The Fear of God

Some might remember the “Buddy Christ.” In the movie, “Dogma” there is a campaign to renew interest in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Glick (played by George Carlin) says the crucified Christ and the crucifix are “wholly depressing.” Instead we need a “Buddy Christ,” with a statue of Jesus smiling and winking who points at onlookers with one hand and gives the thumbs-up sign with the other. The vacuous quality of much contemporary Christianity and its constant emphasis upon “uplift” and “being positive” and “claiming your blessings,” is adeptly skewered by the “Buddy Christ.”

I thought about this “Buddy Christ” when in prayer on Monday I came across this line, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). Raised on post-Vatican II Catholicism, I was spared an earlier generations’ emphasis upon fearing God. Instead I got a steady dose of how God loves each of us. It was not quite “Buddy Christ” but it came close sometimes. “Kumbayah” is not “Dies Irae.”

Does an emphasis upon fear of the Lord have to lead to “sinners in the hands of an angry God” like Jonathan Edwards preached long ago? Is our only other option pietistic pablum?

This week at Manna House when guests asked for the Word of the Day, I shared this Psalm passage, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

The first guest who heard this asked, “What does that mean?” Good question, which deserved a good response, “I don’t know for sure. What do you think?”

A guest jumped in to tell us. “You gotta show respect for God. He’s bigger than any of us.”

Other guests connected the fear of God to not fearing others. “To fear God is to not fear anyone or anything else” said one. “If you fear God no one can make you afraid. So you’ll do right and nobody can make you do wrong” he continued. “God won’t leave you alone; just hold on and you’ll be alright.”

“There’s a lot to be afraid of on the streets,” added another, “people jump you, cops get after you. The cold wears you down. It can be crazy out there. They try to make you afraid, but I ain’t scared. God’s got my back. When I walk down the street, there’s people trying to get me to do wrong. When I fear God, I don’t fear them. So I don’t do wrong.”

Still one more offered, “I don’t trust too many people. God I can trust. God don’t let me down. Fearing God I fear no man. God’s got me covered, just like he covered Jesus.”

I was starting to see how the fear of God depends upon appreciating the power of God for good, and the power of God standing against other powers. This fear of God is no ordinary fear; it is an empowering fear.

“I don’t think fearing God is being afraid of God’ said another guest. “God’s not out to get me. Fearing God means listening, doing what God says. When you do that God sticks with you.”

At the end of the conversation one guest urged a different translation. Instead of using the word “fear” he suggested we use the word “awe.”

“If you fear God that means God loves you and you are in awe of God for that. I’d go with ‘awe’ rather than ‘fear’ because a lot of people think ‘fear’ means being afraid God’s gonna do something bad to you. God doesn’t do bad things to people; that’s the devil.”

That took me back to the “Buddy Christ.” Some people think God crucified Christ. They emphasize how God (a horrible judge to be feared) punished Christ for our sins. The “Buddy Christ” goes to the opposite extreme. Neither sin nor the cost of confronting sin are taken seriously. But the guests at Manna House know something about sin, not only their own, but the sin of being deprived of housing and healthcare and jobs and respect. Their God has the power to take on that evil and overturns the power of sin and death, resurrecting Jesus. That kind of God demands respect. That kind of God is awesome.

“It’s just smart to fear God if you know who God is” said a wise guest.

High Cotton

Robert Cotton has died. I called him Robert “High” Cotton. You probably know the phrase “being in high cotton.” It means doing well, flourishing. You might not know (I certainly did not) that the term originated in the pre-Civil War South. “High cotton” meant the crops were good and so were the prices. “High cotton” likely did not mean much to those who actually did the backbreaking work of planting, weeding, and harvesting the cotton. Certainly the slaves who worked the cotton fields never enjoyed the fruits of “high cotton.”

Robert was a descendent of slaves. He endured another type of slavery. He had worked hard in his life and yet was on the streets for many years. He experienced the multiple indignities of being Black and poor and no place to call “home.” He never had much in the way of “high cotton.” We talked one day about “high cotton.” He said he spent most of his life in “low cotton.” He liked being called “high cotton” though, because he said, “If I’m ‘high cotton’ I must be pretty good.”

Robert often rode his bike to Manna House. He was one of the regular bike riders with a few other guests, including Reggie a good friend. Robert would trick his bike out so that it was quite fancy looking, a “high cotton” kind of bike.

Robert died alone in his boarding house room. He had a heart attack, Reggie said. “They found him on his knees, like he was praying.” So far no family has been found, though Reggie continues to look.

I believe Robert is in extremely high cotton now; a place called “heaven.” The high cotton there is not the result of slavery and Jim Crow, new and old, but of Gospel liberation. It is the high cotton of the Gospel.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” For years I have heard that statement as the priest put ashes on my forehead. These days I sometimes hear the priest say “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Both statements are fine.

The first is a humbling phrase. It is a reminder of our shared mortality, and this should spur us to compassion and justice as we are all in this brief life together. Even those in high cotton come from the earth and return to the earth.

The second, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” is also a call to compassion and justice. Out in the cotton fields there was a song the slaves sang, “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heav’n that ain’t goin’ there.” The slaves knew the truth of the Gospel “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21-23). Or as the song says, “Well I read about the streets of gold, And I read about the throne, Not everybody callin’ ‘Lord, Lord,’ Is gonna see that heavenly home.”

