On the Need for Humble Leaders (1 Peter 5:1-11)

I appeal to your spiritual leaders. I make this appeal as a spiritual leader who also witnessed Christ’s sufferings and will share in the glory that will be revealed. Be shepherds over the flock God has entrusted to you. Watch over it as God does: Don’t do this because you have to, but because you want to. Don’t do it out of greed, but out of a desire to serve. Don’t be rulers over the people entrusted to you but be examples for the flock to follow. Then, when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Young people, in a similar way, place yourselves under the authority of spiritual leaders.

Furthermore, all of you must serve each other with humility because God opposes the arrogant but favors the humble. Be humbled by God’s power so that when the right time comes he will honor you.

Turn all your anxiety over to God because he cares for you. Keep your mind clear and be alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion as he looks for someone to devour. Be firm in the faith and resist him, knowing that other believers throughout the world are going through the same kind of suffering. God, who shows you his kindness  and who has called you through Christ Jesus to his eternal glory, will restore you, strengthen you, make you strong, and support you as you suffer for a little while. Power belongs to him forever. Amen. (God’s Word Translation)

“The most powerful weapon to conquer evil is humility. For evil does not know at all how to employ it, nor does it know how to defend itself against it.”

St. Vincent DePaul

The real mettle of a person, especially a leader, is not seen in their very visible public service. Rather, solid spiritual leadership is forged in the invisible places, in the daily mundane tasks which no one ever sees.

It is in our most unguarded times that we really demonstrate who we are. This is the sacred space where humility is learned and developed. Therefore, to know a genuinely humble leader, one must follow that person in the common course of daily life.

Leaders without such a foundation of daily and consistent faithfulness will eventually crack. Ministry gradually becomes more duty than delight. Service to others is eventually measured by church attendance, monetary offerings, and public image. The soul shrinks over a long stretch of time, almost imperceptibly.

In a slow drift, faith fades, and anxiety fills the emptiness; glory grows dim, and greed grows destructively. Safety and security are ensconced as primary values to mitigate the nagging sense of worry. The original adventure of confident faith, conviction of purpose, and compassionate ministry becomes a bygone era.

Thus, it is most necessary to return to the queen of all virtues, the ideal Christian ethic for all followers of Christ: humility.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6-7). With humility, our eyes are filled with spiritual sight, seeing and honoring the larger realities of the universe. Without humility, there is blindness, an inability to recognize the need for God’s grace.

The sinister approach of sinful pride is revealed in the wrongheaded thought, “I’m fine. I can do it on my own. I don’t need you, thank you very much.” 

So, how’s that been working for you lately? Are you frustrated, worried, despondent? 

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. Do you plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

St. Augustine

Humility opens to us the wide vistas of God’s love and mercy. It is neither weakness nor a cenobite self-abnegation into denying my personhood. Instead, a humble spirit:

  • Renews hope. Spiritually and emotionally healthy leaders make for spiritually and emotionally healthy congregations. Humility discerns that all Christian ministry rests with the sufficiency of Christ, not me, thus kindling a future hope in realities bigger than me.
  • Relieves anxiety. Humility knows and rests in the hands of a good and merciful God, rather than a perceived need to “look out for number one.”
  • Resists the devil. A robust faith always has a strong foundation of humility, helping us see that Satan has nothing we want. 
  • Remains steady. Humility is willing and privileged to share in the sufferings of Christ, and so, can persevere through both bad circumstances and boredom.

As individuals, we all need to gain and maintain a humble spirit. Humility really is the virtue to which everyone must aspire. It delivers what we need the most: To rest secure in the merciful arms of God. 

In this old fallen world, every family, neighborhood, organization, institution, corporation, and government is in desperate need of humility. We’ve already made quite enough mess of things with our human pride.

Within the church, and inside of every religious community, it is most necessary to reinforce all leadership appointments and staffing with humility. No amount of human intelligence, skill, and hard work can make up for a lack of humility. 

God is sovereign and in control. So, the sooner we sync our lives with this truth, the better off we will be.

Sovereign God, you cause people and nations to rise and to fall. I place my complete trust and devotion in you. With all the humility I can muster, I bow to you and submit to your gracious work in my life and in the life of the world. 

