were recorded, this is a song to be sung on life's battlefield. It is not the product of a scholar's research in the library or a dilettante's parlor, nor did it come from a philosophical discussion group. A host has encamped around this soul or is likely to do so at any moment; war has been declared on the writer and he sees no avenue of escape, before or behind, left or right. Yet in such an hour he knows this: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; / whom shall I fear?"
But as all of us know, there are battlefields of life beyond those of armed conflict—and indeed, there are weapons of destruction beyond those issued by military headquarters. We have become increasingly conscious of this fact as we converse with persons who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan or other areas of conflict, or as we read studies of their experiences. Thousands of modern Davids have discovered that they must cope with worse enemies after they return from the battlefield than ever they met in armed conflict. On the battlefield they had defense weapons of their own, and the enemy was human and perhaps visible. But these enemies that come now in the middle of the night or in the sound of an errant automobile or a playful firecracker—for these a defense is hard to find because the enemy is so difficult to conceive and confront: the enemy called fear.
And there are human enemies off the military battlefield. David spoke of such: "False witnesses have risen against me" (27:12). Life has few battles worse than when people tell lies about us—or indeed, tell unwelcome truth in the hope of discrediting us, for sometimes the truth, too, can destroy unless it is dealt with mercy. And when the witnesses, as in the psalmist's story, are false, there seems no means of defense; we enter the battle with hands tied at our backs.
As we read between the lines on this psalm, we sense that David may have been wrestling with still another kind of darkness. When he pleads, "Do not turn your servant away in anger, / you who have been my help. / Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, / O God of my salvation" (27:9), we realize that David is faced by a common spiritual problem: just when he needs God the most, he thinks that perhaps God has turned against him. This is a quite natural reaction to hard times. We are susceptible to the suggestion that God must be unhappy with us, else why would we be in such a bad state? We think that the darkness is a result of our sins or our bad judgment.
And in truth, it is highly possible that the mess we're in is, indeed, our own fault. It may be that we're in the dark because, so to speak, we've turned out the lights. But even if our troubles are of our own doing, and even if we have complicated our problems by our attitude toward the God who would help us, this is no reason to think that God has forsaken us or is inclined unfavorably toward us. Fortunately, there is grace with God. Light and salvation: these are the very nature of God. We need therefore to set our eyes on God's nature rather than on our own errant ways. Mind you, we need to face up to ourselves and to repent. But we need then to move on into a healthy recognition that God is on our side and is more prepared to help us than we are to receive help.
Roughly a generation ago Edinburgh University's distinguished psychologist G. M. Carstairs addressed a meeting of the National Association of Mental Health in London. He declared that fear was the great threat to mental health in his generation. I'm quite sure the psychologist's diagnosis would not have changed for this twenty-first century. I don't like to speculate on comparative conditions from one generation to the next, but I suspect that the power of fear is, if anything, even more present now than a generation ago. Perhaps this is because we continue to read of remedies and hopeful prospects only to discover that these remedies have been oversold or that if they have succeeded, somehow our maladies have become more complicated so that the miracle remedies no longer work. We are free from the Black Plague of the Middle Ages, but each autumn we wonder what new strain of flu will appear, quite out of nowhere it seems, and with the specter of being beyond current cures. Not many of us worry about ghoulies and ghosties, but we discover that we have fears of our own and that they are just as frightening as anything our ancestors knew.
And for some the night is so long. That brilliant but tortured soul, the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote, "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning." If the dark could be restricted to certain hours, if one could be assured that when daybreak comes the darkness will disappear, the darkness could be endured. But if it is as Fitzgerald experienced it, so that it is always three o'clock in the morning, what then? What if even when you're walking in the glory of midday sun the darkness is still impenetrable: what then?
It is then that we need God's promise, the promise spelled out for us by the ancient poet. "The Lord is my light!" You and I need a light that has nothing to do with the hour on the clock and indeed nothing to do with the power supplies of our best human contraptions. Because, as you know, the elements of darkness that are most powerful are quite beyond any electrical system. A flashlight would have lit up David's cave better than his flickering lamp, but the flashlight would also have raised larger areas of shadow. Our knowledge expands our defenses and at the same moment magnifies our perils.
So we need God's light. Sometimes the light reveals that there was no actuality in the darkness. The squeak in the floor that we thought was doom creeping toward us proves in the light to have been nothing more than the normal settling in of floor joists. That physical symptom that we thought would have a "three months to live" diagnosis proves in the light of the doctor's examination to be "a routine thing. No problem at all." So often the light reveals that the darkness wasn't real—or at least that it wasn't permanent.
