I Will Fear No Evil

These are fearful days. As I write this, the world is reeling from the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. There are travel bans and business closures; people are hoarding hand sanitizer, soap, and toilet tissue, bread and bottled water.

But what do we really fear? The Coronavirus is dangerous– even potentially deadly–but so is the “regular” flu (to a lesser extent). Many people will suffer from the Coronavirus for a few days, only to recover and return to “normal”life. The economic reverses and closures, while temporarily devastating, will come to an end, as well.

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In many ways, the real fear is, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, “fear, itself.” Panicked people hoarding basic supplies leave us wondering if we will face food shortages, or be left without any way to protect ourselves from the spread of this disease. We fear the rumors, the exaggerated stories, the dire possibilities and predictions. We fear over-reacting and inviting unnecessary dangers, and we fear under-reacting and taking unnecessary risks. We even begin to fear those close to us– are they telling us the truth? Are they giving us helpful advice? Do we trust their sources of information?

In the midst of this atmosphere, there are three mistakes I think we need to avoid as Christians:

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  • Panic– the world around us reacts with fear. We are told, again and again in scripture, not to be afraid, not to worry, and not to fret. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalm 23:4) Why can we keep calm when the rest of the world succumbs to fear? “For Thou art with me..” (v. 5a) No set of circumstances– even a worldwide pandemic– are a match for God’s omniscience, His power, or His mercy. We may not know the future, but God does. He knows how this chapter of the story ends. He knows what we need, and how to supply it; He knows every cell of our bodies, and every virus in the atmosphere. And, while He may not supernaturally stop this disease in its tracks, He will give us wisdom to respond in ways that may limit the spread and severity of COVID-19– and even teach us lessons to face the next crisis.
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  • Over-confidence–the Psalmist says, “I will fear no evil.” That doesn’t mean that I will take no caution, make no plan to protect my loved ones and myself, or feel no concern over adverse conditions. It is very tempting to put on a show of bravado in the face of worldly panic; to project confidence in ourselves and disdain for danger. Our confidence doesn’t lie in ignoring the very real dangers and struggles ahead– our confidence lies in knowing that God is ALWAYS in control. We should have a healthy concern in the weeks ahead. We should not berate those who express worries–we should direct them toward our source of comfort and strength, not waste time bragging or sneering.
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  • Isolation– times of crisis bring out the best or worst in us. Panic and over-confidence can make us step back and close ourselves off to those in need. We need to be wise to ways that we can offer practical help and spiritual guidance to those around us. How can we offer to share burdens? Ease financial difficulties? Help deliver food or medicine to those in quarantine? Offer shelter or hospitality to those displaced by quarantine or travel bans? Help those who are grieving or stressed?
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Finally, notice that the Psalmist singles out the fear of evil. Panic will bring evil in its wake. Evil will need to be confronted and checked by those willing to fight it. We need to confront those who try to take advantage of others; we need to hold thieves and liars and fear-mongers accountable, as we combat their message of greed and panic. Not because we are here to judge; but because we are here to spread Grace and Peace, Blessing and Kindness. May we be more contagious than Coronavirus in bringing God’s power and Love to those who need it so desperately at this time.

Helpful links:

https://www.who.int/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/15/hospitals-are-overwhelmed-because-coronavirus-heres-how-help/

https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/15/success/small-businesses-coronavirus/index.html

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-51821470

https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-national-day-prayer-americans-affected-coronavirus-pandemic-national-response-efforts/?utm_source=link

A “Lot” to Learn

I’ve learned a “lot” studying in Genesis, and looking at the character of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Today, I want to summarize…

