The Elephant House
When my son Julien was fifteen months old—able to put a puzzle together but not a sentence—we went to a small zoo near the town in France where we lived. His older sisters Eowyn (who was 4) and Stasie (who was 3) ran a little ahead, while I came along behind, carrying Julien in a backpack.
“Mommy!” called Eowyn, in deep distress. “The elephant’s gone!”
But the zookeeper happened to be standing nearby and explained that it was beginning to rain, so the elephant was back in his house. He offered to take us in! He opened a rusty door with an enormous key and we stepped into the blackest, smelliest hut I have ever seen. In a cage to our right, a screaming monkey was careening around his cage. Before our eyes could become accustomed to the dark, I felt a strange tickle around my ear. Reaching up to brush away a fly, I touched the wrinkled, dry skin of the elephant’s trunk! Concerned with Stasie’s reaction (she’s deaf), I reached down to hold her hand and help her feed peanuts to this fearsome creature. I didn’t think about what my bending down had done to the little boy in the backpack. We were glad enough to emerge into the drizzle of that spring afternoon.
The Nose behind the Bidet
That evening, Julien dropped a potato man plastic nose behind the bidet in our bathroom. (Bidets are those fixtures in French homes intended for washing the more private parts. In our house, they often served as a nice low place for little ones to wash their hands.) I asked Julien to pick up the nose. On his knees, he reached for the nose, then pulled his hand back and began shaking uncontrollably and crying in absolute terror. I swept him into my arms to comfort him. His sobs subsided, but he refused to enter the bathroom that evening to brush his teeth, and he woke all night long crying and saying, “Nose, bidet. Nose, bidet.”
After three days, he still refused to enter the bathroom and still cried out in the night. I called out to the Lord for wisdom. What was causing this sunny-natured child so much anguish? I took the potato man nose into the bathroom and sat on the floor. I placed the nose behind the bidet, then reached for it just as I had asked Julien to do. Suddenly I understood. As I reached for the plastic nose, my hand brushed a gray, curvy pipe that ran from the bidet into the wall! The gray pipe. The gray trunk of the elephant! And I had told him there was a nose behind the bidet.
“Hallelujah!” I whispered to myself, and with a calmness that belied the excitement I felt, I found Julien. I picked him up and took him to the open bathroom door. “I know you’re afraid to go in the bathroom, Julien,” I told him. “But you don’t have to be afraid any more. I understand. I’m going to show you and explain. O.K.?” He nodded.
From a distance, I showed him the pipe. Then I showed him a picture of an elephant’s trunk. I explained that the pipe was not an elephant’s nose. That the pipes in our house usually carried us the water we needed, or carried dirty water away. We started with the garden hose. I had him hold it to water the plants. Then we moved inside to the pipe under the kitchen sink. We looked at and touched every pipe in the house, ending up at the gray pipe behind the bidet. Julien settled into bed that night without a squeak.
God’s Elephant House
Facing the Elephant Alone
As we grow up in God’s kingdom, we’re very much where Julien was. We are not only in God’s image, we are his children, with a birth certificate—the stamp of his blood next to our names in the book of life. Sometimes, however, feel as if we’re all alone with the elephant. As I looked back, I realized how Julien must have ended up face to face with that elephant. I was leaning over, talking to Stasie, so Julien was thrust forward into the face of an awesome, fearful creature.
As Christians, we will find ourselves face to face with the elephants. Psalm 34:19 says “a righteous man may have many troubles.” The Bible mentions a number of such troubles. Psalm 23:4 mentions cruel people who are trying to hurt us. Psalm 46:2 speaks of natural disasters. We may be crushed by a cement wall in an earthquake, alive, but hearing the cries of our child die away. Psalm 91:5 speaks of the terrors of the night. A shamefully high percent of women dread the arrival of night, which brings back terror-filled moments from childhood and memories of the abuse they knew for years. In our current worldwide Covid-19 crisis, we hunker down in our homes, terrified of a minuscule virus we can’t even see. The fears are real. The terrors are there. We are not foolish, pessimistic or unspiritual to recognize their existence. God warns us of their reality. The elephant is real and he’s in our face.
Elephants in the Dark
Not only do we feel alone with the elephant, but we’re in the dark. We hardly know where the next menace will arise. We throw up your hands to ward them off, and tuck our heads low into the security of our backpacks, hoping that somehow we will evade the power of evil. Psalm 23 admits that we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Paul concedes that we “see through a glass darkly.” We shudder at the warning of John: “Whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him” (John 1:11) The elephant meets us in the dark.
When We Can’t Say “Elephant”
Not only are we alone, not only are we in the dark, but we have no words to express our fears. Julien couldn’t articulate his fears. To everyone around him, life seemed normal. And so often, our fears are inexpressible. No one seems to understand why we are behaving so strangely, why we find it hard to walk into a group of people or carry on with life as usual. We can hardly understand it ourselves. How often do our hearts nearly burst with the pain of it all, but our words are spent, inadequate. We’re reduced to a fifteen-month-old babble: “Nose. Bidet.” If only we could explain ourselves. If only those around us could understand. Everything looks the same as it did yesterday to them. But suddenly, we’ve seen the elephant. And the others can’t imagine. They can’t know. Try as they might, they just weren’t there with us, riding high, exposed, seeing that dreadful black trunk wave around our heads, threatening to consume us. And so, of course, our joy is gone, swallowed by the dank, dark air of the elephant house.
