In her sermon, Rev. Claire Megles shares her personal journey as a seminary graduate, recounting her experiences of undergoing Clinical Pastoral Education to transition from a teacher to a compassionate listener. Her narration encompasses her struggle to establish trust during hospice assessments amid COVID-19 protocols and a moving anecdote about a man named Jerry, who voiced his fear of not going to heaven due to his lack of baptism and church involvement. Megles uses this story as a lead into a discussion about fear, suggesting that open-ended questions can facilitate deep, meaningful conversations and help address these fears.
She subsequently draws upon the teachings of Psalm 27 to discuss the nature of fear and its frequent mention in the Bible, ultimately offering three solutions to overcome fear: memorizing and meditating on Scripture, prayer, and praising God. Through various personal anecdotes and stories, she underscores the immediate and long-term effects of these practices. Reverend Megles concludes her sermon by recounting the story of William Cowper, an 18th-century English poet and hymn writer who battled fear and depression, yet produced profoundly influential religious songs.
After graduation from seminary, those who plan to pursue ordination have to take at least one course of CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education. It’s a group course designed to train prospective pastors, rabbis, priests, and chaplains in real-life situations. My first CPE was with Father Ed Pahanich, an Orthodox priest right here in Pittsburgh. He tried very hard to help me unlearn being a teacher-teller and become more of a compassionate listener.
It was a hard series of lessons for me because I was used to being an instructor, having been a high school English teacher for many years. I wasn’t used to being the facilitator of a conversation. I was used to telling people things. So this was really tough for me.
And in fact, I took four CPE courses in my post-seminary education, and I’m still learning how to be a better listener. Well, one of the tools of chaplaincy is to ask open-ended questions, ones that ideally cannot be answered with a yes or no, but require the person to give a thoughtful reply that leads to further conversation. About a year ago, I visited the home of a man in his early 70s who had a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Now, our initial hospice assessment takes about an hour to complete.
And we take all kinds of information about family and church and job, as well as how well the patient is coping with actually coming on to hospice care. And it’s very hard to ask deep emotional questions on the first visit, but it was especially hard then because of the COVID protocols being in place. And so I was trying to establish an atmosphere of trust and just being comfortable when I have this mask on my face. It was very challenging.
I mean, I did that for two years and that was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to deal with. Well, Jerry, I’ll call him, was very matter of fact in most of his responses. And it showed the fact that he was getting overwhelmed all the commotion of several strangers coming into his home and asking probing questions. At the end of our interview, I felt the need to ask one of those open-ended questions, and I believe the Holy Spirit prompted me to do what I would normally say for a subsequent visit.
Jerry, I said, you have been given this cancer diagnosis and are now coming on to hospice care. So there must be a lot going through your head. Tell me, how would you finish this sentence? I am most afraid of. Well, Jerry didn’t hesitate, but immediately he said, of not going to heaven.
Well, to say the least, I wasn’t expecting that response. His wife, who was sitting on the sofa beside Jerry’s chair, looked at me and said, What did he say? You know, here, we’re all talking through masks. As if she couldn’t believe what she just heard. And I said, He said he’s afraid of not going to heaven.
Well, much to his wife’s credit, she too asked an open-ended question. She didn’t respond for him by saying, Of course you’re going to heaven. But she wisely asked, Why would you say that? And he responded again without hesitation, Because I’ve never been baptized and I didn’t really go to church much. In fact, he told me later, he said, You know, I don’t really understand why my parents never took me to church.
It’s like I just missed this whole portion of my life. Well, I could sense the importance of this confession, and immediately I replied, Do you want to be baptized? And his reply was a resounding yes. And so the next time I visited, I confirmed Jerry’s desire to be forgiven of his sins and follow the Lord. And I baptized him right in his living room with his wife there to support him.
And later he told me that he went upstairs after our visit and he lay down on his bed to rest and he had this overwhelming sense of peace that enveloped him and he knew he didn’t have to fear anymore. Well this morning we’re going to talk about fear using Psalm 27 as our text. In preparing for today, my research turned up a lot of material about fear. I found articles listing seven main types of fear, as well as 10 major fears, 12 common.
You’ve seen that when you Google something. I mean, some things, they just think there’s a number, there’s something magic, and you know, we get hooked. We click on it, you know? Plus there are more than 400 phobias, five major anxiety disorders, as well as various dreads and panics and horrors and frights. There can be a phobia for almost anything.
But two that I found interesting are arachibutrophobia, which is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. (audience laughing) Or nomophobia, which is the fear of being without your mobile phone. And that’s a real fear that a lot of people have. To some degree, we all have experienced some sort of phobia or another.
