Deuteronomy 9:1-5 – A Reality Check

Jordan River by Ilan Szekely, 1944

Listen, Israel! Today you will cross the Jordan River to enter and take possession of nations larger and more powerful than you, along with huge cities with fortifications that reach to the sky. These people are large and tall—they are the Anakim. You know and have heard what people say: “Who can stand up to the Anakim?” Know right now that the Lord your God, who is crossing over before you, is an all-consuming fire! He will wipe them out! He will subdue them before you! Then you will take possession of their land, eliminating them quickly, exactly as the Lord told you.

Once the Lord your God has driven them out before you, don’t think to yourself, It’s because I’m righteous that the Lord brought me in to possess this land. It is instead because of these nations’ wickedness that the Lord is removing them before you. You aren’t entering and taking possession of their land because you are righteous or because your heart is especially virtuous; rather, it is because these nations are wicked—that’s why the Lord your God is removing them before you, and because he wishes to establish the promise he made to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Common English Bible)

When my kids were small, I dealt with the issue of sharing, as every parent has to do. Once, two of my girls were fighting over a doll. As I entered the room, one of them quickly said, “She has my doll!” So, I sat her down with me and calmly asked, “Whose doll is it?” “It’s mine!” my daughter cried.

I asked again, “Whose doll is it?” Again, the answer came, “It’s my doll!” I asked yet a third time, “Whose doll is it?” Because this was not our first rodeo together about fighting over dolls and toys, my daughter bowed her head, gave a big sigh, and quietly said, “It’s God’s doll.”

“Yes, it’s God’s doll,” I said. “God is just letting you borrow it for a while and expects you to take good care of it and share his stuff with others.”

Kids often need a reality check of where things come from and who really owns it all. Many times, adults need the very same reality check.

We big people grow up and tend to think we are bigger than we really are. Over the years, we gain misguided notions of our possessions and accomplishments. We believe we did it all through our own skills and character.

Maybe you recognize some of these common notions about our life, work, and ministry:

  • “I worked a long time for my money. I’m not giving it to so-and-so.”
  • My church has a lot of people because we preach the Bible, not like other churches.”
  • “The government takes too much of my hard earned money.”
  • “Here, you can have this couch. I was going to throw it away, anyway. My couch is a nice new one.”
  • “I made a lot of sacrifices for my job. I’m not letting anyone steal my position from me.”
  • “I raised my kids and they’re all doing very well in life. They wouldn’t have made it without me.”
  • “Hey, that’s my yard. Your dog can’t be on it.”
  • “This is my time.”
  • “It’s my car. Don’t touch it.”
  • My way or the highway.”

Those are actual statements Christians have said to me over the years. In their extreme individualism, they believed they were the masters of their own goodness and achievements. In other words, they gave themselves more credit than they really deserved.

A person is proud and selfish not for pursuing their own good but for neglecting their neighbor’s.

It’s far too easy to chalk-up our positions, titles, degrees, jobs, and the good things which come with them as of our own doing. We then believe we are the true owners of all our stuff. Some can even take the next step of believing that if others would just do what I do and think the way I think, then all would be well in the world.

That’s pretty much how Lucifer thought about things. And even after getting cast from heaven, he still exists with the delusion that he didn’t deserve it, as if he were above ever getting treated any other way than like God does.

The reality, however, is that everything and everyone belongs to God. The Lord is the rightful ruler of the universe, and we are not. Every good and perfect thing we have in this life is a gift from a gracious heavenly Father.

Stupidity doesn’t come from a lack of brains or smarts; it’s a result of pride taking over one’s thinking.

Indifference doesn’t have its source in a lack of caring; it comes from believing certain people don’t deserve to have my attention, my stuff, or my time.

Arrogance isn’t an inbred personality trait; it’s the logical end of the successful person’s life who is convinced that everyone ought to adopt their particular set of societal mores, cultural values, political views, and personal disciplines.

Conversely, a person in humble circumstances with little to their name is not necessarily lazy or unwilling to work. And when they have giants in their lives, they can trust the God who specializes in taking down the stupid, the indifferent, and the arrogant.

