How's this picture for serenity? The teacher is Miss Misch with her first grade class in front of Hawthorne Elementary near Quindaro Boulevard in Kansas City, Kansas. It was a warm day in 1948. This was back when girls wore dresses and boys wore suspenders. I am on the second row to your far right"living proof that's about as cute as I ever got. Miss Misch, ever grim and imposing, did not suffer fools patiently so nobody repeated the first grade.
But the war was over and the golden era of the 1950s with electric mixers, TV sets, and even push button transmissions | had finally arrived. What more could any home want? If Betty Crocker and Emily Post were insufficient, we had Eisenhower, Elvis, and the Edsel. Why, there were even Superman, Mighty Mouse, Joe Palooka, and the Cisco Kid.
So what was there to fear? What was there to dread? A lot, actually, for the generation of children in the picture lost fathers in Normandy, uncles on Korea's 38th Parallel, brothers in Hanoi, sons in Desert Storm, and grandsons in Kandahar. I grew up in rural east Texas in the 50s where if polio did not get you, the chances were strong that prejudice would, despite the fact that heroes abounded on the silver screen and revivals lasted two weeks. For just a hundred miles east of us was Little Rock, where federal troops were required to escort nine black teenagers into a white school. Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine, said, "Every day we were slammed up against the lockers."
In Time magazine, a 2003 essay by James Poniewozik lamented the passing of Mr. Rogers whose TV program, Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, ran PBS. "To cynics and parodists, Mr. Rogers? Neighborhood was a namby-pamby zone of pint-sized feel-goodism, and Mr. Rogers himself a wimpy Stuart Smalley for tots. But part of what made Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood great and unique is that, for all its beautiful days in the neighborhood, it was also the darkest work of popular culture made for preschoolers since perhaps the Brothers Grimm.
Mr. Rogers was softer than anyone else in children's TV because his message was hard: That your parents might someday decide not to live together anymore. That dogs, guppies, and people will someday die. That sometimes you will feel ashamed, and other times you will be so mad you will want to bite someone.
"He even calmed fears that may seem silly but to a child are real and consuming"like being afraid to take a bath because you might get sucked down the pipes. Mr. Rogers gently sang, 'You can never go down, can never go down, can never go down the drain.' . . . But war jitters, orange alerts and duct-tape mania have rendered literal our most childlike, monsters-under-the-bed fears: that a tall building can collapse like a house of cards, that something bad can seep in ghostlike through your window and hurt you . . . (However) kids will have hundreds of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood reruns to help them through their spooky moments. But who is out there today, in any neighborhood to reassure grownups that we can never go down the drain?"
Why, the Lord - of course! Yet, knowing the Lord in Robert Grant's words, as "pavilioned in splendor," does not naturally and completely diminish my fear of the known or unknown. I?d far rather pray for a patient than be the patient! There are few allies like bravery, there are few foes like worry.
I've always suspected that worry, fear, and dread were somehow incompatible with holiness| if you had perfect love you?d have perfect peace. I knew that silver screen heroes were phantoms, but for years I banked on the hope that living a holy life would make me undisturbed by drains.
But not necessarily so, and issues like personality and temperament sometimes figure as much or more as faith in shaping our response to worry when the potential for threat is before us and the odds are stacked against us. Wesley spoke so often of our need of "holy tempers" or a maturing frame of mind.
For example, to my knowledge Dad never truly worried a day in his life while Mom has had few worry-free days. Ironically, Dad died 34 years ago and Mom worries on at age 93"mostly about health.
"You should have known my Uncle Stanley," she has often said. "He worried about poor health into his nineties and he was one of the godliest men I ever knew." So to Mom and Uncle Stanley worry was sort of a next door neighbor to godliness. How can that be, theologically? I don't know, but mother is godly and also a worry-wart. It must be a warp of human frailty so that even while in the image of God we bear wrinkles in this world that will be ironed out in the world to come.
Polio claimed members of my new elementary school in Texarkana. Swimming pools were closed and school drinking fountains were turned off| the epidemic was real. Two blocks down, on the way to school every day, I walked by the home of a child whose life was sustained by an iron lung. So mother, a godly worrier, had the idea that I should take a bath every night, a true curse for any school boy, and made even worse by her insistence in adding a strong shot of Pine-Sol disinfectant to the bathwater. On the dark side, the actual name of that germ-infested school was Grim. On the bright side, I smelled at least as good as a clean bathroom. Yes, I think in jest, worry has its perks.
Locating a place beyond dread is necessary. If anything, perfect love is also perfect trust or perhaps complete trust, a trust that is, though bound up in my frail being, capable of being made whole in me by its Author. Heroes cannot do that for me, nor can false expectations and over-promises about what holiness can deliver. We need not live under the illusion that a holy life and perfect love are guaranteed cure-alls that prevent anguish over life's grueling, heart-breaking realities.
At the same time, we need not be held captive by gnawing worry. God can only free me from that which I am willing to be freed. It is the spirit of God that woos me to place my trust in him and prompts me to lay down my own feeble efforts at dithering. Johnson Oatman's line in Higher Ground hints at the self-discipline necessary to escape the trap of dread: "My heart has no desire to stay where doubts arise and fears dismay." Or as Lidie Edmunds penned, "Enough for me that Jesus saves"this ends my fear and doubt." It sings well. But can I shun the temptation to linger around the fringe of fear, thereby tempting fate?
Despite the creative tension at play I should not believe that worry and godliness are in some sort of cozy harmony. Worry does not square with trust. Jesus put worry in its worst light: "Look at the birds of the air| they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" (Matthew 6:26-27 NIV)
Wesley was adamant about worry in his Sermon on the Mount. "What God forbids is that care which . . . drinks up the spirits| which anticipates all the misery it fears, and comes to torment us before the time. God forbids only that care which poisons the blessings of today, by fear of what may be tomorrow| which cannot enjoy the present plenty, through apprehensions of future want. This care is not only a sore disease . . . but also a heinous offense against God, a sin of the deepest dye." Well, so far I have not told Mom about Mr. Wesley's sermon and I sort of doubt that I will.
So whether mere frailty or "sin of the deepest dye," I confess my own culpability. As a descriptor of worry, fear is bad stuff| as respecting God, fear is a mark of reverence. But worry walks on stilts high above the reach of reason. One day I was in good company. Joe Grider once said in a seminary class, "Thank you for your prayers. The doctor's report said nothing was wrong with my throat. I was really worried about something bad, so I was hoping for an ulcer." So it is that we rightly sing Robert Grant's immortal line, "Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail, in Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail."
God is the good place and the safe place beyond dread.
James Spruce is superintendent of the Illinois District in the Church of the Nazarene.