I grew up in a holler in southern West Virginia. If you’re not familiar with the term “holler” then you probably don’t know anything about apple butter festivals, muddin’ and snipe hunting either, so I’ll forego mentioning those in this post and just focus on the story. A holler is basically a valley between two mountains wide enough to put a trailer and a driveway. In my holler, we lived in the middle. My mamaw Rosie lived about 100 yards in front of my house, and my uncle and aunt lived about 100 yards behind. No one lived beside us, because after all, we lived in a holler.
As a kid, I often had to run errands between these three places. Most of the time, this just meant I had to pause Super Mario Brothers and accomplish my required chores before returning to jump on that duck on world 6 to get all my extra men. There were times, though, when this chore struck terror in my heart. (Sidenote: I’m afraid of the dark… or rather, I prefer the light. Is that so wrong? Should I be ashamed? I am a child of the light, and I don’t prefer total darkness.) It can get really dark in the hollers of West Virginia, so I had to psych myself up.
“You can do this. There aren’t really wild animals, mountain lions or black panthers that will attack you. No bad guys are hiding in the woods. You can do this… you’re 18.” I had a vivid imagination, with the tendency to ramble and get off track.
Anyway, my antidote to these fears was to make lots of noise. I would sing songs (“Some glad morning, when this life is o’er… #southerngospelkidproblems) or even rap (“Stop, Collabroate and listen, Ice is back with my brand new invention… #90skidproblems). I was convinced something was lurking in the shadows. Something bad, and terrible, and ferocious that would either eat me or torture me, and neither thought was too pleasing. Again, vivid imagination.
When the fear would reach a braking point, and it always reached a breaking point, an electrical impulse would fire and my body would surge into a dead sprint. I would run as fast as I could, completely assured that I was indeed faster than any animal or evil villain that would chase after me.
The only exception to this rule was when I had a friend sleeping over at my house. When they joined me on this walk “through the valley of the shadow of death,” I was a completely different person. I would talk, laugh, and cut up. I would even attempt to scare them. But I wasn’t scared. For reasons unknown to me at the time, having another human being walk through that dark holler in the night with me made the wild animals and evil people leave me alone.
Can you identify with that? Have you ever been in a situation that was frightening and fear-inducing, but then the fear subsided when another warm-blooded human body joined you. Just having somebody there, knowing you didn’t have to be alone in the dark, was enough to calm your anxiety, silence the terror and free your heart from the grip of fear. I’ve come to recognize this as the power of presence.
God knows how we’re all wired. He drew up the schematics, He created the wires, and He knows what’s inside. He knows that when we get alone, we’re more prone to experience fear, anxiety, worry, stress and terror. Especially when we’re alone, and its dark. Darkness is not limited to physical darkness, intense as it may be. It can be dark emotionally, when the depression rests on your heart and fear grips you like a vice. In the dark, physical or emotional, humans are capable of a tremendous amount of terror, fear and anxiety. But just having someone we trust in the room with us… the power of presence.
Jesus’ last few words in the book of Matthew highlight a reality that I think we forget far too often.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
His last sentence on the planet: “I am with you… always.” The last word Jesus gives is a promise of His continuing presence. “I am with you” is a formula given to God in the Old Testament. It reminds us, at the end of the book, that Jesus is still Emmanuel, “God with us.”
And He is with us always. Literally, Jesus promises to be with us “all the days.” His presence will be with us day by day by day. He has promised to be with us, day in and day out.
And that’s good news, even when it’s dark outside.