Social Fear and Spiritual Direction

The word fear can be either a noun or a verb. Most dictionaries agree on two primary definitions. Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by being aware of danger that can produce a feeling of being afraid or fear is a feeling of respect and wonder for something very powerful such as a fear of God.

There are two verses in the Bible that give great insight into both definitions:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 Jn. 4:18 NIV), and,

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” (Ps. 111:10 NIV)

The above two verses put fear into perspective. The former speaks of love driving out fear (fear of negative consequences), while the latter indicates fear is a spiritually profitable state of being (concerning our relationship with God). Which is right? Both are important to spiritual direction. The former speaks of a relationship with God founded upon trust because of one’s holding on to God’s love. The latter is a call to respect, to understand God’s wholly otherness, God’s all-powerful holiness, and righteousness. This is a fear we should seek to live by. The kind of fear that Job had for God.

“Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.” (Job 1:8-9 NIV)

Yet I believe the most common understanding of the word fear today is one of danger. Whether that danger is real or not matters not. I believe fear is the enemy’s primary tool in attacking American culture. Fear of those who do not perceive life as they do and fear of forces perceived as a threat to one’s way of life.

Fear is an emotion. Emotions are constructs created by biological events occurring within the human body. We determine if these constructs are positive or negative depending upon our ability to accurately perceive. As an emotion fear can magnify our ignorance and arrogance.

“Most people feel fear when they are endangered, but some fall apart and become unable to act intelligently, while others keep their cool. What might the difference between tween these types of people be? One kind of difference is this: fear disconcerts some people because they lack a sufficiently strong countervailing concern.”[1]

What and how much we fear is tied to our faith formation. During a frightening storm, the disciples were panicked with fear. Jesus, we are told, “He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”” (Mk. 4:40 NIV)

The writer of Hebrews tells us that developing our faith gives us a foundation to stand against fear. “So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Heb. 13:6 NIV)

However, there appears to be a disconnect with this understanding of our faith and many who call themselves Christian. Fear is being used by politicians, products, and preachers as a means of power, profits, or popularity. This use of fear has been magnified by the pandemic.

“Fear mongering is psychologically destabilizing to the most normal person. But this media environment can be toxic to someone with an untreated psychiatric illness. I wish politicians and their media allies would stop contributing to the collective unraveling of the American mind.”[2]

While the pandemic has caused the fear level to increase whether one is afraid of getting the virus or one has bought into the multiple conspiracy theories that have emerged “what is happening was actually predicted long ago by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Indeed, Jung once wrote that the demise of society wouldn’t be a physical threat, but instead mass delusion — a collective psychosis of sorts.

Notably, Jung believed that the United States was particularly prone to society-breaking delusions. “Anything new should always be questioned and tested with caution, for it may very easily turn out to be only a new disease; that is why true progress is impossible without mature judgment,” Jung wrote. “The man who is unconscious of the historical context and lets slip his link with the past is in constant danger of succumbing to the crazes and delusions engendered by all novelties.” Some psychologists believe that this is what the country is experiencing right now — more or less.[3]

Jung understood our need for religion, hence the importance of religion. Yet interestingly, there has been an ever-increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion. In return, many people — perhaps those who were never religious in the first place — have turned to New Age spiritual beliefs, which in some circles have curiously syncretized with the tenets of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.[4]

“It’s easy to mock people who think Bill Gates wants to put a microchip in them with the coronavirus vaccine. But it’s much harder to separate conspiracy theorists’ larger existential fears from our own. We’re approaching the second year of a global pandemic, which is causing mass anxiety and depression. The internet routinely displays images of future roads in major cities as gushing rivers due to climate change. Billions of fish were boiled in the American Northwest and Canada during an unprecedented heatwave this summer. If someone’s mind starts spinning with their wildest fears and finds solace in a conspiracy theory, can you really blame them?”[5]

I believe the only way to overcome this fear is to develop a willingness rather than a willfulness in our spiritual lives. A willingness to trust God to truly live our faith and to allow that willingness to replace our willfulness to look for conspiracies and self-dependency.

“We are all socially damaged. But to the extent that we have known love, precisely to that extent can we be held responsible for our gluttonous, destructive, and ill-considered policy of building our self-esteem at the cost of fellowship.”[6]

To love God gives us the means to overcome fears whether they are perceived or actual. To love God should lead us to examine what we fear in the light of God’s nature and power. If God is God, what force can stand against what we believe other than the deceptions of the enemy?

