How To Handle Trouble (Psalm 94)

Lord, you are a God who punishes;
    reveal your anger!
You are the judge of us all;
    rise and give the proud what they deserve!
How much longer will the wicked be glad?
    How much longer, Lord?
How much longer will criminals be proud
    and boast about their crimes?

They crush your people, Lord;
    they oppress those who belong to you.
They kill widows and orphans,
    and murder the strangers who live in our land.
They say, “The Lord does not see us;
    the God of Israel does not notice.”

My people, how can you be such stupid fools?
    When will you ever learn?
God made our ears—can’t he hear?
    He made our eyes—can’t he see?
He scolds the nations—won’t he punish them?
    He is the teacher of us all—hasn’t he any knowledge?
The Lord knows what we think;
    he knows how senseless our reasoning is.

Lord, how happy are those you instruct,
    the ones to whom you teach your law!
You give them rest from days of trouble
    until a pit is dug to trap the wicked.
The Lord will not abandon his people;
    he will not desert those who belong to him.
Justice will again be found in the courts,
    and all righteous people will support it.

Who stood up for me against the wicked?
    Who took my side against the evildoers?
If the Lord had not helped me,
    I would have gone quickly to the land of silence.
I said, “I am falling”;
    but your constant love, O Lord, held me up.
Whenever I am anxious and worried,
    you comfort me and make me glad.

You have nothing to do with corrupt judges,
    who make injustice legal,
    who plot against good people
    and sentence the innocent to death.
But the Lord defends me;
    my God protects me.
He will punish them for their wickedness
    and destroy them for their sins;
    the Lord our God will destroy them. (Good News Translation)

Courageous, brave, bold, and strong – it seems most people do not characterize themselves this way, especially when they are in the throes of overwhelming circumstances.

Whenever one feels crushed under the weight of adverse situations caused by evil, it can be hard for them to see their resilience and strength.

I suppose it makes sense as to why we lose sight of this, because we can all readily recall times and events in which we wilted with fear; did not speak up; or were not assertive.

The many conversations we have in our heads for which will never take place, are testament to our supposed withdrawal in the face of adversity. We have far too many discussions with ourselves of how something should have gone; and too many brave retorts for someone whom we really have no intention of saying those words toward.

If this all sounds like the convoluted musings of a wimpy kid, that’s not far off the mark. When we get bullied, even as adults, it can be easy to wilt, or to take it, or to simply find a way to avoid the bully. With some folks, we even create elaborate internal reasons why it’s our fault someone is upset with us. In such times, bravery and courage seem a long way from our true selves.

Faced with a daunting task or an ornery person at work, home, or school, we may wonder if we really have the internal stuff to deal with it. We feel that maybe someone else would be better suited to handle the trouble. 

Yet, what if I told you that you are, indeed, brave, strong, and confident?

What if I insisted that courage resides within you, even if you yourself cannot see it right now?

And, what if I told you that bravery isn’t something you must go on a quest to find, but that it’s been in you all along? 

If you are already enough, then you only need to be aware of it, acknowledge it, and let it out.

You intuitively know I’m on to something here. After all, the most common exhortation and assurance in the entirety of Holy Scripture is to not be afraid because God is with us:

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10, NIV)

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So, we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6, NIV)

In the great litany of fear, we face every day, spiritual confidence and personal bravery is not so much commanded by God, as it is a calling forth of something which is already within you.

Now, before you go thinking I’m some looney-tune, hear me out. From the beginning of the world, in God’s creative activity, the Lord did it all by calling forth creation from within himself. What I mean is this: God did not simply command everything into being; instead, he said, “Let there be…”  God let out what was already there in God’s very Being. It was almost as if God belched-out from the great depth of his Being and let out all this wondrous creation.

