Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Deuteronomy 10:12-22) transports me to my ne’er do well years of high school, one of the more confused periods of my life. It was a time when I got up early most mornings for devotions, reading a portion of God’s word with my mom and dad, and I stayed out late most nights for concoctions, cultivating a taste for beer and bourbon with my friends. Whatever energy I had for learning went into guitar, not schoolwork. I can only remember reading three books during my four years of college prep work: Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, and Gonzo Papers, Volume 1. From Salinger I got my first taste of cynicism. From Steinbeck I got my first taste of tragedy. From Hunter S. Thompson I got my first taste of fear and loathing toward all things counter to life. Those years of devotion and drink and guitar and gonzo were also years of witnessing my beloved mother suffer from debilitating bone cancer, with even more debilitating chemotherapy treatments. They kept her terribly nauseous and bedridden for 2 weeks out of every month. She lived for those other 2 weeks, when she would milk life for all its worth. I loved my mom with a fierce passion. She modeled a radical hospitality and inclusive welcome that I have yet to see matched. She also embodied a suffering love that eventually helped me overcome my cynicism and access and understand the tragic suffering love of God. After six years of suffering and loving life in spite of the suffering, she died on the night of July 4th. I held her hand as her breaths slowed to two or three a minute, and finally ended for good. She went peacefully, as fireworks blasted in the distance.
Some of those passages we read in those early morning devotions told us we were to fear God. My mom’s suffering and death also helped me access and understand what that troubling phrase means. For a long time passages like the one we see in Deuteronomy 10 made no sense to me. I knew that God was supposed to be something of an ideal heavenly parent, but there was nothing in my own parents that provoked fear in me, so why should an idealized version make me afraid? I couldn’t imagine either my mom or dad ever doing me any harm, no matter what I did. But here, in the law Moses laid down for those liberated Hebrew slaves on their way to the promised land, we not only learn that God is Holy Love, we learn that we are to fear that Holy Love. Be afraid of Love. Be frightened by this Perfect Love whose heart goes out to the most vulnerable, who offers radical welcome to the foreigner. Moses went on to tell the wilderness wanderers that a rite of passage into the beloved community was circumcision of the hearts – they were to cut away the covering of the heart, exposing the core of their being. In other words, Love would make them vulnerable. Loving with a fierce passion means opening ourselves to suffering. That’s scary. It was painfully frightening to love a great and godly woman and watch her suffer for six years, and then die. It was painfully frightening for first century people of faith to watch their presumed great and terrible and mighty God take on human flesh, not the fully armored flesh of a great and terrible and mighty military superhero, but the vulnerable flesh of One exposed to the torturous cruelties of life, ultimately surrendering to death.
I’m at the summer gathering of the Baptist Peace Fellowship this year. The gatherings used to be held the week of July 4. Kim and I attended most of the first dozen or so of these peace camps, where I would gather with my friends and family of faith from near and far to engage in some Bible study and imbibe some beer and bourbon. I’d also remember my mom each year on the anniversary of her death, and I’d do my best to expose my heart a little more to radical love, to lean into that love, knowing what a terribly frightening prospect it can be. The camp’s not happening during the week of the 4th anymore, but I’ve been doubly reminded of my mom this week, as the peace camp family learned of the death of a dear member and embodiment of holy love, Everly Broadway, after a long battle with cancer. She was about the age of my mom. Her children are not much older than I was when I lost my mom. I ache for them and for their dad, Mike. Such aching helps me to continue to learn and appreciate what Moses told that band of liberated slaves wandering through the desert: What does the Lord require of you, but to fear Love, as you commit yourselves to loving one another?
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.