Shoo all sinful pride far from me, create in me a pure and humble heart, and let me share in your sufferings so that I might share in your glory, through Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 11 – Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Faith?

I have taken refuge in the Lord.
How can you say to me:
“Flee to your mountain like a bird?
Wicked people bend their bows.
They set their arrows against the strings
to shoot in the dark at people whose motives are decent.
When the foundations of life
are undermined,
what can a righteous person do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple.
The Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes see.
They examine Adam’s descendants.
The Lord tests righteous people,
but he hates wicked people and the ones who love violence.
He rains down fire and burning sulfur upon wicked people.
He makes them drink from a cup filled with scorching wind.
The Lord is righteous.
He loves a righteous way of life.
Decent people will see his face. (God’s Word Translation)

We all know what it feels like to take the brunt of someone’s poison verbal darts. And it’s scary. What do you do? In a state of fear, shock, or panic, we will likely either fight, flight, freeze, or faith.

If you have ever received a nasty email based on half-truths and accusations; stood dumbfounded as someone hurled misinformation and criticism at you; and/or experienced the victimization that comes from slanderous and gossiping tongues, then the psalmist knows exactly how you feel. 

Cobbling together a hasty email response, full of anger and vitriol, only sucks us into the person’s evil ways. Metaphorically punching someone in the face for their slap to your face is how the demonic realm handles offenses. Fighting back with an equal or greater force is diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus in loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.

Then, there is the response of taking flight from the nastiness. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if good people are always getting swallowed whole by unjust words and behaviors directed squarely at them. And it doesn’t help when the downers among us stroll along and give us their unhelpful fatalism about how there is nothing we can do and how nothing will ever change.

For others, they are just plain dumbfounded that another person can be so mean or controlling, so they freeze, unable to speak or do anything. They end up suffering in silence, without their victimization having a voice.

To be the target of evil speech or malevolent actions is, at the least, unsettling, and, at worst, can bring years of struggle, depression, and inability to serve. Yet, there is someone who sees it all, and that someone will address the wrong. We have an option beyond fighting back in anger or fleeing altogether in fear. We can trust God.

The Lord sits aloft, overseeing all, and knows everything humanity does and says. God always does right and wants justice done. Everyone who shares a divine sense of what is right and just will see God’s face. God will act because the Lord abhors and despises those who are cruel and enjoy violence.

It’s not a good idea to get on God’s bad side. The way to flare God’s anger is by possessing an acerbic tongue; relishing in verbal violence; and, having no remorse about any of it. Because God loves people, God hates evil. The righteous are to take solace in the truth that God really does see the harm done and is in a position to do something about it. Like the psalmist, we seek the Lord. The Lord fights our battles.

Whenever we are harassed and the ungodly give us a hard time, the psalmist isn’t offering some nice religious platitudes such as, “Just let go and let God,” “Everything works for the good of those who love God,” or “It’s okay, you’ll be in heaven someday.”

In another context, maybe those statements are helpful. But being in the teeth of the wicked, all is not okay. As much as some folks try to sanitize an evil situation with rainbows and butterflies, the evil is real, and it’s there. The truth is that everything is not okay. The earth is filled with violence, malevolence, oppression, injustice, and systemic evil. The psalmist knows this, all too well.

Humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:6-7, CEB)

Today’s psalm is reminding and reassuring us that the Lord is aware of what’s going on and will most certainly do something about it. God will act to punish the wicked and deliver the Lord’s people. There may not be peace this present moment, yet it will not always be this way. We shall behold the face of the Lord.

The Lord is a righteous judge. Justice is the foundation of God’s throne. God sees the entire spectrum of humanity and can make a right assessment of people’s thoughts, intents, words, and actions. We, however, cannot. Therefore, it is most necessary for us to put our trust in a Divine Being who cares about right and wrong and has the power to act with justice.

Whenever we are hemmed-in through the schemes of diabolical persons and are powerless, there is always the choice to trust in the Lord. The outcome of every life on earth rests in the hands of God. And it will be a just and right rendering.

