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Fear in God?

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.

— Proverbs 1.7 (KJV)

As a kid, I grew up with the “fear of God” to not sin or act in ways that weren’t “right before God.” So many things were forbidden, out of fear of making God angry. The anthropomorphic figure of God was real, and not in a way that was reassuring of anything. I felt God was looking out for my mistakes to keep a record and hold it against me in judgement someday.

Biblical passages were manipulated to support this idea. “You must fear the Lord, lest he smite you!” If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that I’ve done some messed up things in my life–and I mean bad–yet I have seen nothing but mercy and opportunity. My relationship with the Divine has evolved, for which I am grateful; however, how do I make sense of this idea of fearing God, especially if it is in the very book I deem sacred?

I certainly do not fear God, i.e., I am not afraid of God because, through Jesus Christ, I met what I believe God meant for us to experience (love). Today, I consider how my interpretive attitudes are informed as I reconsider the text. If all that’s important is what Christ culminated in Himself, demonstrated in Himself, and emanated from Himself (through compassion and mercy), what has changed from the former covenant to the new?

Rules must no longer be needed to keep people in line. Or, could it have been that who really needed to keep people in line wasn’t God at all, but those in power? I see nothing may have changed, from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament, other than perspective, and so should mine change. I believe this is the way of the Holy Spirit, just as I believe this the way of truth. I don’t mean truth changes; I mean that our perceptions of truth change, until we get it right or closer to it.

Here it goes. I have my money on that we, humanity, didn’t get God in 700 B.C.E., in the way we might get God today. Given my journey and all that it has taught me, I know the aforementioned image of God isn’t God, at least not my God. Therefore there is only one way I can read texts like Proverbs 1.7, of which I cannot go back to seeing any other way.

The only thinkable reason people might fear God is because they view God to be reflective of their own selves, that is, their broken selves. Who hasn’t been broken, marked, or tried in life–even just a little bit? When God is known further, one may see there is no room for fear because with more love, trust becomes easier. Therefore, fear in God is not a formula for knowledge or wisdom. It is what the Proverbs passage says it is, the “beginning” of said knowledge; not the middle journey of knowing and certainly not the end of the most profound truth.

Fear was the way people could begin to experience any version of an active God in their lives. Now, I find more acts of love in my life, which I attribute to God, making me think I am further in my faith journey and spiritual growth. As I leave that earlier stage of thinking of thinking and I walk toward a deeper understanding and spiritual encounter with God, the more I find that the conclusion of knowledge is one that is contagiously affecting me to being more loving, kind, and compassionate.

I am less afraid of making mistakes and more boldly searching for more opportunities to love back, love more, and love deeper the deeper I trod in truth. Maybe it’s because the more we know the less scared we become, because we fear the unknown. The response is simple and one you should consider today, “Explore God further.” The more you know, the less afraid you will be and the more love you will find for you as well as to share.

Amen.

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Time to Play

(Written in the second person)

Sacred texts of reference: Zechariah 8:4-8; Matthew 19:14 (NRSVue Bible)

As a child, Edwin remembers being told when playtime was and wasn’t. If it was time to eat, “it’s not time to play, let’s eat.” If it was time to get ready for church, “it’s not time to play, let’s get ready for church.” If it was time to sleep, “it’s not time to play, get to bed.” Most children hear this growing up, that is, when the designated times to play are and when it is not appropriate. The desire and the preference for playing is something that children have in increase compared to adults. Playing is an undoubtably characteristic of child-ness and children can be viewed as being hyper-focused on fun and play, and not the busy-ness that adults must nevertheless execute for their own good and others’. A reading from Zechariah mentions a new day of restoration in which children will do what they do best in the streets once again—play. Children and play are deeply related and one is almost always thought of when the other is mentioned, even in ancient times.

As a part of life, children are, too, mentioned in the Gospels. In Matthew’s reading as well as in preceding verses, we may read about people bringing their children to Jesus so that he would bless them. We might wonder what the disciples were thinking—perhaps, “children and their play have no place in the matters we must discuss concerning the restoration of our kingdom…”

All we know is that the disciples discouraged the bringing of children to Jesus; yet, Jesus, bothered by this, states that the kingdom of God belongs to them. Something about children is special because they embody something that comes from or is curiously key to the kingdom of God. For many years, this passage has been interpreted in a few ways: One way is that children are innocent. Since children cannot differentiate morally, they possess an inherent innocence. This can probably be better explained with a philosophy of law–e.g., mens rea (“guilty mind”) and actus reus (“guilty act”)–until turning blue in the face; however, this interpretation—while not wrong—places all the focus on avoiding or atoning wrongdoing in order to enter such a kingdom. Surely, there is more to experiencing the kingdom of God and bringing it about than this.

