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.

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 12:32-40 – 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 8:22-25 – Where Is Your Faith?

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So, they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.

The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.

In fear and amazement, they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” (New International Version)

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”

Louisa May Alcott

The opposite of faith isn’t little to no faith – it’s fear.

Fear, at its core, is being afraid of getting hurt. Fear is an emotion which alerts us to some danger that may break my heart or my body.

Being afraid, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. It’s more about why fear bubbles up for us.

So, what makes you afraid? Why? How does fear influence your life?

Fear is often at the root of 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, afraid that I won’t have worth, meaning, or purpose without helping.
  • Achieving or winning, afraid that I will be irrelevant or unwanted.
  • 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.

Today’s Gospel story has Jesus at the center of the storm. The wind and the waves, the storm, is not the central element of the story. Jesus is. And that’s an important distinction, because whenever we put outside circumstances as the central elements of our own stories, anxious fear is the inevitable result.

“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

The disciples were surprised that even the wind and the waves obey him! They were afraid because of the furious storm. Yet, Jesus was sleeping, not the least bit fearful. The disciples woke him, and in shallow breathed words of anxiety stated they all were going to drown because of the extreme conditions.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine Jesus slowly awaking and lazily rising from his slumber, simply rebuking the wind and waves, with neither any anxiety nor any hurry, and then chiding the disciples for their inability to place their faith in him.

Jesus Calms the Storm by the Benedictine Sisters of Turvey Abbey

The disciples’ expectations of and faith in Jesus were way too low! That’s what fear does. It diminishes faith. Like Chicken Little, who thought the sky was falling and all was ruined, we become chickens of little faith.

Many people believe God hears and answers prayer. Yet sometimes, our faith can be so small that, when God answers those prayers in ways far superior to our expectations, we are slack-jawed and astonished by it. Luke’s Gospel records several instances of people being surprised by Jesus: 

Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:47, NIV)

They were astounded at his teaching because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Leave us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!”

Then the demon, throwing the man down before them, came out of him without doing him any harm. They were all astounded and kept saying to one another, “What kind of word is this, that with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits and they come out?” (Luke 4:32-36, NRSV)

I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”

The man immediately stood up in front of them and picked up the stretcher he had been lying on. Praising God, he went home.

Everyone was amazed and praised God. They were filled with awe and said, “We’ve seen things today we can hardly believe!” (Luke 5:24-26, GW)

Jesus was driving out a demon that could not talk; and when the demon went out, the man began to talk. The crowds were amazed. (Luke 11:14, GNT)

Jesus is more marvelous, wonderful, powerful, and awesome than we know. Jesus will take care of us; he will not let his people be destroyed. And, what’s more, he has the power and authority to heal us.

Whenever we truly grasp who Jesus is, and how much he loves us, there is no room for fear, only faith. 

Even though the disciples’ faith was small, Jesus still responded to it with grace because even small faith is faith. Grace is undeserved help. Our Lord helps anyone who approaches him, whether with little faith or big. Our small faith is no obstacle for Jesus in delivering us from the storms of life.

You might be presently experiencing a violent storm in your life. Please know that Jesus can bring peace.

Perhaps you have a besetting sin that dogs you every day. Jesus can deliver you.

It could be that depression follows you like a lost kitten wherever you go. Jesus can bring new life and fresh joy to your life.

Maybe there is an estranged relationship you have lost hope over. Jesus can restore it.

Perchance you think your neighbor, co-worker, or family member is too far from God to ever know Jesus. By now you know the response….

Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus calming the storm

Our expectations of Jesus are much too small! We can pray big prayers because we serve a big and powerful God who has the authority to command even the wind and the waves!

The Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus as the ultimate authority over everything, including powerful storms. Christ uses that authority to bestow grace, even in the face of the smallest of faith in his followers. Jesus cares about people and seeks to deliver them from the dominion of darkness.  

So, may we participate with Jesus in his agenda for this world.

May we submit to his rule and authority.

May we exhibit the same care, compassion, and concern for people as Jesus does.

May we find our faith, especially amidst the worst of situations.

Lord Jesus, Son of God, I believe all things are possible through you; help my unbelief! Take my small and seemingly insignificant faith and use it to calm the storms in my life and demonstrate your authority even over the wind and the waves. Amen.