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.

Matthew 9:27-34 – How To Use Your Faith

Jesus healing two blind men, 11th century mosaic, Sicily

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”

“Yes, Lord,” they replied.

Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region.

While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” (New International Version)

Every day the news is a steady stream of disease, death, war, and outright human suffering. It’s as if the phrase, “slow news cycle,” is a thing of the past.

As we stare into the face of trouble, I find myself uttering the ancient prayer of the Church: “Lord have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord have mercy and grant us your peace.” 

We collectively feel the weight of the world’s suffering, experience the heaviness of concern for family and friends, and perhaps wonder how much more people can take.

It’s in the topsy-turvy times that I come back again and again to the deep spiritual convictions which inform what I do each day. One of those underlying creeds and affirmations is this:

Jesus is trustworthy, no matter whether my faith or the faith of others is small or great.

In our Gospel lesson for today, two blind men were healed according to their faith in Jesus. The diverse healing accounts of Jesus in the New Testament, whether the faith was large or small in those healed, leads me to the conclusion that:

It isn’t faith itself that heals, saves, or transforms – it is Jesus.

All the healing accounts in the New Testament Gospels have something in common: They all directly point to Jesus as the object of faith. 

It isn’t about the level or amount of faith, but about where the faith is placed. 

For the Christian, faith itself doesn’t mean much if it isn’t in Jesus.

If I place a large and sincere faith in an inanimate object such as money; in a position of power; or, even in my own independence, my faith isn’t worth much. 

If I have a huge faith in a doctor or a psychiatrist to heal my body or my mind, I will quickly discover there are limits to their abilities. 

If I have a confident faith that my family will meet all my needs, my faith will eventually run into failure when they let me down. That’s because the ultimate object of faith is Jesus. 

If all my faith eggs are in the church basket, my faith will eventually face a crisis because it is a misplaced faith.  Furthermore, the answer I provide for others is not simply getting them to attend church or to adopt my moral code.

There should be a consistency that runs through us all. For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.

Hebrews 13:8, MSG

We know with certainty that circumstances change, as everyday seems to bring new levels and permutations of unprecedented alterations to our lives – and through it all, Jesus remains as the ever-present Savior, seated at the right hand of God ceaselessly interceding on behalf of those who offer even the slightest mustard seed of faith.

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Jesus (Matthew 17:20-21, NRSV)

It says something about our modern Western society that whenever we hear the words of Jesus on faith that we interpret the mountain moving as an immediate event that happens almost instantaneous, like a snap of the finger. Yet, there is nothing in those words that says that. There is also nothing that says an individual necessarily does it.

The fact of the matter is this: Jesus heals, transforms, and delivers people from sickness, sin, trouble, and overwhelming circumstances in his own good time, not ours.

Just because we pray without ceasing for days, weeks, months, and even years for something doesn’t mean we lack faith if the prayer isn’t answered immediately. It could be that God wants others involved, maybe even across generations, for the impossible mountain to be moved.

It is misplaced faith which expects microwave results. Faith placed appropriately in Jesus as the object of belief discerns that faithful prayer is consistently prayed until there is an answer.

Healing and restoration will happen – just maybe not always how or when we think it will.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep me both outwardly in my body and inwardly in my soul, that I may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Habakkuk 3:2-15 – Coming to Grips with Injustice

Statue of the Prophet Habakkuk, by Donatello c.1425 in Florence, Italy

I know your reputation, Lord,
and I am amazed
    at what you have done.
Please turn from your anger
    and be merciful;
do for us what you did
    for our ancestors.

You are the same Holy God
who came from Teman
    and Paran to help us.
The brightness of your glory
    covered the heavens,
and your praises were heard
    everywhere on earth.
Your glory shone like the sun,
and light flashed from your hands,
    hiding your mighty power.
Dreadful diseases and plagues
marched in front
    and followed behind.
When you stopped,
    the earth shook;
when you stared,
    nations trembled;
when you walked
    along your ancient paths,
eternal mountains and hills
    crumbled and collapsed.
The tents of desert tribes
in Cushan and Midian
    were ripped apart.

Our Lord, were you angry
with the monsters
    of the deep?
You attacked in your chariot
    and wiped them out.
Your arrows were ready
    and obeyed your commands.

You split the earth apart
    with rivers and streams;
mountains trembled
    at the sight of you;
rain poured from the clouds;
    ocean waves roared and rose.
The sun and moon stood still,
while your arrows and spears
    flashed like lightning.

In your furious anger,
    you trampled on nations
to rescue your people
    and save your chosen one.
You crushed a nation’s ruler
and stripped his evil kingdom
    of its power.
His troops had come like a storm,
hoping to scatter us
    and glad to gobble us down.
To them we were refugees
    in hiding—
but you smashed their heads
    with their own weapons.
Then your chariots churned
    the waters of the sea. (Contemporary English Version)

“Willfulness must give way to willingness and surrender. Mastery must yield to mystery.”

Gerald G. May

Tucked away in the Old Testament is the little prophecy of Habakkuk. Yet it packs a punch of a message. 

The prophet was distressed over the corruption of his people, Israel. So, he complained to God about it. God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to sinful Israel through the pagan Babylonians.

This was not what Habakkuk expected. The prophet grumbled even more about the fact that the Babylonians were much more evil than the Israelites. The Babylonians needed judgment, too! (Habakkuk 1:2-17)

Today’s Old Testament lesson is Habakkuk’s struggle to come to terms with what God was doing. He remembered the Lord’s mighty deeds and miraculous actions from the past. God brought justice to Israel and judged the powerful Egyptians.

It seems that Habakkuk wanted God to make right the corruption of Israel, but not to do it in the same way that pagan nations are handled.

