The Great and Terrifying Daddy Longleg

By Jim Vitale

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs: heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if we in fact suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” 
(Romans 8:15-17)

We have black bears at camp.

A couple weeks ago, during staff training, as I looked out the back window of my cabin, I watched a little cub pick its way through the woods in Pine Village. It’s not really anything to be alarmed about. We’ve always had bears here and they’ve never caused trouble. Still, it’s a rather awesome sight to see one so close.

We also have rattlesnakes. I haven’t ever seen one but I’m told they come through from time to time (again, no one has ever been hurt). It was rather jarring to me the first time I learned that this mythical creature of the Old West also makes a happy home here in Central Pennsylvania. I hope I never meet one.

We also have Daddy longlegs. Lots of them. Millions of them. They are not at all dangerous nor remarkable. And yet their presence has struck fear into the hearts of a great many campers.
My children in particular.

Picture this: it’s a beautiful, clear, quiet evening. The staff has just finished their dinner and is heading out to the canoeing pond to do some canoeing practice during staff training. They ask my two young boys (6 and 3) if they’d like to tag along. Excitedly my boys say yes, so we go. This is their first time in a canoe. We take out two canoes, one for the staff to practice in and one for my boys, a cabin leader, and myself to enjoy. Now imagine you are standing on shore with the lifeguard and the other staff who haven’t yet had a turn in the boat.

Suddenly you hear a blood-curdling scream. You look out to the canoe pond to see both of my boys trying to stand up, one looks like he’s contemplating jumping out of the boat. Terror has gripped them. Is someone hurt!? Is there a water snake!? Has the canoe spontaneously burst into flames!? You watch as I crawl out of my seat and inch toward the boys, talking quietly to them. They settle down and we return to the dock for a quick breather.

“What happened!?” our lifeguard says, “I was about ready to jump in!”

“Well,” I say with a laugh, “There were a couple little daddy longlegs in the canoe. We’re all good now!” After rearranging ourselves a bit, we set back out onto the water for a happy evening of paddling and laughing and racing.

Two daddy longlegs (or “daddy longleggers” as my boys comically call them) were all it took to evoke abject terror from my two dear little ones. To be fair, they’ve been nervous about the supposed presence of bears and rattlesnakes, too. We even got ourselves a bottle of “multi-purpose creature repellant” just to keep the dangerous creatures away. However, whereas the bears and snakes terrorize through a shadowy and mysterious absence, the daddy longlegs terrorize through near constant presence.

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I find the canoeing story to be mostly funny. They weren’t even real daddy longlegs. They were too small to be called either of those names. The disproportionate size of the spider to the fear it provoked is objectively hilarious. It’s like an elephant being afraid of a mouse. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that my boys’ fear also struck great fear into my own heart, even if only momentarily. The worst-case-scenarios that ran through my mind in the half-second it took for me to get from the back of the canoe to the middle of the canoe were plentiful.

So while I may laugh or sympathize or even sometimes roll my eyes at my boys’ fear of bears and snakes and Daddy longlegs, I think the truth is that I’m just as afraid of the world as they are—my fears are just more mature and abstract. They fear things like daddy longlegs, bears, and rattlesnakes. I fear things like debt, rejection, death, and yeah rattlesnakes too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear. I am part of the roughly one-half of the population that has a preoccupation with being afraid. If you’re the kind of person that has played out all the worst-case scenarios and has a contingency plan for everything then you are my people. Fear governs much of my life. And that’s not necessarily all bad. Evolutionarily speaking, fear and anxiety are very useful tools. They keep you alert for the tigers or marauders that might attack your village. They keep you mindful of rattlesnakes when you’re walking in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. But not all my fears are useful to me. Sometimes my fears are just fears.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15). Likewise, Jesus says, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34). Faith and fear, it seems, are diametrically opposed. Fear comes from believing our well-being depends on us. Faith comes from believing our well-being depends on God.

I think sometimes, however, we use these opposites to shame ourselves. “Well, if I just had more faith, I’d be less afraid of everything!” or “I’m so afraid. I must be a really unfaithful person.” But that kind of thinking is fear-based because it assumes that our well-being (our salvation, our spirituality) depends on us; and that’s not really how it works.

“We even got ourselves a bottle of ‘multi-purpose creature repellant’ just to keep the dangerous creatures away.”

The story of Jesus, which is also our story, is the story of death and resurrection. Jesus didn’t get to skip the “death” part and neither do we. We don’t get to skip our fears, skirt around them, or never feel them. We have to go through them. It’s not that faithful people don’t get afraid. They do. It’s simply that they have hope that there will be life beyond the present fear.

That life beyond the present fear is not something we create. That is God’s doing. Our faithfulness doesn’t make the fears go away; it just gives us hope that they will someday. Jesus was afraid of his own death in the Garden of Gethsemane. But his faithfulness didn’t spare him his death. If anything it drove him to it. Neither would his fear have rescued him from death—as a human he would have had to die eventually. No, it was God who rescued Jesus from the grave—and not before he died, but after. God is the one who rescues. The promise of life after fear belongs entirely to God; all we can do is hope that God keeps God’s promises.

Martin Luther says that faith comes from hearing the gospel preached (either in a sermon or somewhere else). So that means that faith, the thing that ultimately calms our fears (or helps us through them), can only really come from outside ourselves. So in times of stress, if we keep to ourselves and rehearse the endless stream of anxieties and worst case scenarios, then of course we’re going to be afraid. We need other people in our lives to come in and remind us of the good news of Jesus, the good news that our well-being doesn’t depend upon us but upon God. The good news that there is life beyond our fears.

When my boys were freaking out in that canoe, I got out of my seat, crawled over to them, coached them to remain seated so as not to fall out or tip the canoe, spoke calmly to them, and only after they had settled and were safe could I tend to the daddy longlegs (they became fish food).

So, in a way, does God do with us. In the midst of our fears, the good news comes to us—indeed Jesus himself comes to us!, calms us, and reminds us that at the end of all things it will be profoundly okay. So surround yourself with the good news. Whether it be friends who can remind you of God’s provision or a church community that can offer you the sacraments or the good news of Jesus found in the Bible, find those preachers who can remind you that we are not promised a free pass from our fears but we are promised a life beyond them!

And watch out for daddy longlegs!