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Overcoming Fear

A note: As you may know, I've been posting a four-week series on overcoming fear, on the church Facebook page. Below is the text for the third reflection. Since it was due on the same day as this blog entry, I decided to share this slightly shortened version with you here.

When I was a kid, I was scared of grasshoppers. I hated their creepy mouths and their scratchy legs. If it's August in southern Indiana, they're everywhere. My sisters and I played in the fields behind our house. Any time a big grasshopper would leap from a weed and land on me, I had to work really hard not to get hysterical while I frantically knocked it off. I didn't want my sisters to notice and make fun of me.

Grasshoppers didn't scare them at all. In fact, like most country kids, they loved to grab one, hold it between their thumb and forefinger, and tell it to "Spit tobaccy." I've since learned that when the insect feels threatened (as it would, being squeezed in those little fingers!), it spits a brownish, tobacco-colored liquid as a defense mechanism-a repellant for some creatures. But this creature certainly didn't need their spit to be repelled, and I could not understand why my sisters thought it was fun to do something so gross.

Well, once they discovered my fear, they decided to play a game called "Let's Scare Lou Ann with Grasshoppers."

They'd catch one and chase me around with it. My family loves to tell the story of the time I got trapped in the bathroom after my mean little sister Martha shoved a grasshopper under the locked door. I stood on the bathtub, pressed up against the wall, while a big, brown grasshopper sat on the floor eying me with its huge eyes, considering (I was sure) whether it wanted to launch an attack. Finally, my mother put a stop to the torture, though I imagine she was laughing inside.

Of course, my fear was irrational. I knew grasshoppers couldn't do anything to hurt me. But what my mind told me was far less important than what the rest of my body told me! In time, the fear went away, as most childhood fears do. But-even though I love the natural world-grasshoppers can still make me squirm.

It isn't unusual, of course, for children to have irrational fears. If asked, I'm sure you'd be able to immediately name a fear you had when you were young. Maybe you were afraid of the dark. Or of monsters under your bed, or in your closet. It may have been clowns that scared you, or loud noises, like thunder.

Maurice Sendak was an author who wrote children's books-stories about the kinds of scary things that most kids fear. Monsters, being sucked down the bathtub drain, ghosts. Sendak believed that, though we tend to think of childhood as a happy, innocent stage of life, children experience the same scary emotions that adults do-fear, anxiety, anger, frustration.

But, unlike adults, children have very little control over their lives. They don't know how to process their feelings. Sendak says, "To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction." Stories can help them to process their fears safely, the best means they have of taming wild things, wild feelings.

Sendak's most widely read book, Where the Wild Things Are, is about a little boy named Max, who dresses in his wolf suit and causes havoc in his house. When his mother finally sends him to bed without dinner, Max sets sail to an imaginary island inhabited by monsters called the Wild Things. When they see him, they "roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws." But when Max tells them to be still, they make him their king and share a celebration-a wild rumpus-with him.

Finally,Max, having celebrated with the monstrous Wild Things, realizes that he's tired of being wild. He's lonely, and he wants to go home, "where someone loves him best of all." He sails back to his room, where he finds that his mother has left dinner for him. And it's still hot.

Children who hear this story can learn that even when they misbehave, even when their actions are wild and out of control, they are still lovable, and still loved, unconditionally. And that they don't have to be afraid-not of imaginary monsters, and not of becoming unlovable because of their bad behavior.

They learn to manage their fears through story-fairy tales, books-stories that deal with the kinds of things they may worry about but can't really articulate or manage on their own.

Not so different from the stories in God's book, the Bible.

Like the story of the Prodigal Son, found in the gospel of Luke. You'll recall that the son demands that his father give him his inheritance early. When he receives it, he leaves for a far country, where, undisciplined and out of control, he wastes everything he has been given.

Did you know that the word "prodigal" means reckless, and uncontrolled? In this story, as in Sendak's, a son engages in reckless, wild behavior, and-like Max-eventually realizes that he wants to go back home.

The son is ashamed. He believes that he will have to humble himself before his father, and beg his forgiveness. He certainly doesn't expect to be welcomed home. But before he can even make it to the house, his father runs down the road to meet him with open arms. And the son's fear that he had destroyed their relationship is put to rest. His father's love has conquered his fear.

The world can be a scary place, for children and adults alike. As we grow, new fears take the place of old-some imagined, and some quite real. Whatever our age, when we're frightened, we need to feel safe and secure. We need to feel loved, for love-especially the perfect love of God-is an antidote for fear. As 1 John 4:18 tells us: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."

Last Sunday, Pastor Kimber-lee preached about the story of Jesus walking on the water towards a boat that holds the disciples. He invites Peter to join him, and Peter steps out of the boat.

At first, he's fine. He's walking on the water, towards Jesus! But then his focus shifts from Jesus to the wind and waves that threaten him, and he's afraid. So afraid that he doesn't trust that the same Jesus who led him to the water will save him from drowning. He begins to sink. When Peter calls out for help, Jesus takes his hand.

Peter's fear isn't irrational. Human beings can't walk on water. But the story teaches us that when we're afraid, God is ready to give us what we need to come through the other side-compassion, forgiveness, courage, hope. All we have to do is ask. Reading Bible stories like this is one is a way that we can calm whatever fear we may be battling. Will it remove all of our fear? Probably not. But it will help, because we will know that we are not alone, that the God who loves us so much is with us, giving us strength.

I had decided not to write about COVID-19 for this blog. We've all heard too much about it already. But something happened this week that changed my mind.

One afternoon, I was at my daughter Maggie's home, helping with the girls. A repairman came to the house to fix the dishwasher, and when he stepped inside, he wasn't wearing a mask. I gave him one and asked him to wear it, explaining that even though we'd be more than six feet away from him, we have a newborn and we need to be especially careful. So he put it on.

While he was working, we realized that we couldn't find Piper, our three-year-old. She loves to hide, and is very good at it, so I went from room to room, calling her name, expecting her to jump out at any moment, giggling.

I finally found her, curled up underneath their big coffee table; and she wouldn't come out, until the repairman left. This is not like Piper. She's never been afraid of strangers-shy, yes, but not scared. I didn't know what to make of it. But her mother asked, "Were you afraid to come out because we asked the man to wear a mask?" And Piper tearfully answered yes.

Her parents don't watch or listen to the news, so she doesn't hear lots of scary things about the virus. I'm sure she's heard us talk about it; and she's seen people wearing masks. Her daddy is a registered nurse. So he's explained why wearing a mask is important, that he wears one every day at work. He tells her that we do it to be heroes for other people, so they won't get sick.

We had no idea that for her, a mask is scary, because it means that something bad might happen. This was all about her ability as a child to try to understand what's happening in her world.

Harry and I found it heartbreaking to think our little one could be so scared of the disease. But it's inevitable that it is affecting our children. I think it's hard for anyone to know how they're interpreting what they hear.

The Internet has lots of resources to help adults talk to their little ones about COVID-19. And of course, children who are of school age are learning about it. But as I think about what Maurice Sendak wrote about childhood, I realize that the world now holds a whole new set of fears that our kids have to process. Not grasshoppers, or monsters, or wild things. Not imaginary, but quite real.

So, as we're learning to adapt, to re-shape our lives around what threatens our peace and well being today, as we're working to keep our own fears at bay, let's also give thought to-and prayers for-the children. Let's teach them what we know about love, and forgiveness, and hope-and about Jesus, who is always with them in their fears, ready to reach out, take their hands, and love them best of all.

Be well, friends, and be blessed.

Lou Ann Karabel

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