Psalm 73:21-28 – God Is Near

When my thoughts were bitter
    and my feelings were hurt,
I was as stupid as an animal;
    I did not understand you.
Yet I always stay close to you,
    and you hold me by the hand.
You guide me with your instruction
    and at the end you will receive me with honor.
What else do I have in heaven but you?
    Since I have you, what else could I want on earth?
My mind and my body may grow weak,
    but God is my strength;
    he is all I ever need.

Those who abandon you will certainly perish;
    you will destroy those who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, how wonderful to be near God,
    to find protection with the Sovereign Lord
    and to proclaim all that he has done! (Good News Translation)

Sometimes we put our foot in our mouth. We know how it feels saying rash words that we later regret. And we also know what it feels like to get dumped on by another who has some choice words for us.

The psalmist, Asaph, records an encounter with God. Asaph was upset. He gave God a piece of his mind. Then later, after reflecting on the experience, Asaph admitted that his soul was embittered and let his base nature take over.

The human brain is a complicated organ. We process information in different parts of the brain. The neo-cortex (the rational part of the brain) allows us to engage in logical analysis and complex decision making. 

Another part, the limbic system (sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain”) processes information very quickly, largely by instinct. When we become scared, surprised, upset, or angry, adrenaline gets pumped into our limbic system so that we can quickly react to the perceived threat, danger, or injustice.

Having our brains flooded with adrenaline when there is real danger is necessary. There are life-threatening circumstances in which we need that quick response. Yet, if our brains remain on high alert and are continually fearful and upset, even when there is no real problem, we don’t calm down, and the result is less than stellar behavior. 

So, what is the answer to this situation? Asaph said God holds his right hand and guides him with wise counsel. Being near to God brings the brain chemistry to appropriate levels so that we can relax and trust.

God is with us always in the person of the Holy Spirit. There is never a time, place, or situation where God is absent. As we learn to rely on God’s presence, and remind ourselves of it on a daily basis, we can restore more rational thoughts to our lives. We can live knowing God is in control and continually vigilant to watch over us.

Gracious God, I have no one in my life like you. My flesh and my heart may fail, my brain might become overwhelmed with irrational fears, but you are my strength and the Rock of my salvation. Thank you for your continual provision and help each day through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.

Psalm 11 – Fight, Flight, or Faith

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Lord is my fortress!
    Don’t say to me,
    “Escape like a bird
    to the mountains!”
You tell me, “Watch out!
Those evil people
    have put
    their arrows on their bows,
and they are standing
in the shadows,
    aiming at good people.
What can an honest person do
    when everything crumbles?”

The Lord is sitting
in his sacred temple
    on his throne in heaven.
He knows everything we do
    because he sees us all.
The Lord tests honest people,
but despises those
    who are cruel
    and love violence.
He will send fiery coals
and flaming sulfur
    down on the wicked,
and they will drink nothing
    but a scorching wind.

The Lord always does right
    and wants justice done.
    Everyone who does right
    will see his face. (Contemporary English Version)

Part of the human condition is that we will eventually take the brunt of someone’s poison darts. And it’s scary. In our state of fear, and sometimes panic, will we fight, flight, or faith?

Fight, Flight, or Freeze by Qieer Wang

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.

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.

“Pray, and let God do the worrying.”

Martin Luther

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 just 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 heave 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 assuring 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.

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

Corrie Ten Boom

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. In the hands of God rest the outcome of every life on earth. 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 never alone. May the Lord be 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.

2 Samuel 15:13-31 – Unflagging Trust

Stained glass of King David, Fringford, England church

A messenger came and told David, “The hearts of the people of Israel are with Absalom.”

Then David said to all his officials who were with him in Jerusalem, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom. We must leave immediately, or he will move quickly to overtake us and bring ruin on us and put the city to the sword.”

The king’s officials answered him, “Your servants are ready to do whatever our lord the king chooses.”

The king set out, with his entire household following him; but he left ten concubines to take care of the palace. So, the king set out, with all the people following him, and they halted at the edge of the city. All his men marched past him, along with all the Kerethites and Pelethites; and all the six hundred Gittites who had accompanied him from Gath marched before the king.

The king said to Ittai the Gittite, “Why should you come along with us? Go back and stay with King Absalom. You are a foreigner, an exile from your homeland. You came only yesterday. And today shall I make you wander about with us when I do not know where I am going? Go back and take your people with you. May the Lord show you kindness and faithfulness.”

But Ittai replied to the king, “As surely as the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether it means life or death, there will your servant be.”

David said to Ittai, “Go ahead, march on.” So Ittai the Gittite marched on with all his men and the families that were with him.

The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by. The king also crossed the Kidron Valley, and all the people moved on toward the wilderness.

Zadok was there, too, and all the Levites who were with him were carrying the ark of the covenant of God. They set down the ark of God, and Abiathar offered sacrifices until all the people had finished leaving the city.

Then the king said to Zadok, “Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.”

The king also said to Zadok the priest, “Do you understand? Go back to the city with my blessing. Take your son Ahimaaz with you, and also Abiathar’s son Jonathan. You and Abiathar return with your two sons. I will wait at the fords in the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.” So Zadok and Abiathar took the ark of God back to Jerusalem and stayed there.

But David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered, and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up. Now David had been told, “Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom.” So, David prayed, “Lord, turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness.” (New International Version)

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s an understatement to say that King David had family drama.

