Remember the holy

Clouds and light


Luke 9:28-36

A cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.

One of my brothers got married some years ago, when my girls were young, at a place I presume, now, was in the Oakland hills. It was then – and is still – unfamiliar territory to me. I should ask my brother where this was.

I only know that after we left the wedding reception late that night, the road rose up along the edge of the grass covered hills and we were unexpectedly engulfed in a thick, thick fog. Suddenly there were no stars, no city lights, no horizon and no other cars. It was profoundly disorienting. We were in this ethereal white cocoon unable to see to the side of the road. It was also scary; we were traveling a mountain road and I could not see where the road went.

I have sympathy for Peter, James and John, an all night prayer vigil makes anyone’s head droop. They are alone up there, away from the safety and security of the village (this is not a world in which people went camping!), when suddenly they are startled awake by two men talking with Jesus. There before them are the holy figures of Moses and Elijah, radiant with the glory of the celestial realm. And then they are enveloped in a cloud – a cloud they know can only mean the divine presence. Like Moses and Elijah on Sinai, they are in the presence of the Holy One – these decidedly unholy fishermen.

Disorienting. Fearful. And then the voice. No wonder they kept silent about what they had seen.

We are a first name culture. We are a society in which everyone’s photos and thoughts are public. Here is me with my buds. Here is me on vacation. Here is me at dinner.   Here is the sunset I see, or the blossoming daffodils. (Yes, I know that grammatically it should be “Here am I”, but somehow the repetition of the word “me” seems more appropriate.) We post our favs and show our videos. Grieving families do the morning news. Not much is hidden.

It is hard to appreciate what Peter, James and John felt in the presence of the holy. But I felt a piece of it that night in the fog when I could see nothing familiar. When the world seemed to dissolve around me. When I was confronted with something I had never experienced before.

There is something good in that part of Christian faith that recognizes the intimacy of our relationship with God. Jesus, after all, dared call God “Father” and bid us do the same. But there is also a time to remember the holy, the otherness, the majesty and mystery of God. There is a time to be weak in the knees. There is a time to know the awe.


Photo: dkbonde

Perfect love


Ezekiel 1:28b – 2:5

File:Bearing of the Cross (Duccio di Buoninsegna).jpg28I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking. 1He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet.

God speaks to Ezekiel. At the culmination of the prophet’s overwhelming vision of the glory of God, God speaks. Ezekiel is on the ground and, though he is commanded to rise, he is unable. God fulfills in him what God commanded.

I will take nothing away from the teaching of Jesus that God is a loving father. But we have grown so used to the idea of God as a doting father that we have forgotten the awe. We don’t want to talk about the fear of God. It sounds wrong to our ears. Why should we fear what is perfect love? But the punch line is in that word perfect. Perfect love ought to silence us. Perfect love ought to press us facedown to the ground. Perfect love ought to suck the spirit out of us. Perfect love is nails and thorns and unspeakable shame borne freely for our sake.

When perfect love tells us to stand on our feet, our knees should be too weak. We should need God’s own spirit to lift us up.


Duccio [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fear of God


Psalm 112

English: Statue "Fear of the Lord" b...

English: Statue “Fear of the Lord” by Karin Jonzen at Guildford Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1 Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.

The phrase “those who fear the Lord” has as its parallel “those who delight in his commandments.”  This is not the fear that hides in basements before a storm or walks children to school and home again.  This is not the fear of soldiers before battle or children who hear their parents shouting in the night.  Those who “fear the Lord” are those who delight in God’s commandments, those who show honor and respect to God’s gracious ordering of life.   Yes, there is an element of honest concern for the consequences of disobedience, but this is not fear as we know it.  It is the “fear” we have of parents who will “kill us” if we cut school or used drugs – fear not born of their cruelty, but of their love.  It is the “fear” of disappointing or betraying them.

We have much we fear.  We fear for our future.  We fear losing our jobs.  We fear for our health.  We fear failure.  We fear for shame should our secrets come to light.  We can fear success, too, sometimes – especially those who have spent little time in the realm of success.  And in the same way fear healthy relationships, settling instead for what is familiar.  We fear leaving the safety of the known for the unknown.  And then there are the fears that have gotten out of control and manifest themselves in conditions we call disorders.

We have much we fear.  But the fear of the Lord is different.  It is that fundamental respect for and attention to the foundational elements of life: care for your neighbor, kindness, charity, justice, the needs of the poor.  Such a fear is not a manifestation of anxiety and uncertainty; it is a groundedness in ultimate reality.  It is certainty and confidence, and assurance of the path of life.

Those who “fear the Lord” are not timid, but live in the world with confidence and courage.  “They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.”  They lend generously and “conduct their affairs with justice.”  “They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor.”

This is not a fear that limits, but a respect and trust that empowers.  It is a confident recognition of life’s true path.  We are not groping in the dark, uncertain of what to do.  The will of God is set before us: and in that will we find our life.

The Most Holy Trinity


English: A Chiton magnificus

English: A Chiton magnificus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some years ago while camping with my youngest daughter along the Lost Coast in northern California we found the shell of what looked like a trilobite on a rock on this remote and isolated shore.  Not a fossil, mind you, but something recently living, a deep red color, the strange ancient look of armored plates.  It had an unearthly quality to it.  Out of place and time.  It was strangely disconcerting.  Something I had not seen before.

It was not a trilobite, of course.  But in those days before the internet I couldn’t find someone who knew that it was a chiton, a marine mollusk with a snail like foot rather than the legs of a horseshoe crab, the true descendants of trilobites.

It’s hard to describe that sensation of being in the presence of something that seemed not to belong to this world: a mix of wonder and awe and dread.

We talk so easily about God.  We invoke God’s name with such confidence.  We imagine we know.  What has become of the wonder, awe and dread the ancients felt before the transcendent power of the universe?  Some of this is the fruit of the Christian message that God is love.  Jesus taught us to call the eternal one “Father”.  Jesus made God seem more human, approachable, loveable.  This is good, of course, important to say to those who live in fear or who feel alone in the world.  But what happens when we lose that sense of God’s otherness?

Tomorrow is not just Trinity Sunday; it is Holy Trinity.  In the Roman calendar it is officially the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.  And we should not rush past that word holy, for that is the word that speaks of God’s otherness, that declares we are in the presence of something beyond our experience.

God should be unsettling.  Sinai was unsettling – the people begged for God not to speak to them directly, but through the human voice of Moses.  The things Jesus said and did were unsettling – they got him crucified.  The cross itself is profoundly unsettling, Jesus hanging there in anguish, abandoned, and God silent where we would expect the rage of heaven to rain down fire.  The empty tomb is unsettling, beyond all human experience. Pentecost is unsettling – the roar of a mighty wind and flames of fire and the ecstatic proclamation in every language – people leaving home and country to go out around the world to herald God’s reign.  None of this is familiar to us except we have made it so by telling the story so many times.  Even the message of forgiveness should be unsettling, for such is not the world we know.

The Most Holy Trinity.  The strange and unsettling power at the heart of the universe that creates and loves and redeems.  There is a reason Isaiah falls on his face in the temple when the seraphim sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  We should too.