“We are free to live without fear or at least with much-reduced fear, as beloved children of God and as participants in God’s family business, which is the transformation of our world.”[7]

“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?”1 (Heb. 13:5-6 NIV)

However, if we believe we must defend God rather than God defending us we are prime for candidates for the enemy’s use of fear. This is where our fear (respect, trust, and dependence upon God) is essential.

Spiritual disciplines using meditation, contemplation, and self-reflection that is willing rather than willful can go a long way toward alleviating our fears. Praying the Psalms and maintaining a daily office are also excellent ways of facing fear. It is not easy. Fear is a powerful emotion. Faith is a more powerful solution. The choice is ours.

[1] Robert C. Roberts. Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Kindle Locations 217-219). Kindle Edition.



[4] Ibid.


[6] Kindle Edition. Robert C. Roberts. Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Kindle Locations 1232-1233).


William A. Barry, SJ. Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer (Kindle Locations 1472-1473). Loyola Press. Kindle Edition.

Lectionary Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14 Remnant

What happens when many of those who say they follow the Lord start living more for the world than for God? What happens when human selfish willfulness becomes more common than a willingness to depend upon God? What happens evil is called good and good is called evil? I believe this current world is going to find out soon.

Jeremiah writes these words to a people who are in the most desperate and desolate of conditions. The nation is about to be defeated and sent into exile. The leadership and the people of the nation were listening to false prophets who preached a message of nationalism and false prosperity, a message that was turning the hearts of the people away from dependence on God. Jeremiah writes to a people who are about to discover what happens when trust and faith in God is abandoned. Does God give up on them? No, God does not. Instead, God waits and maintains God’s promise to those who are called a remnant.

This passage of Scripture is both encouraging and disturbing. It is encouraging because it is a story of how God will bring God’s people back to their land after a time of exile and dispersion. It is a story of the joy and happiness they will experience at that time. What is disturbing is that it will only be a remnant.

A remnant is a word meaning a small part, member, or trace remaining. It is a small surviving group often used in a plural context. The concept of a remnant is a theological staple of the Old Testament. There are 65 references using the word remnant in the NIV translation of the Bible.

What this indicates is that there are more who have rejected God’s promises, God’s love and guidance, than those who accept it. I know this must hurt the heart of the divine Trinity very much. However, true love has no regrets and so God celebrates those who make up the remnant and promises them blessings.

Because I love the Lord, I am disturbed by what hurts God. Because I have learned to love people through the influence of the Holy Spirit, I am grieved by those who will not experience the joy, comfort, and hope God has promised to me and others who have a relationship of faith with the Lord. I believe it is important to be disturbed. To be disturbed is to care. To care is to seek to do what is right and thus be an instrument through which God might add to the remnant by being a faithful witness to the love of God.

Yes, I understand that evangelism, being a witness for Jesus, has been abused by individuals who would use religion for their own selfish purposes. I am aware that “cheap grace” has been promoted by “evangelists” and preachers who have treated evangelism as an event rather than a process. I am aware that fear, guilt, and shame have been used to get individuals to “make a decision” for God. This is not how the remnant survives. God’s remnant exists and continues for only one reason, they have a faith and trust that preservers out of love for the Lord and the blessed hope God gives to those who truly are the chosen.

This is where Jeremiah’s message is so hopeful. It is a message to the remnant. It is a message that tells them their faithfulness will be rewarded.

Many of those who would not be part of the remnant believed they were fine with their beliefs and practices. They did not love God. They did not accept the prophet’s words but sought out other so-called prophets who would tell them what they wanted to hear.

We have been told to watch out for the behavior, “For false messiah and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (Matt. 24:24 NRS)

So how can we be sure we have not been deceived? We must seek to live as God has called us to live. We are to love the Lord with all our being and love our neighbors. We are “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Mic. 6:8 NRS) What is not implicitly stated is that we are to depend on God to guide us.

Micah 5:7 states, “Then the remnant of Jacob, surrounded by many peoples, shall be like dew from the LORD, like showers on the grass, which do not depend upon people or wait for any mortal.” (Mic. 5:7 NRS) My question for myself is, “Am I depending on God.” Self-reflection in the light of God’s word is a powerful tool in seeking to be faithful and willing rather than willful.

Why is this the best path? God promises a gathering. A gathering of our spiritual family from all over the earth. It matters not our condition, our situation, or our struggles, God will gather. Jeremiah tells the people of all the good that God has planned and promised. There will be no needs, no sorrows, no suffering. They will walk straight paths and not have to fear stumbling.