Maybe that’s because he had a lot of wives and even more kids. Or it could be that being a king didn’t transfer well to being a father. And it just might be that his experience was mostly about simply living in a fallen world, full of icky relational dynamics and human conflict.

David seemed to be at his best when at his lowest. His son, Absalom, carefully designed a conspiracy to take over the kingdom. And it was looking as though he might just do it. David, and those loyal to him, fled Jerusalem to avoid being overthrown and killed. They were between a rock and a hard place, to put it mildly. David was literally running for his life.

If we put ourselves in David’s sandals, how would we respond? 

I suppose, at the least, we would likely complain. Who is Absalom that he should dishonor his father in such a way as this? Then, we may try and find ways to maintain power, and get back at Absalom for being a rebellious and destructive son. 

I am humbled by David’s unflagging trust in God. Like the suffering Job centuries before him, David was willing to receive anything from the hand of God, whether for good or evil. He wholesale accepted whatever seemed good to God, without attempting to force anything on the Lord. “Let God do to me what seems good to him,” was the faith affirmation of David.

Yet, at the same time, David was aware and in touch with his emotions as he left the city and ascended the Mount of Olives. He wept and lamented over the situation he and all those with him had to experience. 

A thousand years later, Jesus took the same trek out of the city in great sorrow because of people who conspired against him. Christ faced the agony of the cross through the machinations of sinful humanity who did not want him as Lord over their lives.

Our confidence must rest in the God who is never caught unaware of our situations and always knows how to respond. We must rely on our prayers to the Lord as we navigate the difficulties of this life. 

Humility goes a long way toward letting the will of God rule the day.

O Lord, please turn the plans and the counsel of evil persons into foolishness. Do not let the sinfulness of people have its way and run roughshod over my life.  I trust in you to bend a bad situation toward your own good purpose through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

Mark 6:45-52 – Facing Fear

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we are afraid – even terrified. And Christians aren’t immune to the feeling of fear and terror.

The truth of the Christian life is that it is a herky-jerky process of three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward, not always knowing with certainty everything we encounter.  

The expectation that we will have a consistent upward trajectory of spiritual development with no scary experiences is wrongheaded and misguided. Throw into the mix that our self-awareness is often skewed, and that we have difficulty assessing ourselves with any accuracy, and voila! we have a recipe for the true human condition.

Doubt, fear, failure, and stubbornness aren’t just endemic to other people – it also characterizes many Christians, as well. We will face severe storms in life. They will be harsh. We will wonder if we’ll even make it out alive, or not. And it may very well seem like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then, when he does show up, we don’t recognize him, and it scares the bejabbers out of us.

This was the experience of Christ’s disciples, who too often reflect our own stories of faith and fear all rolled up in one person. Today’s Gospel lesson is this: Our fears and foibles do not need to define us because Jesus is Lord over the water, the weather, the wondering, the waiting, the wildness, and our own whimsical natures of seeing miracles accomplished in others, then not believing it can happen in our own lives.

So, what are we really afraid of? Failure? Fear itself? Death? Irrelevance? Loss? Change? Perhaps, everything? Yes, all of life is a risky scary business. There are no guarantees, except one: Christ is present with us, whether we are aware of it, or not.

If the worst scenario you worry about in your head would actually come to pass, it will still never change the reality that God loves you and is with you.  And it will not stop Jesus from assuring us of his presence and climbing into the boat to be with us.

We don’t have any accounts of Jesus freaking out in fear, or when other people flip out in their own fear. Jesus was a person of prayer, completely grounded in his relationship with the Father.   

Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go out on the lake – all the while knowing what they were about to face with the weather. Even though the disciples were doing God’s will by going out on the lake, they were not spared from adversity. In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the storm because it is through the storm that we really learn faith and to face down our fears. 

There is no shame in being afraid. We all experience it. And there is no shame in admitting we’re scared. Where shame exists, our instinct is to run away like our ancestors Adam and Eve and hide, thus hiding ourselves from the grace that could be ours.

Being out on the middle of a lake during a storm did not prevent Jesus from being present with the disciples – he just walked on the water to be with them. Even though the disciples had just seen and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, they were not looking for another miracle – which is why they did not recognize Jesus and were afraid when they saw him.

Jesus never chided his disciples for their fear, or their hard hearts. He simply invited them, with the tone of grace and mercy, to not be afraid. And the Scripture is replete with continual encouragements to not be afraid because of God’s presence. Along with psalmist, we can say:

But when I am afraid,
    I will put my trust in you.
I praise God for what he has promised.
    I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?
    What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4, NLT)

I sleep and wake up refreshed
    because you, Lord,
    protect me.
Ten thousand enemies attack
from every side,
    but I am not afraid. (Psalm 3:5-6, CEV)

When I called, you answered me.
You made me bold by strengthening my soul. (Psalm 138:3, GW)

Ultimately, fear has to do with disconnection. It is to feel powerless, separated from any resources, unable to do anything about what is presently staring us in the face and scaring us.

Yet, when we have an awareness and a sense of connection with Jesus, there are unlimited resources of grace to accept, cope, and transcend any and every storm we find ourselves in the middle of.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts,
be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places.

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions, and from the fear of the known and unknown. 

And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

*Above painting of Jesus walking on water by Brian Whelan

**Above Orthodox icon of Christ walking on water

***Above painting: Christ walking on the sea, by French artist Amédée Varint (1818-1883)