Psalm 59 – Victimization Needs a Voice

Oh, my God, deliver me from my enemies;
    put me out of reach from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from evildoers;
    save me from the bloodthirsty.
Look at how they lie in ambush for my life!
    Powerful people are attacking me, Lord—
        but not because of any error or sin of mine.
    They run and take their stand—
        but not because of any fault of mine.

Get up when I cry out to you!
    Look at what’s happening!
You are the Lord God of heavenly forces,
    the God of Israel!
Wake up and punish all the nations!
    Grant no mercy to any wicked traitor!

They come back every evening,
    growling like dogs,
    prowling around the city.
See what they belch out with their mouths:
    swords are between their lips!
        Who can listen to them?
But you, Lord, laugh at them.
    You mock all the nations.
I keep looking for you, my strength,
    because God is my stronghold.
My loving God will come to meet me.
    God will allow me to look down on my enemies.

Don’t kill them, or my people might forget;
    instead, by your power
    shake them up and bring them down,
        you who are our shield and my Lord.
For the sin of their mouths,
    the words that they speak,
    let them be captured in their pride.
For the curses and lies they repeat,
        finish them off in anger;
        finish them off until they are gone!
Then let it be known to the ends of the earth
    that God rules over Jacob.

They come back every evening,
    growling like dogs,
    prowling around the city.
They roam about for food,
    and if they don’t get their fill,
    they stay all night.
But me? I will sing of your strength!
    In the morning I will shout out loud
    about your faithful love
        because you have been my stronghold,
        my shelter when I was distraught.
I will sing praises to you, my strength,
    because God is my stronghold,
    my loving God. (Common English Bible)

David was in a major pickle.

He was wildly successful as a member of King Saul’s court and a captain in his army. David fought Saul’s battles and won major victories. And this put him in the position of being the object of jealousy from Saul. So much so, that the king was ready to snuff out David’s life. David had done everything Saul had asked of him, and he was now about to be repaid by becoming a hunted man.

Today’s psalm was crafted by David in this awkward space between being at home but about to be on the run. It was a time of high anxiety and hypervigilance, of trying to come to grips with what was happening and about to happen.

Honestly, I really don’t like it when people poo-poo and invalidate other people’s emotions.

Every feeling which comes up for us is meant to be acknowledged and paid attention to.

Otherwise, if every feeling is tossed into some internal trash bin, those emotions eventually come out sideways,  looking like the stereotypical uptight and inflexible person who chronically complains and irritates others with their stone-faced tight-lipped sanctimonious policing of another’s feelings.

Such persons are aghast that psalms like today’s are even in the Bible. Biblical scholars identify these psalms as “imprecatory” psalms because they are curses, giving vent to the bitter anger and painful wonderings of the inner person.

A few years back, I was a chaplain in a large care facility. One of the residents was a retired Episcopal priest. He developed a brain tumor and had surgery to remove it. However, getting rid of the tumor damaged his ability to speak.

So, when I came to see him after his return to the nursing home, he labored intensely just to get a simple sentence out. And after each struggle to speak he would swear and utter some expletive, then apologize to me.

Finally, I said to him, “There’s no need to apologize. You have spent your life using words to bless and help others and now that has been robbed of you. You are angry. I am angry. Let’s just sit here and swear together about it.”

We raged together about disease. We swore like sailors about injustice. We cried out to God for vengeance on evil (and I was secretly praying that no one would walk into the room while we were doing this).

Whereas psalms of lament express deep sadness, imprecatory psalms rage with deep-seated anger.

With no cursing of disease, sickness, and death, it comes out sideways in this unkind sort of “snarky-ness” toward each other. In fact, one day I was speaking with someone at work, and she said to me, “Everyone was so mean to each other yesterday that I went home and cried.”

What I am proposing here is that our anger, our rage, even our vengeance needs recognition, just like our sadness does. Our bitterness must have an outlet, not directed toward one another, but toward the evil itself – and even toward God because God is big enough to handle our rage, whereas other humans are not.

Victimization needs a voice, and a bit of raging and cursing is the means to do it.

