Attention, storms of life: Peace, be still

Column by Jim Bishop

The sky was menacing, the wind whipped to a fury, rain fell in torrents. Then, marble-sized hail attacked the large maple trees in the front yard and sliced our mums, zinnias and tomato plants like a giant grater.

I tried to occupy myself with domestic chores, but kept returning to our vibrating windows that were being pelted with leaves and hail. At one point, it looked like the maples, their branches arching like mummers on parade, would uproot from their moorings.

Two hours later, the unforecasted storm passed, and I went outside to survey the damage. The entire yard was laden with branches, and general debris, and our flower beds had taken a bruising. But fortunately, no large trees were uprooted; just leaves and small branches covered our roof.

I breathed a prayer of thankfulness, even as I spent Saturday evening and most of Sunday afternoon cleaning up the aftermath. I can’t imagine how victims of Hurricane Katrina felt as they watched everything they owned being washed away or needed to flee their homes, perhaps never to return.

I was flat-out fearful as the whims of Mother Nature reminded me, in dramatic fashion, of who is in control.

I think, however, that there’s a difference between fear and worry. I tend to fear that which I have little power to do something about, to change, to make right that which needs amending.

Fear is a necessary, valuable aspect of life. It helps our sense of self-preservation, or at least it should, warning us of imminent danger to our persons or the ill effects of overindulgence, not just caloric intake.

It appears that our 2-year-old grandson, Grant, has yet to grasp the concept of fear. He goes charging ahead, Fred Flintstone-style, his legs moving faster than his internal coordinates can handle, and he’ll fall, sometimes hurting himself. He gets up, bruised and shaken, and keeps moving full steam ahead.

Scripture tells us to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13). Yes, he knows when we’ve been bad or good, but I don’t perceive God as some kind of Awesome Auditor who records our every charitable act and every transgression to send us on a guilt trip for things done or left undone in the past.

I much prefer the concept of an all-seeing, all-knowing Creator who loves us for our efforts to follow his commandments out of a sense of love and respect, rather than acting out of fear of punishment if we disobey.

In fact, Psalm 130:3-4 reads, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (NIV).

When it comes to worry, I tell myself not to agonize over certain things – how to whittle down this workload to meet those unrelenting deadlines; the arduous wait for results of a medical or other test; a major unexpected expense that hits mid-month, and we anguish over how to pay other outstanding bills, for example.

So many worrisome issues exact a toll on my physical and spiritual well-being when in fact some of them I can do something about. But it is often preferable – even if counterproductive – to sit and stew about them.

On a shelf in my office stands a picture of a popular icon who has retained that gap-toothed, cat-ate-the-cream smile for decades as he observes the surrounding chaos – MAD magazine’s original “What, Me Worry?” kid, Alfred E. Neuman. Alfred’s vigilance helps keep many things in perspective as I seek a balance between healthy fear and harmful worry.

In this regard, the third stanza of a hymn just sung in a worship service jumped out at me: “Our little systems have their day – they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of thee, and thou, O Lord, art more than they” (Hymnal: A Worship Book, No. 488, “Strong Son of God, immortal love”).

I’ve heard fear defined as “courage that has said its prayers.”

Which reminds me of a petition that I’ve often offered to dispel worry: “Dear Lord, So far today I am doing alright. I have not gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, selfish or self-indulgent. I haven’t whined, complained, yelled at anyone or eaten anything I shouldn’t have.

“But I will be getting out of bed in a minute and I think that I will really need your help.”

Jim Bishop is public information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.

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