The right use of fear

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me; 
your rod and your staff -- 
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4; from Psalm 23, lectionary text for Sunday, March 22, 2020

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, 
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. 

Proverbs 9:10

Thinking much about fear this past week, particularly the relationship between fear and faith.  I’m not the only one.   The Washington Post reports that in a certain Bible app, ‘searches for “fear” went up by 167 percent last week, and “fear not” by 299 percent.’*   

Institutions throughout my area — including the university where I teach — closed and moved work online.  Churches closed too.  More accurately, church buildings closed.  ‘Church’ remained open, with the community’s worship and prayer and study moved online.  News stories and social media feeds started covering this aspect of the coronavirus as a distinct thread within the larger tapestry of the new social pattern COVID is creating.  Of the various slants relative to the closing of churches, one that continued to recur was the tension claimed between fear and faith.  Most negatively, the relationship between fear and faith was presented as an intrinsic opposition, so that failure to gather physically for worship was failure of faith in God, elevating the power of the virus over the power of God.  In a more benign form, fear was admitted as natural, a human condition that we could offer to the LORD in trust of God’s comfort and cure.

‘Fear not,’ God repeatedly instructs, from Genesis (15:1) through Revelation (1:17).   ‘I will fear no evil,’ the psalmist sings, in laud and thanks of the LORD’s presence and comfort.   

But:  ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.’  The proverb offers fear in parallel with knowledge, not as something to be avoided. 

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.

Fear may be irresponsible or destructive — panic that destabilizes and debilitates individuals and communities.  Yet I wonder whether our fear of fear, so rooted in our national ethos (‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ FDR famously said) is depriving us of an important learning about ourselves as creatures and our place in creation.  Fear reminds us that we are not in control.  The Bible reminds us that we were never meant to be in control.  Made in the image and likeness of God, yes; given ‘dominion’ over creation, yes.   Just ‘a little lower than God,’ yes.  But ‘like’ and ‘lower than’ God.  Not God.  We were never meant to be God.  Fear reminds us that we are limited. Fear may allow us to recognize and admit, again as if for the first time, the power that is outside of us, the power that is other, the power that is beyond.

Perhaps this is the value in the practice of fear.   Perhaps this is the lesson of a time such as this.  The scope of the risk is unknown, at this point unknowable.  We are required to acknowledge our ignorance and to admit our finitude.  Even — effectively — forced to admit the fear that is the shadow side of so much of our bright life, the worry both quotidian and ultimate that we hide under the thrum of busy-ness, the hectic pace of work or play, the anxiety that comes out only sometimes, in the wee hours of the night when the surrounding dark seems vast and terrible.  Daybreak comes, we push the night terrors down and away, and we spend the hours of light — again — acting as if we are in control, which pretense has as its implicit corollary, that we are God, or at least that we know God already so perfectly as to be able anticipate and respond to every circumstance.

The current pandemic proves the power of this virus.  Fear of it is not faithlessness.  Fear may be, instead, the beginning of the beginning of wisdom.  As we acknowledge the fear of what is finite, as learn to revise our own actions in response to its power — a power as impersonal as a wave — we may begin to realize how to practice the fear of what is ultimate and infinite.  Of Who is ultimate and infinite.

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.  It has the potential to teach. As we learn, may we be drawn further on and in to deeper and dearer relationship with God.

‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight’

*The Washington Post, ‘Worship goes virtual in age of social distancing,’ print 3/21/20

Twisted System

When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.”  So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. And the LORD said to him, “Name him Jezreel*; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.” She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the LORD said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah**, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”  When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said, “Name him Lo-ammi***, for you are not my people and I am not your God.”  Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” 

Hosea 1:2-10; lectionary text for Sunday July 28, 2019

The text and I are in the kitchen together.  One of us is at the sink, washing dishes.  The other stands looking at the dishwasher’s back.  For a moment neither of us speaks.  I can no longer stay silent.

‘‘Wife of whoredom’ — really? — my God! do you hear how alienating that sounds?  Who wants to spend a week with those words ringing?  They’re coarse and unwelcoming.  Hostile, even.’

‘’Wife of whoredom’ — of course it’s alienating.  Don’t you hear what’s going on?

‘What I hear is ‘whoredom.’’

‘So then you stop listening?  Because it’s offensive?  Because it’s uncomfortable?  No!  Don’t shut your ears and refuse to hear more.  And don’t assume you know what I mean and start talking over me, responding to the point you assume I’m making.  It’s not about the sex.  It’s not about fertility cults or harvest orgies or temple prostitution.  Don’t turn away!  Listen to me!’  

The voice of the text had risen strident.  Now it drops without losing any of its fervor, its force somehow stronger in its quietness.

‘It’s about fidelity.  It’s about identity.  And it’s about how brokenness is bigger than just one person, just one couple.  Brokenness spreads like cancer throughout the land.  We beat each other with it, blame each other for it.  We forget and lose who we are meant to be.

‘Yes, the words are alienating.  How else to name alienation?  How else to make it plain?’

The text and I are facing each other now.  Her face is worn; her voice hardly more than a whisper.

‘Read me through.  Try.  Hear the pain behind the anger.  Think how it feels to have to name your daughter ‘not-pitied,’ your son ‘not-my-people.’  These your children whom you called as your own:  ‘I will take you as my people, and I will be your God’ (Exod 6:7).  These your children whom still you love.  These your children who have turned away, who seek security and power and purpose elsewhere.  Whose claimed identity is no longer God’s-own but …  

‘… but their own.’ Now I am speaking back to the text.  ‘Who live as if they have made themselves and called themselves.  Who cry in the dark, nor can figure out why or what is wrong.  Who do not realize how far from that way they have strayed.  Because still they make the ‘right’ decisions, celebrate the ‘right’ festivals.  Who respond to the promptings of the larger society — whether walking lock-step or rigidly resisting — so that its imperatives govern their way, define their lives.  The system is sick, and it’s twisting us all.  And worst of the sickness is that it’s unacknowledged or mis-diagnosed.’  My own voice is now a whisper, echoing that of the speaking text.  ‘So it’s not about the sex. It’s about the children.

The text replies, ‘Yes. It’s about the children.’

‘Is it plea, then, rather than judgment?  To name them ‘Not-pitied’ and ‘Not-my-people?’  

‘Oh, child.  It is both.  A plea for turning and a warning of consequences.  The sowing of Jezreel (‘God sows’) is judgment.  The sickness must be named and the sickness must be treated.’  Her voice is warmer, now, but still firm.  Her face is set — she will not relent — there’s ache and understanding in her gaze.  There is love.  My own eyes drop.  The text presses.

‘Where do you find your worth?  How do you define your worth?   What is the name you’re truly living now?’ the text asks.  ‘What is the true name you were meant to bear?’

Still gazing down, I feel for a moment a hand resting blessing on my head.  The text speaks on, ’In place of the name ‘Not-my-people’ it shall be said, ‘Children of the living God.’’

* Jezreel means ‘God sows.’ ** Lo-ruhamah means ‘Not-pitied.’  *** Lo-Ammi means ‘Not my people.’