Hope in the Elephant House
I hope in this article to bring encouragement from the Lord. I only speak as a fellow child of God, who has been stranded from time to time in the backpack, faced with the elephant of fear. My fears might seem childish to you. My women friends may never understand my battle with makeup, just as I will never understand their battle with spiders or mice. (At summer camp, I was the one elected to pull all the daddy long legs out of the sink every morning.) Men often fear admitting that they have fears! We must all pray for the wisdom to understand the fears of others.
Chasing the Elephant Out of the Church
But if we are to chase the elephant of fear out of our churches, we must allow God to face it down through the power of his love. “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of love, of power, and of a strong mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). If we are to face down the elephant of fear, we must do it by absorbing God’s forgiveness. “Perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18). The only way to avoid the very real fear that should come when we see our sin staring us in the face is to fall on God’s mercy. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We will have to climb out of the backpack and look at things from another perspective—God’s perspective. He alone can love the fear out of us.
Had you been in that dim hut, watching Julien’s little face come perilously close to that elephant, you would have known that he was safe. The worst he could receive was a snort of scratchy hay in the face. The enormous eyes, glowing in the dark, the sideways, slobbery chomp, the deafening bellow—none of that could harm him, since he was safe on my back. Dearest, most loved brothers and sisters in Christ, fear not. Look down on your fears from God’s point of view. “God tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart. He gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11). As he carries us, he speaks words of comfort to us: “I have upheld you since you were conceived and have carried you since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:3-4). Listen to his gentle voice as it whispers: “Fear not!” God has a far better grip on you than I did on Julien. You’re not exposed to danger, riding high on Jesus’ back. You are held even more safely, for you are close to his heart, held tight in his arms. “Do not fear! The Lord your God is with you. He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you. He will quiet you with his love. He will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). So even when the scariest elephant is right in your face, you are not alone with your fears.
Not in the Dark
And you are not in the dark with your fears. “You are my lamp, O Lord,” says David, who waited for death in the dark on many wet nights in mountain caves. “The Lord turns my darkness into light,” he claims triumphantly (2 Samuel 22:29). God doesn’t promise us that we will never be in the dark. When it’s raining outside, we do have to take refuge in the dark cave. But God promises his presence with us in the darkness. And wherever God is present, darkness cannot linger. The man who married Peter and me forty-nine years ago is now with Christ. But in his quiet home on a lake in Massachusetts, we used to spend happy evenings talking through the sunset and on into the dark. The Walters would never break the mood by getting up to turn on the light. And as the sunlight disappeared, the comfort we took in the familiar voices became greater. We drew together physically and sat resting in the peace of the shadows of evening. And so it is when God asks us to walk through a dark or an evening time. He hides us in the shadow of his wings. He overshadows us in protection, he provides a warm, dark, dry place to protect us from the weather and rain, and infuses us with the strength of his presence. So the next time you face the elephant in the dark, imagine yourself under his wings, protected, safe, dark and warm. You can relax and spend the night there. The morning will come. You will emerge, rested and ready. “Fear not.” Proverbs 4:18 says, “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”
No, we are not alone. Jesus promises he will never leave us or forsake us. We are not in the dark, for where he is, there is light. And we are not speechless. God knows our heart, even before we speak. It took me three days and a lot of prayer to understand what was troubling little Julien. I thank God for the simple gift of wisdom he gave me that day so that I could relieve the fearful heart of my son. But think how God knows and understands your heart! He doesn’t have to spend three days on the bathroom floor puzzling over a plastic nose. Isaiah 65:24 tells us, “Before they call, I will answer, and while they are still speaking I will hear.” God promises that his own Spirit will come to our aid when we don’t know how to speak of our pain. When we’ve gone beyond words, we understand why the Spirit has to pray for us. As Romans 8:26 says, the Spirit prays for us in “groans that words cannot express.” Jesus himself knew what it was like to cry out to God. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7).
When the dark closes in, God’s people come together in repentance, for mutual encouragement. We may not be able to hold hands in the dark right now, but we walk in humble trust, clinging to the great hand of our Father in heaven. Can you trust your Father with your elephant fears? Can you trust him to hold you safe, to comfort you in the dark until he chooses to bring you into a lighter way? Can you trust him to understand those wrenching “Why’s” that you cry out when no one else is listening? Have you laid your hard heart on the altar of God’s compassion so that by his divine operation he changes your heart of stone to a heart of flesh? We must repent of our lack of faith, our self-pity, our self-sufficiency. Only as we answer yes to our Lord when he asks you these questions will we be ready to offer our hand to someone else without fear of betrayal.
A Thank You to the Elephant
In the end, we owe the elephant a great debt of gratitude. If it scares us back into Jesus’ arms, we will find companionship, not loneliness. If it scares us back into Jesus’ light, we will find there the warmth and joy of God’s face. If it scares us back into Jesus’ word, we will find deep wisdom and a song of praise welling from our hearts. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:12–13). We walk hand in hand through the elephant house. Stay humble. Stay close. Hold hands, and sing in the dark, for Jesus is there singing beside us. “The one who makes us holy and the ones made holy are of the same family. He is not ashamed to call us brothers” (Hebrews 2:11).