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.

The Heart of Giving (Luke 20:45-21:4)

As all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. They will receive a more severe punishment.”

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.” (New English Translation)

Holy Scripture is replete with contrasting characters. A common teaching device of the ancient world, as well as Jesus, was to make clear narrative contrasts between different persons or groups. In the telling of the story, it would be evident that one is virtuous and the other not. In contemporary terms, we refer to such characters in a story as the protagonist and the antagonist.

It is abundantly clear, in today’s Gospel lesson, who is the godly virtuous person and who is not. Jesus is the one who illumined the contrast because it was not evident to the crowd of people.

You often cannot tell a fake by the external appearance. 

A pious religious person on the outside may not necessarily be a genuine Christ follower on the inside. And, conversely, a poor, old, bedraggled person may seem unimpressive on the outside, yet has a lush garden for a soul on the inside.

The religious experts in Christ’s day liked to do things for a show, for the attention. They were important and respected people, desiring and enjoying the accolades of others. They lived to be noticed. 

In reality, however, it was all a façade, a carnival sideshow. The outside and the inside were incongruent to each other. Their very selves were fragmented, not integrated; disparate, not synced together. The false self, displayed for others, hid a darkened true self underneath.

But Jesus saw them inside-and-out. He named the hypocrisy and condemned it.

There is a marked contrast between the rich and respected religious experts and the poor overlooked widow. Whereas the rich men put a wad of money in the temple offering for everyone to see, the impoverished widow put barely anything in. Yet, it was everything she had to give. 

The widow’s outward giving and inward disposition were perfectly matched. She gave everything out of the abundance of her heart. There was integrity, congruence, and a complete synthesis of the inner and outer person.

And Jesus saw her, inside-and-out. He named the genuineness and affirmed it.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of outward eating and drinking and ostentatious displays of spirituality; it is rather a matter of inner righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)

We are to beware of those who do things for a show – who try and appear pious, while on the inside, they only have self-serving agendas. For the hypocrite, giving is more like a business transaction; I give money – you give respect and attention.

Remember that the person who plants few seeds will have a small crop; the one who plants many seeds will have a large crop. You should each give, then, as you have decided, not with regret or out of a sense of duty; for God loves the one who gives gladly. (2 Corinthians 9:6-7, GNT)

But giving is not designed by God to be done so people will admire and see what wonderful Christians we are, or so that others will know that we have done our proper duty. 

If our motive for giving is for others to admire us, then we will likely receive exactly what we want – and nothing more. There will be no reward from God because God isn’t even in the picture.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So, when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4, NIV)

Giving is important and, I believe, needs to happen much more than it does. And there is also much more to the act of giving than placing money in an offering plate, supporting humanitarian causes, or donating resources; it involves the heart and the motives behind it. 

If I give because I want people to see how generous and benevolent I am; or to gain attention and approval; or to let people know how they need to act or change; then I have ceased to truly give. 

If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.

1 Corinthians 13:3, CEB

Let’s call it something else: “The Me Show.” Tuning into “The Me Show” is not good. Giving is not supposed to be a circus with me in the center ring of the big top. Instead, giving is to be a heartfelt, genuine connection with both God and our fellow humanity. If it isn’t this, then we are spiritual clowns who think we need to perform more than we need to steward our God-given resources.

Yet, if we will but aim for the heart, the hands will follow with sincere generosity and grace.

Loving God, my heart longs to worship you with everything I possess. Transform me from the inside-out so that all my thoughts and motives may humbly express my words and actions, to the glory of Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are One God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 79 – Facing Trauma

Raise Up by Hank Willis Johnson in the Nova Southeastern University Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Our God, foreign nations
    have taken your land,
    disgraced your temple,
    and left Jerusalem in ruins.
They have fed the bodies
of your servants
    to flesh-eating birds;
    your loyal people are food
    for savage animals.
All Jerusalem is covered
    with their blood,
    and there is no one left
    to bury them.
Every nation around us
    sneers and makes fun.