Trust in the Lord and do good. Seek peace and pursue it. We might struggle mightily on both the inside and outside – our hard circumstance might not change immediately – yet God is the One who will vindicate the just person when the time is right.

You are not alone. The Lord is with you always.

God of justice, look at the state of your servant and act on my behalf. Do not let evil prevail. Thwart the ungodly so that they can no longer do any harm. Amen.

Luke 12:29-32 – Be Content

And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (New International Version)

If we’re honest with God, we acknowledge that we often worry a lot about tomorrow and how our needs will be met. 

Every day we send God moribund signals that our heads are not in the moment, and that our hearts are not into today. We fret about the future, leaving us profoundly discontent. So, we do busywork, distract ourselves with social media, and numb ourselves with spirits rather than turn to the Holy Spirit – all in the futile attempt to reduce the racing thoughts in our heads.

Far too many of us fail to enjoy the present moment. Our minds are someplace else. 

Contented people do not find their happiness in far-off places, in someday being able to acquire the things they desire, or in having a laser-like orientation to achieving a future goal. Instead, they find contentment in their present circumstances. 

Those living without fear and eschewing worry have discovered that happiness is not found in a new job, a new car, a new spouse, or a new anything.

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

Focusing on the present does not mean ignoring the past or neglecting the future; it just means we are to put our primary attention on living in the here and now rather than on a romanticized future free of doubt, insecurity, and uncertainty. 

If we are not present to the here and now, we either get stuck in the past or continually worry about the future.  Everything then becomes either about recapturing some bygone era or of dreaming about some idyllic future state – buying into the wrongheaded notion that whenever I get out of school, or get married, or have kids, or get the job I want, or the kids leave home, or I retire, then all will be good, and I shall finally have contentment. 

Planning for the future is wise, good, and necessary; worrying about it and neglecting the present is bad.

Whenever we rush through the present to get to the future, we lose what God wants to do for us now.  It takes flow, mindfulness, and savor to fully engage the present.

“Flow” is a psychological term that means “being in the zone,” that is, to be actively involved in the present situation with focused attention. 

“Mindfulness” means to be aware of your present surroundings, and to especially be aware of your present state of mind and emotions; it is to pay attention to all that is within you and around you. 

To “savor” something is to enjoy it so much that you want it to last forever. It is to be slow, deliberate, and enjoyable. It’s about the journey, not just the destination.

Flow, mindfulness, and savor are what Jesus asked us to do. Christ wants us to stop and smell the roses. He wants us to give focused attention to what is currently in front of us; to be mindful of all the wonder of creation that presently surrounds us; and, to take the time to simply savor and enjoy it all. 

Once I was in a bible study with a group of people and the family’s dog kept licking a particular person to the point of distraction. Finally, I said to the group: “What do you think God is trying to tell us through the dog?”  We ended up having a very enlightening conversation on our own relationships with God and one another.

We are to be present to today. 

This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118:24, NRSV

When we realize life is short, we will not waste it on worrying about the future. Although we don’t know about tomorrow, we do know about today. And today we are to enjoy God’s good gifts to us in the here and now.

So, teach us to consider our mortality,
so that we might live wisely. (Psalm 90:12, NET)

The wise way to live is one day at a time. That was God’s message through the prophet Jeremiah to the exiled Israelites. The ancient Jews kept spending their time reminiscing about the past and wishing for a better future.  So, God told them what to do in their exile:

“Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NLT)

Being content means to enjoy today, to savor the present moment God has you in, even if you don’t like where you are right now.

So go eat your food and enjoy it;
    drink your wine and be happy,
because that is what God wants you to do.
Put on nice clothes
    and make yourself look good.

Enjoy life with the wife you love. Enjoy all the useless days of this useless life God has given you here on earth, because it is all you have. So, enjoy the work you do here on earth. Whatever work you do, do your best, because you are going to the grave, where there is no working, no planning, no knowledge, and no wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, NCV)

Appreciate God’s simple gifts

Sometimes we look so hard for a future miracle, and want out from the circumstance we are in, that we fail to experience contentment in the present time. We are to enjoy the simple pleasures of life which God gives to us, even within our adversity.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:12, NIV)

No matter what is going on in our lives, whether good or not, we can still appreciate a beautiful sunset, a good book, a walk on the beach, time with friends, good food, and a host of other simple gifts which God provides for us on a daily basis. Yet, we must stop long enough to experience and enjoy them.