When we are young, we don’t fear stumbling because we bounce but as we get older stumbling becomes a concern because we break. Stumble in the context of the passage has to do with our human failures. Stumbling has become something I dread. I want to do what God wants but it is still easy, in the moment of things, to stumble. If I try to get up on my own, without turning my stumble over to God for forgiveness and help I usually end up worse than when I do depend on God’s help. I look forward to the day when the road will be straight and smooth.

I love what Jeremiah says next, “Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the LORD.” (Jer. 31:13-14 NIV)

What a wonderful promise to hear, dancing, comfort, joy, and abundance. Even though the people are currently not in a position to even imagine this to be true, those who are part of the remnant would likely find hope in these words because of their faithfulness. When we are dependent on God, God’s word does give us hope. Even though this passage was written a long time ago it still speaks a word of hope to us. Our world has changed a lot since the days of Jeremiah, but God has not changed. Our God is still a Lord of hope and promise. Also, the tactics of the enemy of humanity have not changed. The enemy still uses our own arrogance and ignorance against us. We are still prone to the enemy’s work of deception and lies. The enemy is still trying to shrink the size of the remnant.

Some may ask, why are you so concerned about the remnant? Why do you believe it is so important to be in those numbers?

When I was at the threshold of eternity due to my own stumbling, I was in the presence of others, others that were taken away by the darkness. Had it not been for God’s grace and mercy, I could have been one of those. I know some will believe I imagined what I experience or that it was because of the medications and a brain bleed and a concussion. I can understand why some would think this. However, I do not doubt what I saw and heard. I was dead. God decided it was not time. I was allowed to come back to be a witness and that is what I must do. It is my prayer that of the one expressed by God, the nine should perish but turn back to depending on God. The future is coming. Where will it find you?

God, I am Not Happy

I live in disgrace all day long, and my face is covered with shame at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me, because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge. All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals; you covered us over with deep darkness. (Ps. 44:15-19 NIV)

I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails.  (Jer. 15:17-18 NIV)

The above prayers by the psalmist and Jeremiah are very accusatory toward God. Jeremiah seems as if he no longer trusts what God says. The psalmist believes God has abandoned him for no good reason.

How do you react to these prayers? Many cringe at the thought of saying things like this to God. But I believe that such prayers are examples of a close relationship. No matter how much the psalmist or Jeremiah rail against God, they never lose their trust and love of God. And, it seems, they felt God’s love and trust in them.[1]

God is big enough to take on our anger, our hurt, our rage and not reject us or condemn us. This is a key trait of love.

I married, I believe, the most patient, faithful, and forgiving woman to ever have lived. She has put up with my anger, fears, frustrations, and bouts of childishness and has stayed with me for over 40 years. If you ask her why she has put up with me she will tell you she loves me. I have no doubt as to the sincerity of this statement. She channels the love and grace of the Holy Spirit in her continuously. She is not a doormat. She is strong when she needs to be but always comes down on the side of grace. She reflects God to me in my life.

We may not be able to control the situations and conditions we encounter in life, but we can choose to reflect upon them and put them in their proper perspective.  We can choose how they are to be interpreted.

I would love to tell you that there was a program, a guide, a special formula that would allow you to be completely in control of your emotions and that you would never be emotionally reactive by always emotionally responsive, but no one can give you such a promise. We are human, finite, limited, fallen, and if we are alive, emotional. Whether it is anger at a pesky fly or a rude motorist, we can be caught off guard and react. I also know from over 40 years of experience in the pastorate that events will happen to most of us if not all of us that causes us to question God.

I have also, through my own prayer life and experienced with God, that God is fine with us expressing our displeasure with God’s action or inaction. God wants us to come to God with everything we feel, including our anger.

If you ever feel that you have been unfairly treated by life, that you did all the right things and still had nothing to show for it, you can use this psalm (and Jeremiah’s prayer) as a model of how to tell God. You may, however, feel inhibited about doing so.[2]

Being honest with our own feeling is spiritual health and indicates our growth in spiritual maturity. God wants us to be honest. God, like anyone who really cares for us, wants to know how we feel even when our feelings toward God are questioning and not positive.

[1] William A. Barry, SJ. Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer (Kindle Locations 778-781). Loyola Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] William A. Barry, SJ. Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer (Kindle Locations 725-727). Loyola Press. Kindle Edition.

Lectionary Sermon for December 26, 2021

Isaiah 61:10-62:3   Gifts for a Fashionable Faith

What did you get for Christmas? I wonder how many times we will be asked this in the next few days.  Did you get what you hoped for? Did you have to pretend that you liked something that is already destined to be returned or re-gifted whenever possible? I wonder how many of you got clothes. I remember in my childhood years I hated getting clothes. I wanted toys. It is hard to play with clothes. Now, however, I love getting clothes. This brings up the next question we are likely to hear, “Did you get that outfit, that shirt, those shoes, or coat for Christmas?”

