Friendship and Fear: Seeking God in a Season of Anxiety

“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.” Psalm 25:14 (NRSV)

Interview with Bishop Angaelos
Huffpo article

Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  This past week, perhaps coincidentally at the beginning of the Lenten season, a gruesome video circulated on the internet from a terrorist group that calls itself the “Islamic State.”  I have not watched the video and refuse to.  Apparently it shows the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya.  The Copts are an ancient Egyptian Christian community that can date its roots back to the earliest history of Christianity.  They have generally not involved themselves with the conflicts in the middle East, were not involved in the medieval crusades, but have been a persistent and quiet Christian presence in a troubled part of the world.  Until recent years, Coptics were known in the US mostly among biblical scholars and church historians, because of the ancient manuscripts and other antiquities they have treasured for centuries in their monasteries and libraries.  Only in recent years have Copts come to the forefront of our media attention, as they have seen some of their churches burnt, beatings, and other persecutions.  But the beheading of these 21 Coptic Christians, because of its brutality, has shocked the world and garnered reaction.  Pope Francis has called these 21 Copts “martyrs.”   Obama sent a declaration of war on ISIS to the congress on Feb. 11. and followed up with remarks about the threat that groups like ISIS pose this past Thursday.  The reactions to the release of this video range the gamut from fear, the desire for military retribution, to outright ignorance and acts of Islamaphobia.

But Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  Now, in his interview with CNN, he said that he does not forgive the violent act that these members of ISIS engaged in, because that act is heinous. “But,” in his words, “we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.”  I hope you are as stunned by this proclamation as I am.  It seems really otherworldly.  Is this man crazy?  Is he somehow betraying of forsaking his brothers and sisters in Egypt who are facing certain persecution, while he jets around from his safe location in England and gives interviews to major media outlets?  Or is he a well meaning, but hopeless idealist with rose colored glasses, whom it is best for us to ignore?  Well, he may or may not be any or all of these things.  But what I want to suggest to you, reflecting on our Scripture reading today from Psalm 25, is that Bishop Angaelos is a true Friend of God.

In the opening and closing verses of Psalm 25, the Psalmist finds himself surrounded by his enemies. In verse 2, he cries to God that his enemies might not put him to shame, that his enemies might not experience exultation at his certain defeat.  In verses 16-20, the Psalmist is crying out that he feels isolated, surrounded by enemies, troubled, afflicted, distressed, with multiple enemies who have violent hatred towards him.  I suspect that this Psalm made its way into this part of the lectionary at the beginning of the Lenten season because of the ancient tradition that associates the Psalmist’s voice with Christ.  While the Psalm itself is attributed to David, who certainly knew what it was to have enemies, since the earliest history of the church Christian interpreters of the Psalms have heard them as expressions Christ’s voice.  It is as if Christ here is crying out from this Psalm, surrounded by enemies, experiencing affliction, anticipating violence and shame.  So at the beginning of the Lenten season we read this Psalm as an anticipation of Christ’s troubles, reminding us of our very human condition as we undertake our journey towards the cross on Good Friday.

But with the news this week, I can’t help but hear in the Psalmist’s terror, the experience of those 21 Coptic martyrs on that beach in Libya.  Just like the Psalmist, I imagined they cried out to God for intervention and to their killers for mercy.  In his interview with CNN, Bishop Angaelos, who also prayed for the captives’ release, was asked how he maintains his faith in God, after experiencing such a horrific outcome.  I have to confess that I struggle with his response.  On one hand, the Bishop reminds us that when one prays, “one should pray for the best outcome, not knowing what that outcome might be.”  I suppose there is wisdom in that, but how the deaths of these martyrs is the “best outcome” is still baffling to me.  He contends that their deaths “brought the imminent deaths of marginalized peoples, not just Christians, but Yaziddis and others in the Middle East, to the attention of the world.”  This is at once a deeply powerful and disturbing claim—and somehow uniquely Christian.

The cross, with which we adorn our homes, our churches, and even perhaps our bodies, is--a its most fundamental—an expression of terror.  It was used as an instrument of terror by the Romans to subjugate and enforce Roman power over marginalized people throughout the Mediterranean basin.
It was a public instrument of terror, much like the video of these beheadings circulating the internet, much like the lynching, cross-burning, and KKK rallies that dominated our region here within living memory of many of us.  But the Christian idea, and it is one that is deeply profound, is that the cross makes us aware of the suffering of marginalized peoples everywhere—and motivates us to acts of loving kindness and forgiveness, seizing the cycle of violence, and sharing love and acts of forgiveness to all who, whether literally or figuratively, are surrounded by enemies, whether these be bullies in the workplace, perpetrators of sexual or emotional violence in our homes and relationships, our own addictions from which we cannot free ourselves, or those who about to lower machetes over our bowed heads.  You see, the experience of shame at the hands of our enemies is grounded in our human reality.  The witness of the cross and the martyrs reminds us that Christ is with us and all marginalized peoples in those moments.  In answering the question whether he doubted the God to whom he had prayed for the captives release states, “I also prayed that, when the moment came, they would have the peace and strength to be able to get through it.”  The testimony of the martyrs is, as the Bishop reminds, one of peace and strength—and I would add, courage.

