Thursday, October 12, 2006


The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice
are the foundation of his throne.
Fire goes before him,
and consumes his adversaries on every side.
His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.
Psalm 97:1-5

North Korea may have detonated a nuclear device this week-- or may not have done so. It's hard to know; I listened to nuclear experts on NPR yesterday morning trying to suss the whole thing out. The explosion was large enough to have been a small nuclear bomb, but not so large that it couldn't have been some kind of gussied up conventional weapon. The only thing for certain, it seems, is that we are thrown into the predictable rounds of brinkmanship on all sides: threats, rebuttals, ultimatums, defiance, posturing and, in some circles, panic.

I heard the announcement of the North Korean government on Monday morning; I don't speak Korean, but there was something in the voice I found terrifying (certainly the tone; probably the unknown; maybe my own depths of uncovered racism). It's been interesting to note the reactions across the political spectrum: everything from "Duh!" to "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" How terrified should I be? I wonder.

The psalm offered in today's lectionary readings always makes me think of what my Old Testament professor David Carr called "the radioactive power of God." He said the word, "radioactive," with a separation, a glottal stop between "radio" and "active." He was trying to convey to us the ancient Hebrews' attitude towards their God, one aspect of which was sheer terror. I preached on the "fear of God" not too long ago, and I really only paid the tiniest bit of lip service to the most common definition of "fear" in that description. But fear, as in "terror," "shaking in the boots," "wanting to hide from," was a primary attribute of YHWH. Even speaking God's name aloud would constitute a violation, a trespass into territory too holy to he inhabited by human beings, a reason to be terrified.

Sometimes I think we modern Christians, with our football-buddy Jesus
-mentality have really gone way too far in attempting to domesticate God, in attempting to de-claw, de-fang, render God manageable. When Prof. Carr said "radio-active" I got a shiver down my spine. I got the same shiver when reading one section of the recent Anne Rice novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. In one scene describes the temple sacrifices at the Passover, as viewed by the faithful from a great distance. The priests, in their immaculate white robes, move back and forth around the altar in a stately dance, the spatters of blood painting their vestments. I don’t know whether Rice's depiction is accurate. But the queen of vampire fiction managed to portray the eeriness of the ritual in a way that has captured my imagination and left its imprint. There, I thought, is a God to be reckoned with. There is someone before whom any sensible being would fall on her face and worship.

So why are most of us more afraid of the North Koreans with their maybe-bomb than we are of the one who really holds all the power? I think this is the classic problem of the liberal believer. We're the ones who embrace universalism, we're the ones who believe God's love conquers all and has conquered all. So what is there left to fear? If God is going to just sweep us all into a big hug (and I've said as much at funerals, though hopefully with a little more dignity), why sweat it? Why not dress Jesus in a jersey and cleats and show him for the buddy he is?

Well, because it's tacky, for one thing. And just because God chooses not to use God's radio-active power to smite us, doesn't mean that the power isn't there, and isn't worthy of respect, even fear. Perhaps the word I am really dancing around here is "awe." Where, o where, is our sense of awe? How can we reclaim and recapture it and, in so doing, find our way into a right relationship with God?

More ideas on this to come...

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