In my Lutheran grade school we were assigned a memory verse every week. Friday morning, before lessons began, our ability to write these verses on our lips was tested.
Normally the verses were short snippets of Scripture, usually from the Epistles, Proverbs or the Psalms. I remember pacing back and forth in my kitchen on cold Friday mornings in Ohio, putting Scripture to memory as quickly as possible.
And just as quickly as I’d learn a verse, I’d usually forget it. Not always, mind you. There are some so fully written on my heart that I am confident they will never be erased. How can one let go of the cadence of Ecclesiastes 3:1-9 once you’ve paced around barefoot with it on your tongue?
Sometimes pieces of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism would make their way into the memory verse lineup. When this happened, my younger self prayed for it to be one of the commandments. Luther built in a memorable cadence to his explanation of the Decalogue, beginning with “We are to fear and love God…”
And when wrong words are demerits, you pray for as many stock words as possible!
My younger self would tell you that fearing God looks a lot like the fear you have when you’re alone in the dark, unsure of what the shadows hold. My younger self saw fearing God as analogous to fearing an angry parent who you dare not provoke lest you get the thundering hand. My younger self would tell you that you should fear God because God can do anything, and that means bad news for you, mere mortal, who cannot.
But my adult self, my pastoral self, doesn’t see it that way anymore. Indeed, in a world full of theologies of fear, Luther’s call to “fear and love” God can provide a needed respite for the soul used to cowering.
My adult self will tell you that fearing God is like, as theologian Rob Bell once noted, sitting on a surfboard just offshore and finding a huge whale surfacing beneath you. The immensity of the event causes awe and respect and, yes, a certain fear as you are lifted. Whales are gentle but still wild, and in the vastness of the sea, encountering such a giant can’t but leave you breathless. And you love it.
That’s fearing and loving God.
My adult self will tell you that fearing God is like listening to the quiet after a large snowfall. Everything has changed and there is immense power in that. And yet, everything is more beautiful— even if it’s all just a little more complex. And you love it.
That’s fearing and loving God.
My adult self will tell you that fearing and loving God has less to do with cowering in a corner and more to do with being drawn to your knees in awe of something so impossibly giant you’re amazed it chooses goodness for you and not something else. Because, make no mistake about it, when God’s power shows up on the scene, like Mary you are not sure what this all can mean. Hence why the angel says, “Fear not.”
And that call to “fear not” is itself a reason that we fear and love God. Such benevolence is too good to be true in a world where we want to believe karma has more power than unmerited grace.
But that’s what we get: unmerited grace.
Unmerited grace, even in the giving of the commandments, which by their very relational nature remind us that God loves us enough not to leave us alone, entreating us to pass that love on to one another through living well together.
And the fact that God loves us enough not to leave us alone, that itself causes the fearful heart to flutter a bit, the immensity of such a truth coming to us, to you.
And if you’re like me, you love it.