Obey with Integrity and Love (Psalm 15)

God, who gets invited
    to dinner at your place?
How do we get on your guest list?

 “Walk straight,
    act right,
        tell the truth.

“Don’t hurt your friend,
    don’t blame your neighbor;
        despise the despicable.

“Keep your word even when it costs you,
    make an honest living,
        never take a bribe.

“You’ll never get
blacklisted
if you live like this.” (The Message)

Nearly all of us had to work hard to get good grades in school. Each schoolyear began with a blank slate; then, what we did with learning the lessons determined the grade.

So, it’s unthinkable for many of us to consider that we all begin God’s school with A’s. We’re all 4.0 students. There’s only a lower grade if we neglect to do the things necessary as an A student. And, as it turns out, the most important things are a matter of basic human kindness and respect for others.

At the end-of-the-year banquet, awards are given. If we’ve done what’s expected, then the invitation to come to the front and receive the award is assured.

Yet, if anyone has gone out of their way to be deliberately stupid and ignore what’s right, then they aren’t going to show up at the banquet. They’ll dismiss it as a waste of their time and blabber about how they don’t be around a bunch do-gooder pricks and Abe Lincoln’s, blah-blah-blah.

Integrity, honesty, kindness, accountability, and commitment matter. Virtue shows itself through the practice of obedience.

We might get hung up on obedience for a few reasons:

  1. Many Westerners, especially Americans, have a strong anti-authoritarian strain; obedience smacks them as something negative. For some, they would rather stick-it-to-the-man than obey. Even Christians might sacralize their disobedience by linking obedience to law – as if gospel and obedience are antithetical.
  2. A lot of people have been personally hurt because they tried to do the right thing by obeying their authorities, but it ended badly. Now, they aren’t so sure about the whole obedience thing.
  3. We just plain don’t want anyone else telling us what to do and not do; and that includes not wanting to obey God. So, we focus on the freedom to do what we want, to the exclusion of obedience.

Yet, there’s no way to get around the pervasive reality of obedience to Torah, to Yahweh. Obedience is both the glue which holds a people together, as well as the major means of expressing love to God and others.

Jesus said, “If you love me, obey my commandments.” (John 14:15, NLT)

Love and obedience go together in Holy Scripture like a hand in a glove. Jesus insisted that upholding Torah and loving others is by obedience to divine commands.

When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness. These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).

Obedient believers are characterized by their:

  • Authentic humility
  • Deep concern over sin, to the point of tears
  • Gentle and meek spirit toward others
  • Intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice
  • Daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking
  • Willingness to accept adversity as part of the spiritual life

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)

Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment of head, heart, and gut – with the glue of obedient love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and faith – because God is Lord of it all, not just the spiritual parts.

Historic confessional Christianity acknowledges that obedience is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.

Believers consider it a both a high charge and a wonderful privilege to love the Lord with a life devoted to obeying divine commands.

It’s just that sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when God’s Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what the Lord is doing in this world. 

At other times, we read scriptural commands and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or grief. 

Then there are times in which we are attentive to God’s Word and Spirit, seeking to obey – only to mess up and fail at it. It can leave us wondering if God could ever really do anything in or through us.

The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails.

We are here on this earth because of how much the Lord is devoted to us. Even though we often walk the spiritual road in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, God accommodates to our weakness. 

So, we keep learning the ways of the Lord under the tutelage of God’s Spirit – who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Blessed God, I seek not my own will but to fulfill your will in my everyday life. Enable me and strengthen me for this sacred duty and delight, in the power of your Spirit. Amen.

I Am Sending You (Judges 6:11-24)

The Messenger of the Lord came and sat under the oak tree in Ophrah that belonged to Joash from Abiezer’s family. Joash’s son Gideon was beating out wheat in a winepress to hide it from the Midianites. The Messenger of the Lord appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with you, brave man.”

Gideon responded, “Excuse me, sir! But if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all the miracles our ancestors have told us about? Didn’t they say, ‘The Lord brought us out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and has handed us over to Midian.”

The Lord turned to him and said, “You will rescue Israel from Midian with the strength you have. I am sending you.”

Gideon said to him, “Excuse me, sir! How can I rescue Israel? Look at my whole family. It’s the weakest one in Manasseh. And me? I’m the least important member of my family.”

