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Holy Terror

February 22, 2016

“Holy Terror” Genesis 15:1-19 © 2.21.16 Lent 2C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I’m not sure when I first heard the term “holy terror,” describing a child who is completely out of control. Probably from Mama, commenting on the behavior of some kid in our church or our family. She may have even been talking about me.

I’ve since learned that the phrase can refer to anyone of any age who’s exasperating, annoying, troublesome and/or aggressive. And, of course, “holy” is merely an intensifier; the behavior of such people is precisely the opposite of that of a centered and peaceful saint. There are plenty of such terrorists on the world and national stage, from Islamic fundamentalists wreaking havoc in the Middle East and elsewhere to homegrown whackos and extremists in the US. Their goal is to undermine our confidence in our safety and make us afraid every moment; to disrupt the normal rhythms of society; to enforce some oppressive set of rules or outlandish interpretations of scriptures or foundational documents; and, in their vivid imaginations, bring governments and everyday citizens to their knees.

I would suspect, then, that we and our neighbors uniformly see terror as a bad thing. But even if we didn’t have “holy terrors” running around everywhere, we in the formerly mainline churches would still not talk much about the fear of God, dread and horror of deep darkness brought on by the presence of the Divine. We’ve had enough of fundamentalists fomenting fear among the faithful. We may even want to disown people in our own traditions back in the day like Jonathan Edwards, whose “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” had people hiding under their pews, trembling and moaning, as they cried out “What must I do to be saved?” And by the way, he did that simply by reading the sermon of ten points; there was no shouting.

But we do ourselves no favors by abandoning talk of fear, dread, horror, terror, and darkness in spirituality and religion. We have gotten too used to being buddy-buddy with God, to thinking of Jesus as our friend, and the Holy Spirit as our comforter that we can cuddle up close with on a dark night. And indeed, God is close to us, our companion and keeper, merciful and kind. But that is not the whole story of God, and reassurance and calm are not the emotions normally associated in Scripture with a close encounter with the Divine. Sometimes the terror comes because God is moving against his enemies in judgment. But his own people are also terrified, not because of God’s judgment, but because of his holiness and majesty, as Isaiah said. According to the writer of Hebrews, Moses was so terrified in the presence of God he admitted to trembling with fear (see Hebrews 12:18-29). The women at the empty tomb ran away, because terror and amazement had seized them and made them speechless (Mark 16:8). Cornelius the centurion, on being visited by an angelic messenger, stared in terror (Acts 10:4).

We encounter that same terror, dread, horror in the presence of Yahweh in the Old Testament reading for the morning. It’s a complex narrative from at least a couple of sources cobbled together by editors. And you may recognize one line in it as the basis for Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, the subject of so much theological wrangling in the Reformation. But none of that need not concern us right now. Instead, I’m going to mine the story for resources for our Lenten journey. Specifically, I want us to ponder whether we’re missing something in our spirituality if we’re not terrified, horrified, awestruck on occasion.

Most of the time, we need to hear the assurance God gave Abram. In a vision one night that reminds us of the call of prophets, the patriarch was told by Yahweh not to fear. God would protect and reward him. That was important to know, because Abram was in crisis. Promised big things from God, he had no one to pass his possessions on to, no one even to give him a decent burial, other than his butler Eliezer, whom he was going to name as his heir. The Lord nixes that plan and insists that the biological child of Abram and Sarai would be the heir. In fact, so many descendants would come from Abram that they would rival the stars in the sky.

But then the scene shifts and, frankly, gets truly strange. Abram still questions how he will know that the land he’s standing on will belong to his descendants. Yahweh tells him to slaughter some animals and birds and split them in half, except for the birds. What a bloody business that must have been! But obviously it was something the patriarch knew how to do and didn’t balk at for a moment.

When all the preparation was done, Abram sleeps a sleep only God could induce. And here’s where the terror happens in and maybe because of the darkness that descends. It’s a darkness such as we might experience in a cave, the sort we can feel pressing on and threatening us, in which we can’t see our hands in front of our faces, the kind in which as children we thought monsters were under the bed and hidden in the closet. The translations have the line variously as “a great dark dread”; “fright and great darkness”; “big, dark terror”; “horror of great darkness”; “horror and great darkness.”

Abram experienced what Rudolph Otto, eons later, would term mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The famous theorist of religion said that when we come into contact with that which is completely beyond us, what he called the “numinous,” we have two reactions. On the one hand, we are overwhelmed, terrified, struck with awe, dumbfounded, rooted to the spot in fear. We know we could be incinerated by the blast furnace holiness of a majestic God, but we remain nevertheless in his presence. That’s because at the same time, we are encountering a beauty that is sublimely and supremely attractive, a voice that calls to us and reassures us of the gracious intentions of this One beyond us, who says “I am your shield; your reward will be very great. Do not fear. I am your stronghold. I will hide you in the shadow of my wings on the day of trouble.” We are at home in a way we have never known, yet left with nowhere to inhabit. We are centered, yet disoriented.

