There’s a site on the internet called The Phobia List. It is exactly what it sounds like. Hundreds of phobias are listed, arranged alphabetically. I learned a few things looking at it:
- Theophobia is the fear of religion or the fear of gods.
- Hierophobia is the fear of priests or the fear of sacred things.
- Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia is the fear of long words and
- Hellenologophobia is a fear of Greek terms or complex scientific terminology.
I suppose we’re all afraid of something. But as a spiritual exercise, it’s not at all a bad thing to think for a minute or two about our fears. Bishop Lane wrote us about our fearful times (letter in back) and we had two thoughtful, prayerful gatherings this week on that letter. Thank you all, who came. Our readings today continue that theme. They have to do with what we may fear, with God’s desire that we be brought through and beyond fear, and finally, our scriptures offer a hint of what a fearless world might look like.
We begin with an angry prophet Isaiah that, overwhelmed by fears, we can even misunderstand worship, turning ritual gatherings meant to connect us with the ultimate force of love in the universe into shallow occasions where a duty has been discharged or a commitment satisfied, but where our lives remain unchanged.
The Epistle reading, from Hebrews, is a beautiful hymn (almost) to faith—faith, in many peoples’ minds being the other side of fear. By faith, Abraham obeyed, and looked, and followed. By faith, Sarah laughed, and followed, and conceived. In the letter to those early Christians, which we call the letter to the Hebrews, we’re given that famous definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” But how to tap in to that faith, that comfort, if you’re overwhelmed by fear?
One of my favorite books is Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. If you haven’t read it, maybe you saw the movie. In the story, Flora Poste, a smart nineteen-year-old from London, is orphaned and begins to write various relatives to see where she might live. Eventually, she receives an invitation from the Starkadders, who think that Flora’s father had been done wrong by their clan at some point, and so they owe it to Flora to take her in.
She arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, the Starkadders’ place, that is just about falling apart. And there are dreary characters in every direction. The cows are named Aimless, Graceless, Feckless and Pointless. The whole sad family is ruled by a matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, who refuses to come out of her room in the attic because, years ago, as a girl, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” We never learn what she saw, and it doesn’t seem as though anyone in the family knows. It’s not even clear if she still knows what she saw. But the fear that began in the woodshed has completely infected her. That fear has changed her and made her small, and scared, and sad. And Aunt Ada Doom’s fear casts a spell over the whole farm.
I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you, but I will say that the arrival of Flora Poste, and her commonsense way of interacting with each family member eventually helps Aunt Ada to leave the fear in the woodshed where it belongs, and step into life again. And guess what? As soon as the fear is let go, the whole family finds freedom.
It reminds me a bit of a post I saw and liked so much I shared it on the St. Peter’s FaceBook page this past week. In it, Benjamin Mathes, a 30-something blogger, described his part in a thing called “The Free Listening Project”. Mr. Mathes, who I’m guessing was a Bernie Sanders’ supporter, went to the RNC to learn “How to Listen When You Disagree” (that’s the title of his blog post). He stood outside in the heat with a sign around his neck that read “Free Listening” – offering himself as a person who would listen to whomever came along.
Most people who came up to him told him about their families, their jobs, and the things that brought them to Cleveland. Eventually, a woman came forward with an issue that mattered and about which she had strong feeling. It was a hot button issue, and it came with anger and emotion and vitriol.
Mathes observes that it takes a lot of forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage to listen in the face of disagreement. But he learned through this experiment that the one thing that makes forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage even possible, is working to hear the person and not just the opinion. A fellow blogger who calls himself Agape, says it like this: “Hear the Biography, not the ideology.”
So when that woman stepped forward and spat out her passionate anger, Mathes said, “Tell me more.”
And I want us to notice two things here. The first is a stance of humble curiosity. He was not looking to make a point or enter into a debate. He came with no particular political agenda, no verbal shield and sword. He came with something better. Curiosity.
I always think that if you can let yourself get curious about something, that is a way to invite the Holy Spirit in. Difficult person making your life miserable? Can you get curious about them? Can you draw closer rather than further away? Takes practice but it’s a fundamental spiritual discipline, and one Jesus encourages us to adopt.
The second thing worth noting here is the focus on the person. Mathes sought to learn about the woman by asking her about her biography, her story, the things that shaped her life. The woman told a story and as he recounted her story, he wondered on reflection if she had felt his heart breaking for her.
That is love at work. You can call it empathy, you can call it love, you can recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit.
- For Isaiah, that sort of encounter is real worship.
- That is prayer, as we talked about it a couple of weeks ago – prayer as a stance, a way of being in the world that is a connected way. A way of love and communion… instead of a way of judgment, analysis, critique.
- For Jesus, that kind of love at work is what he means when he invites us to wear a purse that will never wear out because it is filled with God’s own treasure – a way to begin to forgive each other and show love in practical, real ways.
And, notice something else, just to bring us home… There’s no fear here either. In the face of that kind of curiosity, that kind of love, fear just disappears, it evaporates. It left Cold Comfort Farm (just put it in your cue and watch it after the Olympics is over) and it left Benjamin Mathes’ heart.
If this is Kingdom living, then, gracious Lord, let your Kingdom come.