Friday, January 2, 2015

The angels encamped around us this year

Orion Nebula, NASA
“The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.”
– Psalm 34:7

My childhood admission: I used to be afraid of a lot of things. I saw the movie “The Blob” with Steve McQueen about space goo from a meteor that landed on earth and ate everyone, especially kids sitting in movie theaters. The Blob oozed under seats and out of heat ventilators.

For years I thought The Blob might be under my bed. Ok, I really didn’t think that, but just to be safe, I did not let my hand hover below the bed at night.

More seriously, I was also afraid of the concept of infinity. The idea that space goes on and on forever scared the daylights out of me. I can’t explain exactly why, but it did. Still does.

The idea of infinite time also scared me. What came before time? Does time end? If time does end, did existence ever exist? If time doesn’t end, how does that work?

Adding to my fear, in church the preacher used to talk about God living outside of time and God coming at the end of time. How does that work?

Call me a neurotic kid with such strange fears. My parents thought I should be more worried about spelling tests and my “times table.”

Yet, I think some of my childhood fear about infinity and time might be what the biblical admonitions about “fear of the LORD” are getting at. It is tempting to translate the word “fear” into “awe” (of the LORD), and that works one level. But creation is so vast, and the concepts of time, space, infinity, are truly so beyond human comprehension that there must be more to this than awe. Who are we to think we can understand this? Who are we to think we can tame the universe? There is a lot to be afraid of out there.

We cannot know God easily or directly. The Book of Job ends with God bellowing at Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4). We don’t.

I bring this up as a way of suggesting that we might enter the new year with a measure of humility about our most cherished beliefs and opinions about everything from religion to politics. We are but mortal, made from dust and to dust we shall return. God’s ways are not our ways, and we are living on a finite rock in a tiny corner of the universe. Our conflicts over religion and politics are comparatively trivial. There is so much we don’t know even about ourselves and our planet, let alone the rest of the universe.

We might want to hold lightly to our opinions, listen to each other a little more closely, care for each other a little more deeply, and not be so certain we have this God thing figured out so perfectly. “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” so the wise rabbi says in Proverbs 1:7.

There is hope in this. The Morning Prayer reading for today begins with Psalm 34 and its prayer for wisdom and peace. Lately I’ve been reading the psalms from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible rather than the psalms tucked into the back of the prayer book. I like RSV version better including Psalm 34, especially this line: “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.”

May each of us find the angels encamped around us this year, protecting us from evil and from the arrogance of our own certainty. May many blessings light our path. And let’s be careful out there.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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