The Lord replied, “I will be with you. You will defeat Midian as if it were only one man.”

Gideon said to him, “If you find me acceptable, give me a sign that it is really you speaking to me. Don’t leave until I come back. I want to bring my gift and set it in front of you.”

“I will stay until you come back,” he said.

Then Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened bread made with 18 quarts of flour. He put the meat in a basket and the broth in a pot. Then he went out and presented them to the Messenger of the Lord under the oak tree.

The Messenger of the Lord told him, “Take the meat and the unleavened bread, put them on this rock, and pour the broth over them.” Gideon did so. Then the Messenger of the Lord touched the meat and the bread with the tip of the staff that was in his hand. Fire flared up from the rock and burned the meat and the bread. Then the Messenger of the Lord disappeared. That’s when Gideon realized that this had been the Messenger of the Lord. So he said, “Lord God! I have seen the Messenger of the Lord face to face.”

The Lord said to him, “Calm down! Don’t be afraid. You will not die.” So Gideon built an altar there to the Lord. He called it The Lord Calms. To this day it is still in Ophrah, which belongs to Abiezer’s family. (God’s Word Translation)

Today’s story is familiar in more ways than one. It’s a typical interaction between the Lord and the individual. And it’s also the typical way people respond to God, even now in our contemporary world.

Notice how the interaction between the Lord and Gideon unfolds:

The message: The Lord is with you. You are brave.

The pushback: It doesn’t look like the Lord is with our people (and a purposeful ignoring of the bravery thing).

The message: The Lord is sending you (and a purposeful ignoring of the pushback).

The pushback: I’m too weak for that.

The message: The Lord is with you. You got this.

The pushback: It can’t be me. Give me sign.

The message: I will stay. I am with you.

The pushback: I am not acceptable. Here’s an offering.

The message: Chill, dude. You’re wound way too tight. I am with you. You got this.

The acceptance of the message: Here’s an altar to remind me that God is here, and God calms my fear.

Sound familiar? How many times have you had a similar sort of interaction with the Lord?

The message: “Don’t be afraid. The Lord is with you. You have everything you need.” (assurance and reassurance)

The pushback: “Huh!? If I had everything I need, why are my circumstances so hard? Every time I turn around, there’s another adversity staring me in the face!” (ignoring the presence of God)

The message: “Go and make disciples. Love God. Love your neighbor.” (ignoring the bunny trail)

The pushback: “I’m the least gifted person in the world to be doing that sort of ministry.” (goes off point)

The message: “I am with you always until the end of time.” (stays on point)

The pushback: “It can’t be me. Give me a sign.” (i.e. I can’t accept myself, so there’s no way that you do!)

The message: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” (a demonstration of the presence)

The pushback: “I’m not the acceptable person for this… Here, I’ll put something in the offering plate.” (having a hard time wrapping head and heart around God’s grace)

The message: “You are anxious and upset about a great many things. I am with you. You got this.” (still remains on point)

The acceptance of the message: “Here I am, Lord, a living sacrifice.” (now on the same page with the Lord)

Christian ministry is not the absence of doubt or fear; it is doing what the Lord calls us to do, despite the surrounding circumstances.

We are never promised anywhere in Holy Scripture that life will be a bowl of cherries, that somehow circumstances will always be smooth. Instead, we are continually reminded of the promise that God is with us.

It’s the presence of the Lord that makes all the difference. Our abilities, or lack thereof, have nothing to do with the equation. We are already in the image and likeness of God, created with the inner resources to do the will of God.

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have everything I need. (Psalm 23:1, GNT)

We have everything we need to live a life that pleases God. It was all given to us by God’s own power. (2 Peter 1:3, CEV)

You already have God’s acceptance; you don’t need to earn it.

“I now realize that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis. Those who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to him, no matter what race they belong to.” (Acts 10:34-35, GNT)

When God promised Abraham and his descendants that the world would belong to him, he did so, not because Abraham obeyed the Law, but because he believed and was accepted as righteous by God. (Romans 4:13, GNT)

Honor God by accepting each other, as Christ has accepted you. (Romans 15:7, CEV)

There’s a lot we don’t know. Yet, what we do know is that God is with us and God has accepted us. And that’s all we need to hang our hat on.

