1 Corinthians 7:32-40 – Relational Worries

 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (NIV)

Everyone experiences worry and anxiety. It is part of our human condition in this broken world. You may have even woken up this morning with deep furrows of anxiety about the state of your life – and maybe God was lost somewhere in your worry. The Bible addresses worry many times, and the Apostle Paul brings it out here in our New Testament lesson for today.

Throughout the letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul dealt with several issues effecting the life and health of the church. One of the topics of discussion was the prospect of marriage for unmarried persons (sounds like Paul spoke at a lot of college campuses). Paul went back and forth with the people as if he had a daisy in his hand giving a pre-marital counseling illustration of “she loves me, she loves me not” as he pulled petals off the flower.

“We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.”

thomas merton

Paul vacillated between whether to get married or not because of his larger concern about individual and congregational anxiety. The Apostle wanted everyone in the church to be free from worry. This, then, becomes a sage grid from which to make an important life decision: Does being unmarried create worry and anxiety within you, to the point that you cannot think about pleasing God? 

If that is the case, then drop the long engagement and get married, or put yourself out there to connect in a relationship. If being unmarried does not cause one to worry, then Paul would say to stay in your current state and be unconcerned for pursuing a marriage relationship. Instead, use your station in life to serve God freely, liberated from the worry of caring for a spouse.

Pleasing and serving the Lord is Paul’s highest good. If we are in life circumstances which make it difficult for us to serve God, then we ought to work to change the situation so that we can focus better on Christ. This is one of the most simple and wise ways of making decisions for the Christian devoted to Jesus, and discerning God’s will.

Having said that, it is important not to overthink this – because it only adds to the anxiety and really goes nowhere in making sound decisions. When it comes to issues about marriage and relationships, some folks get paralyzed wanting to make the “right” decision, and so, get too scared to even talk about their worry with others. Throw into the mix a possible underlying anxiety about being rejected, and decision-making can get quickly stymied. If we are too nervous to voice our concerns, we will likely miss out on the opportunity to potentially get reassurance and help.

Whenever we experience decision-making anxiety, there are some ways to address it…

  • Breathe. Take some deep breaths and feel your feet on the ground. When you have an internal conflict, it creates inner drama, and we easily get stuck. Take a deep breath to take the edge off.
  • Be curious. When we are conflicted on the inside, be curious about what you want or need. Explore your true intentions without judgment. It is when our inner-critic chimes in with the harsh rhetoric of judgment that we often become anxious and worried. It is okay to identify and express what we really need and want.
  • Write it out. The act of writing not only helps clarify our thought process; it also calms our brains and our spirits – which allows us to calmly ask ourselves: “What is the best move at this point?”

May you blessed because you care. Although relational anxiety can vex our spirits, it is a sign that we want what is best for ourselves and others.

Gracious God, you in every way want me to be healthy and content. Help me not to be overcome by anxiety, and in all I do direct me to fulfilling of your purposes; through Jesus Christ, my Lord, along with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

James 4:11-16 – On Planning Well

Brothers and sisters do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who can save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. (NIV)

Listening is both art and hard work. A few years back I spent a week at a prayer retreat. It was time intentionally set aside to hear God. It was hard work. I stayed in a little one room hermitage in the woods surrounding by God’s creation. On the first morning, I was in bed and at dawn I heard this loud thud on one of the windows. I woke up and heard it again, and then again. Outside there was a big male robin going at the window like there was no tomorrow. He did it about a dozen times before finally flying away. I laid there a bit frustrated with this stupid bird waking me up, and yet also wondered about that robin. Since I was there to connect with God, I started asking the question: “God, what are you trying to teach me through that stupid robin?”

I did not get an answer to my question. Then, the next day it happened again. Mr. Robin came by and took about a dozen hard tries at my window before flying away. However, this time I finally realized what was going on. Mr. Robin was perching just outside the window and looking at his own reflection. All he could see was a big rival robin staring back at him, on his turf, and he was going to tear into that interloper. Little did the birdbrain know that he was fighting a losing battle, against himself. 

“God, what are you trying to teach me through this robin?” Now, I had my answer. I was a Pastor tackling the issues and problems of others in the church and the world. Yet, I came to understand that I was only tackling myself, seeing my own reflection and struggling in a losing battle. I investigated the face of the enemy, and the enemy was me.

We are our own worst enemies. Much of life is determined by whether we plan for and with God. The natural temptation of us all is to view the landscape of human problems, assign enemies, and then fail to see that our greatest enemy is staring at us in the window’s reflection. Another temptation is to believe that when things are going well, it is because of our own doing – as if somehow, we can live and move and have our being independent of God in the equation. So, I ask, is God in our plans?