Isaiah is telling the people who have gone into exile that God has some wonderful clothes for them. Clothes that are a gift, a Christmas gift, even though they really do not know what that means yet.

What are these clothes God gives as a gift? They are garments of salvation, the robe of righteousness, a bridegroom’s a garland, and the jewels of a bride. To be clothed in salvation means a person again walks in the life of God and not in the curse of death any longer. It means the shame and pain of our sin is replaced by grace and glory. God’s promise to us is this, “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55 NIV)

To be robed in righteousness means we are given the gift of guidance, of truth, of living in the light of God’s grace and wisdom. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we are told, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24 NIV) How can we know we are robed in righteousness? We can know by examining our lives. What are your desires? What are your goals? How is our Lord seen in your live? If you have a hard time with these questions, you may need to ask yourself why? Remember the story of the emperor’s new clothes? The emperor was deceived into believing he was robed in clothes that a fool could not see but in reality, he was naked. If your life does not show righteousness, better make sure your religion is not one of deception. To be clothed in righteousness is to be in the process of being changed by the Holy Spirit.

Then there is the garland. Garland was a sign of one who was to be honored at a festival, a marriage. Being in exile was not a reason for celebration. The prophet is letting the people know that “Weeping may linger for the night (exile), but joy comes with the morning (deliverance by the Lord). (Ps. 30:5 NRS) A time for them to be honored, to have a celebration has been promised.

And the jewels of a bride are a symbol of her value to the groom and as a reminder of the groom’s commitment to her. The prophet wanted to remind the people God had not forgotten them and God desired to be with his “bride” (those whom God loves). Throughout both the Old and New Testament there are numerous verses that speak of our value to God and God’s commitment to us. Life can be very stressful for every human being on this planet. We face global warming, rising crime rates, a radical polarization of different political groups, pandemics, growing economic worries, isolation, and the list can go on and on. It is good to know we do not have to face it alone. God has assured us that God will be with us. God will not abandon us. God incarnate will come again. We are promised, “On that day the LORD their God will save them for they are the flock of his people; for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land.” (Zech. 9:16 NRS)

Next, God uses the analogy of plants, gardening, and the changing of seasons to continue with the message of what is to come. How we dress in winter is not how we dress in the Spring. Right now, in our part of the world, not much is growing, well if the seasons were not made so crazy by global warming, things would not be growing. The plants would be dormmate, awaiting the warmth of Spring. Yes, we are in winter, a time associated with cold, dying, freezing, and desolation. Yet we trust, we believe, we feel confident that Spring with come with warmth, new life, and all the color and positive consolation that Spring can bring.

God’s people had been in the grasp of the desolation of exile. The prophet brought a message of hope, a reminder of God’s forgiveness and faithfulness. Desolation is a hard part of living. No one escapes it.

One of the best ways to deal with desolation is to remember in desolation we need to seek to be patient, which is contrary to the difficulties in which a person is in and let such a person think they will soon be consoled, employing against the desolation the assurance of God’s consolation. God does not and will not abandon us. Also, we need, while in consolation to remember the feeling of consolation to face the desolation that will come to find strength for such a time. Yes, desolation will come, be it diseases, defeats, debts, depressions, or deaths. Remembering God’s consolation is a warm covering during cold hard times.

The purpose of a prophet was not to predict the future. Prophets do not predict they pronounce. They either remind the people of what God expects, warn them of the desolation to come, or give them a word of hope, of consolation, in telling them of God’s promises to those who love God. The prophet is striving to get the people of God to remember God’s love and promises.

In verses 2 and 3 of chapter 62 we find the word vindication. This word has two primary meanings. First, it can mean the fact of proving that what someone said or did was right or true, after other people thought it was wrong. Secondly, it can mean the fact of proving that someone is not guilty or is free from blame, after other people have blamed them. However, the word vindication is an interpretation of the phrase “see righteousness.” Why did the translators use the word vindication? Why because God’s people had been written off. They had been conquered, taken into exile, and were scorned for their faith. If their God was so powerful, how come this happened to them? Those who thought these thoughts were in for a surprise. God would restore the people. God would again let it be known that God was the one true God, and his chosen people would find the promises of the prophet are true. This is how the world would “see righteousness. This is a vindication of their faith.

Finally, a new name and a crown. A new beginning, a new life as royalty, heaven’s royalty.