Shining the Light on Fear (Psalm 27:1-6)

The Lord is my light and my salvation.
        Should I fear anyone?
    The Lord is a fortress protecting my life.
        Should I be frightened of anything?
When evildoers come at me trying to eat me up—
    it’s they, my foes and my enemies,
    who stumble and fall!
If an army camps against me,
        my heart won’t be afraid.
    If war comes up against me,
        I will continue to trust in this:
    I have asked one thing from the Lord—
    it’s all I seek:
        to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,
        seeing the Lord’s beauty
        and constantly adoring his temple.
Because he will shelter me in his own dwelling
    during troubling times;
    he will hide me in a secret place in his own tent;
        he will set me up high, safe on a rock.

Now my head is higher than the enemies surrounding me,
    and I will offer sacrifices in God’s tent—
        sacrifices with shouts of joy!
    I will sing and praise the Lord. (Common English Bible)

Being afraid of the dark is a common fear. After all, whenever we cannot see anything around us, then we don’t know what’s really there – and that’s understandably frightening for most people. Typically, it’s not what we see that’s so scary; the scary stuff is what our imagination conjures up that’s out there in the dark, which we cannot see.

Kids, with their curiously active imaginations, tend to be fearful of the dark – which is why we parents, and grandparents, ensure there’s a nightlight for them so they can sleep. The light illumines their surroundings, reminding them of where they are; the light also helps them remember that we are with them.

As children of God, we need the same reminders. We must continually check-in with our internal selves, reorienting our lives around the reality that the Lord is present, that Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

Having the Light of the World surrounding us provides confidence that God is watching and will save us from whatever threatens our life. Indeed, being immersed in the Lord helps us snuggle down and realize our ultimate security blanket holds us tight.

Not only do we have confidence with God’s presence, but we are also fearless in the face of the most adverse and scary of circumstances. Knowing that God has our back enables us to accept, cope, and transcend overwhelming situations.

God protects because God is present.

Admittedly, we don’t have all the answers as to why the Lord sometimes seems absent in the midst of our trouble. That’s maybe because God is a Being, a Person, and not an insurance policy. Ultimately, personal presence and protection is a whole lot better than the impersonal and legal sort.

Which is why it’s important to delight in the Lord, to enjoy being in God’s house, to bask in the beauty of divine holiness, righteousness, and justice. With this as our way of life, we tend to better understand that not everything is necessarily going to go right but that the Lord is alongside us, giving strength and hope.

It’s important to note that divergent emotions can be held together. Many folks tend to believe that if there is fear within the heart, then faith, courage, and praise cannot exist. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The more likely scenario is that trying to suppress feelings of fear only results in becoming more afraid; thus, leading to forced or manufactured praise with little to no bravery behind it.

Instead, the sage thing to do is acknowledge whatever emotions bubble up for us. That is our inner spirit’s way of alerting us that we must pay attention to something. Ignoring the fear makes the monster under the bed more fearsome.

Being aware of the emotion and acknowledging it brings options and choices. Getting it out there to actually feel it means that now we can choose what we’re going to do with the emotion. Hiding the fear only gives it power; naming the fear gives us control over it.

This is one reason why I believe it is significant to read the psalms out loud; it provides more fortitude in dealing with what’s in front of us.

Holding both our fears and our faith together enables us to face our troubles with wisdom and courage. If attacked – whether it be spiritual, emotional, mental, or physical – the worst thing to do is grin and bear it or plaster a fake smile on your face.

It’s okay to be conflicted, to wonder what the heck is going on, to not know what’s up or down, to live with the seeming incongruence of emotions.

Healing comes through feeling, speaking, and acting – and not by suppressing emotions, keeping words bottled up inside, and acting as though everything is peachy keen when it isn’t. Expressing words of trust in the Lord, without having first expressed words describing our emotions, is a fool’s errand. If we trust God to answer a prayer, then we also need to trust God in hearing our real emotions.

God encourages honesty, sincerity, and feeling; the Lord disparages ingenuine offerings of praise and inauthentic gestures merely meant to fake-it-till-you-make-it. The psalmist encourages us to express all our emotions – whether “positive” or “negative” – and find the empathy, solidarity, and healing we need.

God is our light. So, let’s not keep him in the dark about our real selves.