Concerning our fear and bravery, God does not so much command us to be courageous but wants us to draw from the great reservoir within. The Lord has already created us strong, as creatures in the divine image. We just need to get in touch with what is already there. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus to his disciples, because he knew his followers had it in them to walk in his way without fear. (John 14:6, NRSV)

“Let not your heart faint, and be not fearful,” said God to the prophet Jeremiah, in the face of a terrible destruction that was about to unfold against Jerusalem, because the Lord knew that Jeremiah could face what was going to happen. (Jeremiah 51:46, ESV)

Christians can act with boldness because Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation. He is the One which enables us to draw from the deep well of courage:

So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testing we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:14-16, NLT)

I insist that you are brave, you are strong, and you are good. Those are not words meant to make you believe something which may or may not be true, as if I were trying to convince you to take some panacea to feel better.  No, I say it because it is true. 

You really can face the immense mountain in front of you and climb it. You can surmount the adversity you are in the middle of – not because of some words I say, but because you were created for courage.

So, how do you let out the bravery and let the boldness shine? 

You already know the answers to your own questions. You have all the knowledge you need to face your problems. So, the real question is:

Will you let your bravery come out to play, or will you keep it hidden beneath layers of insecurity?

It’s a whole lot easier to let me tell you what to do than to draw from what you already know, deep down, how to handle that troublesome something. 

I’m not going to give you a simple three-step process out of fear and into courage. That’s because you already have been endowed with the process. 

This certainly isn’t a sexy way to end a blog post, but it just might be the most effective and lasting.

Luke 12:32-40 – Don’t Be Afraid to Give

The Good Shepherd by He Qi

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near, and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (New International Version)

The most oft repeated command in all of Holy Scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The Lord says it 365 times. It seems like we are meant to be reminded of this every day of the year.

The particular stating of the phrase by Jesus is in the context of money and possessions. Christ is telling his disciples to not fear about personal resources. Since we have a kingdom inheritance, we ought to freely give what we have to the poor without fear of being in need ourselves.

And it isn’t something we ought to procrastinate about – because the Lord could return at any time; and he doesn’t want to have to go looking for us underneath a pile of money and possessions in order to find us.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

Dale Carnegie

Fear is a real thing. Fear, at its core, is being afraid of losing what we have and getting hurt. Fear can be a helpful emotion, meant to protect us and keep us safe from harm. The problem, however, is that our fears can lead us to some unhealthy behaviors such as:

  • Vilifying another, afraid that others I don’t know or who are different from me might harm me, my family, or my community.
  • Hiding my emotions, afraid my weaknesses or failures will be exposed or exploited.
  • Serving others compulsively, afraid that I won’t have worth, meaning, or purpose without helping.
  • Achieving or winning, afraid that I will be irrelevant or unwanted, if I lose.
  • Smiling and being upbeat, afraid of facing and feeling the deep sadness within me.
  • Procrastinating projects, tasks, or conversations, afraid of being disliked or rejected.

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Yoda

All of those unhealthy practices keeps us at arm’s distance from the poor and needy. Getting close to poor folk creates fear with some people, that is, being afraid they might hurt me, or afraid that they will get my money.

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Faith is the opposite of fear. Faith tethers itself to the promises of God and frees us to be generous. And faith allows us to confidently minister and build relationships with all kinds of people, especially the poor and needy.

One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) lived in a large city full of both rich and poor. He lamented the large class difference between them. He said this about poverty and wealth:   

“To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught then when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. 

This is why God has allowed you to have more, not for you to waste on… indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need….  If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give account of the funds which were entrusted to you… for you obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.”

“Whenever you see anyone longing for many things, esteem him of all persons the poorest, even though he possess all manner of wealth; again, when you see one who does not wish for many things, judge him to be of all persons most affluent, even if he possess nothing. For by the condition of our mind and spirit, not by the quantity of our material wealth, should it be our custom to distinguish between poverty and affluence.”

The point that Jesus makes of selling possessions and giving to the poor is not to elevate poverty over wealth – or the poor over the rich – but rather to lift generosity as a significant mark of the Christian life.

In the same way, the watchfulness Jesus commands is not an anxious hand-wringing anticipation of the apocalypse. Instead, it is an eager expectation of God’s final act of doing away with all injustice forever.

