Reflection: August 19

Published on Aug 19th, 2018 by Rev. David Boyd | 0

         As we know, communication is everything.  It was one of the first things that human beings learned that enabled our ancestors to form communities and begin what we now call a culture.  Communication in today’s world is complex and difficult.

         As complex and difficult as it might be, there are people who can communicate incredibly well… because of their genius, perhaps, or their passion, or for whatever reason. Aretha Franklin (who died last week) was just such a person.  She communicated through song and made a huge difference both to the civil rights movement in the US, but also to feminism.

A classic case of communication genius is Aretha Franklin’s hit song “Respect.”  It was originally written and performed by Otis Redding, the person that gave us the classic hit, “Sittin’ on the dock of the bay watchin’ the tide roll away…”  Otis, a blues/soul star in his own right, sang “Respect” in 1965 as a man asking for respect from his lover; it was fairly pedestrian and typical: a man wanting respect in his home—not much new in that.  But Franklin, however, took it as her own in 1967.  In her voice, Aretha turned this song into a call from a woman to her man to acknowledge what she contributes to the relationship, including “all of my money.”  Aretha gave the emphasis to the woman in this relationship and the fact she has money. It is a revolutionary song even today for feminism.  Franklin also spelled out RESPECT as if the song itself wasn’t enough.

It also became an iconic song for the civil rights movement.  The Rev. C.L. Franklin was a civil rights activist, a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the father of Aretha.  She grew up in the movement and demanding respect.  And Aretha sang this and other songs from her experience.  She was in an abusive relationship and had a child at age 12 if you can imagine.  She demanded respect.  And she got it!  Because she could sing it!!!

The liberal, inclusive, progressive church gave Aretha Franklin wings with which to fly, and boy did she!  The church was always important to her; she would return to her Baptist Church in Detroit whenever she could.  The liberal, progressive church today needs more voices like Aretha’s!

One of the challenges of liberal, progressive Christianity is to get our inclusive, open and loving voice out there. Progressive Christianity is NOT the same as fundamentalism and exclusive and judgmental Christianity of some of our conservative kin.  For example, one of the concepts where a progressive, liberal Christian voice is beginning to make a difference is in our relationship with God.  Many conservative leaders take the quote that we read in Psalm 111 literally, namely that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”  The teaching is that we need to fear God in order to follow God’s will and live an upright life; it’s the idea that fear is a good motivator and part of this teaching is to instill the idea that we need to be afraid of going to hell.

I came across this fear-based teaching just last week in a conversation with someone I’d only just met.  We got talking about life and death and it became clear from this other person that people need to be afraid of going to hell in order to get their affairs in order.  I offered a different view about not believing in hell, but believing in love, peace, and reconciliation, believing in a loving God who transforms, and was told categorically that I was wrong; well, we disagreed.

The fear of God, at least in the sense of being terrified, is not the beginning of wisdom. Rudolf Otto, a German theologian in the early 20thcentury, coined the phrase, mysterium tremendum, in reference to God and fear.  Its translation is what it sounds like–“tremendous mystery.”  It means more literally, “awe-inspiring mystery.”  God is “awe-inspiring mystery” and we approach this reality with deep reverence and awe-filled hope.  It isn’t a fear that makes afraid of the negative consequence of some action; it is an awe that fills us when we realize the opposite—that God’s love and light transform us—and that a spark of this awe-filled mystery is in each of us.  The mysterium tremendum inspires in us humility and respect, and a deep appreciation of the preciousness of all life!

This, I believe is what the psalmist meant when writing, “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”  The beginning of wisdom is seeing the preciousness of all life and understanding that God is in all.  The Church’s message is that we reverence all life and find common ground to create community and enhance life for all.  This is why our Nelson Interfaith Climate Action Collaborative has taken off.  We see this mysterium tremendum in each other’s traditions and values and we affirm that the only way we’re going to confront the climate crisis and the growing crisis of human tribalism and capitalism is by joining our voices together and affirming the mysterium tremendum of mystery, awe and the preciousness of life.  This is why Aretha Franklin was such a powerful singer; she had all the technical tools to sing powerfully, but she sang from her soul.  She sang demanding respect.  She sang with the fundamental hope that as human beings, we can be loving, inclusive, open and life-changing in what we do.  She was an inspiration to me and her music is still full of mysterium tremendum!

And in the gospel writer John’s own way, he presents the mysterium tremendum in communion and in the simple task of eating together.  John gives a symbolic meaning to Jesus as the Word of God and when we eat bread together and drink wine—both of which have been blessed—we find a renewed sense of deep awe and hope, a deep love for the world and R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

When we eat earthly things intentionally together, these earthly things take on a greater meaning related to the very essence of God, and that changes how we live our lives.  It invites in us a deep reverence and respect for one another, for life, for that which gives life.  As the theme for this Sunday points out, “reverence leading to awe leading to gratitude.”  And music does this, too, for us all.  Powerful soul music.

We begin in reverence for God’s gift of life found in all life; this leads to a sense of awe and wonder, which in turn leads us to appreciate life and take steps to enhance life and affirm the presence of God in all life.  That’s liberal, progressive Christianity’s message… mysterium tremendum that takes away our fear and calls us to live courageously and hopefully!  And part of that is to live with respect and hope. May Aretha’s music and message live on!

Amen.

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