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Fear and Faith

We all live with fear.  At one level, that’s a good thing.  It is great that we have a bit of fear when walking across several lanes of traffic at the height of rush hour.  Sometime, however, our fears can become irrational and unhealthy.  Like when we sit in our homes all day, afriad to even enter the traffic of daily life.  When that happens, the fear is called a phobia – a morbid, irrational, intense, persistent, debilitating fear of certain situations, activities, things, or people.

I found a website called phobialist.com which provides a running list of all known psychological phobias.   There are 533 on the list.  Here’s just a sampling:
Agoraphobia- Fear of open spaces
Alektorophobia- Fear of chickens
Alliumphobia- Fear of garlic
Automatonophobia- Fear of ventriloquist’s dummies
Bogyphobia- Fear of the bogeyman
Chorophobia- Fear of dancing
Coulrophobia- Fear of clowns
Chaetophobia- Fear of hair
Dentophobia- Fear of dentists
Glossophobia- Fear of public speaking
Hobophobia- Fear of beggars
Ideophobia- Fear of new ideas
Pentheraphobia- Fear of mother-in-law

Here’s my favorite:  Homilophobia- Fear of sermons

One of my favorite television programs is the sitcom/drama “Monk.” It’s the ongoing story of Adrian Monk, a brilliant detective who also suffers from dozens of different phobias and personality disorders, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  I particularly like the theme song “It’s a Jungle Out There,” written and sung by Randy Newman.
It’s a jungle out there
Disorder and confusion everywhere
No one seems to care
Well I do
Hey, who’s in charge here?
It’s a jungle out there
Poison in the very air we breathe
Do you know what’s in the water that you drink?
Well I do, and it’s amazing

People think I’m crazy,
’cause I worry all the time
If you paid attention,
you’d be worried too
You better pay attention
Or this world we love so much
might just kill you
I could be wrong now,
but I don’t think so
It’s a jungle out there
For some people, it really is a jungle out there.  While everyone knows what it’s like to be afraid, for some, fears can become irrational phobias that hold us back and paralyze us.

When I was a young, I shared a room with my youngest brother, David.   It was getting late and we should have been sleeping, but we weren’t.   Instead, we were laughing, telling jokes, generally cutting up and having a grand time doing so.

From the other room we had heard our parents scream a time or two, telling us to “be quite and go to sleep.”   We’d settle down for a few minutes, but it wouldn’t last long.

Finally my mother had had enough.  She came to the doorway and began to scream, telling us to “shut up and go to sleep.”  She tossed in a few parental threats just to make sure she got her point across.   She was wearing a long flannel nightgown that hung from her shoulders down to the ground.  Her hair was in curlers.  There was some kind of cream on her face.  Honestly, she looked scary.

David was the youngest of we band of four brothers and he had never seen our mother looking like she did at this particular moment.  After she had left, it was silent for a few moments until David said, “Billy.”  (They called me “Billy” when I was younger.)  “Billy,” he said with fear dripping from his voice.  “What?” I replied.  “Billy,” he said, “Who was that?”

Everyone knows what it is like to be afraid.  It’s even like that on Sundays at the church.  In fact, sometimes church can be the scariest place in the world.

When I was a pastor on the Eastern Shore we had a young man named Gilberto who attend worship on a regular basis.  He also owned a pet snake, a five-foot python.  One Sunday, inexplicably, Gilberto brought the snake to church.  He left it in his car, curled up on the dashboard window to stay warm.  The doors were locked, so nobody could get into the car and get the snake.  Still, he took the thing for a car ride to church.  Never really did figure that out.

Between Sunday School and Worship, Gilberto went to check on the snake.  To his surprise, the snake was missing.  The car doors were still locked, but the snake was gone.  He tore that car up trying to find that snake.  He looked on the floor-board, under the seats, in the glove compartment.  He even looked in the trunk and in the engine, all to no avail.  The snake was gone.  Of course, he reported it to me so I could tell the nice church people to be on the lookout for a missing python.

I made the announcement at the beginning of worship.  I don’t think anyone heard a word that was spoken during the remainder of the service.  People kept glancing down at their feet, worried I suppose that the snake might begin crawling up their leg during the sermon.

As the worship gathering ended and I prepared to pronounce the benediction, a thought occurred to me that I just had to share with my congregation.  “It occurs to me,” I said, “that whatever path that snake took to get out of Gilberto’s car it could just as easily take to get into one of our cars, so be careful out there…Now go it peace, and as you go know this…”

I had always had a pretty solid relationship with the majority of that congregation.  In the moments that followed that benediction, however, I became one of the most despised persons in the world.  They didn’t need to know that a snake might have snuck into their car during worship. I had reminded them of their fear.

I thought about that old proverb well tell down in Florida where I grew up, that says:  “When you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s hard to remember the original objective was to drain the swamp.”

