Isn’t it funny how a week after getting back from a holiday you feel as though you’ve never been away? My wife and I got back just this week, or at least that’s what my diary tells me, from a holiday in New Zealand, where Alison grew up. Now, I’ve never been to New Zealand before. One of the things that really struck me over there was how our New Zealand relatives seemed to be suffering in the ghastly 26 degree summer heat. Wherever we went it seemed we had to have a sort of competition to see who really suffered the most – ‘oh, but it’s a different sort of heat’, they’d tell us, and we had to agree that it certainly was. Luckily we’d taken a few thick jumpers.
So to escape the furnace one afternoon – also because we were tourists – we visited Waitomo and went on a guided tour of the Glow-worm Cave. We had our 15 year-old nephew with us, which meant we had a running commentary on everything, this was not, for example, a patch on Aussie caves – eventually we reached a place where the walls opened out to form a sort of limestone cathedral where during the summer months weddings and concerts are held – to escape the heat, I guess. Then the guide started to tell us about the glow-worms – actually more a sort of maggot hanging upside down from the roof of the cave with a phosphorescent glow and the unpleasant personal habit of excreting a sticky thread from its backside to catch anything unlucky enough to fly too close. Apparently they keep this up for several decades, then they metamorphose into moths and die It all sounded fairly unimpressive actually, and I really couldn’t help thinking what a dull sort of life it must be. My nephew made a smart comment. The whole group, in fact, judging from the nervous giggles and chatter all around us, seemed fairly underwhelmed. But then they put us into a boat and pushed out into the middle of the lake. All the lights went out and when we looked up at the roof of the cave it was like looking up at the Milky Way, only closer. For the rest of the tour we glided somehow through the cave in utter silence apart from gasps of wonder and surprise at every new constellation. Not another word was spoken, and my nephew came out into the sunlight at the end with a thoughtful look on his face.
I wonder if that comes a bit close to what the writers of the Hebrew Bible’s Wisdom literature mean by this saying, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’? There’s something, isn’t there, about our incessant need to feel in control, to reduce the universe to things we can explain. Our need to cope with the anxiety we feel in the face of the mystery and the unexplored depths of our own experience. We try to talk it down to size, to push a screen of nervous chatter in between ourselves and the unknown, not just the depth experiences of the created world around us but the depth experiences of our own lives and our relationships with one another as well. And the Wisdom tradition more or less says to us, ‘just shut up, will you? There’s something here that you’re actually not going to get unless you stop rabbitting on about it.’ So, this is something to do with our own spirituality, the paradox that it’s only when we put aside the notion that we’ve got it all worked out and under control, only when we get in touch with the innermost seed of wonder and incomprehension and vulnerability that we spend most of the time trying to cover over – only then do we start to get just a glimpse of the mystery and the miracle of creation and our own part in it. I think that’s also the point Jesus is making for us in the story we read from Luke’s gospel – you know what? I’ve never had anybody say to me ‘oh, I’m more like Mary’ – and I think the point is, we’ve all got a fair bit of Martha in us, we all have this built-in need to be doing practical stuff, and that’s a good thing, but Jesus is reminding us about the need for balance, the need to be still, to attend to the movement of the spirit within us, to our relationships with God and with one another, and to our place in God’s creation. So Jesus is smack bang in the middle of the wisdom tradition, here.
But, what about fear? The Hebrew Bible has got a long tradition of men and women feeling utterly gobsmacked in the presence of God. Abraham, for example, experiencing God’s presence in the strange covenant ritual out in the desert, is overcome with terror. Jacob, on the run from his brother, when he sleeps with a stone for a pillow and dreams of angels running up and down a stairway to heaven, knows for sure that despite his own questionable ethics, God is with him, and he feels terrified. The people of Israel, wandering in the desert after Moses has led them out of slavery in Egypt, grumbling and complaining, are dead scared when Moses comes down from the mountain with the gift of God’s law in his hands. ‘Just read it to us from a safe distance’, they plead with him. There’s some good old-fashioned terror associated with recognising our own unholiness in the presence of God. And yet, the Bible consistently regards this knee-trembling sort of dread as a good thing – the God who brings us face to face with our own shortcomings turns out over and over again to be reliable and faithful, more interested in healing us and restoring us than in condemning us. And so Job, arguing with God in the best Hebrew tradition of no-holds-barred emotional honesty, never gets a straight answer to his basic question – ‘why me?’ – what he gets instead is a new understanding of who he is and who God is – a new perspective on his relationship with God that frees him to live in an attitude of trust and reliance that his life has meaning because it comes from God.
So this sort of holy fear that the wisdom tradition recommends has the effect of de-centering us, knocking us out of the centre of our own moral universe and reminding us of our place in creation and the first-and-foremost centrality of our relationship with God. Of course, there’s another sort of fear that’s the opposite of this, a life-denying sort of fear that robs men and women of dignity and moral agency, the sort of fear that closes options down rather than opening them up, and the women and men of Guyana, I think, who have created this wonderful liturgy we have shared tonight, understand all too well that the only way to transform a legacy of unholy terror is to practice the virtue of holy fear.
The fearful history of Guyana is itself, I believe, holy ground. Guyana’s three hundred year colonial period is primarily a history of slavery, with first the Dutch, then the English importing men and women in chains from Africa to work the sugar plantations, then following the abolition of slavery in the early nineteenth century indentured labourers from East India to feed the European need for profits. Following independence in 1966, Guyana followed the typical post-colonial path for countries left with dysfunctional structures of government, a dislocated population with a history of inequality and conflict, and crashing commodity prices. Guyanese people today bear the burden of poverty second only to Haiti, in the Caribbean region, chronic shortages of skilled labour, a history of racial and ethnic conflict and a rate of HIV-AIDS infection that according to its Health Minister in 2004, threatens the very future of Guyana as a viable nation.
How might the virtue of holy fear be practised in Guyana? How might we, tonight, join with our Guyanese sisters and brothers in practising holy fear?
The first point, I think, is that it’s not a cop-out, it’s not an excuse for failing to take real action. The commitment above all to relationship, to telling and listening honestly to one another’s stories, naming past failures and injustices at the same time as recognising the truth of ourselves that is inseparable from our relationships to God and to one another – as Australians with a fearful history of our own we know something about the difficulty and frustration, but ultimately the life-giving necessity of such holy conversation. So tonight, we’re called to the very practical response of praying with, and for, the people of Guyana.
The second point – and my final one, I promise – is that the exercise of holy fear is the practice of delight. You get more than you bargain for when dare to be open and vulnerable. It changes you in ways you can’t predict. The Guyanese, whose Creole culture sort of throws together the languages and customs and religions of three continents, have a saying for visitors which, in a sense, we are tonight – ‘if you eat lammas and drink black water you’ll be back!’ Given that lammas is a kind of rat and black water from the forest is whatever gets strained through the humus, you have to wonder how many return visits they get.