I am not the bravest person in storms. I was born and lived most of my life in the Kingdom of Eswatini, a small ovoid shaped country squashed between South Africa and Mozambique on the east coast of Africa.
Eswatini is about the size of Wales yet it boasts 4 geographical regions: high mountains to the north and west that gradually make way for what is called Middle Veld. Then we have the Lowveld, a warm scrubby area good for growing cotton and sugar cane. Framing the eastern border and separating it from Mozambique is the Lebombo Mountain Range.
Eswatini has a few records of which its citizens like to boast: Our Sibebe rock is second in size to the Ayers Rock in Australia: we have a strip of road that has more per capita deaths by road accident than any other piece of highway; we have more lightning strikes per square metre than almost anywhere in the world. It is this last one that has done more to form my fears of elements raging out of control than any other.
Large granite rocks and boulders with a high iron content on our mountain sides attract lightning. Deep valleys and steep mountains create ideal passageways for winds to hustle through, turning in on themselves, gaining momentum and fury until they burst out onto open areas where they unleash mayhem. Hail is a frequent visitor in the summer months, shredding crops, houses, smashing whatever gets in its way.
It is one such storm that brought about my conversion to Christianity. I, together with three friends, was riding my horses from Mbabane to Piggs Peak. The horses were young, and one in particular, saddle broken but not backed, was impossible. There were many streams and a couple of rivers along the way and he would not cross any of them. He wouldn’t step onto a bridge, or put his foot in water, so our journey took a lot longer than we planned and it was closer to nightfall than any of us would have liked when we got close to where we were to camp for the night.
We’d been aware of the storm building to the southeast, moving along the valley behind us, but it looked as if it would pass us by. Until the wind changed direction. Within seconds we were in the midst of a maelstrom of utter fury. Hailstones almost the size of tennis balls, lashing wind, eye-blinding lightning, deafening crashes of thunder.
We scrabbled for our hard hats, tried to cover the horses with sleeping bags, anything to protect from the hail that bounced off us. We were wearing rubber soled shoes which provided some insulation from the lightning. It was as dark as pitch, the noise indescribable.
My horse broke free in its panic and disappeared down a bank. I tried to go after him. Kevin yelled to leave him. He bounced back a few moments later, obviously deciding we were safer than the unknown. I knew there was a kraal nearby and yelled that we should try and reach it, allow the horses freedom to turn their backs to the storm. We set off down the road, but before we could get there, I felt an almighty thwunk, as if someone had hit me on the head with a huge rubber mallet. Everything went quiet. The storm hadn’t abated, only the noise. I looked at the other two riders. Both were standing still, holding their horses, as if in prayer.
This is it, I thought. We’re dead. Must be when you first die you are in the same position as when it happens. Too late for any repentance. Any last ditch plea for mercy. I looked over the crest of the mountainside to see who would be coming for me: angel or demon.
Patently it was neither, but it got me thinking. And forever after those horses were an early warning system of approaching storms!
As the years went by my fear never got any less, but it also didn’t increase until a few years ago. I moved to a new area not realising it was a pathway for some of the more vicious tornado type storms that wind up from the valleys. A couple of bad storms and I became neurotic. I would check the weather forecast, get into a much sweat long before any cloud appeared in the sky. If I had to go anywhere, chances are I would cancel in case there was a storm.
The irrationality of fear. I allowed this situation to continue for a number of years. I moved again, and in my new home storms were not so violent and I began to relax somewhat. Until I had to drive to Eswatini for any reason in the summer months. Again, I would scour every weather forecast, plan my trip, stomach churning, shoulders tense. It was so bad that one trip I asked a friend to go with me.
After that trip, I knew the time had come to deal with this phobia. The bible is clear: For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. 2Timothy 1:7
And again in Romans 8:15 Paul writes:
For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba Father”.
Somewhere along the line I knew I had to deal with this fear, that it is not of God, and that the only person who could get me over it was me. I have a choice – believe God or believe the lie that fear implanted in my psyche?
In the verse in Timothy, Paul writes that we were given a spirit of power, power to make a rational decision based on love, the perfect love of the Lord. In Romans, Paul assures me of my sonship in Christ, the ability to cry out to my heavenly Father, whose heart and motive is for me to live a life free from fear, free from bondage.
We make so many resolutions, try to do things in our own strength. It is not a resolution that needs to be made, it is a decision that needs to be taken. A decision to choose life, to choose freedom, to choose Christ.
I made that decision without understanding that I had done so, only realising when the next lightning bolt flashed across my lounge and I got up to look at the storm instead of cowering in the farthest, darkest corner.
So, done, you might think. Wrong. Peter warns us not to let down our guard. Ever:
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. 1 Peter 5:8
Here I am in what could easily pass for paradise, staying with my son in Maun, Botswana, in his house on the banks of the Thamalakane River: birds abound in enormous skies, animals wander around even where they shouldn’t, hippos graze on the bank, the list goes on.
So why did my heart fail one afternoon when I saw massive thunderheads building up? That old anxiety eating at my innards. Am I so fickle that a couple of years of freedom is enough for me to forget the lesson?
I could hear familiar words churning through my mind, begging, pleading for the storm to go away, not to happen. I thank my Lord that there are times when He ignores my implorings! The wind blew, the light was sucked into dark clouds, thrashing rain churned the river into a froth.
About twenty minutes into the panic I heard that still small voice: Are you really afraid? Or are you thinking you should be frightened? Is it habit? That distracted from the fright. Then, through the sound of drumming rain. I heard a bird cheep. The birds are ok and they are out there. I ventured a look outside. A bedraggled Golden Weaver was pecking at the seed I had put out before there was any sign of rain.
An African Scops Owl lives in a small shrub on our fence line. His perch was blowing around, swaying every which way. ‘Scopsy’ was hanging on, might be he was enjoying the ride, who knows. So what the flip is wrong with me? I have a roof over my head, my Father has said I am worth more than those little feathered ones, how dare I whine about stopping the rain!
Friends, fear is as real as we allow it to be. If we are in Christ, and He is in us, fear has no place in our lives. Be cautious and prudent by all means, don’t rush in where angels fear to tread for the fun of it, count the cost of your actions, but don’t allow fear to rob you of a sound, rational mind.
As I look now at the picture of that storm, I see a different picture. I see evidence of a God who is so much bigger than I am, Who controls the winds and the storms, Whose arms keep me safe.