“The most difficult thing I have ever had to do is follow the guidance I prayed for.”

Albert Schweitzer

We all must come to grips with the cost of justice, of truly making things right and turning corruption and oppression around. Sometimes, maybe most times, implementing justice will impact everyone in an adverse way. For there is no realistic scenario in which someone gets to call for justice, then doesn’t have to live with the consequences – even if that someone isn’t culpable for the unjust actions.

You see, we are all inextricably connected to one another. We are of the same human family. We truly are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We don’t get to shout or throw rocks from a distance and have everything magically change with no cost to us, personally.

It took the prophet Habakkuk awhile, but he finally resolved to live without having any closure. Instead, he took the stance of faith that he had always taken. Because when all is said and done, whether we like a particular outcome, or not, we must all live by faith, trusting in the sovereign God who always does what is right.

And here is the conclusion the prophet settled upon:

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NIV)

Even though the circumstances were bad, and got worse, even dire, yet the prophet chose to rejoice in the Lord. He took the path of radical trust through suffering and hardship.

One of the most significant faith experiences we can ever have is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. 

The truth is that the believer’s joy and spiritual security is independent of what is going on around them. Even though situations might be difficult, even evil, the faithful can still rejoice because they do not need everything to go their way in order to experience happiness.

Joy is neither cheap, nor easy. Total trust in God can only really come through a serious and open engagement, even argument, with God. And the place of contentment comes from a consistent, persevering, and constant interaction with God – just like Habakkuk did.

O Lord, we are at the limits of our power to effect any sort of change, help, or service. For what we have left undone, forgive us. For what you have helped us to do, we thank you. For what must be done by others, lend your strength. Now shelter us in your peace which passes our understanding. Amen.

Psalm 27 – Wait…

Psalm 27:4 painting by Marguerite Moreau McCarthy

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
    they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
    yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
    be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, do I seek.
    Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
    you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
    O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord! (New Revised Standard Version)

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

Arnold H. Glasow

The Christian season of Lent is a time of waiting…. Believers patiently wait for Easter and the resurrection of the Lord. But there must be a crucifixion before there is a resurrection. There must be suffering before there is glory. Truncating the process of spiritual development, including the hard circumstances of life, will stunt our growth.

So, we need to wait for the Lord….

But, dang it, waiting is hard! Patience is especially difficult whenever we are experiencing hardship and difficulty. We already know that praying for patience is problematic; we end up getting plenty of opportunities to exercise patience and may feel like we’re worse off than before. So, what do we do?

The way to wait patiently is through hope. And hope is a reality which needs to be continually fortified.

Whatever we long to see realized…

the return of a wayward son or daughter…

revitalization and revival within the church…

courage to face the high wall of adversity…

protection and deliverance from mean-spirited people…

an end to pandemic…

freedom from racism and injustice…

healing from chronic pain…

enough finances to make our budget budge…

whatever the situation we long for, patience is to be our breakfast every morning to help us through each day, living one day at a time, putting one foot forward.

Apart from patience, faith, and hope in God, we will lose our spiritual zeal and settle for a mediocre existence with tepid relationships and lukewarm engagement of the world. 

God desires more for us…

than simply having a marriage in which two people only exist under the same roof…

for church to be more than buildings, budgets, and butts in the pews…

for our work to be more than a necessary evil to make a living…

for our lives to be more than fear, worry, and anxiety…

for much more than broken dreams, messed up relationships, and situations gone sideways.

The confident expectation of hope neither eliminates trouble from our lives nor magically makes everything better.

Deep faith, like the psalmist expressed, does not change or alter reality – but it does change us.

The way in which we view and handle our troubles is understood differently through the filter of faith and the lens of hope.

The mammoth adversity in our lives is no longer feared because of settled trust in God; the danger which lurks about has no teeth to hold us when we are secure in the Lord.

The actions believers take toward God amidst the fallen nature of this world are to wait and hope, to be strong and take courage. It is precisely when we are totally discombobulated that faith and confident expectation kick in and take effect.

Our faith leads us to confess:

I believe the Lord is the Light which keeps me safe and illumines my path.

I believe the Lord is my Fortress, a castle to protect me.

I believe the Lord is an Army surrounding me, defending my life.

I believe the Lord is the Rock of my salvation, keeping me secure.

I believe the Lord is a Parent who holds me close and does not let go.

I believe the Lord is the right and good Judge, always extending grace and mercy to me.

I believe the Lord is Healer, oftentimes healing me from the need to be healed.

Therefore:

I have confidence and courage to engage the world, knowing God has my back.

I have confidence God will handle malevolent persons, systemic evil, and sinister forces on my behalf.

I have confidence I can approach God, since God’s character is always gracious and loving.

I have confidence to pray with authority, understanding God is the Sovereign of the universe.

I have confidence better days are ahead, that the Christ is soon coming.

I have confidence God bends to attentively listen to me praying.

I have confidence God is neither angry at me nor hidden from me.

I have confidence God shall lead me, guide me, and teach me in the way I ought to go.

I have confidence knowing that God has my best interests in mind.

Rather than losing heart, we can be strengthened with solid theology. Making daily affirmations of faith, persevering in hope, and performing small acts of love are our daily tasks while we wait and watch….

Almighty and everlasting God, the One who sees, knows, and protects, by the power of your Holy Spirit, you are refining us, purifying our discipleship, pulling us into following Jesus in this scary new world of uncertainty. Grant us mercy and grace to trust you more deeply, for the only secure place is with you, our light and our salvation, the stronghold of our life. We pray in the name of Jesus, the first-born of your new creation, and our hope, our life. Amen.