Chapter 2

Fear

In my estimation, there are two primary ways that we can fear creation. An example of the first—and least pleasant of the two—would be the time when I struggled for my life on the backwaters of Lake Cumberland, Kentucky.

It was a hot afternoon in July, and my wife and I had gone there to spend a week on a houseboat. Houseboats are quite the thing on Lake Cumberland, whose 65,000 acres snake across 102 miles of mountainous shoreline. Given its sinewy shape and size, the lake has a seemingly endless number of small, isolated bays where one can retreat and feel lost to the world.

As our boat lay at anchor in a wooded cove, I decided to go for a swim. No one else was outside on the boat. Some dozed or read, others had taken jet skis onto the main lake. No matter. I’d always fancied myself a strong swimmer, so I lit out from the boat to the shore perhaps one hundred yards away.

By the time I reached the far side I was sorely winded—yet there was no place to rest. The bank rose almost vertically and the water was neck deep just a few feet from shore. I couldn’t stand and catch my breath, because the splintered shale bottom was an agony on bare feet. In my reckless pride, I saw no way out but to swim back.

Near the halfway point, a wave of fatigue slammed into my chest like a pail of wet cement. I was a runner then, and when runners tire, they ease into a jog. Not so a tired swimmer. As I slowed down, I began to sink. And flail. And panic. With terrifying certainty, I realized that even if someone heard me scream, I’d likely drown before they could pull anchor and maneuver the boxy houseboat into position to save me.

I may have cried, &lquo;Help me, Jesus!” but nothing more theologically profound than that. Although seconds later, I did recall a long-forgotten lesson from Army basic training that I’d learned in a Fort Knox swimming pool. It was called drownproofing, a simple technique for staying afloat indefinitely. It had seemed ridiculous at the time. When would a foxhole-digging, road-marching soldier ever leave dry land? But in that moment of crisis on Lake Cumberland, it was drownproofing that saved me. I was able to stop and tread water gently, which defused the panic. After a minute or so, I caught my breath and swam to the boat safely.

The near tragedy left me a shaken, if wiser man. I had new respect for how fast things could go bad in the water. More than that, I had a properly humble sense of my swimming ability: which was, in truth, mediocre. The verse, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (psalm 111:10), never rang more true.

When we’re afield in the great outdoors, prudent fear serves a God-given purpose. It triggers our internal alarm system and reminds us that nature, for all its innate goodness, does not suffer fools gladly. It teaches us that we’ll pay the price if we backpack into the wilderness without enough drinking water; capsize in a boat without a life vest; split firewood while shod in flip flops, or—my favorite in the stupidity sweepstakes—use poison ivy leaves for toilet paper during an urgent moment in the woods. I should know as I’ve been guilty of all the above, most painfully the poison ivy incident, which earned me a summer camp nickname that I’ll not repeat here.

As for the other kind of fear, well, it’s not really fearful. I refer here to holy fear, which in the biblical sense is more akin to reverence. Holy fear attunes us to the glory and majesty of God and his creatures. It helps us treat them with a modicum of care that reflects God’s love for us.

Prudent fear and holy fear may seem like polar opposites. In fact, they can be complementary, as I learned a few years ago when I took up beekeeping.

I first became a beekeeper because I wanted some food-producing “livestock” for our rural home that didn’t need to be fed, watered, butchered, or nursed with a bottle on a chilly April night. At least that was my official reason. Although I never said this out loud, I was also enamored by the whole beekeeper mystique: that of a Gandalf-wise naturalist who has sagely mastered a fear of homicidal, stinging insects from which lesser mortals flee.

Although at the start, it was fear that mastered me. For the first two years, I’d suit up for the bee yard as if steeled for mortal combat. And it wasn’t just the protective gear: the head veil and jacket, the leather-palmed gauntlet gloves, and the bee smoker that puffed away like a miniature steel dragon. Rather, it was the tough guy attitude, the “breast plate” that
I put on to compensate for my fearful lack of know-how and experience.

