Monday Matters (January 29, 2024)


Psalm 111

1 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the deeds of the Lord!
They are studied by all who delight in them.
3 His work is full of majesty and splendor,
and his righteousness endures for ever.
4 He makes his marvelous works to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
5 He gives food to those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works
in giving them the lands of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice;
all his commandments are sure.
8 They stand fast for ever and ever,
because they are done in truth and equity.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever;
holy and awesome is his Name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.

Courage in the face of fear(s)

Could the biblical writers please make up their minds? The portion of the psalm we read in church yesterday (see above) concludes with reference to the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom. We find variations on that statement in several places in scripture.

At the same time, one of the most common biblical lines when conversation begins between heavenly and human beings: Fear not. Don’t be afraid. Beyond that, there are scriptures that place fear and love in opposition. We read in the New Testament that perfect love casts out fear.

So which is it? It’s clear we’re faced with two different kinds of fear. It may well be that we harbor both.

On the one hand, there is the fear that sets itself in opposition to love. There’s plenty to be afraid of. We live in a world with devils filled that threaten to undo us, according to Martin Luther. The history of religion across many traditions has often been fear-based, calling us to compliance and conformity. Or else. We may imagine a God who waits for us to step out of line, eternal damnation resulting. Thanks be to God, a lot of that fear-based religion as motivator for religious practice has given way to the way of love.

At the same time, we’re encouraged to embrace the kind of fear that paves the way for wisdom, wisdom as something the world needs now, something there’s just too little of? (Thank you, Dionne Warwick.) This brand of fear has to do with a recognition of God’s greatness. It can be captured in the word “awesome,” a word which may have lost meaning as it is used to describe a cup of coffee or a movie or the latest fashion.

If you’ve ever been tempted (as I have) to imagine that God is lucky to have us on the team, the fear of the Lord opens the way for a better and wiser understanding of our own place in the universe. Scripture can assist us in that understanding, as the psalm du jour speaks of God’s greatness and majesty, as it reminds us of God’s faithfulness, God’s patience.

Maybe the question for us this Monday morning is this: What kind of fear is shaping our lives these days? What kind of fear will we choose to live by?

We may need to admit that in our complicated interior life, we harbor both kinds of fear at the same time. It will take courage to deal with that complexity. A meditation from Richard Rohr which I read last week cited this quote from James L. Farmer: “Courage, after all, is not being unafraid, but doing what needs to be done in spite of fear.” Rohr goes on to note the implication, which is that if you’re not scared, it’s not courage.

In our liturgy we ask for strength and courage. Courage in terms of bravery to recognize those things that make us fearful. Courage in the sense of love (the word courage has at its root the word for heart, as in the French coeur) as we recognize the truly awesome nature of amazing grace.

What kind of fear do you harbor this morning? Ask for grace to face fear with courage. Let that prayer open the pathway to the holy fear that can lead to greater wisdom.

-Jay Sidebotham

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