Lent, Psalms

Fear and Psalms

(Thinking about Lent 2B)

The psalm for this week begins “You who fear the Lord, praise him!” It’s a refrain heard frequently in the psalms, the fear of the Lord being seen as a good thing.

I’m reminded of the way Vizzini, in “The Princess Bride,” kept claiming that certain things were “Inconceivable!” until finally Inigo Montoya says, “I do not think you understand what that word means.”

What does fear mean to us? To me it means anxiety and terror, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s not a sensation that gets me into a praise-giving frame of mind or  heart. If anything, fear separates me from what I understand God to be, when I am in my sane mind.

And so I have an edgy little fear reaction whenever the word fear comes up in the psalms.

I want to use a different word for the perception that inspires me to praise God. Awe, or maybe wonder. If you look in the thesaurus, you’ll find a connection between all these words, so it’s possible I’m being unfair to fear. Maybe it’s a perfectly lovely word that describes the — well, the awe we might feel in the presence of a force so powerful it created the universe. Certainly a right-minded person could feel fear, or even terror, in the face of the Creator, just from knowing what kind of power such a — here our words fall inadequate again — what kind of power such a POWER actually would have.

Paul Tillich called God the Ground of All Being, and that sounds so organic, so holistic, so universal; it inspires my awe and my wonder, but not my fear.

BryceOn a trip out west in 2001, I moved into a new world, seeing places I knew only from photographs and films. The air felt different, the sky seemed bigger, my lungs struggled to adapt. And in that place, that might as well have been Mars, I felt intense awe and deep wonder at the magnificence of the created world and the “hand” that brought about its making. I grew faint at Arches as my body adjusted to intense dry heat and elevations new to me. I stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon, speechless at the thought of the centuries, the millennia that must have passed in its making. I rode through Monument Valley contemplating the inland sea it may once have been, and had a crazy moment of feeling smothered by the waters, the mighty waters. The last stop was Bryce Canyon, where hikers become part of the rocky landscape, the  wonder of aged beauty: pink, orange, coral, salmon, bisque and sand.

“You who wonder at Creation, praise God!”

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10 thoughts on “Fear and Psalms”

  1. Thinking about fear this week myself. Mulling over the passage from Hebrews: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. I think that captures both kinds of fear… when we are dealing with someOne/Thing so overwhelmingly large and/or powerful I think the clenching stomach hairs standing up on the backs of our necks fear is a reasonable response. But I hope to always get back to wonder, which seems to me tinged with joy (which the other fear usually is not).
    Thank you for this lovely reflection.

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  2. I, too, recoil at all those commands to “FEAR the LORD.” They always give me the mental image of a slave cowering before a harsh master–usually one with some sort of whip in the Almighty Hand.
    When I think of the Source of Wonder that I want to worship, I think of moments & experiences that have been so holy that I caught my breath…maybe that’s were the connection is. Perhaps the Psalmist wants us to be so enraptured, so amazed, that we draw in our collective breath–thereby participating in Divine In-Spiration and strengthening the spiritual-corporal connection.
    (But it doesn’t make me like the word “fear” any better. Can y’all come up with a RevGal Standard Version translation?)

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  3. I was thinking about this at a choir rehearsal this evening, we’re singing a setting of Psalm 96 vv. 2-4 and it trips merrily along urging us to sing unto the Lord and be telling of his salvation and his honour and wonders, as psalms tend to do, and then it says the Lord is “more to be feared than all Gods” which is quite the contrast.
    For me, a mental re-adjustment that seems to work is to substitute ‘respected’ for ‘feared’ in that instance, so that’s what I told the choir members who commented on the text. I think wonder and awe are also appropriate responses, though.
    I wonder if this is what Rudolph Otto refers to in his discussion of the numinous.
    Reading your post a second time I wonder if another interpretation might also be useful in this case. “You who fear the Lord, praise him!” One of the things I keep coming back to is the idea of love being stronger than fear. Maybe if we practise loving God, the fear goes away. Maybe praising the Lord is a cure for fearing the Lord, at least in the anxiety-ridden, terror-driven definition of fear.

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  4. Song in my Heart, I love your thoughts on this, thank you for that twist, that it’s a process–which of course the Psalms are.
    MaineCelt, maybe we’ll take up the challenge!

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  5. Someone once told me that each person has a landscape they respond to deeply: desert, forest, mountain, prairie, ocean, river — there’s one that speaks to each of us in a way that the others do not. And when they encounter their landscape, it’s like coming home, even if they’ve never been there before. I have a friend, a Virginian, who went to Arizona and was so moved by the desert, he never returned home. Me? I’m a water person. What about you? Did you find your place in those western mountain ranges?

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  6. No, I think I’m a tree person. I felt the awe in the desert, but not the homecoming feeling. I like the woods. A friend is selling his house with 6.6 acres, and thinking about a manageable house in such a situation helped me form some thoughts about what I would want next. I like where I am, but next I want woods. I love to look at the water, and the beauty of Maine is the number of places you can be in the trees and have a view of the water!

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  7. Is there a difference between fearing and being afraid of? I recall a book title “The Gift of Fear” the gist of it being that fear makes sense in some situations, can be life saving. If you’re properly fearful of God, what can puny mortals do? My personal favorite: 12 Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. 13 But the LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. Isaiah 8:12-13 (NRSV)
    In this time of putting people we’re afraid of into oblivion at Gitmo, maybe real fear rather than psychotic/neurotic fear has something liberating about it.

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  8. John, thanks for your comment. I wonder if words can become so compromised by context that old meanings are lost, for all practical purposes?

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I would love to know your thoughts.

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