Most of the time, trees are pleasant company. But not always.
Once upon a time, there was a dark forest. The trees in this forest were drawn like angry scribbles. They were like jagged bolts of lightning sticking up from the ground. The trees in this forest were bent like wicked claws.
As you picture this dark forest in your mind, please search your imagination. Look for any trace of color green. You must be ruthless. Every shade of green must wither. It must darken into rotten blotches of brown and gray. There is no room for green in this dark and dreary place. It doesn't belong here.
* * *
Argos found himself standing on the outskirts of the dark forest. The path beneath his feet was poised to carry him forward, but he stood without moving. Ahead of him, the path simply vanished into shadow. The path disappeared down the throat of the dark forest.
As he stood there with uncertain feet, Argos could feel the breath of the forest on his face. It emerged from the trees. The breath of the dark forest was sweet and pungent, like good soil. It wasn't a bad smell. But it was unsettling. The breath of the forest was the first touch of something big and dangerous.
Argos took a step forward. Unseen cobwebs brushed his face.
As he walked deeper into the dark forest, Argos felt a growing sense of dread. The branches overhead grew thicker and more tangled. All those claw-like branches strangled the light before it could reach the ground. The landscape grew darker.
"Oomph!" As he walked along, Argos stumbled. He had to take several quick steps to keep his balance. When he looked back, Argos could see a knobby root stretched across the path. Like everything else in the dark forest, the root was twisted and dark. It was a snare of malevolent wood.
"Be more careful!" Argos warned himself. In the murky light, he watched for roots and stones on the trail. He watched for branches hanging low. He watched for thorns and cobwebs.
Argos tripped again. Again, he kept his balance by taking a quick step. He looked back and saw another misshapen root rising from the ground. Argos eyed it with suspicion. "Where did you come from?" he demanded.
When the root made no reply, Argos resumed his journey. He kept careful watch. Just before he tripped for the third time, Argos caught a glimpse of movement. A stubby, little figure ran onto the path. It lifted gnarled arms and grabbed his foot. Argos stumbled. He staggered. But when he turned, there was nothing on the path but a dark and twisted root.
Argos stared at the root. He tried to reconcile the shape with what he remembered of a strange little figure running onto the path. Tentatively, Argos poked at the root with his toe. It appeared to be solid. Just to be sure, he leapt into the air and came down onto the root with both feet.
The sound of laughter tumbled out of the forest and onto the trail. Argos froze. His eyes were wide and his ears strained for the sound to repeat itself. There was only silence. "It must have been a bird," Argos tried to reassure himself.
He said this, even though Argos had not seen a bird since entering the forest.
Finally, the path beckoned him forward. Argos went deeper into the forest. By this point, all the trees around him were crowded together. They were like many fingers on one hand. Overhead, the branches wove together. It was like walking through a tunnel.
The forest was still. There was no breeze. There was nothing alive to hop from tree to tree or scurry along the ground. Argos couldn't hear anything but the sound of his own feet striking the path.
There was a rustling sound behind the trees. A trickle of laughter leaked out onto the trail. Argos stopped in his tracks. He strained to listen. He tried to peer through a gap in the trees. There was nothing to see. There was nothing to hear.
When Argos took a step forward, the laughter returned. A small, vaguely human shape appeared at the edge of the trail. The little creature wore a malevolent grin. It's every feature was made of gnarled wood. With surprising speed, it scampered onto the trail and grabbed Argos by the toe.
Predictably, Argos stumbled. He shouted a cry of alarm: "Waah!" As soon as he could, Argos whirled about. His hands curled into fists as he prepared to defend himself. But when he looked down on the trail, there was nothing to see but a twisted root. "I saw you!" Argos cried. He bent down and grabbed the root with both hands. "I saw you!" he repeated. Argos pulled at the root until beads of sweat appeared on his face. He pulled until his hands were chaffed. Stubbornly, the root refused to budge.