The folks from my old place of ministry had gathered for worship, as it were, to drain the swamp of their lives only to discover that they were now up to their waist in alligators.

Put another way, these folks had come to church and I had scared them to death.  That might not be a bad thing every once in a while.  When you think about it, worship, prayer meeting, and Bible study, ought to be a place where we feel a bit of trepidation and fear.  It’s not a place to fear in the irrational, phobic sense of the word – but the church is a place we ought to fear at some healthy, respectable level.

If that sounds a bit odd to you, let me explain.

Too often we come to the sanctuary, expecting “pleasant platitudes” and “warm fuzzies.”   We gather thinking that worship should make us feel good about ourselves and good about life.  We think we should feel uplifted and affirmed. And yet we cannot avoid the reality that following the path of God is often a fearful venture.

Too often we gather to worship seeking divine help in draining away the swamp like atmosphere of this world, only to sometimes discover that by the end of our gathering it seems like we are waist deep in alligators.

That’s the nature of God’s call on our lives.

God calls people through flood and wilderness.

God calls people to stand up in the face of temptation while tired, lonely, hungry, and afraid – taking nothing with us but an unwavering confidence in God.

God’s call us toward the total cleansing and reorientation of our life toward the Kingdom.

There are times in our lives when the words for the day are repentance, baptism, sacrifice, and cross bearing and these are all words that are rightfully frightening.

“The time has come,” Jesus says.  “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

These words of Jesus are an intense, get serious, no gamesmanship, all-or-nothing kind of calling.  If you hear the call to follow Christ and it does not seem to you like something that is awesome and fearful, then put your ear back to the ground, because you have missed what Jesus is really talking about.

Psalm 25:12 says, “Where are those who fear the Lord? God will teach them the way that they should choose.”

Proverbs 1:7 echoes the same thought when it says, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”

Now when the Bible talks here about fear, it is not a talking about some type of morbid, irrational, intense, persistent, debilitating phobia about God.  It is talking about is having a healthy respect for God.  It is acknowledging that God is awesome.  It is about our realization that God is far above – and we are way below – and yet despite this difference in distance, God still makes the trek toward us, making intimacy a possibility.

When we deal with this God there ought to be a certain level of awe, respect and dare we say it, fear.  That’s the kind of mindset we should bring with us to Bible study, prayer gatherings, and worship.

What a difference it would make if we realized when we gather that we really are in the presence of an awesome and almighty God – a God who should be honored, feared, and respected as our only source of life and hope.  What a difference it would make in our lives if we really understood that without this God, the universe would deteriorate into nothingness and our lives would vanish like a vapor.

With an attitude like this, our petty power plays would fall by the wayside.  With an attitude like this, the mission and purpose of God would become our mission and purpose.  With an attitude like this, we would realize that God is not in our possession, but we belong to God.   With an attitude like this, worship, Bible study, prayer gathering, and ministry, would bring to us an awareness that the Holy Spirit is present and ready to reveal to us the ways of God.

There is a certain level of respect, awe, and fear that should well up inside us at the awareness of God’s nearness.

I think that’s what John Newton was getting at when he wrote the second verse of “Amazing Grace.”  “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear,” he wrote, “and grace my fear relieved.”

The grace of God reveals to us that without God we are serious trouble.  That’s frightening.  The grace of God also reveals that we are being offered mercy – something that brings us relief from our fears.

Grace leads us to fear.  Grace also leads us toward relief.

How?  Through faith!  Because we have this healthy fear and respect for God, we trust, we believe, we obey, and we follow!

If we stay stuck in some sort of phobic, morbid, fear about God, life would remain utterly hopeless.  If, on the other hand, we allow an awesome respect for God to lead us toward faith, we will find freedom, power, and potential.

There’s an old saying: When fear knocks at the door and faith answers, no one is there.

I read something this past week that talks about the difference of abiding in fear, or moving on toward faith.

• Fear kills people; faith saves them.
• Fear blows up bridges; faith builds bridges.
• Fear keeps you in adolescence; faith brings you to adulthood.
• Fear teaches kids “thou shalt nots;” faith teaches them “Once upon a time.”
• Fear defines itself by what we’re against; faith defines itself by what we’re for.
• Fear-exercises build a heart that makes muscles; faith-exercises build a heart that makes love.
• Fear holds up in holy huddles; faith breaks out into mission fields.
• Fear turns away or hits back; faith turns the cheek . . . but doesn’t turn its back.
• Fear states; faith demonstrates.
• Fear thinks makeshift; faith thinks long-haul.
• Fear revels in being top-dog; faith revels in being underdog.
• Fear tunes out; faith turns on.
• Fear counts the cost; faith holds nothing back.

So this is our choice today as we come to the Lord’s Table today on this First Sunday in Lent.

We can either live fearful of the world and with an irrational phobia about God, or we can choose by faith to live in the love and mercy that comes from healthy respect for this awesomely fearful God.

How will you choose?

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