Fear at 30,000 Feet

He became frightened.

I invite you to contemplate that phrase. Hold the words at a distance, as if you were objectively curious. Bring the words closer, like a jeweler peering at a gemstone.

Personalize the phrase—I became frightened—and what is conjured? What in your life recalls, or is anxious over the arrival of, fear?

Though three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, John) include Jesus walking on water, only Matthew (Matt. 14:22-33) has disciple Peter speaking to Jesus in the “battered by waves” boat. In Matthew, Peter shouts . . . “If it’s you Jesus, command me to come to you.”

Jesus did.

Soon, however, Peter became frightened. In the Bible, fear often influences faith. It is part of Adam and Eve being tossed out of Eden. It is Joseph after his brothers abandoned him in a cistern (and then it got worse). It is with Esther in the court of King Ahasuerus. It is Jeremiah dreading becoming God’s mouthpiece. It is . . .


Back to Peter. Let’s retreat a verse to where his right foot stretched over the gunwales. His eyes, narrowed in concentration, are fixed on Jesus. The other disciples—again relegated to merely “the other disciples”—reveal a stew of reactions to Peter’s decision: envy, worry, trepidation.

Now let’s temporarily leave this liquid moment and settle into an airplane’s seat at 30,000 feet. Once, flying back to Fresno from a grand adventure, I dozed.

Sometimes I doze with no preparation. I’m tired or bored, or my book no longer interests me, and I drift toward Slumberland. But this was a time I planned to doze. After tucking the book away, I placed my glasses into the shirt’s pocket. I adjusted my body to pretend I could contort into a comfortable position in an airline seat designed for adults built like two-by-fours.

Dozing commenced.

Upon waking, I fished into the pocket for the glasses and lost my grip on them. Like an anchor without a chain, they dropped away. But where? Without glasses my world is a blur, a nearsighted smear of colors. Were they on the seat between my legs? No. Caught in a fold of my rumpled shirt? No. Did they leap back into the pocket? No. I strained against the seatbelt, groping along the floor with my hand. Nothing. I released the belt and used my book to sweep the carpet, hoping to shift the glasses from the side or front or back to bring them within reach.

I. Could. Not. Find. Them.

Within seconds, I went from calm to panic. My body tensed, my breathing accelerated. My nerve endings tingled.


What are you afraid of?

Flying itself guarantees fear for some. How about small, enclosed spaces? Or snakes? Snakes on a plane?

Many fear public speaking. In fact, I’m convinced that certain folks are lying when they depart church and express a big, juicy compliment about the sermon. The simple fact the preacher spoke in front of twenty or two thousand seemed a stunning achievement. To a person who dreads public speaking, preachers are little less than gods.

According to one website I glanced at:

A Gallup poll found that 40% of adults have a fear of public speaking. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once observed that at a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy!”

What of my fears? As my search became desperate, one was obvious. Without seeing, I am not in control.

During the flight I hadn’t said one word to the passenger beside me. Now, I muttered, “Can’t find my glasses. They dropped to the floor.” She (an elderly woman with glasses by the way) immediately volunteered to stand in the aisle so that I could expand my search.

Butt in the air, shoulders squished between seats, I found them. With the side temples neatly folded, they were under the metal bumper used for storing luggage on the floor. Every time I swept the area with hand, foot, or book, I’d struck that metal frame and searched elsewhere.

Back to soon-to-sink Peter. He became frightened. Matthew said it was after he “noticed the strong wind.”

Jesus seemingly misinterpreted Peter’s crisis. He asked, “Why did you doubt?”

DOUBT! Peter wasn’t doubtful, he was afraid! Frozen. Stunned. Scared out of his Birkenstocks. The wind was strong. Liquid ain’t cobblestones. Are you kidding, Jesus? Doubt?

And yet wasn’t it?

Fear = Doubt. One fear for me is not seeing. I know that’s more than living with 20/400 vision. When I am not in control, I doubt myself. And you. And God.

Fear and doubt are forever faith’s companions. They remind us of our limits, our foolishness. And, ironically, they are the fertile soil—or even the “battered by waves” water—where our faith may grow and deepen. Fear and doubt put their sweaty palms on me before I asked my wife to marry me. Fear and doubt cavort within my soul before typing the first word for a story on the blank computer screen. Fear and doubt ping-pong in my gut before I ask another for forgiveness.

I am thankful for that woman at 30,000 feet who moved to the aisle. Try another way. Keep at it.

Jesus didn’t misinterpret Peter’s panic.

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  1. After 25+ years in ministry, I’m in the position of having to put my faith where my mouth is. In the sermon that angered an elder to the point of his threatening to leave if I didn’t, I said (on Pentecost) that while I continually heard how generous we were – I wanted to know what we did besides pay off the building and the bills we accumulated each month. Oh, I didn’t stop there. No, I said that if we expected each member to tithe, then we should give 10% off the top to someone, something, anything but our own maintenance. Well, I did decide to resign and without a hint of another job. FEAR? You betcha! Then I remembered what I also said, “The Church isn’t going to die because we don’t have enough money, but i’m pretty sure it can die from lack of faith! So now I’m between trying not to look back at the security of that boat , not knowing if my feet are wet from sweat or water AND believing with all my heart that not allowing the pulpit to be bought was what I had to do.

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