During my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, I heard of a summer job repairing the U of M stadium, the Big House. I showed up the Monday after term ended to apply for the job. The foreman snarled that the jobs were reserved for student athletes. He grudgingly admitted I could return and try the next day since a few star athletes hadn’t yet shown up.
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I returned the next morning and the foreman growled, “Tomorrow!” I kept showing up, and he kept chasing me off with one-word rebukes. On the eighth day, the foreman handed me a note with “Don” written on the outside and pointed me toward the Athletic Office.
Someone led me to the office of Don Canham, the Michigan Athletic Director. He had been a star athlete at Michigan. As its AD, Canham was famous for hiring Bo Schembechler, for single-handedly increasing revenues an order of magnitude, and for his shrewd business tactics.
I knocked on his door and handed him the note. As he read it, his face reddened. Finally he exploded: “Those jobs are reserved for star athletes we can’t scholarship. And you aren’t one of them! Who the [expletive deleted] do you think you are?”
And that was just the warmup; his team hadn’t taken the field yet.
I stood mute in stunned horror as he “wove a tapestry of obscenity that as far as I know, is still hanging in space over Michigan Stadium.” It would have filled the 100,000-person Big House to capacity with a poetic profanity never before witnessed therein.
I grew up in the city of Detroit. I was mugged more than a dozen times, with fists, knives, and once even with a gun. But I was never more scared than in the middle of that seething eruption. I imagined him kicking me out of university, retracting all my credits, and blacklisting me forever. I would be ostracized and shunned, an academic pariah.
As the volume of Canham’s roar diminished, I tuned back in to hear the closing phrases of his poetic, profane rant. His red complexion lessened. He even smiled. Then he stuck out his hand:
Sam, I love to see a man who faces obstacles with dogged determination. I’d pick you to be on my team any day of the week. The job is yours. Congratulations.
We associate fear with something bad, maybe evil. Young kids fear the boogeyman and thunderstorms. High schoolers fear rejection, shame, or failure. Parents fear loss of children, ill-health, diminished capacities, and mortality. We all face a spectrum of fears, from embarrassment, to loss, to death.
And anxieties paralyze us: as our lungs are squeezed, our hearts race; as we toss about in bed, nightmares rage; as our thoughts run in frenzied fever, we can’t choose what to eat for lunch.
Yet Scripture praises fear. In one of the few places Scripture reveals the longings of God’s heart, He sighs: “Oh that my people’s hearts were always inclined to fear me.” The Psalms pray, “Let all the earth fear the Lord.” Proverbs claims that wisdom begins with fear; fear of God.
We don’t fear kittens, we fear lions; because fear isn’t so much about the bad as fear is about the powerful. But we aren’t frightened of the caged lion in the zoo, we’re scared of the escaped lion in the street; because fear isn’t just about power, it’s about uncontrolled power.
And the nature of God is uncontrolled power.
Our world has dwelt in paralyzing fear this last year: fear of COVID, fear of passing it to others, fear of politics, fear of vaccination arguments, fear of the economy, and fear of the future.
The only cure for fearing the uncontrollable bad is to fear the uncontrollable good. Because when we see the Ultimate Good in the Uncontrollable God, we will never fear the world again. We know His plans are for our good, even when we cannot understand them. Or control them. Elisabeth Elliot wrote:
God is God. If He is God, He is worthy of my worship and my service. I will find rest nowhere but in His will, and that will is infinitely, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.
If I had feared God as a college student, I never would have feared Don Canham’s wrath. In fact, as I look back, it was probably my Fearsome Heavenly Father that softened that rascal’s heart; I might have even purred.
Your illustration of fearing uncontrolled power is right on target. Fearing God is something that I first found baffling, then intriguing, now more understandable but still not totally within my grasp.
Please give credit to “A Christmas Story” for the quote about the tapestry of obscenity. It’s one of my favorite movies.
Thanks! I am finding more and more comfort in “fearing” God-the-Uncontrollable. And really, would I really want to be in charge?
