Isaiah 11:1-9 / Number 16:1-19 / Hebrews 13:7-17
By Cathy Bartholomew
As a child, I was terrified of questioning authority. I grew up in Sunday school classes with the stories of God’s wrath looking a lot like today’s advent passage in Numbers: the earth opening up and swallowing rebellious grumblers, their children, and perhaps even the family pet whole for questioning God and his prophets. This terrified me. As a child, I did not want to second-guess my superiors. I wanted to obey all the rules.
Until I didn’t.
In my university years, I started to see the soft underbelly of those in authority; the inconsistencies; the hypocrisy. My college professors encouraged me to think, to question, to critique and defend my position. Suddenly, something in me wanted to rebel, march and rally against “The Man”.
Until I became “The Man”.
In my early career, I started teaching in middle schools and high schools in the Ghetto of Azusa in East Lost Angeles. Daily, I found myself toe-to-toe with both “WannaBeGangstas” and those graduating from“Wanna Be” to “Actual Gangsta”. Suddenly, I saw the importance of authority and the need to be backed up; backed up by my principals and by the parents of these students who trusted me to keep their children safe academically, emotionally and physically.
Then we had children of our own. Authority was essential for them to feel safe. Boundaries brought security. And while we loved our young children and encouraged questions and curiosity, I must confess – we erred on the side of firmness when they were in their formational years. We definitely were not perfect. I am not certain that we raised our kids “God’s Way”exactly, but we definitely were not child-centered parents. Perhaps child-centered parenting is a luxury option for those with one child. But we had four. They took their cues from us.
Until they didn’t.
Because eventually, if you do your job right, they don’t; at least for a while. But hopefully, that is long after they are safe and the wet cement of those early boundaries has hardened into a solid sidewalk toward a healthy adulthood. Nothing can prepare you for how terrifying this stage can be though.
Most of the time, I have ascribed to the belief that authority is FOR us. When we have God-shaped leadership, it helps us to be whole and fully alive ultimately. Most children whom I have observed to thrive and be happy are also obedient children who respect their parents. They are not abused, and downtrodden. They are delightful and full of confidence and promise.
And now I am a grandmother.
I now see my own daughter and her husband raising my grandson with that same firmness; with those same boundaries of security…in the way he should go. Right now, he is Very Boy and very physical. And due to Giant Genes from both sides of his gene pool, he towers over the other kids in the three year old class he has strategically been put in; even though he will not even be two until January. His parents are already disciplining him for being “too physical” with the smaller children. (Think of a toddler version of Lenny in Mice and Men) She has told me, “We will not let him be a bully.” She also is a teacher now and knows her power. There will be no bullies in her classroom either. Neither will she be a bully to them. She knows all this because she has learned to respect authority, both the authority above her and her own authority as a mother and an educator.
I am not a theologian, so I will not try to unpack the Old Testament text here in Numbers – whether it is literal or figurative; the context of when and how it is written. I will leave exegesis and hermeneutics to the exegetperts.
But I know this. We are creatures with a propensity for fear. We are also bent toward ascribing worth to that which we fear most. That is the altar we worship at when we wake up and lay down in our bed.
This was the secret power my dad had over me. He loved me so well that I never wanted to live anywhere but in the light of his pride in me. It is this same way now with my heavenly father. Like my earthly father, I know God’s love for me is constant. He loves me in a way nobody else ever can or will. I don’t ever fear losing that love. But I do fear displeasing God. I do fear disappointing him. I fear living outside the life in the palace; choosing a lesser life of a prodigal.
While I don’t fear God in a tortured way, I choose to fear him more so than my lesser fears. We serve that which we fear most.
If the Lord is the strength of my life, of whom should I be afraid?