“The children are innocent”-interpretation can be a way of understanding what Jesus was saying according to the Gospels, but why settle on this interpretation alone if there is more that can be said of children and their attributes? During a recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border with Colectivo Latinx Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Proyecto RGV, Edwin crossed into Reynosa, Tamaulipas (Mexico), where he worked with several non-profit organizations and churches in aiding immigrants waiting for their asylum cases to be heard by U.S. courts. During the initial unloading and disseminating of materials for the hundreds of people there, a little boy came up to him with an empty plastic bottle and a stick with which he was playing.

Photo by Rev. Yinessa Romero, October 7, 2020, outside the “Senda de Vida” refugee camp in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Free supplies were about to be disseminated with various partners to all those outside and who could not fit in the camp. This was the occasion in which the little boy walked up holding and playing his make-shift toy/instrument.

Initially, Edwin didn’t think much of it in the moment other than how cool it was that this little boy made his own toy or instrument to play with out in the desert/wilderness. Most adults did not have smiles on their faces. A gloom was present there as a blanket over the hundreds of people encamped. Edwin had wondered why it was that hardly no one was singing or dancing because music has always been a way of coping during difficult times for him. Their situation, however, was well beyond difficult; it was hell, although a better alternative than what violence, sickness, and death awaited them back home. There was no music nor play among adults, just concern for what and if they would eat and what business they had to do next. And yet, a child in this seemingly inappropriate time was there in the same place, playing despite their predicament.

It later occurred to Edwin that this child’s play or ability to play during this time in his life did not only serve him as a means to cope, but his orientation toward playing also played into his efforts to transcend surviving. Playing can most simply be defined as engaging in an activity for the sake of enjoyment, fun, or distraction. This boy’s act of play was this boy’s attempt to seek enjoyment and fun to distract himself from his and his family’s terrible circumstance.

Was it wrong for him to do so? Who would tell this boy that “it isn’t time to play?” And when one thinks about the words of Jesus about the kingdom of God belonging to the children and that we must be like children to experience the kingdom, one might have to rethink the usual interpretation considering the young immigrant boy playing in the borderlands of Reynosa.

In life you may not have the means to controlling what may be happening to you. You may even be discouraged from enjoying any little life left in you given all the hell that you most certainly didn’t bring upon yourself and that was brought upon you by outside forces/systems. I did not and could not tell the adults in the camp who left behind nothing but suffering to give it their last attempt to secure a life worth living that they needed to smile more, play more, or enjoy more. But the presence of the child and children among them was a reminder–perhaps a lesson–namely, that we fight for abundant life because we have enjoyed it, and such enjoyment is the reason we wish survive.

We might be surprised and realize that playing is not just an act of survival, but of thriving, or efforts to thrive amid the deadly threats against our living. Despite the voice in your head that tells you it is not time for play or to enjoy the life that God has given you, let the words of Jesus remind you that you must be like a child to experience the kingdom of God from which God’s presence reigns. Amid your problems, find time to play. Amid your predicaments, find time to play. Amid your pain, find time to play. Remind yourself why you must push through. Let play be prophetic in providing you practice so you may continue to enjoy life when things get better. For some, tomorrow will never be. So, take the time to play—enjoy life, whatever little or much you may have of it–as a God-ordained and life-giving thing.

Challenged, but I Know

Originally written, September 13, 2021

The Rev. Edwin Pérez Jr. at Hartford Pride, September 11, 2021. (Pérez)

During Hartford Pride at the Bushnell Park (Connecticut), in which I was doing outreach with my congregation, I was challenged. This surprised me, not because of the act of challenging itself but because of the kind of challenge. I would expect to be “put-on-the-spot” and provide theological explanation on how I can be fully Christian and fully queer; however, I never expected to find another fellow “progressive” Christian confront me in the way I was at this event. I wore a shirt that read, “PASTOR” (you couldn’t miss it), yet this older white man asks me—immediately upon meeting him—what church I went/belonged to. I answered who I and with whom I was and worked for, and he asked who the pastor was. I gracefully point to my shirt, saying, “Me.” The confrontation was only beginning.