I hope you have received these Christmas gifts. God does want you to have them not only for December 25th but for every day of your life. God offers these gifts to those who want to believe, who want to have faith, and are willing to accept the life these gifts offer. But be careful, there are knockoffs, fake gifts, and deceivers out there who will willingly lead you down a path of disappointment, disillusion, desolations, and defeat. Our journey in life will not be easy. If we try to walk it alone, we will fail. Please, please let the Lord dress you for success. Make you choice to say yes today. Don’t waste another minute. Open these gifts with you heart. God is waiting for you.

Lectionary Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Micah 5:2-5a Under Siege

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor gives birth. The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. They will dwell secure because he will surely become great throughout the earth; he will become one of peace. (Mic. 5:2-5 CEB)

The nation of Israel came into existence as the result of a promise of God. The birth of this nation did not come easy. It came through a time of slavery and deliverance, through times of oppression and war, of mistakes and great victories.

God had intended for the chosen people to depend on God’s love for them to for their care, safety, and direction, but alas, they acted like rebellious children. It seems we human beings want to do things our way rather than God’s and God loves us enough to allow us our freedom, even when it is the freedom to make mistakes and fail.

There came a time in their history in Israel that they wanted a king.  They were not content to let God guide them. The first one was that God allow them to have a king whose name was Saul and he made grave errors and put the nation in peril. So, God called the prophet Samuel to anoint another to be king. The person God chose was the younger son of a man named Jesse. His name was David.  David was born in a small town named Bethlehem which is translated “place of bread”.

This young boy was but a shepherd, a keeper of sheep. However, this shepherd-king became a warrior that overcame all the enemies of Israel. He led the nation to its greatest time of glory, but it did not last. When David died his son Solomon allowed strange gods to be worshipped in the land and at his death the nation split.

Once again external enemies began to rise. Once again the Nation was in peril. First, the northern kingdom fell then the southern kingdom was conquered and the people were taken into exile in Babylon.

Now, why did this happen? What would a nation loved by God have such a volatile history? Why, because God’s people pulled away from the relationship God desired to have with them. They lost their focus. They ignored God’s loving guidance and direction. But what is amazing is that God did not give up on them.

During these dark and difficult days God sent messengers with his word, he sent prophets with promises to warn and woo his people back to himself.

Micah was one of these prophets. Micah proclaimed God’s word to his people during a time that they were headed for trouble. Micah had little use for the political leaders of his day because they were more concerned with their own self-interest. He warned the people that God hates a society that feeds on itself by materially taking advantage of one another. He warned them that the enemy was at the gate. Micah warned them that they would face a hard siege.

What is a siege? The dictionary says it is to be surrounded by an enemy. It means that you have a strong force come against you to try and wear you down. It means to be cut off from needed resources in hope that you will break down and surrender. To be under siege is to be in trouble.

But again, God did not abandon God’s people. He gave Micah a message, a promise, a word of hope, a word to remind the people that God is still there, and God is aware of their condition and needs.

The passage today begins with the warning of the siege, but it also continues with a promise, a promise that reflects on what God had already done.

A reflection back on the small town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Israel’s greatest king, a reflection on a place that means place of bread, a place where hope is fed. The promise God makes is that God will send one, a ruler, who was from the beginning, one who comes from the ancient and old.

Now, what does this mean? It is a reminder of a siege that humanity had been facing since the relationship with God had been severed, since the entry of sin into human existence. It reminds us of a siege, a battle, humanity wages with a dominant sentient being who authored evil in human life through lies, deceit, and temptation. It is a reminder of the siege and victory of Genesis 3: 15, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Once again God was going to anoint a shepherd to care for the people, to care for God’s straying sheep, for all we are like sheep that have gone astray, each going our own way. This shepherd would be the Good Shepherd, the very offspring of God.

Micah tells the people that they will feel abandoned till she who is in labor gives birth to this promised ruler, this Savior, this Messiah. And shortly after the time of Micah and the other prophets, God goes silent for 400 years.

Four hundred years is a long time. I am sure many had given up. But God had not forgotten the promise. God sends one like David, one who would depend on God. One who would lead the people back to God, one who would be born in Bethlehem. And as we are told in verse 5, this one would be their peace. God kept the promise, and we celebrate the birth of the one whom Micah spoke. His name is Jesus. And this is the advent story, the Christmas story.

But there is another Christmas story. It is found in the book of Revelation. It too speaks of a time in which God’s people are under siege. It is found in Revelation 12: 1-5; 13-17, “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule1 all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne…… thrown down to the earth, he pursued1 the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth, the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.”