Our Lord, will you keep on
    being angry?
    Will your angry feelings
    keep flaming up like fire?
Get angry with those nations
that don’t know you
    and won’t worship you!
They have gobbled down
Jacob’s descendants
    and left the land in ruins.

Don’t make us pay for the sins
    of our ancestors.
    Have pity and come quickly!
    We are completely helpless.
Our God, you keep us safe.
    Now help us! Rescue us.
    Forgive our sins
    and bring honor to yourself.

Why should nations ask us,
    “Where is your God?”
Let us and the other nations
    see you take revenge
    for your servants who died
    a violent death.

Listen to the prisoners groan!
Let your mighty power save all
    who are sentenced to die.
    Each of those nations sneered
    at you, our Lord.
Now let others sneer at them,
    seven times as much.
    Then we, your people,
    will always thank you.
We are like sheep
    with you as our shepherd,
    and all generations
    will hear us praise you. (CEV)

Yes, you are in the right place. No, this is not yesterday’s post. The Revised Common Lectionary Daily Scripture readings include a psalm reading every day. What is more, the same psalm is read three days in a row. This is because psalms are designed to be repeatedly used. So, today, I continue reflecting on this psalm….

The psalmist was full of emotion as he crafted his words. Reflecting on the tragic and horrific takeover of Jerusalem and its destruction, he cried out in spiritual and emotional pain concerning the trashing of God’s temple and Name, and the physical and verbal violence executed on the people. The psalmist wanted the victimization to stop and the victimizers to feel God’s wrath.

This psalm is raw and real, an expression of the true self. Here there is no pie-in-the-sky positive thinking with singing about always looking on the bright side of life. It is agonizing grief in all its misery and disgrace. Thus, therein lies the path to healing: To connect with the true self, refusing the pretensions of the false self, expressing the real lived feelings and thoughts of honest wounds.

Illumination by American sculptor Paige Bradley

The alternative only presses further pain into the soul. The false self, seeking to takeover and make one feel better, engages in a devil’s pact by ignoring the aching spiritual doubt and emotional injury within to have temporary reprieve from the troubled spirit. The road to renewed and lasting happiness comes not through the false self but the true self’s recognition of the event(s) in all their foulness and degradation. It is a hard road to walk, yet we must travel it if we are to live in the light of truth, joy, and peace.

You and I will not find God in the false self. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that, when having experienced trauma, we hustle to obtain something we already possess. We might believe God is not there, or simply does not care. As one becomes alienated from the Lord, there increasingly becomes self-distancing. Disconnected from life-giving divinity, self-loathing gradually replaces self-awareness, and thus, self-compassion.

If at any point, we begin to associate and then fuse self with our traumatic experience(s) then the inner person weakens and becomes detached from the spiritual resources needed to heal. We are not our events. We are people created in God’s image and inherently worthy of love, compassion, kindness, goodness, and healing. We were not made for death and destruction but for life and connection.

The demonic termites of contempt might eat away at our humanity, yet there is always a way to exterminate them – through telling our story, as the psalmist did, with emotional flavor and full honesty. The true self is there; we just might need to dig a little deeper to find her.

So, if you notice that you tend to avoid planning for self-care; engage regularly in self-pity; or, swear at yourself under your breath with self-hatred; then it is high time for the false self to quit calling the shots and to bring up the true self. Internal conflict is not resolved through avoidance; it comes through external voicing of one’s story to another who listens with care.

The psalmist spoke to both God and God’s people. His story came from the gut, the place where both deep loathing and deep compassion come from. If one has already been tortured by a traumatic experience, the torture will continue from the false self unless the true self asserts herself and seeks awareness, mercy, and healing.

Stories are meant to be told. And they need to be uttered when the storyteller is ready and not when the listener is. Through the voicing of their ordeal, victims of human-inflicted suffering need to hear that God is just and will right the wrong things in this world. They need some hope of healing and some assurance that their injury will not go unanswered.

