Cape Fear

Cape Fear, North Carolina

For the last six years my family has gathered for a week at Bald Head Island, a place marked by beautiful homes, an extensive nature conservancy, accessible beaches, and a golf course, and a marina. Private cars are not allowed, and all transportation is electric cart or bicycle or the public tram. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to stay together in a house big enough for both grandparents, three children and their spouses, and eight grandchildren. It’s always been a great week of love and celebration and bonding.

We stay within walking distance of a sand spit at the convergence of the eastern and southern shore of the island. It is a great place to see the sun rise or set, watch the fishermen or the shore birds, or simply enjoy the amazing wave patterns. We call it The Point but it it has a more historic and proper name.

In 1585, the intrepid sailor and cousin to Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Richard Grenville, led a fleet of seven ships to find a site for the first English colony in the New World. His fleet became trapped by winds and waves behind an island and extensive shoals off the coast of present day North Carolina. After weeks of entrapment, they escaped and found their way back to the open ocean, but the name they gave the cape remained: Cape Fear.

There are no cod at Cape Cod and no horns at Cape Horn. Likewise, I have not experienced fear at Cape Fear. But the place name has a well-deserved history. Many ships have been wrecked, many slaves died building a Confederate fort there, and Hurricane Florence caused a mandatory evacuation of the island just last September. So I always feel a certain irony taking so much joy in a place named Fear.

Recently a friend wrote to tell me that fear is the prerequisite to God’s love.

He called my attention to Psalm 103:11:

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him.”

And, in case King David’s readers had skimmed over the point, he reiterates in verse 13:

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”

It takes me a while to wrap my mind around this because I am comfortable with the idea of the beneficent loving God, our Father in Heaven who forgives all our sins. But, if I believe that God is who He says He is–the creator of the universe, the source of all life, the ultimate authority of good and evil–then I should be afraid.

I am a blip in seven billion humans on a mid-sized planet circling a mid-size star amongst another 100 billion stars in a galaxy that is one of 100 billion other galaxies. And I am made of 37 trillion cells including 100 billion brain neurons that allow me to think and write, and not a single one of these cells could be designed, much less manufactured, by human hands. I should be in fear of the Creator.

Unless, of course, it is all an accident. If an event happened by accident and created time, space, and matter where there was nothing when there was no “when;” if ribonucleic acids came together and formed into helixes in a solution that contained amino acids, and, energized by lightening bolts in a primitive atmosphere, life “just happened;” if there is no good and evil, but only self-interest and the survival of the species; then I don’t need to be afraid of God. I need to be afraid of everything, because then I am the product of chaos and at the mercy of the whims of the universe and the evils of mankind.

Recently we had a Saturday morning men’s group meeting at church. Pastor Lance left some conversation starters at each table. One of the slips he left said, “Tell about a time you were brave.”

I don’t recommend the question as a conversation starter. No one answered, not really. Because to tell about a time you were brave is to recall a time you were afraid. This is why heroes never tell their own story: it is too painful.

As a surgeon, the most terrifying cases are those in which another human being’s life and well-being are dropped into my hands, and I am uncertain whether my skills are adequate to meet the challenge. This doesn’t apply to hopeless cases; that requires a certain competence and compassion that doesn’t involve fear. And it doesn’t apply to cases you can send to another surgeon with special skills. It applies to those cases when time, space, and circumstance leaves the problem with me.

Often I could meet the challenge, and a miraculous recovery resulted. I could feel like a hero. Those were good moments. I remember them like gold coins and take them out and fondle them when I’m feeling down. Other times, I failed. Someone died or was left disabled or in chronic pain. Those moments are tucked away in a dark closet that I visit sometimes when I need to be reminded of humility.

The surgeon’s experience of fear is distorted because we don’t fear for what will happen to ourselves; we fear what will happen to another. In some ways this is worse, but it is clearly different from what many people describe as the times that they have been afraid. So I’m not really sure if my experience with what I did when I was afraid qualifies as bravery.

The first things I did were in the negative. I did not pretend that the problem was trivial or non-emergent, nor did I pretend that the problem was unsolvable, allowing me to avoid the responsibility of taking a case with a likely bad outcome. And I did not panic.Then I did what I was trained to do in the best way I could with the tools and the personnel available.

Is that bravery? It didn’t feel brave; it felt like doing my job on a really hard day. Is that what combat soldiers feel?

I count among my friends Robert Ingram who earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service as a medical corpsman during Viet Nam. The curious thing about Bob was that he didn’t start out to be a hero, and didn’t know he was a hero for what he did. He received his medal three decades later when his surviving commander and Marine company discovered that he hadn’t gotten the medal they nominated him for, then lobbied to get him what he deserved.

He enlisted in the Navy at age 18 to learn aviation electronics, figuring on a good job when he got out. When he was under care for pneumonia, he witnessed the selfless care given by Navy corpsmen and changed his specialty to medic training. He was shortly after graduation assigned to the 7th Marines in Viet Nam, and volunteered for C Company, aptly nicknamed “Suicide Charley.” On March 28, 1965 the company walked into an ambush. Bob was wounded three times while pulling comrades to safety, and then fought off the enemy until he lost consciousness. He doesn’t remember how he got back to the command post. He received a Purple Heart and got sent home, later becoming a nurse in Jacksonville. Thirty years afterward, the surviving Marines and his commander found out he hadn’t received the Congressional Medal of Honor for which they had nominated him, and only then did he receive recognition for his bravery.

He also became an icon for a separate event. A photographer caught him carrying a wounded child to safety as a village burned behind him. The photo made the cover of Life magazine. Most people in the 1960’s would recognize him as the face of compassion in the chaos of war.

