I wake with a start, heart pounding, eyes suddenly wide open. Within a second, even before I swing my feet out of the bed, my mind sprints into adrenalin-laced action, speculating wildly: What’s happened?
I can’t find the phone, which continues shrieking impatiently. In the darkness I bump into a rather solid piece of furniture, uttering a word of praise and thanksgiving (I wish) as I bruise myself.
As I stumble frantically around the shadowy room, my mind is way ahead of me, hurtling through a horrifying catalogue of possible reasons for the call. Someone in our family has been in an accident/is stranded in Latvia/is lying cold in a mortuary awaiting identification. Fear creates endless chilling possibilities.
At last I locate the phone and hear an unfamiliar voice. However, the voice that is all too familiar to most of us is the niggling whisper of fear. We know it well; we’re intimidated by its hiss.
Fear is devastatingly effective at night. It mugs our exhausted minds and insists that we stay awake, restlessly fretting as we long for dawn. It punctuates our dreams with horror stories that drench us in cold sweat.
We awake relieved, hoping it was just a dream and not a premonition. Being afraid is what we humans do well. Perhaps that’s why, in scripture, visiting angels usually introduce themselves with the same greeting: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ God knows that even the most faith-filled among us can fall prey to the predatory fangs of fear.
Elijah did well as a person of faith, performing an assortment of exploits, such as summoning fire from heaven, organising the weather and raising the dead. But this man, so famous for his faith, ran for his life and then prayed for death to come when fear stalked him. A notelet from the Cruella de Vil of the Old Testament, Jezebel, sent him and his faith packing. It was fear that took him out; a devastating ‘smart missile’.
So these days I’m trying to take seriously God’s oft-issued command: ‘Do not be afraid’. If I’m told not to do something, I must have the ability, with God’s help, to avoid going there; to refuse fear’s invitations. I’m wrong to cower powerless before the Goliath of fear. I might only have a makeshift catapult and a few stones in hand, but with God I can topple that giant.
And this is more than the glib: ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ I need to learn to replace my anxious thoughts with urgent volleys of prayer. Because, according to Jesus, worry produces nothing but prayer changes everything. I can place vivid imaginings of dread under arrest, taking my thoughts captive. Is it easy? No. Trust takes practice and discipline. But just because it’s easier said than done doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.
Back to my nocturnal phone caller. It turns out the airline that had damaged my bag during a recent trip had decided to return it in the middle of the night. A nice delivery chap tells me he has my bag and he’s ten minutes away. Stifling a scream, I gently advise him that it’s the middle of the night.
‘It’s an empty bag,’ I say. ‘I have no immediate need of it.’
But he is determined.
He calls me three more times for directions.
Finally, at 2am, he arrives. I have a blissful reunion with my bag and treat it like a returning prodigal. I’d missed it so. Then I thank him warmly; he was just doing his job.
As I wander back to bed, I realise that my fears, so vivid and terrifying just a minute or two ago, were entirely groundless.
They usually are.