I love sleep. I love the cozy blankets on my bed. I love my lavender oil and my peppermint foot lotion and my Carmex. I love my fortress of pillows and books and soothing, sleepy music. I love my little app on my phone that tells me how much rest I need and then gently reminds me with a lullaby chime to get started on my snoozing. I love it all.

Now who doesn’t love sleep? A terrified nine-year-old, that’s who. Two weeks ago my son Henry was playing at a friend’s house, and the older kids there decided to watch a movie. Unfortunately, their pick was one that starred a very scary clown, and my kid was stuck. He told me later he didn’t want to offend anyone by saying he didn’t want to watch it. He told me he tried to get a friend to go play in the other room. He told me he tried all sorts of things to tune the movie out and not let the clown “get to him,” but honestly? That clown guy? He gets to me, and I’m way older than nine. Henry tried his best, and eventually he did use the excuse, “Uh, guys I think I hear my mom calling me from four blocks away,” and he just up and left.

When he walked in the door I greeted him with the usual, “Hey! How are you—” but the look on his face stopped me short.

“Mom?” he quavered, and I realized this was one of those Important Parenting Moments where you stop, drop, and listen to whatever your kid is going to say. Henry took a breath. “Mom? My friends wanted to watch this movie, and it’s that one with the clown. You know it?”

I nodded slowly. I knew it. Stupid clown. So, after some discussion, I decided two things:

1) We would pray that clown right out of here.

2) My kid would never play at anyone else’s house ever again.

We prayed. I hugged him. We watched a YouTube video about a golden retriever and called it good. I went back to my day, and Henry went back to his, and all seemed fine. But, as parenting has taught me for more than ten years now, nothing is ever really fine until the ultimate test arrives: nighttime.

For the next several days Henry—along with that stupid clown—haunted my dreams. Around eleven p.m. each night, just as I was about to drift into blissful slumber, a hand came out of the darkness and whacked me. Henry has never been able to manage the art of subtlety, and his technique for waking me up is to slam his hand down on my back, like he’s saving me from choking on my pillow. There’s no talking, just a heart-stopping THUMP, and then I am wide awake, gasping and staring at a shadowy, inarticulate figure next to my bed. It took a lot more brain synapses I have available at that time of day to figure out what was going on, but eventually we got there. Henry was terrified. The clown was back. And I needed to help.

We prayed. I suggested all sorts of things: putting bunny ears on the clown. Telling the clown some jokes. Turning on the hall light. Putting bunny ears and a pink tutu on the clown, and shoving it off a cliff. I vacillated between empathy and sleepy impatience. Those tricks all work for a while, but there was never a moment when Henry felt 100% safe. He looks to me for eradication of the clown, but I can’t do it.

I wrote Bible verses about fear on notecards and taped them to his bed. “God tells us he is with us wherever we go, so when the clown shows up, just tell him to take a hike; he can’t hang out in the same place as God,” I said as I placed Joshua 1:9 on the wall next to his pillow. Henry rubbed at the notecard like it was a lucky talisman, and looked wistful. And I wondered, Am I just making this worse? With all my verses and admonitions for prayer, am I just showing Henry that faith is not a genie in a bottle?

Faith is so tricky. It’s a narrow path with twists and turns at times. It is a path that is not easy to walk, especially at night, when it’s so dark. I think my verses and prayers are what Henry needs, but there isn’t a 100% success rate here. All my clown-fighting suggestions don’t erase the scary thoughts and replace them with happy, shiny feelings. I kind of wish they did, but that would make faith weird and narcotic, and Jesus didn’t offer us that. It’s a lesson that I need to learn right along with my boy, and we worked through it, and the sleepless nights, together.

One night Henry told me he wanted to find his library book, but he couldn’t look under his bed without me there. I sighed, and we trudged upstairs to find the book wedged behind the bunk beds. As I handed it up to him we locked eyes. I didn’t tell him it was silly, that there are no monsters, that there is nothing to fear. That’s actually what I was planning on saying, but God took pity on me and put different words in my mouth. They tumbled out: “Henry, in time, this will all get better. But then, the next scary thing will happen. And we’ll change some things, and do our best, and so on. But always, with God’s help, we’ll get through it. Can you imagine how people would feel if they didn’t have Jesus?”

He nodded solemnly. He muttered, “The clown doesn’t have Jesus, that’s for sure.” I laughed.

God does not erase the bad things; he refines us through them. And, as usual, my child and I learn this, over and over, together.