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  • Our lives depend on choices, rather than chances…Lot experienced many opportunities and some tragedies beyond his control. But even when God gave Lot some amazing opportunities– even when He offered miraculous rescue–Lot continued to make bad decisions or no decision at all. When have I done the same? Do I wait for chance and circumstance to find me? Do I drift along without making wise choices, allowing life to carry me to my next destination? Or do I seek God–His wisdom, His Word, His provision–and choose to obey Him?
  • Not making a choice IS making a choice…Lot chose to live outside of Sodom– but he ended up in the city. Lot spent much of his time NOT making decisions or plans. He chose inactivity, chose to be vulnerable to attack, chose to live in a city so wicked it was doomed to destruction, chose to compromise and bargain with his wicked neighbors, chose to drag his feet (literally) about leaving, chose to let his daughters control his destiny and legacy. How often do I pray for God to direct my steps and guide my life, and then sit on the couch doing nothing? Lot’s story doesn’t include a single instance of Lot taking initiative. He simple reacts to, takes advantage of, or accepts whatever opportunities or misfortunes befall him. And he doesn’t see his inactivity as a sin or rebellion against God. But he never CHOOSES to follow God; to seek Him or obey him. He assumes that not choosing active rebellion and evil is enough. Have I done the same? Do I think that because I am not actively involved in wickedness that I am honoring God with my inaction and apathy?
  • You cannot live surrounded by evil and not be hurt by it. Ignoring the warning signs, tolerating evil because it becomes familiar, turning a blind eye to the ways others are being hurt–if we are not part of a solution, we are part of the problem. Lot had options– he could have moved away from Sodom; he could have stayed outside the city; he could have spoken up about the evil all around him–he did none of those things. He lived a compromised life; a life in denial. What have I done to flee evil? To speak out against injustice and oppression? To stand up for what is right? When have I winked at evil, or turned a blind eye to wickedness? How often have I sat in uncomfortable silence while someone else suffered? Because “it’s not my problem.” “One voice won’t make a difference.” “It’s just the way they are.” “I don’t want to offend anyone by getting involved. It’s none of my business, anyway.” Lot and his family suffered greatly, even as they tried to “coexist” with their wicked neighbors.
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That’s a lot to consider in the life of one man. But more importantly, there are a “lot” of things to learn about the character of God in this story:

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  • God sees us. God included Lot in the larger story of Abraham– He gave an orphaned boy a family, a fortune, and a future. Lot had done nothing to “earn” God’s protection or favor. He certainly did nothing to deserve being rescued– twice– and he did nothing to show gratitude for either rescue. But God didn’t make a mistake in showing Lot mercy. God wasn’t surprised by Lot’s life choices– He didn’t “fail” Lot, and He didn’t forget about Him– even after generations.
  • God is a judge. We like to concentrate on God’s mercy and blessings, but God’s goodness requires that sin, wickedness, and evil be punished. God doesn’t delight in punishment, but He will not forget the cries of the oppressed. Those who practice evil and seem to “get away with it” will face judgment. If they do not seek God’s forgiveness, they will be destroyed. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by supernatural fire; Lot was destroyed by his own fears and compromises.
  • God is merciful. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, but He was willing to save the cities for the sake of as few as ten “righteous” people. We know that “There is no one righteous, not even one..” (Romans 3:10), but God thoughtfully listened to Abraham, and promised to seek for anyone who could be considered worthy of saving. That He saved only Lot and his small family was for Abraham’s sake, not Lot’s– yet save them He did. God doesn’t save the “deserving”– He saves the lost!
  • God’s plans are perfect, detailed, and eternal. God saved the unworthy Lot, and even when his family repaid God’s mercy with incest, violence, and wickedness against Israel, God orchestrated the story of Ruth– a story of love, faithfulness, and redemption pulled from the ashes of this tragic story in Genesis. God has a plan for each of us– He already knows if we will participate eagerly in a story of beauty and blessing, or be dragged through a story of compromise and tragedy. But ultimately, our story will be woven into a tapestry of God’s faithfulness, righteousness, and restoration. How we respond will change our life, and potentially, the lives of generations to come. And God will give us opportunities to choose lives of obedience, wisdom, and faith. No matter if we live in Sodom, or wasted earlier chances, we can choose rescue and redemption because of God’s great love and mercy!
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The Bible never records a prayer by Lot– whether he DID pray is a matter of speculation. But it seems clear that Lot did not seek God in any meaningful way– he didn’t obey God, he didn’t honor God, he didn’t walk with God as his uncle did. Abraham’s life wasn’t perfect– he lied about his wife, became impatient for God’s promised son and took matters into his own hands– but Abraham learned from his mistakes. He humbled himself, looked to God for wisdom, and trusted Him for the next step. He honored God, built altars, and called on the Name of the Lord. May we call out to the same God of Abraham for guidance and wisdom today.