This can be tricky business because the act of proclaiming one’s story and the reception of that message by another might easily become a vengeful justification for intolerance and malicious retribution. Therefore, the psalmist appealed to God, not fellow humans, for justice. We are to leave room for God’s wrath without taking matters into our own hands. (Romans 12:17-21)

So, avoid isolation from God, others, even yourself. Seek help, both divine and human. Tell your story when you are ready. Face the terrible pain. These are the things the psalmist did to deal with his own trauma. The true self acknowledges this and, with full awareness, steps into the future with faith.

Lord Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As I go through the trials of life, help me to realize that you are with me at all times and in all things; that I have no secrets from you; and that your loving grace enfolds me for eternity. In the security of your embrace I pray. Amen.

Ephesians 5:1-6 – Follow the Way of Love

Love sculpture

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure, or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (NIV)

Humanity is loved and is therefore meant to love one another as the ultimate rule and guide of life. Just as God loves, so we are to do the same. We are to mimic divine love in our daily lives. The healthiest of relationships are characterized by a continual dynamic of giving love and receiving love. Failing to submit to this basic rule of life leaves one exposed to the gravity of God’s wrath – which exists as the extension of God’s love to put a stop to unloving words and actions in the world.

Unfortunately, as a hospital chaplain and church pastor, I daily see the sad effects of individuals who have experienced a paucity of love and, so, have taken on a false self to try and find love in all the wrong places – with damaging consequences.

Three inappropriate unloving ways of acting are mentioned in today’s New Testament lesson:

  • Sexual immorality is the illegitimate attempt to get the legitimate need for erotic love met without any strings attached. It is a misguided belief that one-night stands and clandestine trysts will protect against being too committed to another and getting hurt.
  • Impurity is any other illicit, illegal, or improper kind of behavior toward others which tries to do the same thing as immorality: Seeking to meet legitimate needs in an illegitimate way – to turn a trick for love, trying to avoid emotional, spiritual, or even physical pain.
  • Greed is an insatiable pursuit of addictive behavior meant to numb or stuff all the unwanted emotions which reside deep in the soul because of engaging in the immoral or impure actions.

Three inappropriate unloving words of speaking are mentioned:

  • Obscenity is filthy speech which is a cover for the agonizing unmet needs of love deep within the human heart. Obscene words are nothing more than verbal sexual immorality. They are a twisted attempt at trying to give and get loving words in an illicit manner.
  • Foolish talk, much like impurity, is any other illicit or improper words crafted to manipulate or cajole another. It is the hustle for love. The original Greek word means literally “to talk like a moron,” that is, a person who lacks sound judgment.
  • Coarse joking is crude and addictive speech, much like greed, envy, and coveting, which verbally trolls for love without unveiling any real feelings.

The antidote to all these baseless actions and distasteful words is to realize the true self, created by God, through receiving the love of God and of others with thanksgiving. Within genuine loving relationships, people can express their legitimate needs to each other and satisfy one another. Yet, with the false self, there is secrecy, hiding, and massive amounts of shame.

Love opens us to all that is good and beautiful. Love also opens us to the possibility of devastating hurt and loss. It is when we try to obtain the good and beautiful while trying to build walls of protection against potential pain that we get in trouble. The sinister tools we must use to try and get that impossible job done are manipulation and control with both verbal and physical immorality.

There is no true and authentic love apart from openness and vulnerability. Cheap imitations of love will only lead to hopeless despair. The late C.S. Lewis once wrote:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

The way of love is the way of Christ. Imitating his example of a holy life, compassionate service, helpful speech, and healing actions with a humble heart of gratitude is to be our guide, rule, and direction in life. It is to realize our true selves and nudge the world just a bit closer back to Eden.

O Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son our God, give us the love which never ceases so that our hearts will be enlightened and always burning with holy passion for the common good of all. O Christ, our loving Savior, set our souls aflame so that they may shine brightly with the warmth and glow of unquenchable divine love, and lessen the darkness of the world. Lord Jesus, we pray, give us the light of your love so that we might always see you, desire you, look on you in love, and long after you. Blessed Holy Spirit, send the fire of your love and empower us for loving service so that we may emulate and follow the example of our loving Lord, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.