Reflection: January 28

Published on Feb 16th, 2018 by Rev. David Boyd | 0

         “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; those who practice it have good understanding. May your praise endure forever.”

         These three phrases comprise the last of the acrostic poem that is Psalm 111; each phrase starts, respectively, with the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, “Resh, Shin, and Taw.” As I wrote in the background to the psalm, the acrostic poetry technique was used as a way of remembering. People didn’t read in the days when the psalm was written; they relied on memory to recite stories and poems. The Psalms were poems that were chanted. Psalm 111 is an acrostic poem in praise of God’s deed and presence.

         The psalm is actually a Thanksgiving psalm. People would have sung this poem after coming through a calamity, or individuals would have used this psalm after healing from a particular problem. Perhaps the man who was healed in Mark’s story sang this psalm of thanksgiving in response to his new opportunity.

         The phrase “fear of God” is one of those phrases that people ask about. “Why should we be afraid of God?” they wonder. I’ve spoken about this phrase before, but as it pertains to wisdom and to thanksgiving, I’ll speak about it again here.

How about I substitute one phrase for another that comes from Latin: mysterium tremendum? Is that a familiar phrase? The literal meaning of this Latin phrase is “terrible mystery.” But, it’s more nuanced meaning from the Encyclopaedia Britannica is this: “the transcendent appears … as a mystery before which a person [sic man] both trembles and is fascinated.” Rudolph Otto a philosophy of religion writer 100 years ago, spoke of this idea as mystery—wholly other—calling for a reaction of silence, which invites in us a deep sense of awe. It is a response to deep reverence that we might think of as awe.

Awe has lost some of its impact these last few years as it is very popularly used. Instead of saying thanks, you can often hear the word, “awesome.” So, it’s lost some of its impact… this word “awe.” But it is still the word that captures this deep reverence. We become silent in the face of something stupendous. We become reflective. We become humble. That’s “the fear of God.”

And I think that this reverence is important in today’s world especially because we don’t reverence our lives or the life of the earth around us particularly well. Some would suggest that there is an epidemic of people in the West who hate their lives and their bodies. And other social commentators suggest that the development of the West is based on the subjugation of the earth as something that doesn’t have a value other than what it can produce in economic value.

This idea of reverence, awe, fear of God, or mysterium tremendum is one way that the church has kept alive a sense of the importance and inherent value of the earth. Even when we weren’t particularly articulate in the face of exploiting the earth, there was still this lingering sense of God’s awe-filled gift of life. In the last 50 years in particular, partly through mysticism and the spiritual movement and also through the social justice movement and environmentalism, we’ve come back to this wisdom or reverencing the earth more deeply.

And to add another layer of why this is important, reverence, awe, fear of God all invite in us a gracious response. After witnessing something that hushes us with awe, our chemistry changes and those soothing chemicals are released into our bodies. Who would want to charge into an argument after seeing a sky full of shooting stars during the Perseids meteor shower? What awe and reverence invites in us is a deep sense of gratitude and a desire to share the experience with others in community.

And from that place of gratitude and deep community, we find the courage to take up new challenges, to face our struggles, to step outside of our comfort zones to live differently in the world. There is also a deep hope that arises out of this awed silence. David Steindl-Rast defines gratitude as the heart’s response to an awe-filled moment. Gratitude is that silence before the brain has a chance to evaluate it. The experience occurs—a shooting star, perhaps—our hearts register it with awe and silence, and THEN our brains engage in curiosity about it. Gratitude for Steindl-Rast is that gap between the experience and the thought about it. And this leads to a new openness, a new hope, a new courage to change our lives and our ways and live as healed beings.

Perhaps this poem by Morgan Farley called Clearing might help:

I am clearing a space
here, where the trees stand back.
I am making a circle so open
the moon will fall in love
and stroke these grasses with her silver.

I am setting stones in the four directions,
stones that have called my name
from mountaintops and riverbeds, canyons and mesas.
Here I will stand with my hands empty,
mind gaping under the moon.

I know there is another way to live.
When I find it, the angels
will cry out in rapture,
each cell of my body
will be a rose, a star.

If something seized my life tonight,
if a sudden wind swept through me,
changing everything,
I would not resist.

I am ready for whatever comes.

But I think it will be
something small, an animal
padding out from the shadows,
or a word spoken so softly
I hear it inside.

It is dark out here, and cold.
The moon is stone.
I am alone with my longing.
Nothing is happening

but the next breath.[1]

         At first hearing, it might seem that the writer is disappointed at the end. But the accumulated sense of gratitude leads not to despair that something has not yet happened, but hope that with the next breath, something will, that maybe even breathing is enough.

         Wisdom is the living in this moment of anticipation and hope. In the next breath, we will live fully into the gift of new life. Gratitude leads to this new way of living. And it can make such a difference to how we engage the world.

         This week of climate change talks that we sponsored through the Interfaith Collaborative has been helpful to affirm the reverence and awe by which we hold life and the earth’s inhabitants. And thus, we have expressed our gratitude and been moved to live with more hope. We’ve heard stories of change and we know, out of this place of hushed reverence for life—our lives and the life of the earth—that new life comes with this breath and the next.

         Amen.

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[1] See www.gratefulness.org, January 2018 Newsletter.

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