Remember to celebrate

We are meant to celebrate life. The genuineness of Christianity is seen whenever Christians throw the best parties and have the most fun.

Someday we are all going to die. Rather than this being a downer, it is an opportunity to ponder an important question: Will you celebrate the time you have here on this earth and enjoy it? 

It’s not hedonistic (living for pleasure) to enjoy life and have a party. It’s actually a biblical thing to do. A spirit of celebration is a Christian spirit.

Work with enthusiasm

Dive in and enjoy your work. We end up worrying whenever our focus is on the destination. However, the real point of life is to enjoy the journey and the process. Be present to your work now and enjoy a job well done for the day, instead of looking forward to a fatter paycheck and a better job in the future.

My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:19, NIV

Engage in work with joyful abandon, and not with compulsive perfectionism (which is joyless and life-draining). Find ways of enjoyment within the kind of work that may be draining and not very exciting. Every job has mundane repetitive work to it. Yet, how we go about that work is significant.

If the here-and-now is not the best time of your life, then you and I need to be mindful to the words of Jesus because our focus is somehow misplaced. Contented people focus on the present, what is happening now, today, and they do not worry about tomorrow because that future state is the responsibility of God. 

Ever-present God, enlarge my heart to receive more of your grace and contentment. Rescue me from my small thoughts of your love and goodness. Free me from any unbelief and uncover my many fears. May I rest secure in the knowledge that you are good and everything you do is right, just, and fair. Amen. 

Psalm 23 – I Have Everything I Need

Psalm 23 by John August Swanson, 2010

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have everything I need.
He lets me rest in fields of green grass
    and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water.
He gives me new strength.
He guides me in the right paths,
    as he has promised.
Even if I go through the deepest darkness,
    I will not be afraid, Lord,
    for you are with me.
Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me.

You prepare a banquet for me,
    where all my enemies can see me;
you welcome me as an honored guest
    and fill my cup to the brim.
I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life;
    and your house will be my home as long as I live. (Good News Translation)

I once had a neighbor named Art. Art was a shepherd. He spent a good chunk of his day, every day, leading his sheep around his five acres of property across the road from me. On occasion, Art would politely ask if some of his sheep could come to my backyard and feed on some of the wild plants that were in abundance. I was amazed how “artfully” he cared for his sheep.

Sheep get a bad rap, in my opinion. I have often heard others refer to them as stupid. Having grown up on a farm, I realize there are animals that are not so bright. Sheep aren’t one of them. Cows, however, are. I think when God created cows the raccoons came along and stole some of their brains. 

There’s a reason sheep possess the reputation of lacking smarts – they are prone to being afraid. Sheep get spooked and upset easily. And, when they are skittish and scared, sheep tend to panic.

More than once I’ve seen a flock of sheep run full-steam head-first into a stone wall. If you don’t know much about sheep and come along and see this, they most certainly appear to be downright stupid. Yet, sheep are really, quite intelligent.  It’s just when fear overcomes them, they can do some nonsensical things.

Jesus the Good Shepherd by Solomon Raj

The presence of a faithful shepherd makes all the difference.

Sheep become familiar with their shepherd and learn to depend on them. There were times that Art had to leave the sheep alone and I would do a sort of babysit with them. Around me the sheep were cautious and had their guard up. The presence of anxiety was clear. But when Art showed up, he didn’t have to say a word. I could feel and observe the flock collectively relaxing.

God Pastors

God is the ultimate shepherd of the sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. When we sense the presence of God’s Spirit, there is faith, trust, and confidence. This, then, brings a settled conviction of calm and comfort. Whenever that sense is absent, we do things like buy two pallets of toilet paper and try to bring it home in a compact car. It’s non-sense.

Psalm 23 is a beloved portion of Holy Scripture for a reason; it helps us as sheep to settle down and trust, even in the middle of uncertainty and anxiety. 

