“...in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!”
- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
I had a strange experience last night.
It was late - after 10pm. I went for my customary walk and pray through the large park behind the roads where I live. It’s my time to close one week and open another one: something of a lifeline. I listen to my thoughts, to the silence, and to God.
Last night, was a dark night and misty.
I got to the park and could only see three or four steps in front of me as I walked, so thickly was I surrounded by fog. I quickly got lost, even though I know the park well. Trees loomed up out of the darkness. Unexpected hills and dips in the ground took me by surprise. It was surreal. Strange. Uncanny.
Suddenly I heard a footstep behind me; I froze. It might not sound very scary now, but believe me, my heart was hammering. Then more footsteps, not far off. But I was completely blind to who it was. I began to walk away. The footsteps followed, unevenly. Pad, pad... pad, pad pad...
I headed out to the open green, away from the path and the footsteps didn't follow. I walked on through the pale sea on my three foot round island of grass, blindly.
Unexpectedly, oddly (I thought I'd walked in a straight line), some time later I found myself back at the same tree-lined path. I decided to follow it out of the park. Then I heard them again. Footsteps. Not far off. Uneven. Pad, pad... pad, pad, pad. They'd waited for me, at the path...
I quickened my pace, then slowed right down. Pad, pad... pad, pad, pad... pad. The footsteps were following me, but keeping out of sight. I was frightened.
Then – suddenly – I realised. It wasn't footsteps: it was leaves.
Leaves, big horse chestnut leaves, loosened by the damp air, were dropping off the trees and landing on the ground near me, in the fog. Pad, pad... pad.
I had to laugh at myself. Man of God? Leader? Radical Christian? Afraid of falling leaves just like Mr Jelly!
I walked on down the path and it was then that God spoke, in my heart.
“What were you afraid of?”
“Er,” (feeling foolish in the presence of the Almighty) “ - leaves, Lord.”
“No, what were you actually afraid of?”
“Well, that someone was following me.”
“Why were you afraid of that?”
“Well, they might have been a mugger; they might have attacked me or stabbed me, here in this big, foggy park...”
Then, in that moment, I realised (God didn’t even have to say it as such): how wonky, how back-to-front our fears are. We fear those who may hurt the body; but how often we run pell-mell into the sin which can damn the soul.
We’re afraid of leaves. The real enemy – the sins which cut us off from life – we’re old familiar friends with.
I walked on, humbled till I came to part of the park which was lit by a beacon light high up on a war memorial.
There, I asked God last night to give me a healthy fear of sin, and – in the right sense – of Him.
"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Jesus, in Matthew 10:28)