Our daughter has recently acquired a new fear. I say acquired as we tend to collect fears in our family, like some people collect stamps. Ever since a seagull swooped down and took a chip —not even her chip, mind you, but a chip in the hand of someone standing nearby her— E has convinced herself that every bird, at every time, in every environment, is a chip-stealing, beady-eyed vigilante.
This fear of flying-chip-thievery has unfortunately coincided with us putting our dining table outside on the small covered porch to make more room in our moderate living area. When dinner is on the table, the relief of a summer night breeze sweeping through, E can be found stubbornly seated on the couch inside, declaring she won’t be joining us.
We’ve tried everything to talk her out of it. In fact, the ‘bird’ conversation is so frequent at our house now, even our three year old knows the script. And, being prone to sudden acts of independent thought lately, we’ve witnessed him freestyling his own attempts to convince her of the improbablity of her fears actually taking place.
‘But E,’ W says in his quirky intonation, with perfect pronunciation always: ‘I can’t see any sea. Seagulls live by the sea. So there are no seagulls here.’
‘But W….’ she says.
‘And I can’t hear any seagull sounds,’ he continues. W is, I think, destined to be a platoon of logic in a family often lost at sea in the swell of their imaginations. He also knows how to pace himself. After giving his sister’s stubborn face one more calm, considered glance, he gives up and runs outside, grabbing cold chips from the bowl on the table.
Dr M and I grow frustrated at her, why won’t she believe us??? We rail at eachother. But our railing lasts only long enough for the hypocricy of our words to weigh down the fever of our voices.
Aren’t we all afraid of something? Each and every one of us? And, as much as some fears are illogical (a seagull in the inner west of Sydney stalking a young family on their small, out of the way porch), many fears are not. As my dear older female counsellor (I like to call her ‘The Wise Woman’) once said to me when we were discussing my sense of near-permanent unease after my brother’s death: ‘The thing is Nikki, you feel like since the accident, the world isn’t safe.’
I remember squirming on her couch, waiting for her razor-clear correction to my misapprehension.
But instead she said gently. ‘Well, that’s because it’s true. It isn’t.
* * *
As usual, I’m aware my tone is leaning on the sombre side of the silly season. Who wants to talk about fear at Christmas? But when I thought about what I wanted to write in this just before Christmas moment, this ‘advent’ time, I realised quite simply that I wanted to say to others what I most need to hear myself.
Fear is real. But hope is real too. Fears come and go. Hope stays.
Along with the tinsel and wrapping paper and baubles we pull from the cupboard at this time of year (why do we have so many baubles?) all sorts of skeletons and fears also come out dancing.
I’ve recently been glad to see popping up in my social media feeds a number of posts about church services being held specifically for hurting people – for those have experienced loss. I remember going to one myself with my parents all those years ago and being touched by the way our loss wasn’t pushed aside but validated and tended to. The truth is, this time of year can send all the seagulls – real or imagined- swooping. But the message of this time of year is exactly for all of us weary, wary earth-dwellers.
Another flap of wings came down two thousand years ago. Not the feverish flap of seagull hunger, but angel wings, with a birth-announcement to feed a hungry world:
8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. (Luke 2:8-10)
I still remember when these words leapt out at me for the first time. It wasn’t quite as incongrous and miraculous as the angel visitation, but the occassion did have unexpected impact and clarity. We were at a pre-Christmas event and I was feeling my usual mix of comfortable-uncertain. I was happy to be with friends, but somewhere else in my mind was that other companion: anxiety.
I can’t recal now what I was worrying about (funny that) it was many years ago, before we had our own kids. But I remember standing at a table full of festive food in deep, distracted thought when one of of my closest friend’s daughters, C, a near cherubic vision of brown curly hair and smiling eyes, came up to me and started reciting, word perfect, the words of Luke 2, verse 10 above. The words the angel spoke to the close-to-the-earth shephards announcing the King of the World Saviour’s birth.
One of the things about the Bible that convinces me of its truth is its continuing relevance. This is a birth story that resonates through generations because it speaks to our deepest needs: hope and peace.
I’m no shepherd, but I know I’m keeping watch all the time. Not over sheep, or above for seagulls, but for other things. And for someone with their eyes always scanning the sky, always looking to the horizon for the next thing that may threaten or change or fuel my fear, this is good news indeed.
This birth is the proclaimation that I need to hear, again and again. And I can. Because unlike my ever shifting cast of fears, hope is permanent. And this story of hope is Christmas’ song.
Fear meets humble hope clad in swaddling cloth. Hope that grows to be love incarnate. Love and Hope that dies to take our fears to the grave. And in doing so gives us flight of new life.