From fears and phantoms of the night
The aeroplane began taxiing towards the runway, amidst seemingly endless preparations for take-off. We were running 30 minutes late. The aircraft itself was an elderly specimen, run by China Southern Airlines. There was none of the modern personalised entertainment systems, with screen on the reverse of the seat in front and with a personal handset, from which to choose music or films or games. Rather, this was one of those planes where there was a shared monitor, above the aisle, several rows in front, which was lowered when needed, and the film available was offered on a Ďtake it or leave ití basis. No choice.
I sat back and relaxed. Looking up, my attention was caught by smoke billowing out from a space in the roof. Looking down the cabin, I could see the same smoke emerging all the way along the interior of the aircraft. In mild alarm, I looked over where the cabin crew were busy doing what cabin crews do. They seemed entirely unconcerned. They surely couldnít miss the smoke, which was now pouring uniformly along the entire cabin.
My imagination pressed into overdrive, and in the space of a very few seconds had conjured up all manner of horrifying scenarios. How might the rest of the family get out of here safely? Would we all suffocate; or, at the very least, suffer from smoke damage to the lungs, which could severely handicap us for the rest of our lives? Was something about to burst into flames and result in our deaths on the tarmac of Hong Kong airport? How would our youngest son, the only member of the family not on this trip, cope on his own? In fact, how would they contact him, since he was in the midst of a jungle in Trinidad, doing biology things and catching birds? I had his satellite emergency contact, but with me dead no-one would know where to find it. Mild alarm began giving way to wild terror.
Suddenly, a memory from a long-forgotten flight as a teenager reminded me that I had seen such smoke before. It was moisture from the archaic air conditioning system. I relaxed for take-off. Panic over, having lasted about 30 seconds.
I have a theory that the human race is divided into two kinds of people. There are those who have no imagination, and would struggle to identify a threat if it were a passenger train bearing down on them at high speed. The rest of us, to varying degrees, are susceptible to Ďthe fears and phantoms of the nightí, whereby we find ourselves exploring, in our mindís eye, all kinds of unlikely possibilities, designed to terrify and horrify in equal measure.
David of old knew what it was to face both threatening troubles and paralysing fears. He also knew that God promises deliverance from both. There was one particular low point in Davidís life when he was overcome with fear. He had parted from his dear friend Jonathan, having been warned that Saul was, indeed, intent on killing him. He fled, and found himself on his own with no resources. He had no weapons with which to defend himself, no bodyguards to protect him, no friends to accompany him and no food to sustain him. He was utterly destitute and desolate.
He went to Nob, where he secured, of all things, the sword that had belonged to Goliath - itself a reminder to him, surely, of Godís deliverance when he was young. Yet David allowed his fears to overwhelm him. Inexplicably, he sought refuge among the enemies of Israel, the Philistines at Gath. An almost comic scene is depicted -David going to the home of Goliath, carrying the sword of Goliath whom he had slain, joining the very people who had lionised Goliath, and expecting either to be welcomed or not to be recognised. In the end, amidst his great fear, he had to feign insanity to escape with his life.
This episode does not reflect very well on David. However, he clearly learned a great deal through it, as he recorded in Psalm 34:
I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears v.4
It is instructive that David recognised not only that was he under great pressure from his many (very real) troubles, as Saul pursued him and the Philistines threatened him, but that he was also under great pressure from his fears. Clearly, he was a man whose imagination could work against him.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps
round those who fear him, and delivers them. V.6-7
There is a promised deliverance. That is not the promise of an exemption from trouble. There would be no need of deliverance if that were the case. The Lord does promise to be with us and deliver us either from, or in the midst, our troubles. It seems likely that David wrote this Psalm after fleeing the Philistines of Gath, in the cave of Adullam where, initially at least, his situation had changed little. He continued to be in danger, pursued by Saul, alone and destitute. But what had changed was his conviction that the Lord was with Him in the midst of it all, and so his fears were calmed.
Our aeroplane landed at Beijing airport, on the north-east of the city centre. It is a truly vast place. Think big and then make it many times bigger. It is mind-numbingly huge. Despite the enormity of the place, and the scale of population passing through it, we were duly met by a driver as arranged with the hostel I had previously booked.
Having arrived late in the afternoon, it was rush hour on Beijingís motorway network. I have never seen such gridlock. There were choked lanes as far as the eye could see. This did not faze our driver whose imaginative solution was to make frequent use of the hard shoulder, and lane-weave with terrifying confidence. Philip sat in front with him and won the manís instant friendship by chatting to him in Mandarin. Indeed, when we departed a week later, the family who ran the hostel showered us with gifts, surely because Philip had passed the time of day with them, every day, in their own language. Meanwhile, the rest of us smiled sweetly.
By the time we reached the old part of Beijing, where our hostel was located, darkness had fallen. We turned off a main street into one of the traditional hutongs (alleys). It was seething with people, and bikes, and carts, and endless to-ing and fro-ing in and out of cramped shops. I could not envisage how our driver could possibly navigate this narrow artery, amidst such a press of people and all the movement and commerce. I was both captivated, and intimidated, by the sheer quantity and intensity of human life in such a small space. This was a place where people lived and worked and ate and socialised. There were braziers and barbeques pouring flames and cooking meats and vegetables. We passed a barber shop where a man lay back getting his hair trimmed. There were seed-stores and sweet-sellers and hardware stands and a boy rolling out noodles on a pavement cooking table. Behind him, a woman washed dishes in a big stone sink. The lights of a butcher shop illumined men in white coats hacking at carcasses. I spotted another rack of barbequed chicken legs on display and another table with candied fruits and baskets of nuts. There was a kaleidoscope of noise and smells, an assault on the senses that both intoxicated and overwhelmed.
Miraculously, our driver squeezed us through to our destination and we left the sounds and smells and crush of people behind to enter the hostel. Our rooms were off a traditional Chinese siheyuan (houses formed around an open courtyard). We entered and found ourselves in the courtyard, potted plants blooming in every available space. At one end, a pond full of carp was surrounded and covered by great splashes of green foliage. Chairs and tables were arranged to be areas of relaxation under colourful canvas canopies. The relentless bustle and noise of the hutong melted away into some unpleasant dream, the noise obscured by the relaxing sound of flowing water and the singing of the parrots in cages hung behind the pond. We found ourselves in a wondrous haven of peace and relaxation, even whilst a few yards away the hutong was throbbing with activity.
Peace and tranquillity amidst the din and commotion of frenetic human activity.
The Lord does not always take us out of the troubles in which we find ourselves but He does offer deliverance from our fears and His peace amidst those troubles.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!