But generally, the fears that we experience are broader feelings– fear of abandonment, of loss of identity, of failure, of not measuring up. Fear can come on suddenly or be lifelong. We can spend our lives dreading the possibility of poverty or loss of love, of old age, and of death. And if I ask you to finish this sentence today, my biggest fear is, how would you answer? And how can we cope even if we recognize our fears? Well, Psalm 27 invites us to have a renewed faith in the God who will never desert us no matter what happens.
Life without fear is not possible, but faith can enable us to live into God’s will for our lives, rather than to be confined and hampered by our fears and insecurities. And just as a sideline, I think we have a better understanding of fears having been through COVID. I think it has helped us maybe to at least recognize our vulnerability and our limitations. Well, Psalm 27, a Psalm of David, is what has been termed a composite Psalm because it naturally falls into two sections that seem to contradict each other.
Verses one through six are bursting with confidence. And this section has been called by some commentators the triumph of a warrior’s faith. This section is altogether joyous and certain. He says, Though a host camp against me, my heart will not fear, and though war rise against me, in spite of this I shall be confident.
But in the next section, the tone turns despondent and pleading. Do not abandon or forsake me. Do not deliver me over to the desire of my adversaries. The contrast is so marked that some people feel that the two sections were joined by mistake.
But this change is very characteristic of David’s style. And I would say that it’s also characteristic of our own lives. For are we not elated one day and dejected the next? Praising God for His goodness in the morning and then calling out for God’s intervention by nightfall? I mean, isn’t that how we are? That’s how I am. This psalm was written most likely during the rebellion of King David’s son, Absalom.
Can you imagine the anguish of your own son trying to kill you? The dread of a younger and stronger man who is out to get you? David was the leader of a mighty army, the king with thousands at his bidding. And yet, here he is, fearful, wondering what’s going to happen next. David begins Psalm 27 with, The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? And just a few verses later, cries out, Do not hide your face from me, O Lord.
Don’t leave me now. I mean, you can hear the pleading. Show me the right path. And I would have fainted unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord the land of the living.
All expressions of great fear and anxiety. The Bible is full of references to fear. Angels appear and say what? Fear not. You know? Isaiah 41, Do not fear, I am with you.
Jesus says, Oh you of little faith, why are you afraid? Paul says, Be anxious about nothing. John says, There is no fear in love. Fear is throughout the Bible referenced to it. And so if we’re afraid, we shouldn’t take that as something unusual.
Well, so what can we learn from David’s experience of fear? How can we overcome fear in our own lives to wait upon the Lord, to be strong, and let our hearts take courage as David ends the psalm with. I would suggest three ways to combat fear that may appear simple on the surface, but I believe they are included in this psalm and give us the key to dealing with our deepest doubts and insecurities. First, we memorize and meditate on scripture. David says in verse four that he wants to be in God’s house where he can hear and meditate on God’s word.
Never underestimate the power of scripture. Perhaps many of you memorized verses as a child during Sunday school or vacation Bible school or church camp. I’m glad to hear you’re having a Bible school. And those kids, if you can have verses for them to memorize, they will stick with them.
and that can have a powerful impact on them. God can and does use those verses to pop up in your thinking whenever you need comfort. Several years ago, my best friend and I went to Presque Isle up near Erie for the day. And we stayed on the beach to watch the beautiful sunset.
Before we knew it, the sun had set and it got dark pretty quickly. We gathered up all our things and we’re headed to the car when this tall figure came toward us across the sand. Now it was dark, I mean, there was a tiny bit of light, but we couldn’t see anything. So we weren’t able to distinguish who this was, and so we just froze in our tracks, not knowing whether this tall figure meant us help or harm.
And as we stood there, I think I was too scared to pray, but suddenly I had this sense of peace wash over me. And a verse I had probably learned as a little girl filled my mind, At what time I am afraid, I will trust in thee. Everything seemed to be in slow motion as the man approached and said, Ladies, do you realize the beach is closed now? It was the beach patrol, wanting to clear the area. I can remember standing straight with my friend cringing behind me, holding onto my arm, and then hearing her breathe a sigh of relief.
In this case, fear was real. But I had committed Psalm 56.3 to memory decades before, and it surfaced in my thinking and brought me comfort. I knew that Psalm 46.
1 says, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble; therefore we will not fear. That was an example of a one-time scary situation, but committing God’s Word to memory can help us through long-term fear as well. God’s Word shows us the character of a loving God who never leaves us, whose right hand holds us fast, to whom the night is as bright as the day—all phrases from Scripture. So first, fear can be overcome through knowing God’s Word.