All things are a gift from the Lord, even the difficult people and hard circumstances we face. They are really opportunities for God to show up and give us precisely what we need.

Everything is a trust from God that we are to steward well, whether it is people, things, or money. They are given to us, not because of any superior spirituality on our part or righteous ingenuity, but because God simply gives it. We have what we have because of God, period.

The appropriate way of stewarding our resources, as well as expressing thanks to God, is through sharing our stuff, our money, our time, and our love with others.

Whose life is it?

We do not presume to come to your Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat and drink that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Psalm 127 – How to View Our Work

Psalm 127:1 by Stushie Art

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
    the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
    and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
    for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the sons of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has
    his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. (New Revised Standard Version)

When my wife was growing up, her family had a prominent portrait of John Wayne in the living room above the television. That picture spoke volumes about the family ethos. They had horses and loved to ride and enjoy the outdoors. Hard work was a daily reality of life, as well as a rugged individualism that often suppressed all else in order to engage in work. 

Doing your best, striving for excellence, and learning responsibility are good things that mature people do every day. Yet, there is a fine line between hard work that provides and enriches, and lonely work that is frenetic and fueled by anxiety about the future.

Today’s psalm gives us a wake-up call. All our work is useless, in vain, unless it is connected to the G-d who gives strength and sweet sleep.

The motives that lie behind why we burn the candle at both ends are just as important to the Lord as the work itself. 

If we independently believe that our life is in our own hands, and we work with worry animating our every job, then we have lost touch with the understanding that it is G-d who ultimately provides us with every good thing in life. 

However, if we begin to relax and let go of our stubborn independent streak, then we work hard with the strength G-d gives and let the Lord watch over us.

Trusting G-d in our work is connected to children being a heritage from the Lord. Children worked with their parents in the ancient world. Fathers and mothers did not go it alone – it was a family affair, as well a community endeavor. 

Whenever we slip into a groove of worshiping individualism rather than simply taking personal responsibility, then we must come back to the inter-dependence that we were designed for as people. 

The ethos the psalmist is looking for is trust in God, reliance on others, and working together for the common good of all. 

Here are a few ways of working together and not carrying the load of work on our own:

Ask for what you want and need to accomplish the task. Whenever we don’t ask, we inevitably go the route of hustling for help through manipulation, guilt, and shaming others.

If someone says, “no,” simply ask another person or persons. Asking once just won’t do. And neither is commanding others to get things done. We have the ability to ask calmly, confidently, and compassionately. Accept the “no” which you might get without retreating back to manipulation. This is especially necessary when it comes to asking family members.

Ask God to help you in your work. Each day as I enter the hospital for which I am a Chaplain, I say a prayer, “God almighty, blessed Father, Son, and Spirit, please go before me, with me, and after me to each patient, their family members, and every team member I encounter today, with the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.”

Delegate, if possible. This is not the same thing as barking orders. It is a realization that we are finite creatures with limitations of time, energy, and resources. It’s okay to share the load with others. In fact, most people are more than willing to help, if you and I will just ask. It enables them to feel needed and important.

Be vulnerable and gracious. We all mess up our work, at times. And it’s important that we are own our mistakes without heaping unnecessary criticism on ourselves, or others. Offering an apology, recognizing that you’ve bit off more than you can chew, and admitting your lack of energy are healthy, not sinful. Also, whenever others fall short of their responsibilities, it’s our job to handle it with grace – seeking to understand and help rather than criticize and judge.

Working together, consulting, collaborating, and engaging in fellowship enable us to speak with those who may oppose, misunderstand, or misinterpret us. It’s also a more joyful way to live.

Sovereign God, you created all things and in you everything holds together. Preserve me with your mighty power that I may not fall into disconnection with you and others, nor be overcome by anxiety. In all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purposes, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

Psalm 33:12-22 – God Is Watching Over Us with Steadfast Love

Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord,
    the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.

The Lord looks down from heaven;
    he sees all humankind.
From where he sits enthroned, he watches
    all the inhabitants of the earth—
he who fashions the hearts of them all,
    and observes all their deeds.
A king is not saved by his great army;
    a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
    and by its great might, it cannot save.

Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
    on those who hope in his steadfast love,
to deliver their soul from death,
    and to keep them alive in famine.

Our soul waits for the Lord;
    he is our help and shield.
Our heart is glad in him,
    because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
    even as we hope in you.
(New Revised Standard Version)

“The light of God surrounds us. The love of God enfolds us. The power of God protects us. And the presence of God watches over us. Wherever we are, God is, and all is well.”

Dwan Abrams

God is in control of the world. I am not. Neither are you. Although the myth of self-sufficiency and self-reliance completely permeates individualist societies, this in no way lessens the immense transcendence and sovereignty of a hugely big God.

In today’s psalm, the scene of God looking down from heaven portrays the Lord as above all, firmly in control, clearly seeing the big picture of the entire world. And yet, attentive to all that is happening on the earth. Individual human creatures subscribing to a narrative of personal independence will inevitably run into the Creator God with a story as big as history itself.

Success may give us the illusion that our own strength, intelligence, and/or ingenuity has brought us the good things we possess – not God. “I worked hard for my money and I will do whatever I want with it!” and the even more crass, “It wasn’t God who put food on my table!” are just a few of the power delusions I have heard from others, as if personal accomplishments are unconnected to any other force in the universe.

What’s more, looking at individualism from the converse angle, our lack of success may cause us to pause and wonder if God is really observing all our deeds, or not. Perhaps the Lord is reclining in his La-z-God chair and watching old baseball game replays of the Angels. More likely, we have become so expectant of satisfactory service and immediate results as consumers in a capitalist culture that we fail to discern the virtue of patience – that God is not slow in keeping his promises as some would understand it.

The sheer fact of the matter is that we need God. And God feels no compulsion from us to be hurried along with divine purposes for humanity. Since God is the ever-present gravity in this world, the way of realizing the good life on this earth is to conform ourselves to the Lord’s purposes, and not the other way around.

When we learn to exercise the inherent gifts of hope and patience which a gracious God has fashioned in our hearts, then we begin to discover persevering trust, enduring happiness, a settled sense of gladness, and steadfast love. We awaken to the true passion of God for us. Rather than a capricious or indifferent deity, the Lord God looks upon us with endearing faithfulness.

God’s heart is forever drawn to us. Therefore, we need not attempt to take all matters into our own hands, as if we are alone in the world. If we can see a vision of God high and lifted-up, observing us with a gaze of delight, then our spirits open to mercy and we find grace to help us in our time of need. The prophet Zephaniah allows us a glimpse into God’s feelings for us:

The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.

Zephaniah 3:17

God labors on our behalf. God has our back. God establishes a safe environment for us. And we must never forget: God delights in you so much that – this very minute – the Lord is singing songs of joy over you. For trust and hope cannot be coerced by another or willed into being by the mind; it can only be generated through the deep conviction of God’s broad love for you and me.

The best self-help program I know of is not self-help at all – it is the self-care of opening to a loving God and allowing God’s joy and delight to fill us. God is watching us, and it is the gaze of adoration, not condemnation.

Dear God, the One who watches all, love comes from you. Anyone who loves is your child and knows you. And anyone who does not love does not know you, for God is love. Thank you for showing me love by sending your one and only Son into the world so that I might have eternal life through him. Dear God, since you loved me that much, I surely ought to love others. May you live in me and may the love of Jesus be brought to full expression in me through the power of the Spirit. Amen.

Amos 8:11-13 – Not Just Some

We all do better when we all do better.

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
    “when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
    but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
People will stagger from sea to sea
    and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
    but they will not find it.

“In that day the lovely young women and strong young men
    will faint because of thirst.
(New International Version)

Global Ears

Christians are presently in the season of Eastertide. It is a time of celebrating resurrection and new life… for all, not just some.

A Christian vision of the world is concerned with the common good of all persons, not just some. God is concerned for the entire planet, not just some of it. The Lord calls people from everywhere, all nations, every ethnicity and race of humanity, not just some.