Giving voice to our deep anger is cathartic and therapeutic. Our speech needs to be congruent with the intensity of our pain because wherever there are no valued words of assault for victims, the risk of hurting each other is much higher.

Despair with no voice and no one to hear will eventually transition to harming others.

Holy One, you do not distance yourself from the pain of your people, but in Jesus bear that pain with us and bless all who suffer at another’s hands. Make our hurting holy! With your cleansing love, bring healing and strength; and by your justice, lift us up so that we may again rejoice in you, through Christ, my Lord. Amen.

Acts 5:17-26 – How to Handle Jealousy

Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”

At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.

When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So, they went back and reported, “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.

Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them. (New International Version)

Celebration and success have their own challenges. Whenever things are going well, there are inevitably others who become jealous. And when jealousy takes root in a person or a group of people, it can result in harming and hurting others.

Indeed, persecution broke out against the apostles. Their ministry was flourishing. Thousands of people were being added to the Church. Miraculous healings abounded. And, standing in the shadows, were a group of jealous religious leaders. Since their power was diminishing, the ruling council had the apostles arrested – seeking to contain their influence and stop the spread of the Church.

Jealousy is one of the places we go whenever we play the comparison game with others. Whereas envy is wanting something that someone else has, jealousy is a deep-seated fear of losing someone or a group of people.

The reason jealousy can be so damaging and insidious is because of the anger and sadness behind it. In the case of the religious leaders, they saw the success of the apostles, the popularity of the burgeoning church, and the attention being diverted from themselves onto the apostles – and they were angry. The loss of religious power was just too much for them, so they became jealous.

Jealousy, much like anger, is neither good nor bad. It is an emotion. It’s what we do with the feeling that matters. In our anger we might turn it inward on ourselves, direct it onto another with verbal or even physical violence, or just get downright snarky and passive-aggressive. Also, with jealousy, it too often gets worked out on others by attacking them in some way.

God feels both anger and jealousy. Yet, those divine emotions are used to bring justice, establish what is right, and help the disadvantaged. God as a jealous God means that the Lord is saddened and hurt by people trying to find satisfaction in all the wrong places through idolatry.

Israel soon became fat and unruly;
    the people grew heavy, plump, and stuffed!
Then they abandoned the God who had made them;
    they made light of the Rock of their salvation.
They stirred up his jealousy by worshiping foreign gods;
    they provoked his fury with detestable deeds.
They offered sacrifices to demons, which are not God,
    to gods they had not known before,
to new gods only recently arrived,
    to gods their ancestors had never feared. (Deuteronomy 32:15-17, NLT)

God desires that people discover healthy ways of coping and acknowledge their jealous feelings. The Apostle Paul did just that:

I hope you will put up with me in a little foolishness. Yes, please put up with me! I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:1-3, NIV)

The feeling of jealousy is meant to tell us something. Instead of pushing it aside, listen to what it has to say. Perhaps it is leading us to acknowledge our grief and lament our loss. It could be alerting us to our great loneliness or deep sadness.

For whatever reason the jealousy arises, stuffing it or pushing it aside may cause harm to ourselves or others. A profound lack of self-awareness will always come back to bite us in the behind.

So, how do I handle those feelings of jealousy when they come?

  • Seek to understand. Trace the feeling back to its true source. Whether the jealousy stems from insecurity, fear, or past relationship patterns, knowing more about the causes can help us figure out how to confront it and deal with it.

An understanding heart seeks knowledge; but fools feed on folly. (Proverbs 15:14, CEB)

  • Talk to someone. Give voice to your concern. Discuss the feelings of jealousy with a trusted friend, family member, or faith leader.

Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2, NET)

  • Express your grief. With jealousy there is a loss or a worry of losing someone or something. Prayer is a good idea when we are losing someone.

God, listen! Listen to my prayer, listen to the pain in my cries. (Psalm 102:1, MSG)

  • View another perspective. Try and take a big picture approach and consider other angles to the situation which is producing the jealousy.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. (Isaiah 55:8, NLT)

  • Practice gratitude. Be thankful for the people, circumstances, and things you have in your life right now. Thankfulness is often a powerful antidote to strong feelings of jealousy.