Secondly, we can overcome fear through prayer. Prayer can be something to address an immediate situation or as an ongoing request for God’s aid. Sometimes God chooses to answer our prayers instantly. Other times we can pray for years before we see the result we had hoped for.
When COVID first began to be widespread in early 2020, I woke up one morning having a panic attack. Now, for me, this was really an unusual event. But I sat up in bed with my heart pounding and a sense of utter dread of having to visit nursing homes and hospitals where there were people who had contracted this virus. My mind was racing with all kinds of scenarios where I might get the infection.
I had read an article about a priest in Italy who, with total disregard for his own safety, administered to hundreds of people with the coronavirus until he finally contracted the illness and died. His selfless actions had brought many unbelieving doctors to faith, but I wasn’t sure I wanted that to be my story too. And so I just desperately prayed out loud, and I said, Lord, you called me to be a hospice chaplain, But I do not want to go through each day with a feeling of panic, which I’m sure my patients would sense. Please, take this anxious feeling away from me.
When David says in verse 7, Hear, O Lord, when I cry with a loud voice, he wanted an immediate response. And you know what? God answered me. Almost immediately I felt this sense of calm, and I never had a panic attack again, even when I got COVID myself a year later. Many times I had to don all my protective gear from head to toe and pray with COVID patients, but I never felt the dread that I did that morning.
God can and does sometimes answer prayers immediately. But other times, God’s timing is in years, not minutes or days. Several years ago, I had the privilege of baptizing another hospice patient shortly before he died. His wife was crying, and I asked what caused the tears.
She said, I’ve been praying for this day for 25 years. For her, Wait on the Lord meant almost all their married life. Remember Jerry at the beginning of the sermon? What is amazing about this story is that Jerry’s son went to Grove City College, where he came to faith in Christ. But his son died of cancer ten years before I met Jerry.
He had his son’s Bible on the mantle of their home. As I suggested various passages for Jerry to read as a new believer, he would find that his son had marked some of those same verses. And now Jerry was reading with the eyes of faith, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Jerry Junior had prayed for his dad to accept Christ, and that even after the son’s death, God was faithful in reaching Jerry’s heart. Doesn’t that just give you chills? It does.
We can memorize scripture, and we can pray, and we can praise God. David says in verse six, I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy. I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord. In verse nine, he affirms, You have been my help.
We can rehearse God’s blessings to remind us that we can always have confidence in the Lord. I wanna close by sharing a little of the story of William Cowper. He was an 18th century English poet and an Anglican hymn writer. I add his story to say that many who suffer from anxiety or fear or depression struggle with illness that is beyond their control.
Famous preacher Charles Spurgeon suffered from depression. George Mueller, who established orphanages in 19th century Britain, struggled with constant anxiety but William Cowper whose songs we sing I don’t know if you know the song There is a fountain filled with blood do you know that one? Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins yeah he battled great fear in his life so much so that he had four major mental breakdowns and even tried to commit suicide. But he came under the influence of John Newton, pastor and writer of Amazing Grace. And even though his periods of depression, which he described as scrambling in the dark, even though they weren’t completely over, he came to faith and penned many stirring words of confidence in God.
In that song, he says, Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die. A fitting epitaph for any Christian. We have fears. That’s a reality.
We can either be controlled by them or walk with God through them. So how would you complete this sentence, I am most afraid of. Perhaps you’re like Jerry and fear that you won’t go to heaven. God is ready to forgive your sins and give you an eternal home if you desire to follow Him.
Perhaps you fear that your children will never come to faith. Pray and wait on God’s timing. Maybe you fear old age and its accompanying loss of faculties. Memorize scripture.
I watched a training video on Alzheimer’s disease, and the presenter said that even with dementia, we still connect to three things, songs, poetry, and prayer. It’s the rhythm of these forms of literature that create a different groove in our brains. So fill your life with hymns and psalms and the beautiful prayers that you read. I’m Anglican and we have the Book of Common Prayer and there are just beautiful prayers in there.
They will serve you well when your mind just might not. Do you fear loss of purpose or meaning? Perhaps with today’s inflation you fear your pension check won’t cover your expenses or you fear that an old addiction might be too strong for you to resist. Praise God for his character and faithfulness, for his blessings over your life. When you arrive at the answer to what you fear most, trust that God will help you deal with your fears through his word, through prayer, and through praise.
Verse 14 says, Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord. Amen.