The man shot out of bed as soon as he heard the scream. He found his boy sitting up in bed, covered in sweat, tears streaming down his face. He scooped the frightened three-year-old into his arms and rocked him against his chest. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” His son protested, of course. A scary monster had been chasing him and was definitely hiding in the closet. The father opened the closet door and showed that there was nothing in there but a jumble of t-shirts and shoes and puzzles. “The monster wasn’t real, son. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” He repeated this soothing refrain until the boy drifted back to sleep.
Later, when the boy was six, he wanted more than anything to learn to ride his bike without the training wheels. Most of his friends were already racing around the block. But something within the boy just froze when he thought of teetering on those two big wheels with nothing to stop him from crashing to the asphalt.
One morning the father woke up early, tiptoed out of the room so as not to wake the boy’s mother, and gently awakened his son. “Today’s the day, kid. You’re going to learn to ride a bike.” The two took off for a nearby pathway where there were no cars or other kids to watch. The bike, stripped of its training wheels, jostled and bumped in the back of the pickup. When the father parked the truck, he reached for his son’s hand, and repeated those same words he’d whispered a few years before: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” The boy nodded.
But as the father lifted the bicycle from the truck bed, he felt a little twinge. It wasn’t entirely true that there was nothing to be afraid of, was it? The boy could fall. Even if his helmet protected his head, he could still skin a knee or break a wrist. There was perhaps something to be afraid of after all, though he wasn’t going to break his son’s courage just as he was about to conquer his fear.
The boy learned to ride his bike by lunchtime – without incident, and with great joy.
The twinge in the father’s heart was displaced by full-fledged heartbreak a decade later, when the boy’s mother took ill. The prognosis wasn’t great. As much as the man dreaded how much he would miss her if she didn’t make it, he could scarcely handle the possibility that his boy might lose his mother. For the first few days of her treatment, the father barely spoke to his son. He tried to tell himself that his first priority had to be caring for his wife. She needed him.
But the red eyes and sullen silence of his son crushed his excuses: his boy needed him, too. After dinner they stood in front of the sink, the father handing each clean dish to his son to be dried. The father choked on the feeble words that came to mind. He could not tell his son there was nothing to be afraid of this time. There was something to be afraid of. Even if his wife survived, it would take a toll on her. She would suffer. They would all suffer.
As he handed the last cup to his son, he tentatively put his arm around his son’s shoulder. The boy turned to him and crumpled into an embrace, and bawled. They never did talk much, but somehow in that wordless encounter, the boy was reassured of what he needed to know most: not that there was nothing to be afraid of, but that his father would be with him every step of the way.
Another ten years passed. The boy became a man, and found good work, and met a woman he wanted to marry. The day was bittersweet; his mother had passed away just months before, after years of living in the grace of remission. Her absence was noted by a single rose at the front of the sanctuary. His father was torn during the service. He was happy for his son, but he could hardly take his eyes off the rose. He missed his wife terribly, and wanted her to be there to bless and celebrate their son’s marriage. He was acutely aware that he, too, wouldn’t always be there for his son. On this day of joy, he was flooded with anxiety. As his son vowed to be faithful and loving in good times and bad, all the father could think was that there was so much that could go wrong. What if his son lost a job, or got sick, or had troubled kids? What if, what if, what if?
All he ever wanted to do was protect his child from anything that could hurt him, and somehow that rose announced, once and for all, that he couldn’t do that one thing that mattered the most to him. He couldn’t even promise to be with him every step of the way, not any more than his wife could.
The man felt like he was on a ship that was being tossed to and fro by a fierce storm. A torrent of grief and fear threatened to tear him apart, even as he politely shook hands with his new daughter-in-law’s father.
As the wedding guests began filing out of the church, he sat alone in his pew, trying to pray. As they so often had before, words failed him. He opened the Bible beside him in hopes of finding something that could give him peace. He turned the gospel of Mark and found a familiar story:
A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
The father closed the bible and pressed his thumbs into his temples. Not only did he practically feel seasick from anxiety, he felt the same helplessness and anger and indignation and fear encapsulated in that stark question: Teacher, do you not care? Yet he somehow was less impressed by the amazing miracle Jesus performed in response than he was by the question Jesus asked in turn. Why are you afraid? It seemed obvious enough; there was a storm going on and the disciples thought they were going to die. If Jesus had shot up from his sleep in the midst of their nightmare and said, There’s nothing to be afraid of, it would have been a bald-faced lie. The dangers were real, from gravity to loss to the darkness of stormy seas. Yet still Jesus asked why are you afraid? It didn’t seem fair, really, to expect a man to not be afraid… even in the face of his own death. Or the uncertainty of his son’s life.
The father stood and walked to the front of the sanctuary. He pulled the rose from its vase. Drops of water splashed on the Communion table and made spots on his suit. It reminded him of his son’s baptism. He wondered what it would have been like to be on that ship with Jesus. And then, a quiet truth became as clear to him as the empty crystal vase. He was on the ship with Jesus. Or rather, Jesus was on the ship with him.
The storms were real. His grief was real. He couldn’t guarantee his son’s safety and happiness the way he desperately wanted to. But Jesus was with him. And Jesus was with his son; that he was sure of. He didn’t exactly stop being afraid, at that moment. But he trusted that no matter what storms may come, Jesus would be there, whispering peace, peace.