I thought that headlights, projected by ongoing cars as they moved across the walls of my room, were ghosts. I thought that my dad’s barn was the secret headquarters of the Communists and that people became “commies” (a fate worse than death) by being kidnapped by the KGB and shipped to Russia to be brainwashed and tortured. This belief put me well within the parameters of imminent danger. I was certain that ordinary birds by day became man-eating menaces at night; that rabid dogs roamed the countryside; that poisonous rats came out of sewers and that Venus Fly Traps migrated nightly to North America.
I used to recite the 23rd Psalm to and from the barn. I could say it about three times on my way there and seldom got past “He maketh me lie down in green….” on the way back. Whenever I had to be in the barn, in the dark, alone, I would repeat the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, the Christmas story from Luke and “You; Never Walk Alone” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. The minute my work was done I would run to the house, bust through the door and pretend that I hadn’t been afraid. I felt ashamed of those fears and was afraid that they would be with me always - even unto the ends of the world.
They weren’t. I outsmarted them. I became a teenager. I discovered campouts and hayrides and girls and midnight swims. The dark looked friendlier. Communism was collapsing and I found out that plants were not migratory. I found mystery where once I had know only suspicion - intrigue where I once knew fear. I “put away childish things” - I was sophisticated, and fear of darkness could not cast a shadow of shame on my new, teenaged, undaunted self.
And I threw the baby out with the bathwater. Since I had no fear, I believed that I had no use for the 23rd Psalm. I thought that I did not need the Lord’s Prayer or any creeds or songs or assurances. I came to think that religion was a trick people played on themselves when they were confronted with a world that was too big, too overwhelming and too scary for them. No world would be too big for me. I was young and cool and the universe was my parking lot.
And then I turned thirty. I had spent six years in college and did not have a degree. I had fallen in love and was badly burned by it. I had bills to pay and life courses to choose. I was trying to keep my head while all around me the world was loosing its mind. I was faced with the consequences of my many and varied adventures…and I was alone. I became aware of my smallness and my insignificance and the world again seemed full of wonderful and dreadful possibilities. All the beauty I loved looked away from me with a terrible indifference - an indifference that left me frozen and alienated.
And one morning I was trying to hurry through my devotional time and thought it was fortunate that part of the reading was Psalm 23. I thought, “Oh I know this one well. I can skim it, I had this memorized way back when I was little and the darkness was so scary. I can pass over this quickly….”
But I could not. Because there are scarier things than the dark, and in the course of our lives we grow out of one fear and into a million others. I could not pass over it quickly because all my sophistry and self-delusion was melted away by the power of this simple statement of faith that will not be outgrown - a truth that is bigger than the fears we invent of the confidence we affect:
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside the still waters
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths
of righteousness for His name’s sake
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death I will fear no evil,
for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff,
they comfort me. You prepare a table before
me in the presence of my enemies
You anoint my head with oil: my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life and I will dwell
in the house of the Lord forever.
When I was very young I was afraid of the dark. Like everyone who has that fear, I was afraid half the time. I hadn’t yet learned how not to fear what could not be seen, let alone trust that anything beyond the dark - the unseeable - could be good. It was like I had been born with a suspicion that “something out there” was going to get me and I gave rein to my always overactive imagination, which always invented just reasons for my fear.
I will probably outgrow many more fears. I have lived past the luxurious years of illusory self-confidence. As I grow, I go beyond those things and ever nearer to the truth of the 23rd. I hope I still remember it when I’m 100.