Vacant “Lot”

I’m continuing to explore the life of Lot in the Biblical story of Genesis. Lot, the nephew of the Biblical patriarch, Abraham, chose to live near, and then in, the wicked city of Sodom. His circumstances have made him wealthy, but they have also made him a pawn and a victim of greed and war all around.

When we left Lot (see Friday’s entry), he had been rescued by his uncle Abram (later renamed Abraham), along with all his possessions, after being kidnapped from Sodom. This might have been a good time for him to move on with his life, make a fresh start, and get away from the wars and wickedness surrounding him. But he didn’t. Nor does he seem to have had any kind of positive impact on his neighbors and friends. The Bible doesn’t mention whether or not Lot joined in any of the wicked behavior of his fellow Sodomites, but he seems to have turned a (mostly) blind eye to it.

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The Biblical narrative leaves Lot for a few chapters, to concentrate on the life of Abraham, the changing of Abram’s name to Abraham, the birth of his son, Ishmael, and the promised coming of Isaac. But at the end of chapter 18, the LORD speaks to Abraham about the impending destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah:

17 The LORD said, shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 
18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, 
and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have 
chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after 
him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so 
that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
20 Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and 
Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see 
whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” 22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham 
still stood before the LORD. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will 
you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there 
are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place 
and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from 
you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, 
so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not
the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the LORD said, “If I
find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for
their sake.” 2Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken 
to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of 
five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 
29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He
 answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find ththirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found 
there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 
32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again
but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake
 of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

(Genesis 18:17-33 ESV via http://www.esv.org)

The Bible is not explicit in describing the evil that occurred in Sodom and Gomorrah. But two things stand out in this passage. The LORD speaks of “the outcry” against these two cities and the gravity of their “sin.” Some people have suggested that there is a single egregious sin– “sodomy”– that roused God’s especial judgment. Certainly, in chapter 19 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+19&version=NIV) the men of the city demand that Lot’s “guests” be brought out so they can have sex with them. Lot offers his virgin daughters, but the men refuse and become so violent that the “guests” have to intervene. However, a parallel story is reported later in the Old Testament, this time in the city of Gibeah in the region of Benjamin. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Judges+19&version=NIV) And, while judgment is delivered to the city, it is not singled out for especial judgment by fire from heaven.

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Whatever the evil in Sodom, it included rape, sodomy, and likely human trafficking and human sacrifice (see the end of Genesis 14, where the king of Sodom offers Abram all the material spoils of war, in exchange for all the people). It was not just the evil of sexual promiscuity or occasional violent practices, but something that caused an enormous “outcry” from victims, and possibly even angelic messengers reporting on the level of depravity, destruction, and oppression involved. Yet Lot lived there for years, raising his family, going about his business, and ignoring or excusing the evil all around him. There is no record of him making any positive difference, any positive contribution; no record of Lot doing anything to stand out from among his neighbors.

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And when judgment comes, it is swift and terrible. The Angelic messengers must drag Lot and his family away from their home and possessions. They urge him to flee into the mountains, but he balks and asks to be allowed to flee to the small town at the edge of the destruction. (More about this at a later time…) Lot has lost almost everything of value– he ends up bankrupt; materially, and spiritually. Lot is a vacant shell of a man–fearful and snivelling, weak and empty.

What evil occurs in our neighborhoods today? What are we doing to alleviate it? Combat it? Excuse it? Enable it? If God were to bring judgment to our city or country, would He have to send angels to drag us out of the fire? Would he find even 10 righteous people on our block? In our apartment complex? God didn’t find 10 righteous people in Sodom…In fact, the Bible doesn’t say that he found ANY! Lot and his daughters were spared, but the stench of Sodom and Gomorrah lingered in this family to their ruin.

