Fear is an incredibly powerful force.
I know just how powerful it is. I have wrestled with it, bowed down before it, been sucked into it. I have had entire years devoured by it. I have been to battle with fear, over and over again, and it has often won, dragging me - the spoils - hopeless and limp over its shoulder.
Maybe you know what I'm talking about. Maybe you understand the feeling of being sucked into fear, like you are a child being sucked beneath the surface of a mighty wave. It's all disorienting, and you don't know what to breathe and what to spit out. You are just gulping and gasping and panicking and flailing.
When I was about four years old, I went boogie boarding for the first time. If you've never been, the idea is that you stand in the water, wait for a wave, and then jump on your board at the perfect moment and let the swell wash you to shore.
So the day we first tried it, my sister Rachel and I stood and looked at the horizon, waiting for the crest of a perfect wave to form.
"This one!" Rachel cried, as a golden green monster approached, gaining altitude by the second. She turned and flopped onto her board just before the wave broke with an impressive crash.
I, however, was too late. Before I had the wherewithal to jump on my board, the wave crashed over my head and whisked it out of my hands, then knocked me over. My nose screamed as it filled with salty water; I must have opened my mouth because it was full, too. I felt my knee hit the sandy bottom - and then my elbow - as I tumbled around, cold and confused, helpless and small.
That is how it feels to have fear overtake you.
I have spent the majority of this pandemic standing safely on the shore. Peering at the waves of fear, hearing them taunt me and tempt me to get in, but refusing to get close enough for them to sweep me beneath the surface. But a couple of nights ago, they hit me in a weak spot and took me out at the knees and I cried out in surprise. All of my rationality was suddenly forfeited to panic. Worst-case scenarios played out in perfect clarity in my mind's eye. Hope slipped into hopelessness, optimism into pessimism, faith into flailing. One moment I was confident and dry, and the next I was weak and drowning.
I was just like that little version of myself on the boogie board.
I think I am not alone. I think many of us are experiencing that right now - that flurry of worry, that drowning sensation. That helplessness.
I think many of us are spending more time sucking water than breathing air.
But I haven't told you the rest of the boogie board story. While four-year-old me was fumbling about under the water, trying to figure out which way was up, I felt a hand close around my wrist. It pulled me up hard and set my wobbly legs on the sand.
"First time boogie boarding?" A man I didn't recognize was standing over me, a bemused look on his face.
I nodded. I pressed my lips against my teeth hard so I wouldn't cry. Then my mom rushed over and thanked him for saving me, and Rachel salvaged my boogie board. It was all very embarrassing.
But I didn't drown. The waves swept me under, but they did not sweep me away. Because that man reached down and pulled me onto dry land.
In Psalms, David writes, "He sent me from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me" (Psalms 18:16-19).
We have an Enemy and he uses fear to confront us in our days of calamity. How dearly he would love to catch us up in it, to sweep us away with it, to make us gulp it down and drown us with it.
But I have spent much too long learning how to breathe fresh air to allow my lungs to be filled with the salty waters of fear all over again. So here is what I told myself the other night, when I felt completely overwhelmed by this pandemic and all of its threats to the things I love most:
Fear might flip me over, but I will not drown. Just like I did not drown that day with my boogie board because that kind man reached down and rescued me, Jesus is there to grab my arm whenever I begin to flail. He sets me back on the shore. David says, 'He drew me out of many waters... He rescued me, because he delighted in me.' And he rescues me, too, when I begin to drown, because he delights in me in the same way and wants to lead me to broad, wide-open places.
Places far away from the threatening waves of fear.
If you, like me, have fallen into the water, call out to Jesus. See how he supports you. See how he sets you above the waves of this calamity. See how he will delight in saving you.
Maybe it will be the first time you've ever stood in a broad, wide-open place. Free of fear, safe from your enemies, breathing air instead of sucking water.
It is an amazing feeling, the sweetest of all relief.
And when fear comes lapping in salty swells around our ankles again - because surely it will try - let's you and I make the conscious choice to stay dry. Let's say, "Oh no, thank you; we won't be swimming today." Let's run in the opposite direction towards Jesus, because we need to hear the truth. He will keep us from falling back into those waters. His promises and his love will help to keep us in broad places, where we can think clearly.
With Jesus, we no longer need to betray ourselves to every fearful wave that crashes our way.
With Jesus, we can be confronted by calamity but not be swept away in it.