Argos had given so of his attention to the root, that he failed to notice the approach of another traveler. She, however, was keenly aware of Argos. He stood in the center of the trail, heaving at a root and muttering grim curses beneath his breath.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
Argos screamed. His hands sprang from the root and fluttered in the air like startled birds. Struggling to regain his composure, Argos cried, "Sweet beans and gravy! You scared me right out of my socks."
"Yeah," nodded the second traveler. "I kind of had that impression, too."
"My name is Argos," said Argos.
"I'm Pella," said Pella.
"Look," Argos confessed, "I know this is going to sound crazy. But I think there is an evil gnome around here. I heard it laugh. And it keeps trying to trip me. It runs out onto the trail and grabs my foot. But then it vanishes. Or maybe it turns into a root.."
"Yeah," Pella agreed. "That's weird."
"This place gives me the creeps," Argos said.
"I know," Pella sighed. "But don't worry about the gnome."
Argos stared at Pella. "What do you mean?" he asked. "That thing freaks me out. It comes running out of the forest, ‘Ha, ha, ha! I'm going to trip you!' Creepy."
"Yeah," Pella agreed. "But it's just a gnome, right? It's like four inches tall."
Suddenly, Argos felt a little defensive. "You have to see it," he said. "It's really creepy." "I'm telling you," Pella said, "Don't worry about the gnome. Seriously." And then, her eyes grew wide. She placed an urgent hand on Argos. She said, "If you want to worry about something, worry about the Twiggenblinkers."
Argos took a step back. "That sounds terrible," he whispered. "What is it? Oh raspberry tart! What's a Twiggenblinker?"
* * *
Pella pointed to the tangled branches overhead. "It lives up there," she explained. "It has long arms. Each finger is like a sharp stick of wood." She rounded her shoulders, so her arms dangled down before her. Her fingers were curled into claws. Gracefully, as if caught in a breeze, Pella allowed her arms to sway back and forth. "It waits for you," she said. "It waits until you are very near."
Pella leaped at Argos, her fingers were aimed like daggers at his eyes. She stopped short, but Argos took a frightened step backward. Pella explained, "With it's terrible wooden claws, the Twiggenblinkers will skewer your eyes."
"Toast and jam!" Argos exclaimed. "That's horrible!"
Pella nodded. "Like I said, don't worry about the gnomes."
* * *
Argos and Pella kept walking down the path.
Eventually, the two travelers came upon a third. A mand named Sestos was standing there, clutching his face with both hands. There was a bright trickle of blood, leaking trough his fingers.
"Sweet buttery popcorn!" Argos cried. "A Twiggenblinker got him!"
"Those things are a blasted nuisance," the man agreed.
Pella and Argos were incredulous. Argos observed, "In this case, I think you might be justified using a stronger word.
"Yeah," Pella agreed." "Did you, um.. lose both eyes?"
The man pulled his hands away, revealing one small slash across his cheek. "I didn't lose anything," he snapped. "Those Twiggenblinkers are myopic. They can't see worth beans. It's probably why they are so obsessed with eyes."
Pella was bewildered. She asked, "Aren't you afraid of Twiggenblinkers?"
"Maybe you are afraid of gnomes," Argos suggested.
"No and no," Sestos replied. "A nuisance and a bother. Why should anyone be afraid of those?" Dabbing at his injured cheek, Sestos continued, "There is only one thing to fear in all the dark forest. Let me tell you: It isn't the Twiggenblinkers. And it certainly isn't those chuckle-headed gnomes."
"What is it?" Argos asked.
Sestos narrowed his eyes. Flecks of dried blood stained his whiskers. The wound gave him a look of authority. He spoke as a grizzled veteran. Sestos glanced from Argos to Pella. "Alright," he said at last. "I will tell you. Right before you entered this place, did you feel the breath of the forest upon you?"
Argos remembered the sweet, pungent smell of good soil. He remembered the rhythm of breath on his face. "I do," he said. "I remember that."
