The Power We So Blithely Invoke

Sometimes God scares me. Not like an angry parent scares a cowering child. It’s not like that at all. Still less like a bully scares a retiring classmate.

“Scares” is probably not even the right word. “Awes” would be better, though anyone who has truly been awed will understand my choice of words. It includes a sense of largeness that makes a person feel small and a sense of weight that makes a person feel insubstantial. In the presence of the overpowering God, one perceives one’s own powerlessness.

The biblical writers described this as “the fear of the Lord.” It was not some cringing sense of alarm they had in mind, but a commanding sense of the power, size and “otherness” of God. The person who has experienced “the fear of the Lord” understands that God is like a mountain: there’s no getting around him. He is the one “with whom we have to do.”

Some people may think of this as a negative thing. I can only assume they have never experienced it. To know it – not just abstractly, but with one’s whole being – is exhilarating. It breathes life into a person. It also brings insight and perspective, which is why the teacher says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

If the “fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom, ours must be a very foolish generation. And if the “fear of the Lord” is exhilarating, ours must be a very bored (and boring) generation. “We have,” Dorothy Sayers lamented, “efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet and author Annie Dillard asked: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

When we lose the sense of God’s otherness (holiness) and magnificence (glory), religion becomes a strategy for coping with life or even just a hobby. As A. W. Tozer put it, “Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms.”  At our hands, the incomprehensible power that created galaxies; the power that is a person and yet more than a person; the one who says, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live,” is offered the position of personal assistant.

When we lose “the fear of the Lord,” worship is inevitably degraded. Worshipers see the weekly gathering as obligatory, and attend out of a sense of duty rather than anticipation. Because church leaders know this (and perhaps even feel it) they try to find ways to ease the burden of Sunday morning for the weary worshiper.

There are two principal approaches for doing so: make the worship time entertaining or make it productive. The church building becomes a concert hall, a comedy club or a lecture hall. Church leaders become rock stars, comedians or would-be Dr. Phil’s. Church services become amateur entertainment events, minor-league therapy sessions or bogus wealth management seminars.

The problem with all this is that church meetings end up being about pleasing the worshiper (or “attendee,” which is probably more accurate) rather than pleasing the awesome and astonishing God. Ironically, pleasing that God is a real possibility but pleasing the worshiper is vaporous fancy.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/23/2016

 

 

 

 

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