Let It Out (Isaiah 51:1-16)

If you want to do right
and obey the Lord,
    follow Abraham’s example.
He was the rock from which
    you were chipped.
God chose Abraham and Sarah
    to be your ancestors.
The Lord blessed Abraham,
and from that one man
    came many descendants.

Though Zion is in ruins,
    the Lord will bring comfort,
and the city will be as lovely
as the garden of Eden
    that he provided.
Then Zion will celebrate;
it will be thankful
    and sing joyful songs.

The Lord says:
You are my people and nation!
    So pay attention to me.
My teaching will cause justice
to shine like a light
    for every nation.
Those who live across the sea
are eagerly waiting
    for me to rescue them.
I am strong and ready;
soon I will come to save
    and to rule all nations.

Look closely at the sky!
    Stare at the earth.
The sky will vanish like smoke;
the earth will wear out
    like clothes.
Everyone on this earth
    will die like flies.
But my victory will last;
my saving power never ends.

If you want to do right
    and obey my teaching
with all your heart,
    then pay close attention.
Don’t be discouraged
when others insult you
    and say hurtful things.
They will be eaten away
    like a moth-eaten coat.
But my victory will last;
my saving power
    will never end.

Wake up! Do something, Lord.
    Be strong and ready.
Wake up! Do what you did
    for our people long ago.
Didn’t you chop up
    Rahab the monster?
Didn’t you dry up the deep sea
and make a road for your people
    to follow safely across?
Now those you have rescued
will return to Jerusalem,
    singing on their way.
They will be crowned
    with great happiness,
never again to be burdened
    with sadness and sorrow.

I am the Lord, the one
    who encourages you.
Why are you afraid
    of mere humans?
They dry up and die like grass.

I spread out the heavens
and laid foundations
    for the earth.
But you have forgotten me,
    your Lord and Creator.
All day long you were afraid
of those who were angry
    and hoped to oppress you.
Where are they now?

Everyone crying out in pain
    will be quickly set free;
they will be rescued
from the power of death
    and never go hungry.
I will help them
    because I am your God,
the Lord All-Powerful,
    who makes the ocean roar.

I have told you what to say,
and I will keep you safe
    in the palm of my hand.
I spread out the heavens
and laid foundations
    for the earth.
Now I say, “Jerusalem,
    your people are mine.” (Contemporary English Version)

“There will always be fear; do it anyway. Let your courage inspire the world around you.”

Steve Maraboli

Courageous, brave, bold, and strong – it seems most people do not characterize themselves this way. I suppose it makes some kind of sense in our minds as to why this is: Every one of us can readily recall a time or several events in which we wilted with fear; did not speak up; or were not assertive. 

The many conversations we will never have that take place in our heads are testament to our supposed withdrawal in the face of adversity. In other words, we have far too many discussions with ourselves of how something should have gone and way 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. Getting bullied, even as adults, may easily cause us 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 at work, at home, or at school, we may wonder if we really have the internal stuff to pull it off.  We feel that maybe someone else would be better suited to do it. When given an unwanted medical diagnosis, it might feel as if it is way above our emotional pay grade. It’s not only the added hard situations of life that make us look fearful; it is the crippling losses that can leave us feeling anything but strong and brave.

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? 

You only need to let it out. You must release the words and resilience already given to you by the One who holds you in the hollow of his hand.

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.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Deuteronomy 31:6, 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)

Believe it, or not, the Bible tells us 365 times to not be afraid. Maybe that’s not a coincidence that we can quote a verse every day of the year about our own fearfulness in the face of so much of life’s cruel junk.

Yet, the tack I want you to take in the great litany of fear we daily face is that bravery is not something that is so much commanded as it is a calling forth of something which is already within you.

Now, before you go thinking I’m some strange spiritual huckster, hear me out. From the beginning of the world, God created by calling forth from within himself. What I mean is this: God did not simply command everything into being; instead, God said, “Let there be…”  Thus, letting out what was already there within God’s very Being.

I also find it interesting that when it comes to fear and bravery God does not so much command us to be courageous, as calls 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 who 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)

When I say that you are brave, you are strong, 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 actually 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? 

That seems to be the million dollar question. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you already know the answer to this. Yes, you possess the answers to your own questions. You have all the knowledge you need to face your problems.  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. 

So, I’m not going to give you a simple three-step process out of fear and into courage 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.