Sestos nodded. "You felt the breath of Grandma Hum. She is the true heart of this forest. If Grandma Hum told these trees to dance, they would pull up their roots and dance. With one sweep of her hand, she could clear the ground. She could raise a mountain here, or pull the land down and make a lake."
"Judging by the forest," Argos said, "her lake would most certainly be a uniform shade of brown. It would be choked with weeds, and full of nasty little creatures that want to poke you in the eye."
Sestos pointed down at the trail. "When you step into the dark forest, Grandma Him decides where you will go. She can give you straight passage to the other side. Or, she can twist the road into knots. She can run you back and forth until your feet are worn to the bone and all your food is gone. Once you set foot in this forest, you belong to Grandma Hum. She decides what will become of you.
"Now," Sestos concluded. "Was there anything else you wanted to say about brown lakes and nasty creatures?"
Argos gulped. "Actually," he said, "I really like brown.... Oh, sweet beans and bacon. I'm doomed."
"You don't know that," Pella observed. "Maybe Grandma Hum is really nice."
"Nice?" Argos was clearly skeptical. "What nice Grandma is going to make a dark forest, completely devoid of sunlight and full of eye-poking monsters?"
Pointedly, Pella examined Argos from head to foot. "What are you complaining about?" she asked. "There's not a scratch on you."
Argos threw his hands into the air. "Let's see if I follow your logic," he grumbled. "Grandma Hum must be a kindly old lady. And why is that? Oh yes, because I'm not dead yet. Yes, that sounds right. Until I die, we can assume the architect of this horrible, freaky place is actually sweetness and light."
Pella's eyes flashed with anger. "If you ask me," she said, "Grandma Hum has done you a favor."
"Oh really?" Argos replied. "Let's hear it. Lima beans and soda crackers. Let's hear all about this great favor that Grandma Hum has done for me."
"Not only are you still alive," Pella replied. "You've overcome your fear of gnomes."
"I didn't overcome my fear," Argos protested. "I just switched targets."
"Exactly," Pella agreed. "You stopped fearing gnomes, and you started fearing the Twiggenblinkers." Pella pointed to Sestos, who raised his hands in preemptive surrender. "But then you met Sestos. He called them a nuisance. So now you're no longer afraid of Twiggenblinkers, either. Are you?"
"Maybe a little less afraid," Argos agreed.
"So now, all your fear is directed toward Grandma Hum. But what if she's nice? What if she's a sweet person, with unconventional ideas about arboreal beauty? If that's true, then all your fears have been replaced something nice.
"I'd say that is a big favor."
Argos asked, "What if she isn't nice?"
"Don't worry," Pella replied. "I'm nice."
Pella vanished. The trees parted. The path beckoned. Argos and Sestos stepped forward toward the future.
* * *
Here's what the Psalmist will tell you. "Fear God, and you will be saved from all your fears." It's a strange idea, isn't it?
Here's a little experiment.
Open the bag of assorted fears that you keep tucked away in the back of your mind. Take a look. Which fear is closest to the surface, this morning? What's causing you to be afraid? Maybe it has something to do with the economy. Maybe it has something to do with your health. Maybe you're afraid on behalf of someone else: you fear for the safety of your children, for your parents, for someone you love.
What is the fear that arises in you this morning?
Now, imagine something worse.
Think of alligators. Think of complete financial ruin. Think of yourself behind the wheel of a car with no brakes. Think of some situation that would shove your everyday fears into the distant background.
There is a hierarchy to fear. That's how it works. A big fear can make the little ones go away.
God knows this about us. And God says, "Alligators? Earthquakes? Financial ruin? My credentials are greater than all of these." God says, "I am greater than every worry you might have. So let me take the place of your greatest fear." God says, "Let me be like the big fear that pushes all the little ones aside."
Fear God, and you will be saved from all your fears.
Because God loves you. And your fear will be eclipsed by love.