That is a big question. Here is just a smattering of what Jesus said about living for him: 

“Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)

“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” (John 8:31)

“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 10:62) 

We are not called by God to control other people or events; we are called to practice self-control and listen to God as we determine the course of our lives in both the big and small things of life.

The Apostle James had to deal with some birdbrain robins. They were only looking at themselves and not doing the good they knew they ought to do.

The Actual Situation

Some of the people James addressed were planning and mapping out their lives without consideration of what God wanted. They neither looked to God before beginning their planning process nor intended on including him in their dealings. These certain businesspersons were independent minded. They viewed their time and money as their own. In their minds, they give God an hour on Sunday, and the rest of the time is their own; they make their own money and no one can tell them what to do with it; they make their own plans, and maybe ask God afterward to bless it all.

The actual situation was that people were holding back on God, only giving him a certain portion of their effort.  And this can happen to any of us, with anything we have.  We may not all have money and power, yet we all have time, and how we use our time says a lot about our faith.

One of the many things God taught me at my prayer retreat was through all my business and busy-ness that I was holding back in some ways. Yes, I could compassionately connect with people but was guarded with it. Having my armor up was coming from a fear of not doing something perfect, or at least not doing it really well; and, if I would give myself completely to compassionately connecting with others, I might get hurt (because I’ve been hurt before). I wonder if you can resonate with this.

God just wants us to show up, be present, and not be perfect. We are to do the best with the gifts and abilities given us and leave it all on the playing field so that it cannot be said of us that we did not do the good we knew we should have done.  Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with being afraid.  In fact, true courage involves fear because real bravery is doing what is right when it is scary to do it, no matter what the consequences might be.

The Analysis of the Situation

Life is truly short – like a mist that appears for a little while in the morning, and then vanishes. Thus, the scheming we might do to make money and guard our investments; the posturing to make ourselves look good; the power-plays we engage to get our way; and, the anxiety which prevents us from the things we know we ought to do amounts to nothing at the end of our lives.

I have talked with far too many people over the years who crucify themselves between the two thieves of regret over yesterday’s missed opportunities, and fear of what will happen tomorrow. I have observed far too many people who made lots of money, patented inventions, and won awards, yet had no one at the end of their lives to be with them. They were not there for others, and so others were not there for them. 

Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). In God’s economy, money is simply a tool to be used to meet needs and bless others. Yet, we tend to make audacious plans with money through accumulating debt and presuming we can pay it off; encouraging our kids to get high paying jobs as their highest objective; and, putting faith in the market economy to provide for us in the end. 

James was not saying money is bad and making plans is wrong; he was saying that the almighty dollar is not to be the motivating factor in our lives, and that God needs to be squarely in the middle of all that we do.

The Alternative to the Situation

The alternative to making plans independent of God is to plan carefully for God to be in everything – to find and do his will without trying to impose our will upon the divine.

This requires listening well. It is easy to rush and keep busy and then are unable to hear what God might be saying. When things are rough, we may work so we do not have to stop long enough to feel what is really going on inside of us. James encourages us to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  Listening well enables living well.

The Audacity of the Situation

Some people in James’ day were boasting over their accomplishments.  Like Kings Nebuchadnezzar and Herod of old, they made plans and did what they wanted with delusions of grandeur. They believed they were the ultimate sovereigns of what could and should go on in the world of which they controlled. They had to learn the hard way that they were only masters of small worlds.

Boasting merely sets us up for a higher fall. We need God, and we need each other, and whenever we lose sight of that truth, we are on a one-way road to implosion. Whereas some might call it independence, God calls it evil.

The Awfulness of the Situation

The tragedy of independent planning and acting is that God is left out due to purposeful ignorance. Like the deceitful husband and wife duo, Ananias and Sapphira, there were certain persons who withheld their money and their resources so that they could look good to the rest of the community and influence happenings within the church (Acts 5:1-11).  It did not end so well for them.

Conclusion

Doing more with greater efficiency may help, yet it misses the point. We are to take the time and effort to relate meaningfully with God so that we can plan with confidence and make faith-based decisions on what we believe the Lord wants us to do.

Let us not find ourselves repeatedly flying into a window. Instead, let the Lord shape life in such a way that conforms to his purposes, so that we will then know genuine lasting joy and peace.

One mark of the mature person is that he/she has the same benevolence and character whether they are rich or poor. Since we are all rich in faith, let us continually demonstrate it by living for Jesus Christ, loving one another, and planning to reach a lost and unjust world with the good news of God’s grace.

Proverbs 3:5-12 – Choose Wisely

fork in the road
“The choice to make good choices is the best choice you can choose. Fail to make that choice and on most choices you will lose.” ― Ryan Lilly

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.

Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the first fruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine.

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in. (NIV)

The book of Proverbs is a collection of short pithy statements based in experiential truth. In other words, they are wisdom sayings. Wisdom is a gradual accumulation of understanding over time with a combination of observation and practice. The Teacher highlights the wisdom needed to navigate life. It is a bit like learning the basic laws of the universe such as: Respect the force of gravity by not walking off the roof of your house. Wisdom pays attention and applies understanding to reality. Otherwise, you will find you have a broken life.

Notice the realities we need to respect from today’s verses: God, God’s guidance, God’s honor, God’s discipline. The wise response to the existence of these realities is trust, submission, reverence, and acceptance. In contrast, a foolish response to reality is pride, avarice, and hate.

Both wisdom and foolishness are seen for what they are through their consequences.

The wise person, having been taught a respect for God and the ways of grace, will most likely have an experience of guidance, health, abundance, and love. The fool who ignores divine counsel will probably experience misplaced trust, health issues, short-sighted financial decisions, and cruddy attitudes. All things being equal, the wise person who deliberately and carefully applies knowledge and understanding to life will have an abundant spirit full of satisfaction – whereas the fool who improvises everything will struggle to live in a small world of holistic poverty and want.

“You can’t choose your potential, but you can choose to fulfill it.” – Theodore Roosevelt  

The gist of the Old Testament lesson for today is that one cannot live as an island. We all need to practice consultation and collaboration to achieve a good life. Being both instructed and corrected are necessary elements to obtaining the good life. To spurn both divine and human connections in favor of radical personal independence is plain old foolish and leads to a lousy life. In short, the fool incessantly airs opinions with useless sophistry to an empty room; and, the sage is an observant student to universal rhythms and has learned the timing of proper words and of silence.

I am going to state this all in a different way:

Relying on God and others through making and keeping promises to one another is the basis of a solid community and a gratifying personal life.

Relying merely on one’s self is a one-way road to spiritual pain and emotional damage, not to mention physical illness and financial scarcity. Fools always think they know best. Sages always know better than that.

The book of Proverbs is a presentation, a dialectic, a contrast and a setting forth of two ways of approaching how to live in the world: foolishness or wisdom; independence or interdependence; cognitive pride or mental humility; negligence of evidence-based research or consultation through books, literature, and reading; exploitation of resources or submission to the natural laws and rhythms of the land; holding-on with clenched fist or generosity with open hand; Grinch-like attitudes or God-like dispositions; incessant criticism or heartfelt tribute; blame-shifts or recognition of other’s contributions; shame or vulnerability; resistance to correction or acceptance of discipline; hate or love; judgment or grace – there is a fork in the road and we must choose which way to go.

Choose wisely, my friend.

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace; and, in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Esther 4:1-17

            Queen Esther was a Jewess.  Normally, this would not have been a problem in the ancient Media-Persian kingdom ruled by Ahasuerus.  But it was not a normal kind of time.  The top aide of King Ahasuerus was an arrogant man, Haman.  Haman so loathed the Jewish people that he connived a way to get the king to issue an edict in which a holocaust of horror would be unleashed against the Jewish people so that they would be destroyed. 
 
            Esther found herself between the proverbial rock and hard place.  Neither the king nor Haman knew that she was a Jewess.  If she revealed herself, Esther could be killed.  On the other hand, if she used her position and influence in an inappropriate way by entering the king’s presence without being summoned, Esther could be killed.  There was no good option.  But in the kingdom of God, there is always an option.
 
            Being thrust into an impossible situation through circumstances not created by herself, Queen Esther came to the point of decision:  she would approach the king, but she would do it with all the prayer and fasting of her people behind her.  Esther had all the Jews in her city gathered for a three-day fast on her behalf.  Then, she would face the king and deal with the adversity that she did not ask for.
 
            When confronted with the face of evil; when dealt a set of circumstances you do not deserve; when hissing tongues breathe slander about you; when there seems to be no possible solution to your problem and no apparent possibility of hope; then, what do you do?  Everyone, at some point in their lives, faces a quandary beyond their ability to handle.  It is at such times, God is at his best.  If we will confidently face those times with all the humility we can muster through devoted fasting and prayer, who knows?  Perhaps God will show up and turn the tables….
            Sovereign God, you see and know all things.  Yet, I don’t always know you are there and I don’t always see you working behind the scenes.  When devious people plot behind my back and situations rise up to my neck, I look to you so that the plans of the wicked will not come to pass.  May the righteous thrive and not be destroyed.  May the mighty name of Jesus prevail.  Amen.