Is our “fear of the Lord” more philosophical, or more guttural?
by Mike Stavlund
For Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011: Year A—Christ the King Sunday
Like most Psalms, the 95th is a call to worship. God’s people are encouraged to sing for joy and to shout about God’s goodness, to kneel down in worship, because, like sheep, God’s people are cared for and protected in God’s pasture. It is a beautiful, inspiring scene set before us. But then things take a turn.
What the Lectionarians hurry right past is a bit less comforting. They clip off the end of Psalm 95 and offer, as a semi-continuous option, the similarly pastoral imagery in Psalm 100. But between them we are left wondering if we’re collectively ignoring some uncomfortable family secret.
What gets skipped over in Psalm 95 is God’s seething, 40-year long anger—a lifetime of bitterness, really. God’s bad side. Anger at his people’s hard hearts, divine loathing at human waywardness, and indigence that people ‘tested’ God. The Lord, carrying a grudge over from father to son. It’s a God-sized grievance against an entire generation of people, and it doesn’t seem to subside until every last one of them finally dies.
Whistling Past the Graveyard
What figuratively, and very discontinuously, lies between Psalm 95:7b and Psalm 100 is a very uncomfortable silence.
The Lectionarians may have thought they masked the awkward lacunae by parenthetically providing Psalm 100, which is once again full of God’s gentleness and sweetness and light. They surround us with the familiar and comforting imagery of God as kind shepherd, who deserves our praise, and who longs to reward us. He is ‘faithful to all generations’ (save the one from Psalm 95?) and has “steadfast love” (the richly nuanced Hebrew term “hesed”) which lasts forever.
A Belt in His Hand, and a Kiss on His Lips
But let’s shoot the gap. Is the God there like some dark father figure, whose children must learn to mollify? Is he hiding some seething rage that must be pacified? Is he so insecure that he might fly off the handle at any moment? He might be the kind of character who acts badly toward his children, or he might be the father figure who stands by while others act badly toward his children. But really, what’s the difference? Are we as God’s children supposed to close up ranks, make excuses for Dad, and hope everything works out in the end?
The Hardest Question
So I’m left sitting in that silent place with my hardest question:
Are we supposed to fear the Lord, or be afraid of God?
Mike Stavlund writes from a 5-car pile-up at the intersection of his Christian faith and real life. A husband of over 15 years and a father of 4 children, he lives with his wife and 3 daughters in a small house outside Washington, DC. He’s a part of an innovative emergence Christian community called Common Table, a co-conspirator with the Relational Tithe, and a proud part of the collective called Emergent Village. He blogs at MikeStavlund.com, and his first book, “Force of Will”, will be published by Baker in the Spring of 2013.