It has been just over a month since our very close friend Maxine was taken to Glory. During that time, we hosted our entire family – all 13 of us (including 7 kids under the age of 10) for Christmas, moved my wife’s 93-year-old mother to a new residence, saw everyone off, got rid of the decorations and I began to think in earnest about my upcoming trip to India. January cold has always tended to clear the head, but this year grieving seems to muddle it and takes the zip out of any sort of ambition. A nasty head cold contacted just a few days ago has dealt yet another blow. But today I am actually up and around and so life goes on.
One thing that Maxine’s death has left me with is a rekindled fear of God. Watching someone you love come to grips with their own death as a reality, not just a theory, pretty much takes the wind out of your sails. Impending death moves a person to get serious about making things right. Ancient wrongs get confessed (yet again), and Satan mocks our normal self assuredness, as we come to grips with the reality that God really does hold our lives in his hands. I remember in one of our small group exercises, I asked people to spend ten minutes reflecting on their own deaths: imagining the scenario, the family, the arrangements, thinking about what people would be saying. The point of the exercise was that the best way to live is really to die, that is to die to self. But imagination and experience are two very different things. The night that Maxine died, I was shoved into an awesome fear of God. Not a terrorist type of fear, but a holy reverence laced with the realization that I too could be called home at any time. And was I ready?
It’s not the kind of thing that you can share with people because the world is full of theologians of Glory. This phrase, coined by Martin Luther, is used to sum up all theologians other than those of the Cross. Theologians of Glory will always call evil good and good evil. Human good works, for example, are considered by theologians of Glory as good and commendable. Theologians of the Cross will always say what a thing really is. Good works, says Luther, done apart from a reverent fear of God are in reality deadly sins. They take us away from the “naked trust in the mercy of God” and place our confidence in them and their doers. The problem is that none of our works, even those done with divine grace are sinless. How can they be? We are sinners to the core. Fully justified as well, of course, but only by the mercy and suffering of God himself. And so everything I do, even writing this post, must be done with absolute humility, trembling and fear of God. God forgive me for those times when I have been self-confident and even arrogant.
The fear of God does not play well on today’s theological landscape. It is seen as much too negative, too depressive. Yet it is the greatest good. “Do you not fear God?” says the one thief on the cross to the other. Obviously he didn’t for he continued to rail at and mock the LORD. Yet the one who feared God was transported that day into paradise with Christ. “The fear of the LORD is [just] the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7). So everything I do must be done under the umbrella of a holy reverent fear of God. If I ever get away from that, I am done. Luther writes:
To trust in works,which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving oneself the honour and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in connection with every work. But this is completely wrong, namely to please oneself, to enjoy oneself in one’s own works, and to adore oneself as an idol. He who is self-confident and without fear of God, however, acts entirely in this manner. For if he had fear, he would not be self-confident, for this reason, he would not be pleased with himself, but he would be pleased with God.” (Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehnmann (Philadelphia Fortress Press, 1958-72), 31.46)
Oh, that there would be so much more fear of God in everything that is done in his Name!
And so that sets the stage for my upcoming trip to India. I confess that I have not been all that excited about going this time around. One reason is that my dear wife will not be accompanying me. She really is my strength in social circles. And true to form in any trip to India, I am not sure exactly what I will be doing there. I have some vague ideas, but in India everything always comes together at the last-minute, and so it will again. I have also had some physical issues to deal with over the last few months. And so I guess that this sets the stage for “naked trust in the mercy of God” and so off I will go.. next Tuesday.
Stay tuned for more life lessons along the way. May the Lord of all mercy and grace, the God of compassion who inspires awe and holy fear, be with me and with us all.