You see Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  I suspect that this is true because he knows something about courage…and fear.  In our translation of Psalm 25:14, the NRSV translation committee rendered the Hebrew words SOD JHWH as “friendship of the LORD.”  The Hebrew word SOD is often used in contexts implying council, the intimate circle of friends you might surround yourself with, those who support you and tell you the truths you need to hear.  In some cases, this word can also be rendered as counsel, the advice one might receive from one or more dear friends.  Along these lines, one might therefore understand Psalm 25:14 to mean that the intimate counsel—the friendship—of  God is for those who fear God.  But how do we unpack this?  Indeed what kind of friendship is this?  And what does it mean to fear God?

Here I’m going to wrestle a bit because I’m at the limits of my understanding.  Aristotle claimed that true friendship was only possible between two equally high status men (yes he was a sexist, but that was also true of his society), who participated equally in friendship without need or expectation of reciprocity.  He contrasted this supposedly ideal kind of friendship with other kinds of friendship, such as friendships of utility or pleasure.  We all know about those kinds of friendships.  We have friends that we have fun with or whom we use (or who use us) for certain favors and support to get by.  Additionally, friendships of utility and pleasure are often practiced between those of unequal status or of differing need.   Such friendships are generally transactional in nature.  For example, a wealthy patron may purchase for a small poor church a new stained glass window or an organ, so that poorer members of the church can enjoy it.  In exchange that patron enjoys the honor and status that accrues from such an act of friendship.  In another example, you may take your friend out for coffee after she picks you up to do some shopping.  In such cases, Aristotle points out, true friendship is not so much at work in such cases. These are more transactions of utility or pleasure, in which reciprocity is not only expected, but required, if such a friendship is to continue.  Aristotle therefore claims that true friendship can only be practiced between two high status people of virtue, because neither of them truly needs the other, but is simply engaging in friendship for the sake of practicing one’s own virtue.  For his reason, Aristotle believed that friendship between humans and gods were impossible.  The gods have no use for us.  We have nothing to offer.  Such a friendship could only be one-directional, and would lean towards the exploitative.

But the Psalmist’s claim is different, “Friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him and he makes his Covenant known to them.”  This is not so much a claim that humans can befriend God, but that divine friendship can be experienced by us.  The Psalmist mentions God’s covenantal steadfast love multiple times.  The Psalmist also recognizes that he has failed to uphold the human end of the covenant on multiple occasions.  And this is true, too, isn’t it?  We humans are frail and broken creatures, fundamentally on our own unable to maintain the covenant promises to which we are bound.  All of us, in one way or another, recognize that we have fallen short of our covenant relations to one another, whether in our marriages, or towards our parents in their old age, or towards our children, our churches, friends and communities.  The Psalmist recognizes that God’s covenant faithfulness is steadfast and everlasting.  Where we fall short, and we all inevitably do, God remains steadfast in God’s friendship towards us.

Furthermore, God’s intimate counsel is reserved for those who fear God.  Fear is a difficult word for us.  But in sight of our human covenantal frailty, I think it is a normal reaction be fearful of a powerful deity who chooses to loves us, in spite of our utter inability to remain faithful and true, in spite of our utter inability to comprehend God’s power.  With as powerful and perplexingly loving a deity as this, human trepidation and fear is I think a suitable reaction, but it ought not disable us.

You see, Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  For it seems to me that God’s friendship is for those who are humbly aware of their own human limitations in comprehending God—yet seek God's will anyway.   God’s friendship is for those who do not rely upon their own cleverness or strength to make their way through the world, but recognize a source of strength, justice and truth deep within that is greater than themselves.  Friendship with God is for those who can master their fears and courageously engage God in dialogue, debate, and council—and be humble enough to listen when life presents them with the greatest of perplexities.  Friendship with God is for those who hear the voice of the martyrs calling out to them to become aware of the plight of marginalized in societal systems of violence, injustice, and exploitation—and are not afraid to call such systems out, in spite of great danger to themselves, their families, and their communities.  Friendship with God is for those who are humble enough to forgive their enemies at the bottom of their hearts, smack in the face of great human terror and even greater human evil.  The friendship of God is for those who rely upon God’s covenant fidelity in their lives, even when they feel the most broken and totally inadequate towards God and their fellow human beings.

In this Lenten season, are we ready to join Bishop Angaelos in his prayer for forgiveness, even when we feel surrounded by our enemies on every side?  Are we ready to reach out with forgiveness to those who have hurt us?  Are we ready to humbly recognize our own inadequacies and brokenness and reach out to those whom we’ve hurt and seek forgiveness?  Are we ready in our day to day lives to seek justice, practice peacemaking, and engage in transformative reconciliation?  Are we ready, too, to become friends of God?


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