Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 111) transports me to a near-death experience around 10 years ago, when Kim and I were working with my Uncle Don to fall a dead poplar tree that was leaning toward the house. Don has lots of woodsman skills, and the tools to go with it. He brought a long chain and his come-along, a leverage device you can use to lift or pull a great deal of weight. He got the chain around the tree around 15 feet up, and then took it down around a tree in the direction we wanted the tree to fall, and hooked up the come-along. He was to do the chain-sawing, and I was to keep the chain taut by working the come-along. Kim was on the side, observing. All was going according to plan, and Don had the tree almost sawed in half when something happened; the top part shifted from the stump, creating lots of play in the chain, and the tree slowly started to fall – in the direction of the house. In just a few seconds there was quite a bit of yelling and confusion, and I was working the come-along as hard as I could. When the tension was back I looked up and saw that it had worked and the tree was falling in the right direction. But I saw something else, too; I saw Kim running frantically toward me. She thought I had called for help, and that’s when I had the most intense experience of fear in my life. It was one of those slow motion moments; the tree was coming down, in the same path that Kim was running, and I knew that she didn’t have enough time to get to me to get clear of it. I yelled and motioned for her to run to the side, which she did, dodging the huge poplar by a few feet just a second before it crashed to the ground. I doubt that I ever embraced her with so much love and gratitude as I did then, as the tears rolled down both our faces.
I’ve been cutting some trees down today, in preparation for the winter, and I almost always think of that day when I’m falling a tree. We certainly gained some wisdom from that near death experience, some important life-navigating skills in the area of wood-cutting. All that came together for me when I read the Psalm for today. The poet starts out extolling the virtues of God: compassion, graciousness, faithfulness, in short wonderful beyond measure. And then after describing the deep, deep love of God, the poet says that fearing God is the wise response. Of all the responses to compassion and grace and redemption and faithfulness, fear would have been the last thing I would have expected. Gratitude, joy, love, hope, fidelity – these all seem like more natural responses to a compassionate God. But the Psalmist counsels us to be God-fearing folk. Maybe, it’s the kind of fear that I had that day in the woods. Fear motivated by love, fear that recognizes just how fragile and precarious this wonder-filled life really is. It’s the fear that causes us to embrace those we love tighter than we ever have. It’s the fear that deepens reverence for life. It’s the fear that evokes gratitude. And it’s a fear that brings on wisdom, the skill to negotiate life’s challenges and to know when to risk something big for something good and when to exercise caution. Without fear, we wouldn’t have cause for courage. Without fear, we would live lives even more foolish than we now live.
I remember times I’ve been in the woods participating in high ropes course challenges. The facilitators always talk about getting beyond your comfort zone; getting into a place of fear, but not so much fear that it paralyzes. Just enough to test your courage. Maybe that’s also what the Psalmist is talking about, venturing out into the realm of God just beyond our comfort zones, not so much that the presence of the Almighty paralyzes us, but enough for us to test our courage.
The poet Rilke said that beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror. Maybe he’s right. Were we to really see the world and life for what it is, in all it’s majesty and glory and breath-taking beauty, we would be terrified. If we were to really see the depth of God’s compassion and redemptive love and grace, we would be equally terrified. As it is, we can just see enough of it to fear, and that fear generates in us the wisdom to love.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.