We are living this siege today. This is the story of God’s chosen people, the church, those who believe in Jesus as the Christ, the savior who leads us back to God. For 2000 years the church has been a source of power and promise. When we have followed our leader from Bethlehem. We have built a great kingdom of love and unity with God. But like Israel of old, the church has wanted to become more like the world. We have forgotten who we are to be, and we have become a kingdom divided and weak. The enemies have been gathering and once again we are under siege.

How, how are we under siege? We are surrounded by attitudes of indifference; we are continually being worn down with compromise and callousness. We are more interested in operating as a business, of creating cultural ghettos, and trying to prove to ourselves that we are still relevant in this modern age of spiritual starvation and moral meltdowns.

So, what do we do? We must remember Bethlehem. We must not make the mistake the innkeeper made by having no room for Jesus. We must make room in our hearts for our Lord. Second, we must understand we face strong enemies (enemies within and enemies outside) that surround us. We must trust God to guide us in our struggle. We must remember,“for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human,1 but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Cor. 10:4-5 NRS) and one more thing, we need to remember that God kept his promise to Bethlehem and that God will keep the promise made to us, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20 NRS)

It’s time to break the siege. It’s time to get ready. For Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall….

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, help me to see how I can fall, into the trap the false self can see and help me to be what God wants of me.

Self-understanding is one of the goals in spiritual direction. Achieving this goal can be a long and difficult path. Each of us has a nature that is both predisposed to not seek the will of God but instead “to do what is right in our own eyes” and prone to adopt a false self that is fueled by our own perceived needs and desires.

Kay Northcutt gives us a list of three ways the false self helps shape how we see ourselves,

“One manifestation of the false self, for example, presents a highly idealized notion of one’s self, what one does, how one is perceived, and why one does what one does. A second aspect of the false self can be driven by what we imagine others want us to be and to become. And finally, there is the false self of underrated, doormat-like behaviors.”[1]

There is a well-circulated story of a pastor who thought very highly of his preaching ability. While riding home after a service he jokingly asks his wife how many great preachers in the world. His wife told him one less than he thought.

The false self is a liar. The false self is more likely to deceive us than others. When we allow the false self to have its way, we are setting ourselves up for pain and worse.

The way to limit the influence of the false self is to work to become self-aware, self-engaged, and self-reflective. We develop these counters to the false self by learning to use the Examen prayer, keeping a journal, contemplation, meditation, and other spiritual disciplines that help us to engage our true self, the self God desires for us. It also helps to have a competent spiritual director to go with us on this inner quest.

The task is not easy but is worth the effort to develop a closer relationship with God, others, and ourselves. Such work can bring spiritual freedom. It can renew our faith. It can empower our vocations and it makes it harder for the evil one to use our false sense against us.

[1] Kay Northcutt. Kindling Desire for God: Preaching As Spiritual Direction (Kindle Location 928-932). Kindle Edition.

Discerning Between two Seemingly Good Things

I am faced with a decision. I have come to a fork in the road of life in which the decision I make will have a profound effect not only on me and my wife but the lives of other people as well. Both decisions have the possibility for me to do good. Either decision will likely make my life better. How can I know which road to take?

I have helped other people find their way in such situations. I know the process of discerning of spirits. I also know that the evil one can put temptations and indecision in our way to keep us from making the decision that would be most honoring to God. Normally, I would make an appointment to visit with my spiritual director to help me in this process. However, currently in my life, I am in the process of looking for a new spiritual director. I do not want to make a decision that is less than what God wills for me.

So how will I go about making the right decision? As I am writing this, my alarm went off reminding me it was time for my morning examen prayer. As I prayed, I felt the peace that comes (consolation) when I am heading in the right direction. So, I will seek first and foremost to be indifferent toward the decision I need to make. I do not want to allow the enemy to deceive me with false consolation or to play on my ego or fears.

By “being indifferent” I do not mean I don’t care about what I face. On the contrary I care very much. To be indifferent when seeking the will of God means to be indifferent toward what I might want and to face the choices with the mindset of “not my will but your will my Lord.” In seeking to remove my own preference from the equation I can be more open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. I am fortunate in that my wife is also a trained, certified spiritual director who can keep me in the process. I also have some trusted friends whom I can approach and who will give me honest responses.

However, while the methodical process, the opportunity for honest counsel, and my desire to be indifferent will be helpful, nothing can take the place of prayer. I understand I will need to take this to God in contemplation and in meditation. I have confidence the Holy Spirit will provide insight into the choice I should make. It is good to trust in the Lord.

Paradoxical Providence

Are you a Calvinist or an Armenian? The debate between these two theological positions has often been at the forefront conflicts between people who should know better than trying to put God in a box. It seems that some feel if they can just label a theological perspective they can be more in line with the will of God.