In other words, Jesus is extoling a faith that frees us to be generous; enables us to leave fear, worry, and anxiety behind; and that creates in us confidence about how the future is all going to shake-out in the end.

The Lord’s Table is meant to remind us that God is hospitable and generous.

Communion together is meant to show us that we are not alone in faith.

And the Eucharist allows us to celebrate a future we know is coming, that as often as we eat and drink the elements of bread and cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he returns to judge the living and the dead.

Like the feeding of the 5,000, there is plenty of bread for all – and the cup will never run dry. That’s because the Lord we serve is a God of abundance. And when we are near to such a generous God, we feel safe and secure, and are able to freely share what we have with others – without fear and without panicking that there isn’t enough. There’s always enough because God is enough.

Generous and gracious God, You came to honor the least, the forgotten, the overlooked and the misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind, and those who are misunderstood and undervalued. You came to give a warm welcome to the lost, the abandoned, and the destitute.

Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries. Help us to be your voice speaking out love and acceptance. Help us to be your feet walking beside those in need. Help us to be your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. You came for the least, the lost and last of this world. Lord, hear our prayer. Amen.

Luke 12:4-12 – Dealing with Trouble

Jesus the Teacher by J. Kirk Richards

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

“I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (New International Version)

A new resurrected life is a beautiful thing. And it can be a hard thing, at the same time.

Decades ago, I once preached in a church for morning and evening worship services. As I entered the church building for the evening sermon, one of the deacons greeted me by saying, “Man, did you ever stir the pot this morning!”

It turns out, because I did not stay behind the pulpit when I preached, but freely roamed around the sanctuary, many parishioners believed I was not being under the authority of God’s Holy Word. They took my actions as subversive, even rebellious. Others defended the action. The entire church became divided over it.

What I found so interesting about the whole affair is that I was simply and genuinely being myself – and it caused trouble to the point of families dividing and imploding in on themselves.

Sometimes people lose sight of what’s really important, and the gospel of grace ends up bringing division. Jesus tended to cause trouble in his earthly ministry, just by being himself – and a lot of folks didn’t take kindly to him exercising authority like God does.

Trouble tends to follow Christian mission and service. That may seem odd. Yet, God’s kingdom is an upside-down one. The way of resurrection and new life comes through a cross and a death; the way to succeed is to fail; the one who loses their life will find it.

We ought to expect opposition and trouble from the world.

Fortunately, nobody ever accused me of being in cahoots with the devil. But that happened to Jesus, on more than one occasion. (Matthew 10:24-25)

Christians are not above their Master – they will be treated as he was. Jesus didn’t want his followers to be surprised whenever they face opposition.

We don’t need to be afraid of getting into trouble.

Fear has to do with the unknown and about what is going to happen to us. Since we know opposition and trouble is expected, we can avoid living in dread. Early on in the church, Christians actually rejoiced in their suffering because they considered it a privilege to be walking in the way of Jesus.

We are given a promise that we’ll receive special help in times of adversity. Believers possess the Holy Spirit, given to us to be our helper and advocate for such difficult situations.

God sees all things. The Lord isn’t surprised by your hardship and will eventually deal with all that is wrong in this old fallen world. The wrath of God is to be much more feared than the wrath of people.

God observes all the details of our lives. If God cares and is attentive to the least little things in my life, then how much more will the big issues in my life be handled!?

Blaspheming (saying hard things against) the Holy Spirit is nothing more nor less than attributing the work of Satan to God.

We aren’t doomed to hell if we are crushed under a heavy load of distress and pressure. God won’t strike us with lightning if we make mistakes, mess up, or fail to live as we ought. The Lord will likely be sad, but fire and brimstone will not be in the picture.

You might be wondering how I handled the hubbub with the church who fractured over my preaching apart from the pulpit. I came back in the evening and purposely caused trouble by preaching the Beatitudes of Jesus while walking up and down the aisle.