Lot’s legacy is one of emptiness, loss, and depravity. But there is one bright spot, which we’ll look at next time. God is slow to anger, and rich in mercy. His redemptive plan will include even Lot with all his flaws and weakness. And it extends to each of us, regardless of where we’ve lived, or what we’ve experienced. God didn’t find any righteous people in Sodom; He knew He wouldn’t! More than once the Bible tells us “there is no one righteous; not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12; Psalms 14:1-3, others…) God’s plan is not to find people who are already righteous– His plan is to rescue people like Lot; people like US! And His plan is to include us in the rescue effort, too.

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I’m learning a “lot” from Lot. There are a couple more things I want to explore in the coming days. I hope you will join me.

A Whole “Lot” of Trouble

I’ve been following the story of Lot– a Biblical character in the book of Genesis, and the nephew of Abram/Abraham. I left off in Genesis 13, where Abram and Lot had to separate their flocks and herds. Abram offered Lot the opportunity to choose the best of the land– and Lot jumped at his opportunity. He chose the well-watered valley along the Jordan river, near the thriving cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and moved his tents just outside of Sodom.

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But the author of Genesis (likely Moses, writing generations later) adds a single sentence that foreshadows events to come: “ But the people of this area were extremely wicked and constantly sinned against the Lord.” (Genesis 13:13 NLT via http://www.biblegateway.com). It doesn’t take very long for this small detail to add up to a “lot” of trouble. The fertile Jordan valley may look like a paradise, but there are perils and pitfalls all around. In Genesis 14, we hear of a great war– five regional kings against four– with Sodom and Gomorrah caught in the middle. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+14%3A1-16&version=NLT) The armies and kings of Sodom and Gomorrah flee the battlefield, and straight into a series of tar pits. The opposing armies loot the cities, taking all the food and supplies. They also kidnap Lot and take all his possessions, because he was “living in Sodom.”

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Notice two important details here– Lot is no longer pitching his tents outside the city; he has moved into Sodom. When we make the choice to live “on the outskirts” of evil, thinking we will remain separate and untouched, we are asking for trouble. Lot cannot live in paradise and avoid the evil and war all around him. And he isn’t prepared for the consequences. The war is happening all around him, yet he has made no plan to escape or to fortify his home or property.

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Secondly, Lot wasn’t among the army or fighting with the kings– on either side! Lot stood for nothing; fought for nothing; defended nothing. Lot placed all of his hope and faith in blind chance– thinking somehow he would be spared the violence and war happening all around. He seems to have had no concern about his neighbors or their fate. He seems indifferent to their losses, and uncaring of their needs. One might argue that if the neighbors were so wicked, Lot had no obligation to help them, but his level of apathy and inactivity suggest that Lot was both self-centered and inept.

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One of Lot’s men manages to escape and bring word of this disaster to Abram, who mobilizes his men, makes a daring night raid on the army of the five kings, rescues Lot and restores all of the stolen property and other kidnapped people. The king/priest of the city of Salem (meaning peace) blesses Abram. The rescued King of Sodom offers Abram all the captured loot in exchange for the people, but Abram refuses. Unlike his nephew, who is enticed by lands and goods and wealth, Abram seeks only peace and goodwill.

This might have been the end of Lot’s troubles; he might have learned a valuable lesson. But he didn’t.

Will we?

Whom Shall I Fear?

Psalm 27

Of David.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
whom should I dread?
When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh,
my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell.
Though an army deploys against me,
my heart will not be afraid;
though a war breaks out against me,
I will still be confident.
I have asked one thing from the Lord;
it is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
gazing on the beauty of the Lord
and seeking him in his temple.
For he will conceal me in his shelter
in the day of adversity;
he will hide me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Then my head will be high
above my enemies around me;
I will offer sacrifices in his tent with shouts of joy.
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Lord, hear my voice when I call;
be gracious to me and answer me.
My heart says this about you:
“Seek his face.”
Lord, I will seek your face.
Do not hide your face from me;
do not turn your servant away in anger.
You have been my helper;
do not leave me or abandon me,
God of my salvation.
10 Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord cares for me.
11 Because of my adversaries,
show me your way, Lord,
and lead me on a level path.
12 Do not give me over to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
breathing violence.
13 I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart be courageous.
Wait for the Lord.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+27&version=CSB
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There are a lot of scary things in our world– war, disaster, taxes, death, violence, injustice, disease, uncertainty, evil, darkness, even supernatural and spiritual darkness–enough to keep us frightened and sleepless every night! And we spend a lot of our time fearing the unknown–worrying about the future; worrying about things that have not happened, and may never happen! We worry about things that matter– the health and well-being of our loved ones, uncertainty about our job or home, crime and civil unrest in our nation or neighborhood, difficult decisions with serious consequences. We worry about things that are less urgent–someone laughing at us, hair loss, dropping a phone call, running out of gas, losing a game or an argument…