And thanks for appreciating my hommage to A Christmas Story. I love that movie, and the adapted quote was a perfect fit for my own story. 🙂
Thanks, Sam. The metaphor of YHWH as the powerful, ferocious, uncontrollable Lion is prominent in the book of Amos. You don’t mess with the Lion. You don’t mess with the Lion’s people.
I like that last line, “You don’t mess with the Lion’s people.”
If we fear God, we have nothing left to fear.
I understand the use of the word “fear” when speaking about the character of our God. It took me awhile and I’m still a baby Christian seeking. For seekers more new than myself it might help them to think of the word of “respect” on steroids. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m wrong more than I’m right. Lol.
There are lots of nuances in the idea of fear of God. Your “respect on steroids” is a great one I hadn’t heard before. So is “awe.”
But I still think the difficult word “fear” is needed. We DO fear powers that we can’t control, and we cannot control God.
Maybe CS Lewis said it best: “He’s not a tame lion … but he’s good.”
One thing about our powerful, unchained God I’ve noticed is that although he’s been known to train me in faith through suffering, he’s never tested my determination by abusing me. I was so distressed by the story of your experience with the AD that I almost missed your point about not fearing man.
Any idea what you might have done that day if you had had sufficient fear of God, as you say, and had not feared the man?
Of course I never meant to equate Canham with the Father (heaven forbid!), but I DO think Canham was actually being kind not abusive.
The construction work crew was composed of nine star U of M athletes (seven football players and two hockey players) and me. They were a rough and tough crowd. All the work was brutally physical and all interactions were brutally aggressive, though in a fun way (if you understood it).
I think Canham wanted to make sure that I could handle the pressure of being with these star athletes. He even stopped by several times during the summer simply to see how I was doing. I felt he was looking after me, though I actually loved the job and did fine.
While I never meant to compare Canham with God, I do want to say that God does treat us at times that we may think is abuse in the moment, and later on we realize it wasn’t:
But in all those cases (and thousands more), God is glorified and His people purified.
Enjoyed your story about the confrontation with the Coach at Michigan. The fear that the coach wanted to strike into your heart, so that (a lesser person) might have left the office without getting what he came for.
We fear God, not because he is like an escaped Zoo animal, but because his power, which is immense and overwhelming, is also UNCONTROLLED!
I love God because He is Good! And I can rely on that goodness as I partner with Him in ministry. I can’t control Him, which is excellent, since I seldom am sure of what I am doing when it comes to “The Big Stuff”, but I know I CAN rely on His Holy Spirit leading to “show me the way, as I open myself to Him in love. Not fearing His “wrath” but counting on His love to “see me through!”
” “Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” ”
C S Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
My reply to your reply to my comment (I’m having trouble with your “reply” button):
Sorry, Sam, but I’m not buying it. This isn’t a male/female thing (I’ve double checked with a perfectly manly man); it’s a surviving-life-experiences thing. You were a resilient kid, no doubt about it. But you described abuse, and reframed it as tough love. Just because the grace of God brought you safely through mistreatment doesn’t mean it was OK.
God disciplines and strengthens us through trial. He even applies his grace to turn around our traumatic experiences. But he doesn’t throw us to the wolves to see if we’re strong enough to survive. He doesn’t frighten us on purpose or tell us we’re trash as some kind of character building technique. I read your book; your dad never did that to you, and I’m betting you didn’t do it to your kids either.
My husband tells a story that he said I could share: He used to tell how his dad taught him not to play with matches. He would tell it with a kind of bravado, how his “old man” had him watch from inside the patio door while he doused his favorite jeans with gasoline, held them out on the end of a stick and put a cigarette lighter to them. He’ll never forget the sudden whoosh as they went up in flames. As long as Jim told the story with the usual bravado, it was a “learning experience” that beat all the other stories in the room. But for some inexplicable reason, one time he told it straight, without the edge, and for the first time he heard the room respond with a horrified gasp. That gasp stripped the decorations off the memory, and he realized how awful it really was. He realized that he couldn’t imagine himself doing such a thing to teach his own son a lesson of any kind. He realized he had to forgive his dad, not defend him.
And that’s my piece.