Somewhere along the line, the people of God began hearing God’s voice, as if it were Charlie Brown’s teacher just saying, “Blah, blah… blah, blah.” Smug in their positions of power, and ever-expanding in their desire for more money and possessions, they stopped up their ears to the cries of the poor, needy, and indigent surrounding them.

Self-Centered Ears

Whenever we cease listening to others, we then construct stories in our heads about why they’re the way they are. “The poor? I’ll tell you why they are poor,” says the person with no significant interaction with anyone struggling in poverty. “Those people are lazy. They don’t like to work. They’re only looking for a free handout. Well, believe you me, they aren’t getting a thing from me! I work hard for what I have,” the satisfied person insists.

Then, with a callous disregard for who and what is right under their noses, the privileged person turns to his wife and says, “What’s for supper?” Food aplenty. Clothing galore. Fresh water with no worries. And no thought to helping fellow humanity with even the dignity of listening to the poor person’s plight.

And God will have none of it from the smug self-justifying person. There won’t be a famine of food. It will be a famine of God’s voice, God’s Word. Those who do not listen will not be listened to.

Individualist Ears

For four-hundred years there was a famine of God’s Word, the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament in Holy Scripture. No voice from God. No divine words for anybody, not just some.

As a human community, what one person or one group of people do, effects everyone else. Our individualism doesn’t like that. We chafe at the thought that other people’s actions influence us.

As a young couple, my wife and I rented an apartment. When I contacted the utility company, they informed me I needed to put an exorbitant amount of money down to begin electrical service in our apartment. It turns out, an older gentleman lived alone in the apartment before us. The neighbors said he always kept all the lights on, and that he had high watt bulbs in everything.

So, when the electric company gave me a figure for a down payment, it was based on the apartment’s average usage over the past year. One man’s single solitary decision about lighting impacted a struggling young couple trying to get through school with a new baby in tow.

Just because we don’t see the impact of our decisions, doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

God sees them all. And he hears the cries of the poor who must fork out the precious little cash they have on things not of their own doing.

Whenever people refuse listening to the poor, the entire human community is at risk of experiencing a famine of God’s speech. That’s for all people, not just some.

Biblical Ears

Scripture says people don’t live on food alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). God’s Word is necessary sustenance, just as much as the need for three square meals a day. Withholding both physical and spiritual resources from others, either through sheer inattention or blatant disregard, damns a society to experiencing famine in the total sense of the word – for all, not just some.

Worshiping at the altar of capitalism or any other economic system is idolatry. Although I do not believe capitalism is inherently bad, it does have a shadow side to it which we need to see and acknowledge. Private ownership is a good thing. Yet, capitalism benefits only some, not all. We have class divisions and unequal access to goods and resources. A few control a lot. However, in the kingdom of God, all benefit, not just some.

Capitalist Ears

Capitalism is a good motivator to work. It is also the best motivator there is for greed. What’s more, people are viewed and treated more as commodities than human beings. We are not “giving units” to be exploited for our labor or our resources. We are persons. So, we need to be treated as such. Operating a sweat shop, failing to pay workers a living wage, and turning a blind eye to safety, just to make an extra buck, comes under the condemnation of Amos’ prophecy.

A capitalist approach really ends up bringing needless complexity and an exorbitant amount of goods and services, rather than a simple lifestyle which can care for people – instead of maintaining a bunch of stuff. The insatiable desire for more only causes deafness to both neighbor and God.

Common Good Ears

Our way of being together as one human family is vital. Even lovely young women and strong young men – people who have everything going for them – will be resource-less without any word from God. That is, unless we take the biblical prophets seriously. Then, perhaps we will squarely face our collective shadow side and seek the words of God so that we can love all our neighbors as ourselves, and not just some of them.

Do we have ears to hear?

Creator God of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. We ask for the grace to see the abundant resources of our world, to have enough awareness of the dark places of our hearts to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear. Give us openness of soul and courageous, willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are hungry and in pain. We intercede on behalf of every person who is hungry for earthly food and hungry for the Word of God. We pray in the name of our compassionate Savior who hears every cry, and not just some. Amen.