He asked, “But where are you now located?” I said we had been renting the chapel of a predominantly Anglo-congregational church for nearly ten years. He interrupts, rather abruptly, “That’s bull… stop working in parallel and join together!” I allowed him to finish his thoughts as I stood there just observing him, fuming on the inside. Although he said “join,” I heard “assimilate” and “submit.” My church’s focus is the Latinx community which can hardly identify with predominantly white congregations, but that—he said—didn’t matter. We should all be “together,” which–ideally–we should if there weren’t a specific need that couldn’t be entirely accomplished in white-washing and overpowering spaces. It didn’t seem as though what I had to say mattered nor that I mattered; he thought he knew—without knowing who we are, where come from, and where we are going—what was best for us.

In John 8:14, Jesus says, “…I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going” (NRSV). I can relate.

Five Years Later and We Still “Can’t Breathe”

“Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter.” November 10, 2015. Johnny Silvercloud

The photo you see before you was taken in 2015. Five years later, we still “can’t breathe.” In fact, it has been more than 150 years that we can’t breathe–we can’t live. I say “we” because racism and its long lasting effects have proved to be as deadly as a pandemic virus, if not surpassing it. We have all been affected by such a stronghold in that we all participate in this dis-ease. Humanity has a knee on its neck and it is RACISM. The worst part is being in denial, especially when one can’t get past one of the first steps of anti-racism work, viz., recognizing one’s own privilege.

The black, brown, and indigenous communities of our country have felt the sting of the dis-ease. It wasn’t just George Floyd–may he R.I.P.–that couldn’t breathe. If we don’t open our eyes and take action we will continue to asphyxiate under the knee of racism along with all of those who have suffered and died by brutality and violence, fed by implicit bias, prejudice, racial-phobias, white supremacy, and systemic racism.

Let’s recognize and take ownership of our participation in the throat kneeling of a people. It’s time to assume one’s responsibility. As a Latino, I call on my fellow Latinx siblings to rise up and unite with our black and brown family, even if you are from the lighter shade of skin colors. Use your privilege to the advantage of another who has less privilege than you! White folk, we need you now more than ever, but you have to listen! Put aside everything you think you know and heed the call of the people of color who have been exhaustingly calling out. Understand that we all play an unconscious role in supporting covert systemic racism. Give it a shot, and not the one that bursts from a gun. What’s the worst that can happen? That you may make the world a more just place?

If one of us can’t breathe, think twice about wasting yours on not calling out, “remove the knee!” Genesis 2.7 reads, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (KJV Bible). Floyd’s breath was sacred because it was given by God–the same breath that you and I have in our lungs that should be invested in declaring justice. George Floyd along with Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Breonna Taylor, and others were made in the image of God in the same way you were. We must honor and protect all of the people that share in that sacred image. Breathing is a holy gift and it happens best without knees obstructing its flow.

Black Lives Matter. Slavery isn’t over and its effects are here today and in many ways still protected under law, e.g., 13th amendment. Even when a fire is extinguished in a home, the damage is still left behind. Sometimes houses are condemned and people are forced out until it is rebuilt. The foundation of our very country has been burned by racism and I wonder if we have it in us to rebuild parts of it. We “can’t breathe,” because the soot of the raging fire of racism has infected our lungs. Ask yourselves why COVID-19 is affecting primarily people of color? How have our communities been positioned to be in such a vulnerable place?

Putting out the fire isn’t enough; we must rebuild. Rallying behind a conviction of a perpetrator isn’t enough; we must ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Amén, Amin, and Asé.

Not Ready for Resurrection

This past Easter/Resurrection Sunday was weird. Is it just me or does anybody else feel fraudulent? To celebrate and be glad about hope when we haven’t properly mourned–at least not fully–during this time of death. My humanity says I’m not ready, yet my spirit is pulling me toward looking beyond to the byproduct of my resilience. Basically, the story isn’t over, but again I say that we are still in mourning. Things haven’t returned to normal, and for some they might never be. I am going out on a limb here by opening up and being vulnerable in hope of connecting with someone who might need the solidarity as well as to know they are not alone. I am writing this to tell you what I wish I heard from another but at least heard from God saying, “it’s okay to cry.”

It’s also okay to feel uncertainty and disappointment for the appropriate amount of time necessary. I say “appropriate” because that can’t be the place we dwell on forever. Eventually it will be the season to experience what often follows resilience, breakthrough. So, allow yourself to experience your breakdown before you can enjoy your breakthrough. For me, the Resurrection of Jesus is the breakthrough all of his family, friends, and disciples needed to exit their despair and be ushered into hopefulness. It’s the same breakthrough that God offers every soul; however, the same God who gives such a gift also is present with us in our pain. After all, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Revelation 21.4 KJV). For now, believe the Holy Spirit will get you through this because you will rise again.