I grew up being kind of afraid of stuff. Mostly of hell, I think. Yes, I was a difficult child who could not stop my brain from thinking much of the time, and it always seemed to want to think about big stuff, like heaven and hell. It may have been my fascination with Billy Graham. Back then, in the days when there were only three main channels plus public television, some station would always be showing Billy’s revivals in huge stadiums in the United States and around the world. He fascinated me and scared me and intrigued me so much that really, almost as far back as I can remember, I’d watch the telecasts. I can’t tell you how many times I said the “sinner’s prayer” as his choirs or a soloist would sing “Just As I Am”. I was never really convinced that I was “saved” though, because within days, or sometimes hours, or sometimes minutes, I’d sin – I mean, how could you expect me not to when I had an older sister that I needed to bug, and annoy, and get riled?!? And then I would know that’d I’d lost my salvation…again.
I was also kind of afraid of doing stuff wrong, because I did a fair amount of the time. Don’t ask my parents what my room looked like back then! I think they’re still a little surprised when they show up at my house and things are in order. At least there’s usually not enough dust on my shelves to plant a garden and not enough clutter on the floor that you crunch when you walk, and the clothes that need to be washed are actually in my laundry basket and not carpeting the floor of my bedroom or adding a second layer to the comforter on my bed. Actually, I love vacuum cleaners, seriously! So my floors stay pretty clean.
I was also kind of afraid of being smart, but wanted perfect grades. Now there’s a conundrum. Somewhere I picked up that girls were not really supposed to be as smart as boys, so I didn’t want to be smart, but I wanted perfect grades because somehow I thought that might balance out my weaknesses in other areas – my temper, “forgetting” my chores, the fluctuations in my emotions, those odd headaches that occurred pretty regularly, my tendency to fall into mud puddles, creeks, rivers, streams and other areas that simply required me to climb around on slippery banks and rocks just to see if I could, then come back to our camp soaking wet and shivering and “not knowing WHAT happened” when my parents would say, “again?”
I was also kind of afraid of being seen and not being seen at the same time. I was a very sturdy child, one might even say thick, or as the clothing lines were called, “husky”. I was always riding my bike, shooting baskets, wrestling with my various dogs and cats, climbing up on the roof of our chicken house, playing in the haymount in the barn – it wasn’t a lack of activity. But I loved my mom’s fried chicken, mashed potatoes and cream gravy; and I loved her macaroni and cheese (not from the box); and I loved turkey and dressing and the cooks at school knew that so I got an extra amount every time we had it – thanks Mrs. Combs! And I loved homemade pizza (my requested birthday dinner) and corn curls, and cherry pie with ice cream; and, well, you get the picture. So I never liked having my picture taken because I didn’t really want anyone to know I was “husky” and yet I worried that I might not exist if no one could see me. Are you parents giving thanks yet that your names weren’t Louis and JoAnn Roberts?!?
I was also kind of afraid of being very far away from home but couldn’t wait to get out on my own. The summer between my junior and senior year of high school I went on a European band tour for high school students sponsored by Purdue University. My band director in high school found that opportunity for me – thanks Mr. Ehrke! I’d never been on an airplane, never flown across the country, let alone across the big water, hadn’t taken any foreign languages, and was pretty bad at geography. My parents put me and my clarinet on a plane to New York City, where we spent a week rehearsing, and then we were in seven countries in Europe performing for a period of three weeks. I was the definition of homesick almost the whole time. I do remember getting to go the Louvre, the Cathedral at Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre in Paris, and staying in a hotel in the Alps at the base of the Matterhorn – I know, right? Who could not like that… but I wanted to be home so very badly. And of course, once I was home, I thought about how great it was to travel.
A study in contrasts? Can anyone else relate? Some things have changed drastically in the 40-50 years since those days, and honestly? Some have not. My brain still does not stop much, and I’m still kind of afraid of a lot of things, but what I have learned is that sometimes, to walk into that which makes me afraid can help develop a strength that I can’t really get any other way, and not once has any one of those fearful things ended my existence.
My early fear of heaven and hell led me to learn and read about and live with and experience a God who is defined by grace and mercy, and frankly, if hell is defined as anywhere God is not, and we take the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds seriously, then Jesus destroyed hell by going there in the days between his death and resurrection – so eternal hell is no more. So stop scaring people RELIGIONS FOCUSED ON HELL RATHER THAN GRACE… Not that I have any passion around that.
And my fears of being smart and not smart, and being seen and not seen and being far from home and too much at home have simply invited me to walk toward and in a faith that builds trust in that same God of grace who I believe easily some days, and a little less easily on other days, wants good things even for me; and wants that for me even seeing me exactly as I am – good days AND the not so good ones.
So for those of you who are sometimes kind of afraid of a lot of things about yourself and about the world, know that you’re not alone. And for those of you who are parents with children who trend a little toward the contrasting and intense and complex, know that you’re not alone. And for those of you who wonder about heaven and hell and the existence of either or both, know that God has those covered and loves you as you are and into the best of who you may yet be.
Shane Koyczan is absolutely my favorite spoken word poet. He was raised by his grandparents and survived being bullied, which shapes his poetry and perspective, and he speaks the truth in deep and creative ways. He is unafraid to use “colorful” language, but please know that the poem below does NOT need a language warning other than a reference to passing gas. It’s worth the seven minutes of your time, there’s so much in it. Just note at the end, that while he’s said he doesn’t believe in heaven – he brings to his grandfather that which makes his grandfather laugh (one of his definitions of what his heaven would be like), and he’s wearing wings made of those letters of things he wants his grandfather to know about what he did for him that he may not have been able to communicate while he was growing up. For being a “non-believer” of such things, I think it’s an intriguing contrast…