Tell the Lord how thankful you are, because he is kind and always merciful. (Psalm 118:29, CEV)

  • Explore underlying issues. Sometimes jealousy has to do with insecurity or low self-worth. Addressing your value as a person and the unique contribution to others you bring to the world has the effect of kicking jealousy to the curb.

God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:27, CEB)

  • Be patient. Give it time. Most people don’t get over their jealous feelings overnight. It’s a process. So be kind to yourself and stick with acknowledging and discovering what jealousy has to teach you.

Be patient when you have troubles. (Romans 12:12, ERV)

May you find satisfaction, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 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.

Luke 12:57-59 – Seek Reconciliation

“Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out, until you have paid the last penny.” (New International Version)

Relational problems and conflicts are endemic to the human condition. And, along with it, comes our anger.

Sometimes, I wonder if some church buildings have an aisle down the middle, is so that one group of people can avoid associating with the other group, like some childhood bedroom squabble where a line is drawn that the other is not to cross.

I also wonder if all schoolteachers’ lounges are a hot mess of anger. I’ve certainly been in plenty that are. And I don’t really have to wonder if most families have relatives they are estranged from – sometimes for years, even decades. Lord knows I’ve counseled plenty of them.

It’s inevitable that any group of people, complete with individual sinful natures, whether a church, a neighborhood, a family, or a workplace, will experience relational difficulties. After all, we live in a fallen world with a bunch of fallen people.

Relationships are important to God. And we need them. We cannot live without them because we’ve been created in the image and likeness of a relational God. So, God is concerned that we have good relations with one another.

Jesus is in the business of stripping away the layers of self-righteousness and peeling back the built up human rationalizations toward our sour relations with one another. At the heart of it all is our contempt for others and our misplaced anger. The only real solution to it is reconciliation.

Anger in and of itself is neither bad nor good; it just is. It’s a normal human emotional response to injustice. Yet, how we express our anger is very much an ethical affair.

Bitterness, nursing a grudge, bearing resentment, saying speeches to somebody in our heads we will never give, and flipping the finger at someone behind their back is the sort of angry response that completely sours relationships and drives wedges between folks.

Those inner attitudes are the factory where the anger will eventually come out sideways in verbal or even physical violence toward another.

Harboring resentment that comes out in name-calling kills people. And when we verbally decapitate people, there is a mess to clean up. Judgement is the lot for people-bashing. (Matthew 5:21-26)

“The holiness of God is at war with all bitterness and hatred and hurting. And where this holiness collides with our hostility the crash is called the wrath of God. God’s wrath is God’s war of love against everything that unnecessarily hurts others. God’s love would not be love if it did not work to remove all that ungraciously hurts. The wrath of God is the proof of the love of God; God’s love is a love that is not merely sentimental, for it grapples with inhumane forces.”

Frederick Dale Bruner

If you think to yourself that you have a right to nurse a grudge because that other person deserves it, you need to know that your hatred will not go unnoticed by God. 

If you have ever wished anyone was dead, hated anyone, treated anyone with contempt and belittled them; then, you have assassinated that person in your heart and come under the judgment of God.

And that’s the reason why we are to work hard at making things right with others.

There is no need for you to live with regret for the rest of your life because of stubbornly refusing to reconcile, and to have to stand before your Creator someday with nothing but hatred and contempt for another person.

Whenever personal relations go wrong, nine cases out of ten, immediate action will usually mend the problem.  But the longer it goes, the harder it is to reconcile. The problem grows and festers. Eventually, if reconciliation is not sought, it eventually spirals out of control. Then, there is full blown bitterness in which more people will be hurt. 

Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people.

Hebrews 12:15, CEB

Bitterness becomes gangrene of the soul. It poisons us within and ends up making trouble for others. Its better to reconcile than to have God amputate a part of you. So, seek amends.

If you become angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin, and do not stay angry all day. Don’t give the Devil a chance…. Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31, GNT)

We always have a choice when relationships are strained: Deal with it immediately, or let it fester. Maybe the reason why so many folks live without peace is that they have chosen unwisely.

Choose wisely, my friend.

Lord God, bring us together as one people, reconciled with you and reconciled with each other – healed, forgiven, and spreading peace rather than enmity, as you called us to do, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.