I was at that time more apiary Stormtrooper than beekeeper. I’d yank off the hive’s top cover—basically, a roof to the bee’s house—with little consideration for the 35,000 startled tenants inside. With anxious haste, I’d pry out the frames of comb and leave in my wake a gooey litter of smashed bees and ruptured honey cells. Oh well. Wasn’t a little collateral damage the cost of doing business? Weren’t the bees and their honey my property? Hadn’t I paid good money for them? In my profiteer’s treatment of creation, I’d supplanted God’s open-handed generosity with a tyrant’s greed for plunder.

My comeuppance came the day that I dropped two full frames of bees and honeycomb on the ground. In an instant, a cloud of buzzing malevolence engulfed me. Had I stood still the protective gear would’ve kept me safe. Instead, I ran off like a scared six year-old with my arms flailing overhead in chicken-dance fashion. (Not unlike my panicky swim moves on Lake Cumberland). Despite all the thrashing, two bees managed to find an opening in my pant leg and promptly stung me on the knee. Can’t say that I blame them.

For the next two weeks, I was too humiliated to go back in the hives. I’d just stand off to the side a few feet away, and for 15-20 minutes simply watch the bees come and go. As it turns out, I should’ve been doing that all along. For once I was able to relax in the bee yard. There was nothing to subdue or dominate. I began to see how factors such as temperature, cloud cover, and humidity affected the bees’ moods and activity level. I began to think more like a beekeeper, and less like a ham-handed tyrant who bought some mail-order insects to function as his personal honey slaves.

It was on a Sunday morning as I watched the bees come in go in the June sunshine that I first felt a sense of holy fear well up like a fresh spring of grace.

There was a “honey flow” on. This occurs when the bee’s favorite flowers are in peak bloom. Enraptured by so much abundance, the bees are too preoccupied to notice much of anything else. For a few anointed hours, they become as docile as butterflies.

I saw a beach-ball-sized cloud of bees, perhaps fifty or seventy-five, wait their turn to alight on the one-inchwide landing board at the hive’s entrance. It struck me as a divine trance of motion, an ancient harmony that hummed with the same mystery and power as an ocean or universe. On the incoming bees, pellets of gaudy yellow and orange clung to the pollen baskets behind their rear legs. Some were so overloaded that they wobbled into the hive. There, in wordless synchrony, these short-lived insects with brains the size of a dust mote were making the purest food this side of eternity.

Outgoing bees, unburdened of their loads, zoomed out for another round trip. They had learned the flowers’ location, which could be up to three miles distant, from a complex dance that other field bees perform in the hive to provide navigational cues. A dance they somehow learned to perform when they were all of fifteen days old. (It occurs to me that were I an atheist, beekeeping could prove dangerous to my disbelief.)

When I returned Sunday evening, a sentient hum emanated from the hive, where worker bees fanned the raw honey inside. Their myriad wings beat in such unison that drafts of nectar-perfumed air poured from the entrance as if from a hot air register. You could smell it from fifty feet away; a sweet effusion that could have wafted from the very gates of heaven. All night long, in the depths of the darkened hive, they’d fan away until the honey’s moisture content evaporated to 17 or 18 percent. Only then would they cap the finished comb with a skin of creamy white beeswax.

That was four years ago, and my hive-tending strategy has since become simple. After I’ve suited up in the barn, I pause for a moment and center myself with a simple prayer to the Holy Spirit. Once my work’s done, I offer thanks that no bee has seen fit to sting me and thus lose her life because I did something clumsy and hasty.

I haven’t been stung in three years, a safety record I attribute to luck and to those tranquil hours spent in observation. I’ve since learned what things aggravate bees, and I no longer do those things. When the hive’s buzz escalates into a certain angry pitch that all beekeepers know, it’s time to gently close the top cover and let them be.

Which is as it should be. Just as God has ordered the bee’s defensive nature, so has he ordered our higher nature. He’s given us the faculty of reason, perfected by grace, that we may know, love and care for creation. And “perfect love drives out fear” (1 john 4:18), a verse every beekeeper should write on their hearts—and maybe paint on the side of their hives. For that same love can steady the hand as it removes, with due care, the amber frames of capped honey, still furry with the gentle bees of the Lord.

Is there any reason for unholy fear when you’re thirty minutes away from a supper of venison chili with honey-slathered cornbread on the side? On a good afternoon in the bee yard, I am afraid not.

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