I have a question? Is light composed of waves or particles? Physicists tell us that light is made up of both. I believe they understand you cannot force light into one perspective or another. In fact, now there are theories that say there may even be more forms to add to the construction of light. Fine, but the paradox of light being both wave and particle still stands. God does not have problems with paradoxes.

I recently heard a preacher say in a sermon that Jesus’s physical presence did not exist before the incarnation at Jesus’s birth. OK, then how could Jesus be “the same yesterday and today and forever?” (Heb. 13:8 NIV)

We are finite creatures who are limited in our understanding by our experiences, by the wall of predictability, and our minute place in the ebb and flow of eternity. We are beings that strive to impose our will upon defining what orthodox and what is not. I have found in my own life this mindset (attitude or perspective) limits my closeness to God and makes it more difficult to see God’s works and presence that is always, always going on in and around me.

I have adopted a theology I call paradoxical providence. It is a position that acknowledges the limitations of my thinking and allows me to not be troubled by mystery and to not be threatened by the discoveries we human beings become aware of in our pursuit of understanding through science and life.

Is salvation an event or a process? Yes. Does predestination mean that everything is fixed, but then again do I really have free choice? Yes.  Must I be given faith, or can I grow in faith? Yes, both.  Do I have to exclude one position to trust another? No, I do not believe we do.

It is through experiencing spiritual direction and experiencing God in contemplation and Christian meditation that I have come to this perspective. The initial spark that led me to this path came after reflecting on a lecture I attended. The lecture was on providence. The lecturer gave us a verbatim of the interaction between a young chaplain and an angry old man in hospice care. The young chaplain was trying to get the old man to talk about his feelings. The old man cussed the chaplain out. The chaplain continued to try and reach the old man. The old man was having nothing to do with it. The lecturer asked us what we thought about the verbatim. All of us focused on the dialogue. What did the chaplain do right and what did the chaplain do wrong? The discussion last for about twenty minutes. The lecturer then dismissed us without comment.

Much later, when reflecting on this event I realize that all of us had missed the point. The issue was not what was right or wrong. The issue was the young chaplain’s desire and persistence. God’s providence is about God’s desire and persistence in human affairs. It was from this reflection that I realized how easy it is to be distracted by our own viewpoints and miss the wonder of what is taking place, the relational realities that are often found with the paradoxical providence that is the mystery of God.

Lectionary Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20    Not judgment but Joy

I really do not want to sound pessimistic. I understand that during this time of the year there is a cultural expectation to be joyful and merry and happy, bah humbug. No, really, this time of the year, when we celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world, can be a very difficult time for many people. Perhaps things are going great for you. Good, I am glad for you. However, you need to be aware that there is a multitude of human needs and prob1ems just waiting to invade your peace and bring grief to your life. After all, if you believe the Bible you understand we live in a cursed world. We live in a world awaiting redemption. We live in a world waiting for the return of Jesus.

I am pretty sure that despite the smiles and declaration of “fine”, many of us have things in our life that are not so fine. Some of us face worries having to do with economic, family, or physical difficulties.

Some of us are carrying burdens of anger, confused priorities, or unresolved doubts. Some have deep hurts. Some are depressed and some are just ready to give up.

Yet we come and gather in this building dedicated to hope. Why, why do we gather? Is it because God is dead? No, it is because God lives!

We gather because Jesus, who tried as a traitor, was crucified as a criminal, died as despondent, buried as a blunder, came forth as a conquer, arose as an advocate, and was vindicated as the victor. We gather to worship God incarnate, God resurrected, and God who is Immanuel God with us. This is why we come.It matters not what burdens we carry, what situations we face, we are here to worship the living God of strength and power whose Spirit desires to flow into us and from us to a world that needs what we have been given.

Yes, evil does seem to have too many opportunities to steal our joy, to get a foothold in our lives. And yes, there will be times in our lives in which the enemy seems to have the upper hand (I know this all too well from personal experience), and this can affect our spiritual growth, but this is not the last word. We who are faithful have a promise, “for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” (1 Jn. 5:4 NIV)

So as God’s children we should say, God is great, God is good, and thus we have hope as we should. This is the message Zephaniah gives to God’s people.

In the passage from Zephaniah, the prophet is speaking to a people who have strayed away from God and have instead turned to idolatry. They are a people who have replaced the morality of God for the morality of pleasure and superstition. They are a people who are soon going to lose the land, their freedom, and some their very lives. Extremely difficult days are on the way.

