Fearless (Part I)
The sun winked out across the river, highlighting a large sailboat festooned with two large white sails. I wonder what that would be like, I thought, slowing my car as I sped along the parkway. I’d never been on a sailboat. I checked the mirror, but I was alone for now, and I slowed down even more, my gaze running between the tree covered hills on one side and the white capped waters of the Ottawa river on the other. More than a few boats were out today. Small ones. Mid-sized craft like the sailboats, and even a few luxury boats. Even from my car I could see the people relaxing on the decks of the larger ones, and I turned my gaze back to the road with reluctance. That’s the life, I thought.
A truck had pulled in behind me, and reluctantly I sped up. The parkway was one of the major attractions for visitors to the Ottawa Valley, maintained by the city and closed on Sundays for runners and cyclists, and it was cut into the land like a nature trail. I’d only driven it a few times, but today I’d figured I needed to do something different. I was a small town kid, and moving to Ottawa, a city of over a million people, hadn’t changed that. I rarely drove downtown.
I pulled off the parkway, and looked at the signs, but I was already lost. I sighed and then started laughing. Well, some things hadn’t changed. Still a moron with directions. I turned left on an unfamiliar road, when suddenly the road began to merge. What the…
The traffic was coming directly at me! A line of cars in all three lanes. My throat caught. I was headed up an off ramp, with no where to go. Sweat dripped from my forehead. Stupid! I berated myself for even trying to come downtown. I’d always hated the unmarked one way streets that seemed to dominate downtown Ottawa. There was a reason I never drove here. Keep it together, Burns! I slowed. Ten seconds before the wave of cars. Oh, God! Why hadn't I just stayed at home? Of course, the whole reason I’d come was an email I’d received the night before…
I stared at the screen, rereading the email three times before moving on to the next one. I could feel my throat getting dry, and I abruptly logged off and headed to the kitchen for a glass of water. Not again, Lord. Not again. I poured myself a large glass, gulped it down, and then poured another. I stood in the kitchen unable to move. The silence of my apartment was overwhelming. So were the memories.
I finally forced myself back into my room and sat back in my chair, where I felt the accusing glare of the blank screen. I’d started blogging about a month earlier. At first, I’d thought it would be a good way to perhaps see the response from others from my work. Writing is solitary work, and most of the time our feedback is minimal. The blog was a way to get some immediate gratification. But like any task that involved writing, over the past few weeks it had changed. And grown. At first, I’d been surprised by some of the responses I’d received, and immensely grateful. It was so encouraging. But as I thought about the latest set of messages, it wasn’t gratitude that filled me, but fear.
I sipped from my glass and glanced out my window, where the fading twilight cast a dark pallor through the glass. I could hear the crickets beginning their nightly chirp. Nearly a decade had passed since my time in ministry, but the last few months of that year still haunted me. And they haunt me still, I thought, taking another sip from my glass.
The first two years in ministry had been filled with excitement and a pressing sense of God’s leading. But too quickly it became insulated. When, I couldn't say. As a pastor and leader, I became increasingly fearful of saying the right things and doing the right things. It had been hammered into me.
"You are the ONLY Jesus people may ever see! You must not only be spiritual, you must be MORE"
I began to close off from the people around me, because the pressure to be MORE, and the fear of failure, hounded my every step. Slowly my laughter began to die out, and I found myself becoming smoother and more polished. People were coming to church for a reason, and my job was to be there for them, to be MORE. I couldn’t let them see my struggles, and the only way you could talk about it was if I couched it within specific acceptable terms. I could say that I struggled with abstinence, but there needed to be a laugh on the end of it. (“Yes, I struggle, but it wouldn’t ever really happen to me, don’t worry”) As if temptation existed, but not really.
I became afraid to let people know what I was thinking, that they’d see me for who I really was, and that they’d realize that I wasn’t MORE, or that I wasn’t holy after all. The quest for perfection drove a stake into my faith, and finally I broke down. I couldn’t handle the pressure. And so I quit.
I sipped from my glass and stared at the blank screen. I’d just received my acceptance into Seminary, and through a winding and sometimes torturous road, I’d found myself back on route towards the ministry. And the tingling I felt a decade past had come back. The email that I’d received was like many I’d received in the last few weeks. Questions about God. Questions about faith. Questions as if I had answers. And while there was nothing I enjoyed more than talking about my Hero, I’d begun to feel that tingle again.
What if they realize that I’m not MORE? What if they realize that I’m not really that holy? Not that spiritual? What if they see me for who I really am, God? What, then?
I sipped from my glass, but there was no water left. I could feel the fear building. I thought about going out somewhere, but where? I looked at the clock. 9:48 pm. Starbucks would be closed, and I avoided going to clubs on the weekend unless I was with friends, because it brought in a whole new level of temptations. I walked around my apartment, suddenly feeling claustrophobic and trapped.
They don’t know about me, God. I can’t speak for You.
Fear gripped my soul. I tried to pray, but all I really wanted to do was run away somehow, which made no sense, because I didn’t want to leave my apartment either. I thought about the plans for my work, about my dreams. Suddenly it all seemed so big. So… unachievable. And worse, was the budding sense of responsibility for the people who’d been so encouraging about my writing, that I would fail them, that I wouldn’t be there, somehow.
I finally put the glass down and headed for bed, but sleep was slow in coming. I hadn’t answered my emails. Hadn’t written in days. And guilt weighed me down like a lead cape.
The next morning, little had changed, except for the silly idea that doing something I didn’t like to do, something that I was afraid to do, might help. And it was with that in mind that I decided to go on the parkway and head downtown. To overcome your fears, you had to face them.
…The cars whipped closer. Five seconds. At the last instant I noticed a spot just before the merge, a lined out triangle the length of two cars between the ramp and the highway. I pulled my car in just as the first wave whipped past me, the stares from the drivers incredulous and angry. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. Finally there was a gap in the traffic, and I quickly turned my car around.
I exhaled as I headed back home. Such an idiot! What a stupid idea! Driving downtown to face your fear! I made it to a small park about five minutes from my apartment. I put my head in my still trembling hands. I could still feel my heart pounding away.
Was this it the, Lord? Would I always become afraid every time I tried to listen and obey your call?
That night God would answer my questions in a way I hadn’t expected, and in a session of prayer that would rock the very foundations of my future…