[Accompanying image is CC]
“The psalmist doesn’t try to explain evil. He doesn’t try to minimize evil. He simply says he will not fear evil. …When somebody takes your hand in the dark, you’re not afraid of the dark anymore.”
—Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark
As I write this essay in early September, I ride rapids of fear over a family situation. The threat of real evil and injustice that looms threateningly over many has telescoped in on someone I love, and it tests me. We all know the feeling. Off on the horizon of our view, in an unknown future, we catch glimpses of frightening potentialities, imagined experiences of loss, of people we care about in existential pain or deprivation, our own helplessness to attend to them because they are far away, our vulnerabilities amidst the situation. Questions around survival always looms large for me in these threatening times. My sense of abundance wilts, giving way to looming thoughts of scarcity. Though I am not generally an anxious person who conjures daily worry, my inner survivalist comes out in paratrooper garb when menacing uncertainty arises. She has been hanging around a bit. Fortunately, she isn’t a full-time tenant, and there are hours—even days—of relative calm. But not this morning. This morning I feel fear in the tautness of my chest; smell it in the acridness of my sweat; see it in my trembling hands and the nearness of tears.
It is such a wrestling match. Ninety-nine percent of me wants the uncertainly and threat to end as quickly as possible. A miniscule part of me recognizes the life of faith is made for times like this, and thus, they are inevitable. Not only inevitable, but extremely valuable. I am reminded of the Anne Lamott quote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” Faith grows strong and vital in these thickets of uncertainty. There is nothing clear or easy about the faith life. In fact, too much self-certainty and ease renders it pallid and emaciated. So you would think we would welcome trials. Bring on the growth opportunities! Yet few of us roll out the red carpet. Times of testing are just too hard.
At times like this I have great appreciation for the fist-in-the-air justice Psalms, like Psalm 5 (“Trust in God for Deliverance from Enemies”). “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing”—Listen to my cry! It is angry at the way power is misused. Against those who abuse their power, the Psalmist rails (vv.9-10 NRSV): “For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues. Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels.” This anger I feel in my veins.
I also take comfort in the image the Psalms provide of God as caretaker. For decades, the 23rd Psalm has been central to my prayer practice in times of struggle. The Lord is my shepherd[ess] … I shall not want… In the vision this conjures for me, God is an older Indigenous woman, an visual amalgam of a few friends of mine. This God leads me through danger, providing in every way. She is smiling and strong and comforting. In the Frederick Buechner quote above, he reflects on Psalm 23 and the phrase “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Evil is taken as a given; it is part of our life experience. And yet the Psalmist confidently proclaims, “I will fear no evil.” In my hundreds (thousands?) of repetitions of Psalm 23, I am less confident. I often soften the words to: “I need fear no evil.” Because the truth is, I fear. I don’t need to, yet I do.
In the 23rd Psalm, unlike many others, the writer takes no solace in vengeance and the false security of violence. They don’t ask God to smite those responsible for the evil, to torture them; they simply state “I will fear no evil.” I am not alone; you are with me. The confidence of the statement is challenging—an inspiring image of faith. Surely it is not a naïve faith that says everything is going to be as we would like. It says: no matter what happens, no matter how long the trek through the valley of the shadow of death, I will have the one thing I cannot live without. That is, union with the Great Spirit. And as long as that abiding, that connection remains, I won’t only survive, I will be well in my depths.
During a time of fear a couple of decades ago, a mentor asked me to name precisely what I was afraid of. He explained that sometimes we need to name what we fear, to look squarely at it. I’ve carried this practice with me ever since. It is helpful because sometimes our fears are clearly irrational. When we look at them squarely, we can see this, and we can let those dark fantasies dissipate into the ether because they don’t deserve our energy. I am afraid my daughter will join the circus and fall to her death from a flying trapeze. “Okay,” I can say, observing this alarming sort of daydream, “that is not going to happen. Move on.” On the other hand, sometimes the things we fear are real possibilities. The practice of naming them reveals that even the possibilities we fear will be survived. We will not be alone as we walk through them. Even if the worst happens, we will have what we need to get through, by the merciful, generous hand of the Divine. For example, the mother of a child with Stage 3 cancer might say: I’m afraid that my child will die. She says it out loud.
In these scary weeks, I have been doing this. I can name three possibilities that terrify me. They are real possibilities. And as I name them, I also know I would survive them. I would be okay. I would be accompanied as I have always been; I would be provided with the resources to make it, as I have always been. I don’t say this glibly. It is what I’ve learned.
Psalm 5 ends “But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you” (v.11). It is because of our experiences of being provided for that we have moments of peace even in crisis. The peace is existential, experiential. And the truth is, we must have experienced times of need in order to have experienced provision.
Even the right path sometimes leads through the valley of the shadow of death.