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? - Psalm 27:1
When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark. I had a big imagination that would get the best of me, usually in the dark of night. I slept with the light on every night so that I could see clearly that nothing was lurking around in my room, waiting to get me. I made sure I never put my arms over the side of the bed, in case someone or something (like snakes) would grab my hand and pull me under there with them. I hated being alone because I just felt safer with those I loved and trusted around me, plus having someone to talk to made it easier to shove my fears to the side. I continued having some of these fears even into my young adult life, although I stopped having the light on sometime in my teens. When my boys were babies, my husband worked an all-night shift. I would start feeling anxious as soon as he left and sometimes, I would be awake most of the night, moving from one window to the next, checking all the locks, looking outside to see if any shadows looked suspicious. I’m pretty sure I had watched too much Alfred Hitchcock and Twilight Zone TV shows because the scariest ones would come to mind at night when I was alone – even after I was grown.
I’m telling you this so you can get an idea of how much courage it took for me to take myself on personal, private retreats. I started doing it when I was in seminary after a spiritual retreat I had gone on with other students. There we were encouraged to practice the discipline of finding that quiet place to pray and reflect and that we go there regularly, but then, occasionally go somewhere away for a day or two – or more. Alone. Just me, God and my Bible and journal. I thought it was a great idea so I began finding places to reserve for my alone time with God.
Many of the places I found were in a Catholic Sisters convent where they had rooms set aside for the very thing I was desiring. The single rooms were small and very simple: there was a single bed, a desk, a Bible, and always a window that looked out over a calm and peaceful scene. I could join the Sisters in the dining room, if I wanted to, and could visit with them or choose to remain silent. They were always very welcoming and showed great hospitality. It did not take a lot of courage to stay there because I knew I was surrounded by friendly, godly people.
When we moved to Michigan I began searching for a similar place for my retreats and I found a wonderful home that is owned by the Dominican Sisters in a nearby town. The entire house was used just for retreats – with groups or individuals. The house had a full basement with a door going outside. There were 5 bedrooms and 4 ½ bathrooms. There was a sliding door that went out into a sunroom and a deck that overlooked a beautiful lake. The first time I went, I was alone and was greeted by Sister Martina. I was very excited about my private retreat because it had been quite a while since I’d gone. But after Sister Martina left, I began to have that uneasy feeling in my stomach. I started asking myself why? Why do you do this to yourself? What purpose is there in going to a strange place for several days and being all alone? What if someone comes in from the basement or one of the upstairs doors? What if someone is already hiding in the basement or a closet – just waiting for the dark of night?
I bravely decided to check everything out right then. If someone was going to get me, we might as well get it over with. I opened every closet door, went down to the basement and looked in every corner, checked the lock on the door, then I went back upstairs and checked windows (some were not locked and one would not lock!) At bedtime, I checked everything again and got in bed and prayed – prayed a lot! Leaning on the Holy Spirit to calm my fears and keep me safe took all my focus but it was good and as the days went by, I began to relax and was able to give my full attention to the purpose for being there. I came home feeling renewed in my relationship with Christ.
Now, before you judge me as a complete psycho, let me just say that I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has similar fears but who manage to rise above those fears and do the thing they believe the Spirit is calling them to do. I’ve been reading about the Israelites who had been slaves for hundreds of years in Egypt before God finally rescued them, led by Moses, through the parted sea and into the wilderness. They had seen miraculous things that God had done to get them safely away from their captors, yet still they were afraid in the wilderness; they complained about everything, at every turn along the way. They hated change and sometimes said they wished they were back in Egypt being oppressed – that was better than the fear of the unknown. They remained in the wilderness for 40 years before finally getting to the land that God had promised them.
Why do you think it took so long? Here we read of God being determined to get the Israelites (his chosen people) out of the slavery and cruelty that been such a burden, yet they didn’t see the Promised Land for 40 years! Some of them never did get to see it.
In that wilderness time, we read (in Exodus) where God gives them the 10 Commandments – his rules to live a good life. We see how God disciplines them when they were disobedient and we find the amazing details for building the tabernacle and the intricate design of every single thing to be placed there. We hear over and over how important it is to take a Sabbath day to rest and to worship God. We see how much God wants worship and praise. In that wilderness time, God is shaping the people into his own – a Covenant people who would learn to trust God in all things and who would begin to be the reflection of the glory of God for others to see. God promised to be with them at all times, to guide them on their way.
Do you have a quiet, wild and wonderful wilderness place you take yourself to? Is it a challenge for you to be quiet with your own thoughts, to face fears and trust the Spirit? Some people can’t enjoy even a day alone at home without the noise of television or music. Sometimes facing our own thoughts, or taking a good look at who we are, can be as terrifying as any imagined spooks of the night. And so, we fill our days with noise and other people, determined to keep those fears away.
For me, using the wilderness theme in Lent is perfect. The wilderness can be scary at times: there are wild animals there. And snakes. If it’s a desert wilderness it can very dry and we can’t quench our thirst enough or find a shady, cool spot to sit in. If it is a mountainous wilderness, we can easily feel disoriented and lost. We could even freeze over night as it usually gets very cold in the mountains.
In the vastness of the wilderness, we feel very small. If we are there alone it is a great challenge to not give in to our fears and to trust God to be with us and to take care of us. But that is the purpose of the Lenten wilderness. Like the Israelites, we are being shaped into a more trusting child of God. We have the more focused opportunity to get to know him and love him more. We are learning to allow him to dispel our fears and replace those fears with peace. In the wilderness, there is only God to turn to.
Have you gone to the wilderness yet? If so, what have you discovered – about God? About yourself?
If you haven’t gone, have you reflected on why? What is the reason? John 1 says that in Christ Jesus, God himself came to live among us so that we would come to know him and learn from him. Jesus went to the wilderness often to pray and to reflect. In the wilderness he was tempted as we are and although his body became weak from fasting, his spirit remained faithful to not give in to temptation. Jesus had fears like us. The night he was arrested the bible tells us Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane saying, “if it be your will, Father, take this cup from me!” Yet, even in the midst of that fear and knowledge of what was about to happen, he also said, “Not my will by your will be done.”
And he went with courage to the fake trial and scourging and to the cross where he took on the sins of the world – sacrificed his life for us and for our salvation. And because of that we can be assured that nothing is so fearful that God can’t see us through. We belong to him.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Savior. (Romans 8)
Peace and Grace!
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4