God’s presence + God’s provision + God’s protection = God’s providential care. God’s presence is constant, not sporadic; his provision is enough, not stingy; and his protection is total, not partial.

To know and feel God’s presence watching over us and giving generously to us is the very balm we need. It melts our fear in the face of adversity and opposition; it helps us relax in tough economic times; and it inoculates us from believing the sky is falling. 

Our courage and confidence cannot be ginned-up through sheer willpower; it comes as we get to know the great shepherd of the sheep standing there watching over us with compassionate and competent care.

God Provides

God is personal, not generic. God is the great “I AM,” the God who is. The Lord is my shepherd – not was or will be – is. God is not just somebody else’s God and shepherd, but my shepherd. 

The Lord is My Shepherd by David Hinds

Shepherd is an apt term because a shepherd cares for the sheep – watches over them, is present with them, protects them, and provides whatever they need to both survive and thrive.

God benevolently leads us; and does not act outside of his character and attributes. If we believe this about the great “I AM,” then worry and anxiety begins to diminish. Too many of us suffer from the heebie-jeebies because we don’t see the shepherd standing in the field watching over us.

The answer to our worry is not to keep telling ourselves to stop being anxious. With God on the job as shepherd, I shall not be in want; I have everything I need. 

Troubled times will always be with us, this side of heaven. Fear can grab hold and prevent us from living with settled intentions and reasonable plans toward the future. Every day we see folks running headlong into a stone wall. 

It’s okay to be afraid; it is not okay to let fear rule our lives. The solution is to speak, despite your fear; to act, despite your worry; to live, knowing God has your back.

God Is Present

Within much of Hebrew poetry, the focus of the writing is found smack in the middle. Everything before it builds toward it; everything after it points back. Smack in the middle of Psalm 23 is that God is with us. 

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even though it may seem that everything is bleak and that all things are against me – God is with me, which is why I do not succumb to fear. 

We walk through the valley, not around it. God does not cause us to avoid difficult circumstances. Instead, God promises to be with us through them. The way to deliverance is to confront our fears and walk with God, rather than expecting God to take away everything unpleasant that we don’t like.

My neighbor Art had a shepherd’s crook. He mostly used it as a walking stick. Yet, I did see times when he fended-off predators seeking to get to the sheep. More often, Art used his shepherd’s crook as a way of guiding the sheep where they could feed and be protected. 

The discovery of God’s guidance comes from movement and creativity. We aren’t going to experience the leading we want apart from embracing the uncomfortable in the confidence that God provides and protects through the trouble, and not apart from it.

Coptic Church icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

God Protects

Even with enemies of disease, death, and disorder surrounding us, God’s presence is such that his protection and provision are providentially working to create blessing in the middle of trouble. Whereas fear and panic believe in a culture of scarcity, a culture of abundance discerns that there is plenty for all – and will thus work toward equitable distribution and fostering an egalitarian spirit.

God refreshes, encourages, and restores. There are abundant blessings – even within troubled times. God’s provision is right here, amidst the worst of circumstances. We don’t have to pick a fight with someone in the Costco parking lot, who has what I want, to get the things we need.

It’s easy to believe that God’s goodness and love will follow me when my health is good, my income is solid, and I have plenty of friends around me. It is another thing to have an awareness of that goodness in dark days.  Yet, God’s love and goodness hasn’t sequestered itself.  God providentially uses each life situation and bends it to redemptive purposes.

Experientially knowing God brings contentment and confidence. The radical nature of Psalm 23 is that peace is realized while chaos and uncertainty is all around. Establishing spiritual practices that reinforce our sense of security can aid us through difficulty and hardship.

With a settled conviction that God indeed has our backs and stands as the divine sentinel watching over the beloved sheep, we find the ability to relax and trust that all is well with my soul.

Lord, help me to relax.

Take from me the tension
that makes peace impossible.
Take from me the fears
that do not allow me to venture.
Take from me the worries
that blind my sight.
Take from me the distress
that hides your joy.

Help me to know
that I am with you,
that I am in your care,
that I am in your love,
that you and I are one,

Through the mighty name of Jesus,

In the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Amen.