If you ask him about the medal or the photograph, his response always conveys self-deprecation and a note of surprise that anybody noticed. “Just doing my job,” he says.

We think of bravery as a choice. When we face a situation that demands our intervention for a noble cause such as the protection of our nation or our loved one, but that intervention will cause a considerable risk to ourself, we have a choice to be brave.

So did Bob have a choice on the day he earned his medal? He doesn’t remember. I would contend that he made his brave decision the day he chose to be a medic instead of an aviation electronic technician.

What does this tell us about fear and bravery?

First, fear is never a choice. We never desire fear, but it comes to us whether we want it or not. Our choice is to be brave or not. And this choice is sometimes made at the moment fear strikes us, or sometimes made months or years ahead of time, like Bob when he decided to become a corpsman.

The choice to be brave is marked by 1) clear recognition of the threat, and the consequences of action or non-action, 2) clear-headed assessment of action to be taken to address the threat regardless of the consequences to self, 3) enlisting help (this is true leadership), and 4) doing the best you can.

The opposite choice, non-bravery, is marked by 1) denial of the threat, 2) panic, 3) isolation, 4) action oriented to self-preservation.

What does this tell us about “the fear of the Lord?”

We don’t really have a choice about fear. We are small blips in a big universe; we should be afraid.

But we can recognize our vulnerability. This is step one in choosing to be brave.

Second, we can assess the cost of seeking the Creator of the Universe.

Third, we can seek the wisdom of the ages and the wisdom of our fellow seekers.

Fourth, we can do the best we can with whatever skills, resources, strength and emotional reserves we have today.

Or, for the non-brave choice, we can pretend we are our own master of the universe, that God does not exist, that we can figure out for ourselves what is best, and we need only do what we need for self-preservation and comfort.

Myself, I choose to fear the Lord. I find it easier to believe that the universe, and my existence in it, is not an accident. I believe in a God who is so enormous, so complex, so powerful, that even the farthest reaches of my most ridiculous imagination cannot come close to understanding Him. I can be afraid of God, and then fear nothing else.

That is what is good about fear. It offers the opportunity to be brave.

God in our Fear


Having cancer is fear: like having a gun put to one’s head. The day before the diagnosis, one could go where he or she wanted. When the diagnosis comes down, the patient’s autonomy boils down to a single question. Will I accept or refuse treatment?

As they were prepping me for surgery they screwed metal bolts into my skull. It was like something out of a horror movie, and I just lay there acting like it was normal while they tightened the metal halo, and my head felt like a grape being squeezed. A few minutes later they had me lie down on the gurney. I was encased in a metal cubic framework screwed into my skull.

Then, a month later I could actually smell my skin burning during radiation therapy.

During cancer treatment there dozens of atrocities visited upon a patient’s body. I had to have my blood drawn every week. My veins weren’t so good so it took a lot of sticks. I can remember telling myself that if I got better I would never let anyone stick me again.

Then there was morning when I came in for a CT scan. They gave me a “Big Gulp” sized cup of contrast. I drank a little less than half and couldn’t get any more down. My mom urged me to keep drinking; I did my best. Then I started throwing up.

I feared not only dying or discomfort. I also feared of my utter lack of autonomy. They could have told me that they were going to have to cut off my leg or my nose or blind me and I would have had to say yes. In this way being a cancer patient is like being in a concentration camp, except that a concentration camp seeks to kill while cancer treatment seeks to give a long, arduous road to life.

Where is God in the midst of this journey? He carried me when I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to walk. I wasn’t particularly pious or spiritual. I just had a feeling, a spiritual feeling, that I was going to be ok.

During my cancer treatment I suppressed my fears and thoughts of trauma. Later, when God put me down I had to deal with them. God carried me through a horrific wasteland, like a battlefield inundated with explosions, shrapnel, barbed wire and terror. When he put me down I had to look back over that wasteland and examine the scars on my body, my spirit and my soul.


“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nations they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions”(Gen 15: 12-14).


The Israelites did not come out of Egypt without scars. There were the literal scars from the whips of the Egyptians and the overseers. There were the memories of the babies killed by the soldiers or eaten by crocodiles in the Nile. Bodies were broken by decades of slave labor. More than all of these, they lived with constant anxiety. They had lived for four hundred years in a setting where one simple change, like not gathering enough straw, could bring utter ruin.

My biggest anxiety was the MRI machine. To me, going into an MRI was like being buried alive. Less than six inches separated my eyes from the top of the tunnel. The sides of the tunnel pressed my arms to my side, and it was always cold, around sixty degrees. The mechanical voice on the intercom told me time after time not to move. Even swallowing my saliva worried me. A typical MRI takes about 50 minutes. Of course, in the machine I had no way of sensing of time. All I had was my thin, cotton gown. About halfway through the scan they would move me partially out of the tunnel, stick me, and add contrast to my veins.

Above all the unpleasantness hovered the fact that one MRI in August of 1991 had changed my life forever. One bad MRI took me into the wasteland of cancer. Any MRI after that could return me to the same wasteland.

It was the summer of 1992. I was going for my first annual MRI scan. By that time I’d started to rebuild my life. I was driving again, taking tennis lessons. I had enough hair to brush, and I looked forward to my senior year of high school. I walked into the imaging center determined to put on an optimistic face.

In reality, I was absolutely terrified.

God must have laughed at my phoniness.

When I registered, a new Christian manned the desk. We talked about the cancer and my fear that it would come back, and I received the gift of peace. God knows and ministers to our fears, even the ones we are afraid to admit to ourselves.