Don had a rare combination of strengths—common sense, administrative ability, thoughtful reflection—all wrapped in the gentlest of spirits. He was also in perfect health. Or so we thought, until he went out for a run and had a fatal heart attack.

nativityWhat I remember most about his funeral was the terror that ran through me as I thought about God in this context. Who is this deity who kills off the best people, or at least allows them to die? What else might this deity do?

Yes, such questions may be futile or, horrors, bad theology. It hardly mattered on that day. What mattered was that I felt a real fear of God—fear with an echo of awe.

“Fear of the Lord” pops up often in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It’s a strange phrase, especially for spiritual directors. We’ve seen how fear keeps spiritual directees from living into the freedom that we, and I daresay God, wish for them.

Some commentators interpret the word fear in that phrase as referring to awe or reverence. That would be nicer. But I think it diminishes the echoes of awe within fear, and fear within awe, that I felt at Don’s funeral.

This strange dance between fear and awe shows up more often than we might think. Looking back on my own life, I can see the extravagant love of God, masterfully weaving the strands of my story. That inspires awe. I also see where the pursuit of God’s call has torn those threads apart: loss of income, boatloads of self-doubt, few tangible results. That inspires fear.

Many people have noted how the beauty of the night sky takes their breath away. That is awe. Yet the sight of the universe can unnerve as well, pulling the rug of our own perceived significance out from under us. More fear.

The awe-fear dance can overwhelm us. It was clearly too much for Job, the biblical character who, oppressed by tragedy upon tragedy, responded by asking God to just go away.Let me alone, for my days are a breath,” he says (Job 7:16–19). “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, … test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?”

Perhaps it’s normal, even human, to feel both awe and fear in the presence of something greater or more beautiful than ourselves. Of course, we could just let the whole thing go—and let God go. Maybe Job had the right idea.

But that would ignore our deepest desire: to draw close to the One who, we are told, is the source of something even greater than awe and fear—compassion. So we continue on, embracing all aspects of our experience of the Divine: even the fear that, far from being obsolete, is part of the journey that leads to love.

John Backman

A regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman is the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths, 2012). He recently completed the spiritual direction training program at Linwood Spiritual Center.

 

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