Fear perched on my heart like a dirty crow. An unwelcome guest, he disturbed my thoughts with his cawing: “You’re not good enough. You’ll stumble. And they’ll all be listening.”
It was early morning and I was curled up in the easy chair, attempting to pray. I had been invited to give the public prayer later that day in the chapel service of the interdenominational seminary I was attending. I’d ministered in public many times before. Then why was I so nervous?
Maybe it was the occasion—the last all-seminary chapel of the year. Maybe it was the people. My favorite theology professor would be preaching, and the president, the dean, and many others would be there. Maybe it was the place. Wednesday chapels were always held in the large church down the street—a far cry from the simple Quaker places of worship I was used to. Normally, I loved being in that sanctuary, looking up at the arched wooden beams and imagining myself a minnow in the belly of the whale, a mouse in the ark, or a servant girl peeking from behind a pillar in the courts of Camelot. But, did I want to sit up front with the royalty and speak words out into the cavern of that hall? No, I did not.
Recognizing that my imagination was going into overdrive, I stilled my heart and asked the Lord for perspective. Then I simply waited in the silence.
As I sat there, several things came clear. I began to see what I feared. And I began to see what I didn’t fear.
What I did not, and do not, fear is—coming before the Lord God Almighty, addressing in person the King of kings and Lord of lords, speaking boldly to the Creator of the universe, petting the Lion of Judah. I do this all the time. And I’m not afraid. Amazing.
I saw that what I did fear was no more than saying a prayer out loud in that particular place, on that fairly minor occasion, in front of a relatively small group of people.
I had the whole thing twisted around. Those people, be they professors or students, are like me. We all struggle with not getting enough sleep, tend to be petty when provoked, stub our toes, harbor our secret insecurities, and long for intimacy. We’re all people. But him—he’s the King.
If I had any sense, I’d fear the right things. I’d enter his presence wearing a bullet proof vest and a crash helmet. I’d whisper my prayer. I’d tremble.
The fear of the Lord runs like a dark thread throughout the Scriptures. It’s a theme that has sometimes confused me, and I’ve let it be explained away as reverence or great respect. But the Psalms, the Prophets, and the frightening narratives of the Old Testament beat out the rhythms of the awesome power of the Almighty and call the faithful to respond with appropriate fear. And while reverence and respect are undoubtedly part of our response, sometimes fear is called for. Real fear. Gut-wrenching terror.
Those shepherds on the Judean hillside were “sore afraid” at the angels’ appearance. The wandering Israelites trembled before the smoking mountain. Saul on the Damascus road fell to his face.
I think of our own heritage. The name Quaker was thrown in contempt at our ancestors because they literally trembled in the presence of the Lord.
I think of Lucy, in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, feeling the thrill of fear on first learning of the Lion and asking, “Is he safe?”
Mrs. Beaver answers, “…if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then his isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
The Lord is a God both dangerous and good, and that’s a difficult combination to come to terms with. The same Psalms and prophets that spell out the terror of the Lord also show his tenderness. The Lion is the Lamb. And our shepherd.
We Quakers have another name—Friends. Friends of God, those who love and are loved by God, intimate companions. Both names are appropriate.
My background has emphasized the lovingkindness of God, and I’ve enjoyed friendship with the Lord, probably taken it for granted. I sense mercy and gentleness. That’s all good.
But my early morning meditation on the day of the prayer pointed out a certain lack. My vision of God needs to be stretched. In addition to the grace of intimacy, I long for the wisdom of holy fear.
Chapel came and went. When my time came, I got up, approached the microphone, and prayed. God enabled me to pray to him and not to the people, to pray on behalf of the people with some sense of Who I was addressing. I’m asking God to increase that sensitivity.
Let’s remember our names. Let’s claim our heritage. We are God’s Friends. Let’s also be Quakers.
[First published in Quaker Life, March 1995]