With his usual penetrating insight, the priest Richard Rohr has observed: “In the mysterium tremendum, you know God as far and beyond—unreachable and beyond description! Here you experience God as dreadful and fearful, as the one who has all the power, and in whose presence I am utterly powerless. People at that stage tend to become overwhelmed by a sense of separation or alienation. If you stop there, you either become an atheist, an agnostic, or a loyal but distant soldier. The defining of sin and sin management becomes the very nature of religion.

“But simultaneously with this dimension is an opposite feeling of fascination, allurement, and seduction, a being pulled and drawn into something very satisfying and inviting. This is the mysterium fascinosum. If you only have the alluring part without the deep reverence for this mystery, you get merely sentimental and emotional religion, usually without any real social consequences (“Sweet Jesus” Christianity, as it is sometimes called). Otto says if you don’t have both, you have not had a true or full experience of “The Holy” (Holding the Tension: The Power of Paradox http://www.saintsophiadc.com/2014/02/mysterium-tremendum-mysterium-fascinosum/).

Abram experienced the mysterium tremendum, the holy terror, in the midst of darkness or maybe the darkness was the mystery, the horror. That may sound confusing, because darkness has gotten a bad rap in Christianity, thanks mostly to the Gospel of John and the letters from that tradition. God and the experience of the Divine is all about dwelling in the light. “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all,” we’re told. Darkness is something we must pray to be delivered from. Anything, anywhere, and anyone dark is evil. The darkness is where people hide when they do wrong.

But what if darkness were a realm in which we must learn to walk, as Barbara Brown Taylor has said? She encourages us to embrace not a “full solar spirituality” of constant dwelling in light, but a “lunar spirituality” that sees the darkness also as a friend, a place not away from or devoid of the Divine.

Let me suggest three ways in which darkness and mystery, holy terror, deep dread, can be and are enriching for us. First, mystery is interesting. Who wants to watch a whodunit we have figured out in the first five minutes or read a novel whose ending we can predict after a couple of paragraphs? And isn’t one of the complaints of bored couples that everything is routine, that there’s no mystery left, no surprises?

One of the best lessons I ever learned in ministry was about mystery. It came from a teenage girl in First Presbyterian in Owensboro, KY named Christine. The youth group was taking a tour of the building one evening. We came on a door at the head of the stairs. No one knew what was behind it, not even me. So I asked the kids to wait where they were while I fetched the key. We were underwhelmed. The room merely contained organ pipes, not hidden treasures or great secrets. Christine observed that it would have been more interesting if we had never opened the door, if something had been left to our imaginations. She is, by the way, now the pastor of the church.

Next, darkness and mystery may foster creativity and a fresh perspective. Rainer Maria Rilke, the famous 20th century poet, wrote: “I love the dark hours of my being./My mind deepens into them./There I can find, as in old letters,/the days of my life, already lived,/and held like a legend, and understood./Then the knowing comes: I can open/to another’s life that’s wide and timeless./So I am sometimes like a tree/rustling over a gravesite/and making real the dream of the one its living roots/embrace:/a dream once lost/among sorrows and songs” (The Book of a Monastic Life: I,5, in Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God: 51). Rilke also said: “…the dark embraces everything:/shapes and shadows, creatures and me,/people, nations—just as they are./It lets me imagine/a great presence stirring beside me./I believe in the night” (The Book of a Monastic Life: I, ii, in Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God: 63). The philosopher Albert Camus observed: “In the depth of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

But finally, it’s in darkness and the embrace of mystery that we become most aware of the loyalty and love, power and presence of God. Abram was utterly helpless in his deep slumber; he had prepared the animals, but then his part was over. It was God, in visible, though mysterious, form, that walked alone between the animal pieces. The meaning was that God, following an ancient practice, was calling down a death curse on himself if he ever broke the covenant literally “cut” that day. Back in the day, parties to a covenant essentially said “May I be turned into a bloody mess like these animals if am not faithful” (see Jeremiah 34:18-20). But in this agreement, known as a “royal grant,” there is only one party, namely, God himself, who unilaterally promises to make good on it under risk of death.

The incredible commitment of Yahweh to Abram and his descendants is made to us as well. We are heirs of the covenant. Deepening spirituality includes both the sweet assurance of living in the light of the Lord and the deep terror of darkness that arises from the mystery of his being. I truly wish that every time we gathered for worship or reflected privately, we would be so inspired, moved, awed by that fact that we would feel goose bumps, a tingle of holy terror, not because we fear judgment, but because we are so amazed at the love of the Sovereign of all for you and me. You won’t be seeing me slaughtering cattle anytime soon, and there won’t be any smoking cauldrons as the room is plunged into a darkness we can feel. But surely something deep and primal within us, not just our minds, but all our senses, can be heightened, we can feel holy terror, not because we are about to be judged or destroyed, but because the very Creator of all deigns to walk with us, to pledge himself to us in covenant, even to the point of death on a cross. Jesus hung between two thieves like Yahweh walking between split livestock, then shone like the stars of Abram’s vision in the resurrection, and finally poured out the fire of the Spirit on the waiting Church, so that all who heard the message that day were filled with holy terror.

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