After all, when somebody is secure in Christ, why not say and do what needs to be said and done?

Gracious God, your love is sufficient for us. May your guidance and wisdom hold us tightly, along with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. Guard the hearts and minds of believers in places of hardship, war, and persecution so that your church may stand strong in faith.

Although trouble may come, neither any person nor any power on this earth can take our souls from us. We belong to you. May your church stand strong in grace and love, being assured with the reality that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

We pray for the day when we will all be together in worship and praise at the consummation of your benevolent kingdom. Until that day, may your love flow to all our persecuted brothers and sisters. May your blessed Holy Spirit strengthen and fill them with faith, hope, and love, through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord. Amen

John 11:45-57 – Gripped by Worry and Fear

Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary [the sister of Lazarus] and had seen what Jesus did [raised Lazarus from death] believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So, from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore, Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead, he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him. (New International Version)

Helping others, Christian ministry, and compassionate service can be risky business. Just ask Jesus.

The Jewish ruling council (Sanhedrin) was deeply disturbed by all the hubbub Jesus was stirring. Rather than celebrating the healing of many people in both body and soul, the rulers were anxious, worried, and afraid. They feared the worst: All the attention might rile the Roman occupation of the land. Then, they will obliterate both temple and nation.

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Yoda

Wherever you find a group of folks living in continual fear that something awful is going to happen, there you will find a strict code of conformity and no allowances for difference. After all, rocking the boat only draws attention. Fear dictates that if anything, or anyone, deviates from established protocol, the entire religious system and even its people will be destroyed.

Jesus was anything but a conformist to the status quo. He frequently operated outside of established religious norms. Thus, Christ was viewed by many religious leaders as a loose cannon that was making too much noise and needed to be silenced before something terrible happened.

One of the problems with living in the fearful worry of what horrible thing may occur is that we play an ignorant game of prognostication. We simply do not know the future. We can predict. We can become full-time pundits, opining about what’s going to happen. Yet, when all is said and done, the future is not ours to see. Only God is privy to standing above time and space.

Any institution whose chief focus is keeping everyone in line out of a fear of losing influence, power, privilege, money, devotion, buildings, or people will likely experience a self-fulfilled prophecy of doom. Therefore, it is necessary we define our ministries, services, and actions by who we are and not by what we don’t do.

“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.”

Gandhi

Today’s Gospel lesson chronicles the forward progress of Jesus to his ultimate suffering and death. Within the Gospel of John, there are two streams running parallel to one another. There is a group who observes Jesus, listens to his teaching, sees his miraculous works, and believes in him.  Alongside them is another group who experiences all the same events and hears all the same words of Jesus – yet responds in a different manner by plotting how Jesus might be arrested and killed.

Fear can take such a tight hold within an organization that premeditated murder is executed without any moral misgivings.

Worry can worm its way so deeply into a group that verbal assassinations seem both justified and necessary.

Anxiety can overwhelm an institution to such a degree that rationalizations for unethical behavior are rife. People cease to be looked at as people. They are referred to as threats, demonized as monsters who are trying to take away a way of life.

Caiaphas, the high priest, spoke to his fellow religious leaders, perhaps without even knowing the truth and deep import of his prophetic words: “You know nothing at all.  Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Indeed, not only did Jesus die for the nation of Israel, but on behalf of all nations, and all people. 

The implications of Christ’s death are magnanimous. The extent of his atonement for the people includes redemption from the bondage of sin; reconciliation between us and God; satisfaction of God’s wrath against the sin of the world; and victory over demons, death, and hell.

With all this incredible work of restoration and renewal, fear and worry take a back seat. Courage and confidence take the wheel.

Merciful Jesus, you are my guide, the joy of my heart, the author of my hope, and the object of my love. I come seeking refreshment and peace. Show me your mercy, relieve my fears and anxieties, and grant me a quiet mind and an expectant heart, that by the assurance of your presence, I may learn to abide in you, my Lord and my God. Amen.