The Gospel of Jesus announces a different order than the order of racism and slavery that produced the phrase “high cotton.” This different order of the Gospel, the “Kingdom of God,” means no slaves, no restriction of high cotton to the wealthiest. This different order demands reparations so that justice can be restored. This different order of the Gospel brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed and jubilee—the year of the Lord’s favor in which all debts are forgiven and land is redistributed (Luke 4:18-19). High cotton for all. Robert “High” Cotton has entered into that promise. Those who take the fruits of high cotton off the backs of slaves need to repent and believe in the Gospel if they hope to share in that promise.

“Repent and believe in the Gospel.” We can work for the Kingdom or against it. Ash Wednesday reminds us to make the choice for the Kingdom while we still have time. “High cotton come on earth as it is in heaven.” Robert “High” Cotton rest in peace.

The Laundry Teaches

We cannot know Jesus without going to those who are in poverty. He himself said so (Matthew 25:31-46). I reached into the large black garbage can filled with dirty clothes. I was sorting the clothes cast off by guests who took showers at Manna House this morning. Doing the Manna House laundry means touching the clothing of those who are in poverty. The laundry teaches.

I pulled out what I thought was a sweatshirt. But beneath the sweatshirt were four additional layers of clothing: a t-shirt, a long-sleeve t-shirt, a long sleeve dress shirt, and another t-shirt. Five layers of clothing against the cold; still probably not enough. When you do not have a warm house in which to spend the night (and the day), or even a shelter, you make do with what you can get. Five layers of clothing. The laundry teaches about being cold on the streets.

I pulled out socks and more socks. None of them were salvageable. The dirt was too deeply ground in and solidified with old sweat. Underwear, the same story. The dirt is engrained into the very fabric. No amount of bleach or soap will get it out. A sign of the perversion of the Gospel is to believe that cleanliness is next to godliness. To believe that those who are dirty are of the devil is to believe the lepers of old were unclean and were rejected by God. Jesus took a different approach. The lepers deserved welcome and healing, not rejection and damnation. Those who rejected the lepers in the name of God were the very ones who were far from God. The laundry teaches about dirt and poverty and about who we reject by our conventional standards but who God embraces.

I pulled out pants, mostly blue jeans, and a few khakis. They were wrinkled, and in various states of weariness. A few holes here and there. Random stains on some. Mostly just dirty. They tell of sleeping on the ground or in an abandoned building or under a bridge. Psalm 113 comes to mind,

Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
God raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of God’s people.

The laundry teaches about those in the dust and on the ash heap and about where God intends them to be contrary to where society has cast them.

I pulled out towels, damp from wiping dry freshly showered bodies. I remember a Gospel story (John 13:1-17). Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” When Jesus came to Peter, he did not want Jesus to wash his feet. Such a task was reserved for the lowest of the low, for slaves. Jesus would be dishonored by doing such work. Jesus answered Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” What does this mean? What does it mean to be washed by Jesus?

Jesus himself tells us. “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. … If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” The laundry teaches about how to experience blessing.

The laundry teaches, if we are willing to learn.

Loving the Unlovable

I do not easily love every guest that comes to Manna House. There are a few, in fact, that I would be quite happy if they never came back. Most are easy to love, to welcome, to serve. Some are not. In other words, guests at Manna House are human, and so am I. We all have our rough edges; places where we rub one another the wrong way.

I love to love those that love me (and laugh at my jokes). Loving those folks is easy. Offering them hospitality is a snap. Jesus however, has a higher bar for being his disciples. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-47).

I struggle with this teaching of Jesus and ask for the grace, the loving presence of God in my life, so I might be able to love those who are not lovable. This gets a bit complicated sometimes. At Manna House, like elsewhere, the unlovable might be more than merely unpleasant, they might also do things that hurt others.

I think of a guest who flares up in anger and threatens to do violence to another guest for the smallest of bumps in a crowded house. I think of a guest who mocks other guests who are “different,” not meeting certain standards for sexuality or sanity and personal hygiene. How to love the guests who sometimes threaten the very practice of hospitality at Manna House?

Love does not mean accepting wrong behavior by another person. Did Jesus love King Herod who had John the Baptist killed? Yes. But Jesus also clearly rejected Herod’s execution of John. Did Jesus love Peter who denied him three times? Yes. But Jesus also clearly called Peter to repent. It is a mistaken notion of love to equate it with accepting abuse, injustice, or any wrongdoing.

So love sometimes involves confrontation, conflict, and challenging another person, all with the purpose of creating a loving (and just) community. This is how God loved King David when God sent the prophet Nathan to confront him about the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. This is how God loves each of us when we are called to account for our sin. In Ezekiel we read, “ Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11).

Correction for the sake of conversion and community is loving. Paul points to such love (and more) when he writes, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

So, I can ask a guest not to smoke on the front porch because the smoke blows into the house. I can tell a guest that his language is not acceptable because it degrades another guest. I can even ask a guest to leave when her behavior threatens the well-being of another guest. This can all be done in love, with kindness in the words used, without recourse to violence, with continuing respect for the guest being corrected.

At the same time, love requires that I treat the guests I find difficult to love with as much love and respect as I treat the guests who are easy to love. This is when I especially have to practice patience and kindness, and I have to leave behind arrogance and rudeness and insisting on my own way.

I fail at this kind of love on a regular basis. Trying to offer hospitality to a cantankerous or sullen or irritating guest is humbling. I have to face my own shortcomings in the practice of love. Maybe that is how God reminds me of how unlovable I am, how I have rough edges, how I fail to love. And maybe that is how God tells me of God’s love for me. God loves even the unloving me. Does not the Bible tell me so?