Threshold fear. That’s what the librarians at the Library of Congress call it. It is the common condition and experience of those who first encounter the Library of Congress.1 The Library’s massive, daunting, seemingly impenetrable buildings engender fear. Its 37 million books contain quantities of information so vast and deep, so broad and high, their very presence renders your entire sum of knowledge (the knowledge you have earned in books and study, over a life-time of hard knocks) .... as pathetic, laughable. Threshold fear.
This past Wednesday I drove down to New York, to Long Island, to celebrate with my mother her 83rd birthday. At eighty-three years of age, my mother grows inexorably nearer and nearer to one of the great threshold fears of human existence: death.
During my visit, over Wednesday evening dinner and Thursday morning birthday-breakfast, my mother reminisced about her parents and grandparents. She recalled their stories, their lives ... where they and their people had come from (St. Louis and Philadelphia, via Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany). She recalled how her parents and grandparents negotiated life: wracking grief and financial uncertainty, alcoholism and Alzheimer’s, the Great War and the Great Depression.
My mother spoke of her upcoming high school reunion—her class’s 65th reunion—remarking that just five of them will gather. Five. And she named friends and classmates who have recently died.
As we talked, my mother volunteered a thought she had been turning over in her mind: that she may have experienced her last Summer Olympics. That she may not be here to enjoy the next Summer Olympics in 2016. She calculates that her new credit card has an expiration date that might well expire after she does.
Threshold fear. Fear of the impenetrable immensity and finality of death: a threshold toward which we are each inexorably drawn; a threshold against which we are utterly helpless. Unlike the Library of Congress, death is a threshold whose crossing we can neither choose nor refuse.
Threshold fears. We face a lot of them in our lives. The threshold fear of marriage: committing oneself to another “for better, for worse, until parted by death.” The threshold fear of your child’s first day at school, or first night away from home. The first time your teenager drives the car on his or her own. Threshold fear. The death, God help you, of a child. The death, God help you, of a spouse.
Then there are those thresholds that threaten to plunge you from being employed to unemployed, from housed to being homeless, from sanity to insanity—the space between these are so narrow—from security to danger, from health to illness, from companioned to isolated, from being guilty to having been found out.
Threshold fears. We each negotiate a great many of them in the course of our lives.
Today’s story from Mark’s Gospel is all about fear. All about fear and thresholds ... and threshold fear.
“Shh,” says Jesus, whispering to his disciples, “I am going to be killed.” The disciples don’t understand. Whoever really understands? How do you wrap your mind around being alive one minute, and having died the next? What’s more, Jesus is young, vital and healthy. He is so obviously alive. ‘What’s death got to do with it?’ his disciples wonder. They don’t understand what he is saying about death and, what’s more, Mark tells us, “they are afraid to ask him.” Afraid of death and afraid to ask about death. That about sums it up.
It is in the course of this conversation, however, that the disciples begin to get hold of something. They begin to grasp that Jesus himself is a daunting threshold at whose door they waver. Should they or shouldn’t they cross the threshold. Who will go first? What will become of them if they cross over, if they plunge in? What is it like on the other side?
There is a child nearby. I imagine a seven-year-old, a boy the age of Amos B. Gently, Jesus guides the child to the center of a circle formed by the disciples. This child—imagine Amos—has no rights in the first century. If he had been born weak or ill, or born with a physical or mental disability, his father was in his rights to place the infant outside to starve to death or be eaten. In the 1st c. of the Common Era children existed for the benefit of their parents ... the benefit, to be precise, of their fathers. Children were economic units: either they were capable of production or not.
Jesus points to the seven-year-old, the one without rights or status. He says about the child: Welcome him. Receive him. When you welcome a child—when you welcome the least and lowest—you welcome Jesus. And when you welcome Jesus, you welcome God.
You see, when you cross the Jesus threshold you enter a strange new land, where the order of things is reversed: the one at rock bottom of the hierarchy is raised; the last becomes first; and the greatest are those who serve.2
Jesus begins to illuminate what lies beyond the Jesus-threshold. It is surprising stuff. Awesome! It’s great good news. Come on through, he invites us. Come on over.
There is another threshold fear, held in common by a great many of us ... by a great many of you. A great many of you share this: a threshold fear of the Bible. A fear of the Bible’s immensity and density, of its antiquity and exotic place names; of its epic grandeur and Shakespearean eloquence; of its holiness and its sacerdotal mystique. Many of you are intimidated by its undulating genres and labyrinthine arguments.
The Bible engenders a crippling fear ... crippling to you who are Christians ... to you for whom this book is so intimidating that you have barely put a big toe over its threshold. But it is crippling for the church, as well. Crippling, for this church. In the absence of Bishops, creeds or a Book of Worship, we are left to ourselves to discern the faith, to find our way, to guess at what God hopes for and from us. Without intimate familiarity with the Bible we are left to our own devices to follow God, to navigate life’s vicissitudes and face down its terrors. Being left to our own devices in such high and holy matters is not generally a good thing.
