Halfway Between Love and Awe

Icon of St. Ephrem fo Syria, by unnamed “Orthodox nun near Oradea”; fr.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0) or CC BY-SA 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

St. Ephrem was a fourth century deacon, poet, and theologian.  He wrote more than four hundred hymns during his lifetime; among the most well-known are a group of fifteen hymns called Hymns on Paradise.  The following lines are some of the most beautiful from this group, and they deal with the nature of wisdom:

I took my stand halfway
between awe and love;
a yearning for Paradise
invited me to explore it,
but awe at its majesty
restrained me from my search.
With wisdom, however,
I have reconciled the two;
I revered what lay hidden
and meditated on what was revealed.
The aim of my search was to gain profit
the aim of my silence was to find succor.

“I took my stand halfway between awe and love,” St. Ephrem says. “And here is where I found wisdom.” In other words, it is wisdom that brings together the awe we have for who God is, and the love we feel for and from God.

When I read today’s passage from Isaiah, I can’t help but think of St. Ephrem’s words. The prophet begins this passage by painting a picture of God as one who is high and lofty, all-powerful:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;

who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;

who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,

when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 
(Isaiah 40:21-25, NRSV)

This is a God of whom we live in awe. We look at the rich fabric of creation, and it points to a God who is greater than anything we can know or imagine. We all know what this feels like. Who doesn’t marvel at the depth of the Grand Canyon, or at the grandeur of Mount Everest, or at the force of Victoria Falls? At such moments we are struck by the vastness of creation and the immense glory of God, as well as by our own smallness in relation to them both. God is far beyond anything we can fully know, anything we can grasp in our mind or our hand. We are in awe of God’s power.

And yet that’s not all we know God to be. The prophet in our reading from Isaiah wants to make sure the people of Israel also know that there is more to God than one who sits on a throne. When we get to this point in the book of Isaiah, Israel is in exile in Babylon. To the Babylonians, it must have seemed that their gods were more powerful than the God of Israel, that the gods of the Babylonians had won. But interestingly, as is typical when we read about Israel being in bad scrapes in the Old Testament, Israel never concludes that her God is less powerful than the gods of her adversaries.  Instead, Israel believes that God has hidden God’s face from her.

And so the prophet speaks to Israel, comforting her and saying “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel: ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?’ Have you not known?  Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth… Just as God numbers the heavenly bodies and calls them all by name, God also remembers and cares for you. You may be in the midst of a dark time,” the prophet tells the people in exile “but God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Partial quote of Isaiah 40: 27-31, NRSV)

THIS is the God of Israel. A God that is powerful, yes, but just as important a God who sees what is happening here on earth and pays attention to it, precisely because this is the God that created it and endowed it with life in the first place. And herein lies the paradox:  This unknowable God makes Godself known in and through relationship.

God is greater than anything we can conceive of or ever fully know and God is lovingly active in our own lives, closer to us than our own breath.  Wisdom is the ability to hold both of these truths simultaneously; or as St. Ephrem writes, wisdom is that place halfway between awe (the God who is unknowable) and love (the God who is known in and through relationship with us).  Wisdom is knowing that God’s power and God’s love are not two incompatible characteristics; instead, we see God’s power most fully in God’s capacity to know and to love the world that God has made.

I think we need this reminder today as much as the exiled nation of Israel did.  Many of us Christians actually function more like agnostics than like practicing Christians.  (I suspect all of us do from time to time.) We think and act like people who are not so sure that God is active in the day to day realities of our life, that God really cares for us, or that God even notices us.  And so unsure about God’s presence with us in the world, we function as if everything rests on us, as if it’s up to us to make things turn out right.  We act is if God is and will remain hidden from us, so we might as well do the best we can on our own.  And the problem is that, in the process, we make ourselves into God.

We need over and over again for someone to come and say to us: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?  THIS is your God—God is the one who created the entire world and all that is in it, the same God who continues to be present in the world and work for redemption. That is God. You are NOT God.” What a relief! What wisdom! I am not God. I don’t carry the burdens of the world, the knowledge of how everything fits together, the big picture of how, in the words of Henri Nouwen, God will ultimately write straight with the very crooked and slanted lines of my life. For those of us faint with worry for our families and with the pressures of our jobs and with the need to be experts in every facet of life, weary with the complexities of life or with concern for the future of God’s church, for all of us, this is very good news indeed.  It is our source of hope, just like it was a source of hope for an exiled nation twenty-five hundred years ago.

Because when we can face the fact that we’re not God, then we can turn to the real God for strength to run the race that lies ahead of us or, if that sounds too tiring, maybe even just to stroll into the future. This doesn’t mean that all will turn out as we’d like. But it does mean that we can look for God to be with us in whatever life brings, knowing that the one who created everything that exists is the same one can bring new life to our souls even in the midst of uncertainty and darkness. We can stand halfway between awe and love, with wisdom and hope. Thanks be to God.

*Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.