This past week I started reading a memoir about a theologian’s life and journey in faith. Early on in the book, the author tells the story about the last night he saw his son before his son committed suicide. Before his son left for an evening with his girlfriend, he had said “Goodbye,” instead of his usual “Goodnight.” The author explains in that moment, he remembered the story of Abraham Lincoln telling his bodyguard “Goodbye” on the evening before his assassination. He writes of wondering in that moment, “Why did I say “good-bye” to Scott instead of “good night”? The foreboding didn’t make sense.” The next morning he found his son dead in his bedroom.
This past weekend my husband and I had the honor of celebrating the marriage of our dear friends as best man and bridesmaid. The evening before the wedding, I was worn out, mildly sleep-deprived, and we still had so much to do. My husband and I decided he would go to the venue and help finish decorating with the others, and I would stay home to finish gluing popsicle sticks to the wedding programs.
Before he left, he said, “Let me give you one last kiss,” and kissed me. In that moment, like the author’s flitting memory of Abraham Lincoln, I remembered the story in the memoir and watched my husband walk out to the car sure that this was the foreboding moment I would remember for the rest of my life. I was sure he would drive away and die in a car accident or have a brain aneurysm or a ladder would fall on him in just the wrong way.
The fear that this was the last conversation I would share with my husband overwhelmed me and I ran out to the car and told him I was coming with him. I blurted out something about wanting to help and how a bridesmaid should be with the bride and how I could always stay up to glue the programs when we got back home. I didn’t tell him about the fear, the nauseating feeling I had that something terrible would happen.
These days I find myself thinking about death more than I’d like to admit. The thoughts sneak into my mind like a skilled thief, stealing joy and replacing it with fear in one fluid motion. I find myself swirling through the same self-defeating cycle of fearing the future and then doing whatever I can to try to gain some semblance of control. I hear my husband say “Let me give you one last kiss” and I climb into the car next to him because I am afraid he will die if I don’t. I hold everything so tightly my knuckles bleed and I call it protection.
Later, when the fear has subsided and I am able to process my thoughts and actions, I know, deeply know, that I cannot control what happens to the people I love. I cannot protect my husband, my parents, my brothers, my cousins, my friends. No amount of being with them whenever I feel afraid will keep them from death. In these moments, rather than the outspoken megaphone of panic, the quiet voice of helplessness creeps in. I become overwhelmed with the realization that I cannot protect the people I love. Helplessness seems to keep company with me until the next wave of panic hits and the cycle repeats itself again and again and again.
I had nearly resolved to this way of living - panic and fear, helplessness and overwhelm - until I listened to a friend read Psalm 23. Whenever I hear a passage of scripture like Psalm 23, it is easy for me to slip into the familiarity of it, anticipating the next words rather than listening to them. This time, for whatever reason, the passage sounded new as if I had never heard the truth of it so clearly before. It became louder than my fear and my helplessness. The words sounded good and sweet and true, and I rested in them.
In that moment, listening to my friend read the familiar psalm, rest and peace was an easy gift. It is not always so easy, friend. I would be lying if I told you that Psalm 23 calmed all my fears and feelings of helplessness and I haven’t faced a single struggle since then. The truth is that listening to Psalm 23 was like being handed a sword, a generous gift of truth when I needed it, but heavy and awkward in my hands when I learned I had to use it.
With truth in my hands, I do not fear my fear. I do not feel helpless against my helplessness. But I still have to do the hard work of telling myself the truth when it feels so much easier to listen to liars. The liars of fear and helplessness tell me I can only depend on myself to protect the people I love, that God does not care about the deaths of my family members, that He will let the people I love die to teach me a lesson because he is cruel and angry. The truth is that the Lord is good and a sure foundation, his faithful love pursues me, I will fear no evil, He comforts me, He is with me.
When fear and helplessness show up at my door, I look them in the eyes and I tell them what I know to be true even as I am learning to believe it myself. I am ready for them, sword in hand. “The Lord is my shepherd; I have what I need.”