I have good news for you about the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress employs and trains expert docents whose job it is to hold your hand as you negotiate the threshold. Like Dante’s Virgil it is their joy and purpose to illuminate the Library’s layout and design. They are equipped with keys to unlock its symbolic codes. Leading you through its galleries and passages, docents lift torches to expose handcrafted mosaics and figurative sculptures, allegorical paintings and decorative cherubs. They break the great Library down from the grand immensity of its facades to a single stirring inscription: KNOWLEDGE WILL FOREVER GOVERN IGNORANCE (James Madison). Docents break the great Library down: from its daunting 37 million books, to the single book you hold in your hand: to that one book’s provenance and purpose, its utility or fancy, its heft and feel.3
At Old South Church we have Bible docents. We have guides and mentors to help you cross the threshold of the Bible and to enter inside this immense and weighty book. We have our own Virgil’s to illuminate symbols and point out mystery, to lead you down paths of moral grandeur. We have docents to warn you against the wiles of the Devil who, by the way, also inhabits the Bible’s pages.
Here’s what we offer in the way of Bible docents: Sunday Morning Bible Study, Bagels and the Bible, Disciples Bible Study and our newest offering, Breaking (Good) News.
Here is my promise to you. When (not if) you conquer your threshold fear of the Bible ... when you give yourself over into the guidance of those who are familiar with its terrain and inhabitants ... when the Bible’s topography and people, its saints and sinners, its prophets, potentates and paupers become as familiar to you as the streets of Boston and the characters in these pews ... when you come to know David on a first name basis ...after you have supped of an evening with the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus ... when you conquer your threshold fear of the Bible, you will have come nearer to having conquered other threshold fears as well ... fear of death and loss, fear of quilt and being found out. That is my promise. My-cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die promise to you.
If you are afraid of the Bible, if you find it daunting and impenetrable, listen. Listen to these words, this testimony by Harriet Beecher Stowe. She gives witness to the Colonial era practice of daily Bible reading:
After breakfast grandfather conducted family prayers, commencing always by reading a chapter in the Bible. He read through in course, as was the custom in those days, without note, comment or explanation. Among the many insensible forces which formed the minds of New England children, was this constant, daily familiarity with the letter of the Bible. It was for the most part read twice a day in every family of any pretensions to respectability...Such parts as explained themselves were left to do so. Such parts as were beyond our knowledge were still read, and left to make what impression they would...the constant contact of the Bible with my childish mind was a very great mental stimulant, as it certainly was a cause of a singular and vague pleasure. The wild, poetic parts of the prophecies, with their bold figures, vivid exclamations, and strange Oriental names and images, filled me with a quaint and solemn delight ...this wonderful old cathedral book insensibly wrought a sort of mystical poetry into the otherwise hard and sterile life of New England. Its passionate Oriental phrases, its quaint pathetic stories, its wild transcendent bursts of imagery, fixed an indelible mark in my imagination. Where Kedar and Tarshish and Pul and Lud, Chittim and the Isles, Dan and Beersheba, were, or what they were, I knew not, but they were fixed stations in my realm of cloud-land. I knew them as well as I knew my grandmother’s rocking chair, yet the habit of hearing of them only in solemn tones... gave to them a mysterious charm. (Harriet Beecher Stowe, from her Writings, 1896)
As a child Harriet Beecher Stowe was guided across the threshold into the Bible. Its villages and mountains, its battlefields and rivers became to her familiar locales. It’s Goliath’s and Tishites, its monsters of the deep, starry nights and angelic hosts became a part of her life, her world, her religious imagination and her ethical education.
If she had not been steeped in the Bible, it stories and language, its legends and lineages, I wonder: could she have still written Uncle Tom’s Cabin ... perhaps the single most important, defining and ethically charged book of her time ... the book that changed the hearts of a nation, started a war4, and inspired emancipation? I wonder.
Threshold fears. Life is full of them. Some thresholds are more daunting, more dangerous and more final than others, but we each negotiate a great many of them in the course of our lives.
Here is my promise to you. When (not if) you conquer your threshold fear of the Bible you will have come nearer to having conquered other fears as well: fear of death and loss, fear of quilt and being found out, fear of failure and of humiliation.
That is a promise. That is my-cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die promise to you.
1 The World’s Memory Keepers, by Steven March (deltaskymag, August 2012)
2 Mark, by William C. Placher (pp. 133-135)
4 After the start of the Civil War, Stowe traveled to D.C. and met President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 25, 1862.Legend has it that he greeted her by saying, "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."