But what if the light falls on some dark corner where we find there really is a long-leggity beastie? Suppose the light reveals that the problem is not imaginary but very real and very big. Suppose the doctor's examination carries with it a quiet shaking of the head, or the response to your employment application is a form letter of rejection. Then what? I think of a cartoon: a man in an optometrist's office is appealing to the examiner, "I'd like to see things a little less clearly, please." Some of us have known times like that. What if the clear light—the light of the Lord, indeed!—reveals things we'd rather not see?
The promise of the scripture is as good as ever. It is not the circumstance that matters but the light and the salvation. It strikes me that the psalmist never really said that God took away the threat. Rather, God blessed this ancient believer with faith that conquered the fear. The light of God puts our problems in perspective. The divine light takes our problems out of the realm of human speculation—which tends so easily to be negative even to the point of foolishness—and brings them into the diminishing setting of reality. They are problems, yes, but they are not disasters. They are issues to be met, not forces to which we must surrender.
I would not be worthy of your time if I denied the reality of some of our long-leggity beasties. Life has its trials and its sorrows, its low places and its heartbreaks, its betrayals and its shattering disappointments. None of us can ever escape them all. But we need not fear them—not if the Lord is our light and our salvation. In his light we will be delivered from the fear of the dark, from the unreasoning and irrational fear that paralyzes our power to stand up and fight. And by God's salvation we are led through conquest into triumph. God not only sheds light on our path so that we can see things for what they are and can recognize that the ghosties are only shadows of a harmless twig, God also empowers us to deal with the realities and to win. When the enemy is real, God's light puts the enemy in perspective so we can see that our divine resources are greater than any trouble we encounter.
And how does God deliver our salvation? The possibilities range from the sublime to the absurd. Most often the salvation comes through people—sometimes people who we knew were on our side but just as often, I think, through people who are surprise aides. I remember a member of my parish who lost a deeply cherished wife, the kind of person who provided more daily sustenance than her husband knew until she was gone and the sustenance with her. We counseled on several occasions, and I prayed for him often, both in his presence and in my personal prayer times.
He told me a year or two later that the prayers hadn't really helped. Nothing helped until a new friend came into his life, he said—not a person he would marry, but one who provided companionship and a daily telephone call. This was what helped him, he said, when prayer had failed to do so.
I marvel still at my dullness of spirit that I failed to explain to my friend that more often than not the person who makes the difference is the answer to our prayers. God works almost always—preferably, I think—through human agents. What the man needed was not a thunderbolt from heaven, not necessarily a mystical experience: he needed a substitute for what he had lost, a human presence. I failed to explain the obvious to my friend, that God so often delivers salvation through human beings.
And as I said a moment ago, the means of salvation can be from sublime to absurd. The Old Testament book of Numbers tells of a day when a donkey gave counsel to a high-priced consultant (Numbers 22:22-35). Many homes for persons under long-term care report that a visit from a trained, wonderfully compassionate dog carries emotional healing. Some in a dark night recall a song, long-forgotten, that becomes angel music for that moment. Others recall a phrase a mother or a grandfather used to speak. And often—perhaps every time the sacred Meal is celebrated—people find divine intervention as they receive Holy Communion. Believe me, the carriers of salvation are as varied as the circumstances that demand them.
I love the vigor with which that long-ago poet declared his faith. There's a grand kind of divine audacity in the way most translations give us this verse: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; / whom shall I fear?" I like that rhetorical question. I see the believer standing on his or her little plot of faith and throwing a challenge into the teeth of the universe. It's as if the writer is saying to some unknown opponent, "List those things that I should fear. Give me your worst catalog of terror if you will. Which one do you think will frighten me?"
And I remember then stories from people I have known, real people in real trouble. There was this alcoholic who for so long dreaded every social engagement where he would have to struggle to say no to the offer of a drink—until one day he got the infusion of divine self-confidence that made him smile at his own former insecurity. I think of a woman who always lost heart when circumstances took a particular turn. Then she grasped that the Lord was her light and salvation, so that when those circumstances went bump in the night she could accept the bumping as a drum beat of triumph.
Obviously I can't know what is in your mind in those hours—the three-o'clock-in-the-morning hours that can come at any time of the day or night—when the long-leggity beasties pursue you. But this I do know, by personal experience and by the thousands of witnesses who have come my way: there is light and there is salvation, for you and for me, in God. You can say with the poet of so long ago, "I will fear no one." It's a promise that will keep you.
Excerpted from God's Promises That Keep Us by J. Ellsworth Kalas Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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