For the last few weeks, I find myself overcome with irrational dread.
It made no sense; I couldn’t understand it, articulate it to myself, or explain it to others. I tried. I tried to tell people about upcoming events and the dread, but I could never justify it. I wasn’t nervous, unhappy, scared of something, or particularly worried about any concrete things. No. It was just irrational dread, what the Bible even calls a spirit of dread or fear (2 Timothy 1:7). And it was the kind of dread that anticipates some kind of disaster.
It’s no wonder: I think we live more and more in dread because of actual disasters happening around us, and it cultivates the propensity to dread all day long. But dreading doesn’t help anyone, solve any problems, or move us forward. It’s an emotion that freezes you in place and truncates all your fruitfulness and movement outward. It closes you in. It stops you.
I’m driving around, battling this dread, and I remember the phenomenon in Psalm 53:3 of those who lived “overwhelmed with dread where there was nothing to dread.” I remembered the command about not living in dread (Isaiah 8:13); in fact, God Himself is the only One we can fear or dread (Isaiah 8:14). I prayed fervently with my husband that God would remove the spirit of dread and replace it with the power, love, and sound mind solution of 2 Timothy 1:7.
I’m not particularly prone to think about demonic enemy attack, but I know it’s real, powerful, and works to thwart, paralyze, and confuse. I knew some kind of spiritual dread operated because I wanted to quit, shut down, and hide. I wanted to run away from my own life. And it made no sense at all.
I’m so thankful I sat with the Lord, prayed with Ashley, and thought about what scripture teaches about dread. Now I know what it feels like, what it does in my heart, and how to stand firm against it.
There was nothing to dread.
I’m in an airport in Charlotte, NC, and a man approaches me.
“You’re Dr. Holleman. I had you for English class like 8 years ago. When I was a freshman! Do you remember me?”
“My goodness! Tell me your name again,” I say, scanning through a thousand student names in my brain. He looks so mature, so professional–nothing like the ball-capped, hoodie wearing eighteen year old of nearly a decade ago. But I know him. I know him.
He reintroduces himself and tells me that he’s a lawyer now, on his way to a wedding with all his friends. I congratulate him on all his success in life after Penn State.
He looks at me and says this: “You know, I remember that day you read every students’ best sentence aloud to the whole class. I loved that day when you did that.”
I went back to the beginning in my memory, back when I struggled over lesson plans and ways to motivate those Penn State freshmen, back when I wondered how to help anyone write better anyway, back before my list of vivid verbs and refined techniques. I remember wanting to encourage those freshmen, really encourage them and celebrate their writing in some public way.
So I did. I took the best sentence of each essay, and I just read each one out loud, pausing to note the excellence of a well-chosen word or a particularly wise use of punctuation. Students beamed, simultaneously proud and embarrassed.
That was it. I moved on into my day, into a teaching life that would span years and years. My hair would start turning grey and my pen and paper lessons would turn into PowerPoints.
“I need to do that again!” I laugh.
And I do. I make a PowerPoint this afternoon of the best sentences in every Signature Story. We will celebrate publicly. We will cheer as we give courage, hope, and confidence to writers lacking it. Like most moments in teaching, this one may or may not stick or make any difference.
But maybe it will.
I consider how lush the vine was, how vibrant, how boisterous with shouting yellow blossoms and leaves the size of heads. I consider how it overtook the yard, dominating and persistent, growing faster than we could manage.
And then, I note the shriveling away of all that display. I note what remains, firm and bright and enduring.
In a pumpkin patch, everything falls away eventually but the pumpkins themselves. They prove the health of the vine. I consider evaluating the fruit of any endeavor. No matter how glamorous, large, or expansive work becomes, what matters is lasting fruit.
I read Psalm 10 and wonder what it means to make more room for God in all my thoughts. The psalmist writes, “In his pride the wicked does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.” Other translations indicate the main thought of the wicked person is simply, “There is no God.”
As someone always thinking, always analyzing, and always wondering about everything (I’m a walking existential crisis), I consider again what it means to make room for God in every thought and to proclaim in every situation that God is here. There is a God! He is here!
As I teach on worship and experiencing God in every moment, I ask people to note God’s power, provision, providence, and perspective in the regular activities of their day. It’s a way to put our hope in Him “all day long” (Psalm 25:5).
In all our thoughts, opinions, and words that we sling about today, I think about making more and more room for God and less and less space for my own flawed reasoning.
Information comes too fast to process. The news from Las Vegas keeps my students’ attention as the one student from Las Vegas checks in with her family and friends.
We talk about it.
We pause. She cries. We pause again. We watch the news. We talk about it.
It feels like more news we cannot categorize or make sense of, like the devastation of hurricanes too big for us to contain in our minds, but we sit with it. We don’t let the information hide in the rubble of a million other alerts, updates, photos, and headlines.
One student says, “Every day, it’s something else.”
We pause, sit still, and don’t move on to the next thing.
I’ve been thinking about Jeremiah 10:23 and these wise words:
“Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps.”
I think about what it means to truly believe my life belongs to God, not me. I think about allowing God to direct my steps, not me.
As I learn about Lawrence Chamberlain and his faith in Christ, I note the letter he composes to his wife when he believes his own death nears. He describes Christ as his all-sufficient savior and the peace his heart knows as a result of being forgiven by God.
Chamberlain survives and works for the healing of the nation as a true leader. In battle, I learn how, in the “fog of war” when we can’t see clearly, we do three things no matter what that Chamberlain demonstrates: care for people well, keep courage, and inspire fearless action. I think of one of the first Bible verses I loved from Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and of good courage, for the Lord your God goes with you. He will not fail or forsake you.” I think of what it means to serve as a courageous shepherd.
We study about what it means to bring those we lead into great, loving community that doesn’t end there. The goals of community focus outward to the battle, to the mission.
Good leaders devote themselves to the welfare of people and foster courageous action.
I’m in Gettysburg this weekend, and last night, I learned again the critical value of that first glance of terrain. The army that secures the high ground gains certain victory; they win clear vision, gravity’s assistance, time, and morale.
I consider what it means to gain the high ground in spiritual battle. I think about the high ground of understanding a view from eternity, about knowing scripture well, about seeing how the enemy advances, and about taking decisive, confident steps forward.
So much about the course of the three day battle of Gettysburg hinged on vantage point. So much depended on gaining high ground. One of my counselors told me the value of studying warfare tactics in our battle against the enemy of our souls. Nothing compares to seeing clearly, with the mind of Christ, from the high ground of scripture.
When students gain confidence as writers, some beautiful things start happening: They hold up their parade of Instagram posts to brag about vivid verbs and semicolons. They report writing risks like submitting articles for publication, and the class cheers for each other when they see their writing in print in the college newspaper.
They send thoughtful emails that they just might consider writing more because they enjoyed the Signature Story so much. They just might write more personal essays not required of them in class, and they just might send them along to me for feedback.
They begin inhabiting the writing life.
They say things like, “I really thought I could write before this class. But now I know what it means to write.”
They stand by my desk, laptops propped open like shark jaws balanced on their palms, and they point to the screen to celebrate a colon, an isolated sentence, and a perfect use of parentheses.
They send me links to something they read online because they noticed the authentic written voice. You’ll love it! Read this! Tell me what you think.
They insist I read how complex that last sentence became–not just because of grammar, but because of how the grammar made the insightful thought come out on the page.
The writing lessons get to them. They get in them.
And now, they write what they alone can say.