A couple of weeks ago we attended our granddaughter’s high school band concert. The band was well-rehearsed. The music chosen was a nice combination of styles and the young people performed extremely well. As music lovers, we were impressed.
Normally, I would spend about 90% of my visual energy watching my granddaughter, but she was seated in such a place that I couldn’t see her. So, I was free to study the other band members. Though in uniform, they all were individuated by hairstyle and other characteristics. Some swayed their whole body with the music or tapped a foot energetically, while others sat nearly still, just moving their fingers over the keys or valves. There were quite a few percussionists, and they switched instruments with each piece of music. We sat nearest the timpani drums, which were played by a different student on each piece, and I observed the styles of each timpanist.
One, in particular, stood out to me. He only had to play a few notes on the last line of a four- or five-minute piece of music. Surely they’d rehearsed this piece a hundred times, and he ought to have been able to tell when he needed to start paying attention because his time was drawing close. Instead, he watched his sheet music intently during the whole piece. He never turned a page, so I can only assume he was counting the number of measures of rest before his big moment. Above the drums, he appeared in control and completely prepared. But since my eyes were level to the stage floor, I also noticed movement below the drum. It was his legs, trembling.
Immediately, I felt for him. At first, the shaking wasn’t very pronounced, but as the music progressed and got closer to his few notes, the shaking intensified, so much so that it looked as though his area of the stage might have been vibrating under his feet. Even so, his hands resting on the mallets weren’t moving at all. Finally, just as I thought he (and I) couldn’t bear it any longer, his moment arrived. He played his notes beautifully, perfectly, with expression. He stilled the drums with his hands when the conductor ended the piece. The audience applauded and the young drummer broke into a gentle smile as he looked down at his timpani. He’d done it. And he’d survived.
Fear is such an interesting emotion. It causes us to act in certain ways; it keeps us from acting in certain ways. Everyone is afraid of different things; everyone reacts to fear differently.
The writer of Mark’s gospel obliquely refers to fear when he tells us about Jesus’ time in the wilderness.
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. [from Mark 1]
If Mark is trying to invoke a fear response in this reader when he says that Jesus “was with the wild beasts,” it’s effective. Alone in the wilderness + wild beasts = something to be afraid of. I think I’ve seen that movie.
Moments and periods of fear are simply part of the human condition. We have real things to fear. We are also afraid of other things that we know will do us no real harm, but scare us anyway.
I found an online list of hundreds of phobias. It contains such things as asymmetriphobia (the fear of asymmetrical things), hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia (fear of the number 666), homilophobia (fear of sermons), and phobophobia (fear of phobias). Also listed was agrizoophobia, the fear of wild animals.
The point is, we are all afraid of something. We fear losing the things or people that are important to us. We fear getting older, being sick. We fear the disintegration of a relationship. We fear the future, the unknown. We fear that the life we have at present is all there is. We fear doing new things (like playing the timpani in public), and we fear not doing new things (like never taking the risk of playing the timpani in public).
I like what Mark’s incredibly short account says about Jesus in the wilderness: he was “tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Jesus faced his temptations and his fears, and God was looking out for him. It doesn’t say he wasn’t afraid. But he had invisible company.
If we understand that “angel” means “messenger,” then all of us can look for God’s messages of peace, stillness, hope and courage.
As we enter the Lenten season, we remember our (and others’) times in the wilderness, whether those times are recent or long past. We reflect on our fears and our future, our vulnerabilities and our spiritual longings.
In some ways, I wish we never had to be afraid. But I also know that facing our fears helps us grow into people who have lived through the wilderness. I think I have seen a young timpanist who has gained self-confidence by staring down the wild beast of his fear.
So, here is my hope for you: when you find you are in the presence of the wild beasts of your fears, may you also discover that the angels are your companions. May the messages from God give you strength to face your fears and to come out on the other side.