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David had some real reasons to be fearful as he wrote Psalm 27–evildoers, enemies, war and armies, false witnesses, and violence. Yet, he found safety and strength in the Lord. We can take comfort in the message of this Psalm–God is faithful. He is strong. He is eternal and unchanging. He is a stronghold we can trust.

But before we get too comfortable, let’s take a closer look. David’s trust is not based on a superficial knowledge about God. David’s trust comes as a result of seeking God’s face and following in “your way” (v. 11). David’s life was proof of God’s strength and protection, because David’s life was filled with fearsome adversaries!

Many generations after David penned this Psalm, the prophet Amos wrote to the people of Israel– people who knew this comforting psalm, but had lost their fear–people who no longer sought the Lord’s protection or His ways.

Amos 5 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

Listen to this message that I am singing for you, a lament, house of Israel:
She has fallen;
Virgin Israel will never rise again.
She lies abandoned on her land
with no one to raise her up.
For the Lord God says:
The city that marches out a thousand strong
will have only a hundred left,
and the one that marches out a hundred strong
will have only ten left in the house of Israel.

For the Lord says to the house of Israel:
Seek me and live!
Do not seek Bethel
or go to Gilgal
or journey to Beer-sheba,
for Gilgal will certainly go into exile,
and Bethel will come to nothing.
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will spread like fire
throughout the house of Joseph;
it will consume everything
with no one at Bethel to extinguish it.
Those who turn justice into wormwood
also throw righteousness to the ground.
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns darkness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who summons the water of the sea
and pours it out over the surface of the earth—
the Lord is his name.
He brings destruction on the strong,
and it falls on the fortress.
10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty
at the city gate,
and they despise the one who speaks with integrity.
11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and exact a grain tax from him,
you will never live in the houses of cut stone
you have built;
you will never drink the wine
from the lush vineyards
you have planted.
12 For I know your crimes are many
and your sins innumerable.
They oppress the righteous, take a bribe,
and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates.
13 Therefore, those who have insight will keep silent
at such a time,
for the days are evil.
14 Pursue good and not evil
so that you may live,
and the Lord, the God of Armies,
will be with you
as you have claimed.
15 Hate evil and love good;
establish justice in the city gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of Armies, will be gracious
to the remnant of Joseph.
16 Therefore the Lord, the God of Armies, the Lord, says:
There will be wailing in all the public squares;
they will cry out in anguish in all the streets.
The farmer will be called on to mourn,
and professional mourners to wail.
17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
for I will pass among you.
The Lord has spoken.

18 Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!
What will the day of the Lord be for you?
It will be darkness and not light.
19 It will be like a man who flees from a lion
only to have a bear confront him.
He goes home and rests his hand against the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
20 Won’t the day of the Lord
be darkness rather than light,
even gloom without any brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise, your feasts!
I can’t stand the stench
of your solemn assemblies.
22 Even if you offer me
your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
I will have no regard
for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice flow like water,
and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.
25 “House of Israel, was it sacrifices and grain offerings that you presented to me during the forty years in the wilderness? 26 But you have taken up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star god, images you have made for yourselves. 27 So I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.” The Lord, the God of Armies, is his name. He has spoken.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Amos+5&version=CSB
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The people have an outward confidence– they believe themselves to be under God’s protection and blessing. They offer sacrifices and sing worship songs and revel in their success and peace. But God’s words are frightening and urgent. Those who arrogantly call for the “Day of the Lord,” expecting God to pass judgment on their enemies will find to their shock and horror, that God’s wrath falls on them as well. Their confidence has been misplaced, because it has rested on a false picture of God, and an exaggerated sense of their own righteousness. God warns them that judgment is coming– and even as He does, He issues an invitation– “Seek me and live!” (v. 4– see also v. 6 and v. 14). God has withheld judgment, He has given His people opportunity to follow His way. Instead, they have followed the ways of the very enemies they used to fear! Their feasts and festivals have become nothing but a mockery and an affront to God–the same people who claim to worship Him are perverting justice and oppressing the poor. They cheer for evil and refuse to listen to the truth.

