My grandparents lived in a house on Lake Calhoun (now Bde Maka Ska) that had a dark, damp, musty, creepy basement. So when I was a boy spending the night with them, there was a sentence I dreaded hearing them say: “Billy, would you please go down to the basement?” The basement was more like a cellar. And my grandparents kept their canned fruits and vegetables in one of the back rooms.
To turn the light on, I had to grope in the dark for a cord with a weight attached to the end of it. I remember whistling, singing, or talking loudly in the dark as if to scare away anyone or anything that might be there. The dim light created scary shadows. My imagination ran wild. What might be lurking in the dark corners of the dark rooms off the main room or hiding on those shelves behind the pickles and beets? When each trip ended, I bounded up the stairs with jar in hand—glad to still be alive! I had made the trip one more time and lived to tell about it, that is, until the next time my grandparents said: “Billy, would you please go down to the basement?” I never told them I was afraid.
We all have our fears, don’t we? Childhood fears we once had. Adult fears we now have. We all have scary basements in our lives.
I read an article recently about the most common fears people have. They include spiders, snakes, the dark, heights, flying in an airplane, going to the dentist, speaking in public, and getting fat. Speaking in public topped the list in one survey, while snakes won out in another. Most of those are fears of things around us. But we also have deeper, inner fears that are existential.
Author and consultant Peter Steinke, writing in The Christian Century, tells of going to a college class reunion. He was with several former classmates when one of them, a philosophy professor, asked an interesting question: “What fears have you conquered over the years, and what new ones have you acquired?” Steinke says each of his friends waited for someone else to speak first, none of them eager to make their private fears public. Then, one by one, they spoke of past fears: “mice,” “the dark,” “being left out or abandoned,” “claustrophobia,” “arachnophobia.” They also spoke of their newer fears: “a recurrence of my cancer,” “being in a nursing home,” “dying.”
What fears have you conquered over the years, and what new ones have you acquired? It’s a good question. What are the basement stairs in your life right now? What do you fear most?
Psalm 27 speaks to these questions. The Psalm has three short movements reflecting past, present, and future. The psalm opens with the robust conviction: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of what shall I be afraid?” (v. 1). That’s a strong statement of faith declaring a personal relationship with God. God is “for me.” God is “my light” who guides my life and dispels the dark places. God is “my salvation” who gives me life and well-being from day to day. God is “my stronghold,” my place of safety and security, my refuge in tough times. God is the sure One I can count on. “So what shall I fear?” the psalmist asks rhetorically. The answer is nothing, no one. “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident” (v. 3).
One gets the clear impression that these bold statements of faith and confidence in God are born of the psalmist’s past experiences. God’s faithfulness in the past means that nothing can shake our confidence that God will be there in the future. “For God will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; God will conceal me under the cover of his tent; God will set me high on a rock” (v.5).
But then the mood of the psalm suddenly changes. The psalmist breaks out into an anxious and urgent prayer for help: “Hear, O God, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!….Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger. You who have been my help, do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (vv. 7-9). The psalmist cries out to God because the psalmist is in need. Crisis has come, and with it has come fear. The psalmist faces adversaries who seek to slander, threaten, and do violence: “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,” the psalmist cries, “for false witnesses have arisen against me, and they are breathing out violence” (v.12).
The psalmist’s bold faith and confidence in God have now encountered crisis. The trouble is real, the threat is near, and the fear is palpable. Faith does not mean that we’re immune to fear, threat, and trouble. These are part of the faith experience just as they are part of life. So, the psalmist cries out to God, “Help me!”
Fear is a powerful reality in our lives, isn’t it? Fear can run rampant in our psyches. Fear can overwhelm us. Fear can cause meltdowns. Fear can paralyze us. We can get stuck in our fear, be miserable, forget about God, and do nothing. Or, fear can be a powerful wake-up call. We can respond by asking God’s help and relying on God’s strength to help us act wisely or courageously. Rather than giving in to fear, we can choose to trust God.
Psalm 27 offers us a powerful model for dealing with our fears. The psalmist chooses to face fear, threat, and trouble by turning to God in prayer. In dire need, rather than getting stuck in fear or giving up in despair, the psalmist looks to God for help, trusting that God will be “my light and my salvation, my stronghold.” The psalm begins with bold confidence and trust in God based on the past. It moves to a place of present threat and trouble in which the psalmist cries out to God for help. Then, before we know any outcomes, the psalmist turns to the future saying, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (v. 13). In other words, in the face of fear and danger the writer says, “I believe, I trust, I have confidence that God will see me through this, and that I will have new life on the other side of it.” Even though present conditions are really difficult, the psalmist trusts that which is not seen. God will be faithful in the future as God has been faithful in the past.
The writer then ends the psalm by turning to his hearers, and to us across the centuries, saying, “Wait for the Lord, be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (v. 14). The word “wait” here means “hope.” “Hope in the Lord, be strong, and let your heart take courage; hope in the Lord!” The psalmist never tells us what happened. It’s as if that doesn’t matter. What really matters is that the psalmist is fully confident of new life, deliverance, and hope that lies in God alone on the other side of crisis and fear. The psalmist’s past experiences of God’s love and care lead to trust in God for the future. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The Reverend William MacLean is an associate pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church. He is hosting Faith Alive, a radio ministry of Mount Olivet, this July, where you can listen to an expanded version of this blog post.