Zephaniah’s words were of warning, words of worry, words of woe. Yet they are also words of hope.  Zephaniah received from God a word of hope, a word meant to bring happiness in the heaviness of the moment. Words that were intended to strengthen their souls.

However, since the difficulties had not yet brought suffering and pain, many people let the prophet’s message go in one ear and out the other. Soon, however, these words would be needed and heeded.

I do not have to be a prophet to tell you that difficult days, much more difficult than now, are coming our way. Covid-19 has given us a small taste. Global warming, a new arms race between the superpowers, the seduction of the church by political powers, the rapid increase of violent crimes, and a moral outlook that embraces depravity and encourages salacious living is easy for all to see. Oh yes, unless there is a miraculous revival and renewal in our hearts, the church, in our country, and in the world dark days, very dark days are on the horizon.

Yet, in the midst of the coming darkness, there is a very powerful light. A light that can give us the reason for celebration.  A light that calls us to consecration and light that gives us consolation during the struggles yet to come. It is through the words of the prophet that we can find hope in our hearts and strength in our souls.

First, in our passage, we find in the words of the prophet a reason for celebration. The prophet tells the people to shout and rejoice. Why should they shout and rejoice? Because of God’s forgiveness and the promised deliverance through the divine presence.

And while this promise to those living under the old covenant it is also a promise to us under the new covenant given to us by Jesus.  This prophecy, this fore and forth telling God’s word, can and does apply to us.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.2 (Phil. 4:4 NRS). But how, how can we rejoice when things are no good at all? Why, because we have a promise from God. God promises to forgive. God promises to defeat our enemies (our real enemies- the authorities, the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. -Eph. 6:12 CSB). God promises to remove our fears and restore us. I for one can rejoice when I let these words soak into my heart.

This call to rejoice is founded upon words of consecration. Consecration means to set apart, to designate as holy. Zephaniah tells the people God “will renew you in his love.” (Zeph. 3:17 NRS).

If there is one thing I have learned in all my years of serving, seeking, and surrendering to God is that God does love me. God has created me and set me apart along with every other human being. We were created to be holy. We, of all of creation, have been set apart to walk with God. We will not always face the tragedies and sorrows, the grief and pain, the fears, and frustrations of this life. We are meant for more. The Scripture tells us of how God consecrates us, “The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him. I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:16-18 CEB)

These are not just words of consecration but also they are words of consolation. Listen again to verses 19-20. “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.” (Zeph. 3:19-20 NRS)

We may think of consolation as a prize given to those who did not win. The word means there is a source of comfort in a time of suffering, grief, and or disappointment. You did not win so you are given a consolation. However, when God gives consolation it is has nothing to do with not coming in first. It has everything to do with the promise of salvation, the promise of restoration, and the reality of restoration that comes only from God’s love and grace.

Let us not forget Zephaniah’s words to us. Circumstances change. Situations change. God does not change. God has told us Jesus will come for the faithful. We can be assured that he will.

Seeing God…even in rocks

Whether a fourth-century Desert Father or a twenty-first-century century soccer mom, outdoors human persons feel wooed by God and by the empty-yet-full, heart-deep pulse of creation. Emotions of peace, well-being, relaxation, at-one-ment emerge when we take notice of creation; although frequently, a sense of disease, of being urged toward something-or a call to initiate change, growth, reconciliation-may also be evoked. More often than not, God’s attempts to attract us through creation and its images are fulfilled.

Kay Northcutt. Kindling Desire for God: Preaching As Spiritual Direction (Kindle Locations 387-390). Kindle Edition.

The above quote brought to my mind the wonderful truth upon which it is founded.

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. (Rom. 1:20 NRS)

Almost daily, whether I am walking the dog, going to check the mail, or driving to some appointment God is revealed in sunrises and sunsets, clouds and storms, trees and bushes, leaves and flowers, birds and bugs, and sometimes rocks. God seems to be always reminding me of God’s presence in the things of nature that surround me.

These reminders always bring me a sense of consolation. These moments of stillness and beauty are what help bring peace and calm to me often when the world around me is filled with confusion and frustration.

One moment still brings a sense of joy in memory. My wife and I had gone on a much-needed getaway to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. In the lodge we were staying at we could see Pike’s Peak to our left and the magnificent scenery of the Garden of the God’s straight out our sliding glass door. On the first morning of our getaway, it had snowed during the night. We awoke to snow-covered mountains and two snowshoe rabbits playing just outside our door. I wonder now if angels had placed those two rabbits there for us. The beauty was breathtaking. I can remember the Lord speaking to my heart, “Do you like my work?”

“Yes, Lord,” I replied in prayer. “Yes, I like it very much.”