He didn’t ride a horse every day. But he wore jeans and cowboy boots all the time. On the rare occasion that he did saddle up our old horse Sugar, my dad was impressive. Especially to Peggy, my neighbor. Both four years old, she was then my only friend who wasn’t related to me. So her opinion mattered. A lot. When she saw my dad ride up to the house one day on old Sugar, she said, “Your dad’s a REAL cowboy.” Remembering the tick he pulled off my dog the day before, I said, “And he’s not afraid of ANYTHING.”
I didn’t know then how true my dad would prove those words over the next 50 years. Life didn’t always pan out the way Dad would have wanted. As an adult, I can now empathize with a clarity that life eventually bestows. A brilliant mind, Dad graduated high school at 16 and spent time working at the Institute of Nuclear Physics. To put himself through graduate school, he sold encyclopedias, toys, and windows door-to-door while working as a motel night clerk and at a feed yard. He served in the military. He was finally on his way in his career. But then Dad decided to forego a prestigious scientific research internship in Australia because his mother didn’t want her only son half a world away. I can relate. In the 1950s, I’m sure Australia seemed like Mars.
When my dad was 34, he lost his own father and did the noble task of taking over the family farm, despite promising aspirations of a PhD in Physics and a lucrative career. Profit was scarce and creditors were harsh for family farmers, so to supplement his farming income, he taught high school chemistry and physics and started the first adult education program in our school district. While raising four kids and farming, he earned a new degree in accounting in the evenings so he could (temporarily) keep that family farm. Last year, his wife of almost sixty years was diagnosed with colon cancer. Now he fights kidney failure, prostate cancer, emphysema, and other physical limitations. But he still runs his own accounting business at age 82.
At the death of my husband’s mother, my dad said he couldn’t really relate. Nothing bad had ever happened to him in his life. That’s my dad. I don’t remember him ever complaining or wallowing in pity. He always managed to garner some courage and move forward, always looking ahead. He is the most resilient person I know. He never let fear steal his joy.
For most of us, though, fear is a big threat to joy. Maybe the biggest. Jesus knew it would be, for us navigating this life. His most common command was along the lines of “Don’t be afraid.” He used it (or a version of it) 21 times in the New Testament. His distant second command involved loving God and loving others (a mere eight times). Sadly, fear motivates nearly all world religions. Skye Jethani explains in his book With that we are all afraid. If we can control our world, we think we can alleviate that fear. But God didn’t intend for it to be that way. Only God’s perfect love casts out fear. Nothing else removes it: not knowledge, not control, not comfort, not health. To ignore God’s mercy is to feed your fear. He wants us to have our joy back. So He sent Jesus to tell us that fear is stealing it away.
That first year, I remember my cardiologist in Cleveland stopping in the middle of her check-up with me. She took out a tissue after delivering another round of bad news. “What scares you?” the usually rushed, highly sought-after surgeon asked me. I thought that was a strange question for someone in her shoes. It caught me off guard. I swallowed hard and I felt that huge lump in my throat. My husband jumped in for me. “We want our grandchildren to know her.” The doctor handed him a tissue, and rolled over on her chair to the exam table where I was sitting. She took both of my hands in hers. Sensing sympathy, I found even more tears to shed. Being unusually transparent, I said, “Transplant……not too soon, not too late. People only live 10 years with their new heart. I don’t want to miss my chance to get one, but…” And she finished my sentence for me, “…you don’t want to start the clock too soon, either.” I nodded. The cardiac-surgeon-turned-counselor just looked at me and I noticed then that she was crying, too.
If I’m being honest, those fearful days did steal my joy. Temporarily. Truly, joy’s biggest enemy is fear. But fear’s strongest antidote is courage. And according to Dorothy Bernard, “Courage is simply fear that has said its prayers.” The support I got from the people who never tired of propping me up in prayer pulled me above water. Time and time again. Throughout this battle, one of my biggest prayer warriors has been my dad. Maybe because he’s my dad. But maybe because he’s fought joy-stealers all his life. And won.