God is a stronghold and a light to banish fear and darkness–but a stronghold or tower cannot protect you if you are wandering alone and unprotected or worse yet, if you are leaving the tower to embrace the enemy in the dark! God doesn’t just want to be a light at the end of the tunnel– He wants to be a light to show us the road right in front of us, and a light to banish the darkness where our enemy hides! When we have a proper “fear” of the Lord– when we recognize His wisdom, strength, and sovereignty– when we seek Him in humility and awe and need, and dwell with Him, we need not fear anyone or anything else. When we make empty boasts about God’s favor and protection while ignoring His ways, we drown out His loving warning and His call to return to safety…we should be afraid– very afraid!

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Father, may I find my confidence only in You. I want to dwell in Your house and seek Your face today and every day. Thank You for being eternally strong, righteous, faithful, and merciful! Thank you for giving us warnings and providing restoration, hope, and salvation. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

“Thoughts and Prayers”…Revisited

One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”

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But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.

Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.

But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.

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And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.

Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.

Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.

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I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.

But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.

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And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.

Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.

Hannah and the Priests

The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel is filled with priests. Her husband, Elkanah, is of the priestly class, and regularly goes to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Chapter one quickly mentions Hophni and Phinehas who were the resident priests there. And of course, there is Eli, their father, the High Priest at that time. Hannah has access to counselors, spiritual guidance, and men whose ancestral calling is to bring people closer to God. Yet none of them can bring Hannah out of her anguish and offer comfort.

Hophni and Phinehas are noticeably absent in this story. The mention of their names calls attention to this absence. They were supposed to be the acting priests, but they don’t interact in any way with the grieving Hannah, or her husband, Elkanah. Further reading reveals that they were very wicked and due to be judged for abusing their priestly role. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A12-36&version=NIV

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Eli himself is an indifferent priest. The first mention of him is as the father of the wicked Hophni and Phinehas. Next, we find him sitting in a chair at the doorstep of the tabernacle. He is not serving; he is not overseeing; he is not doing anything. When he first observes Hannah, he jumps to a wrong and judgmental conclusion– that she is drunk and raving. He doesn’t go over to see if he’s right in his assumption. In fact, there is no mention in the passage that he ever rises from his chair.
We might gloss over this passage, without grasping the importance of this detail. Nowhere in the long lists of a priest’s duties was there an option of sitting at the door and just watching people go in and out. The priests all had duties– some were in charge of the sacrifice (as Elkanah sometimes was). Others were in charge of the lamps, the incense, the care of the utensils and tools, offering prayers, singing, playing instruments, reading from the books of the law, and keeping the tabernacle clean and in good repair. None of them required sitting. Eli isn’t busy doing the work of the Lord; he is literally sitting down on the job.
In short, Eli is not a spiritual giant– he offers a standard blessing after Hannah pleads her case for not being a drunken disturber of the peace, but he doesn’t offer much in the way of true comfort or counseling. His first words to her are to “Go in peace.” The blessing seems to be almost an afterthought. Still, Hannah goes away encouraged, and comes back the next day to worship before returning home.

What can we learn from this encounter and these details in Hannah’s story?

One possible reaction is to become critical and dismissive of the clergy. I think this is the wrong reaction, but I want to address it in this context, because it can keep us from finding help and blessing if we let it. I know countless people who have walked away from the church because of one disappointing encounter with a minister, pastor’s wife, deacon, or fellow parishioner. Eli was not a stellar example of Israel’s priesthood; he was a flawed human. He had rebellious sons, and was likely depressed or anguished over his own troubles. Yet, he was still faithful to turn Hannah’s attention to the One who is always able to bring comfort and strength. Hannah could have chosen to focus on his rude and judgmental assumption about her, but she chose to focus on the hope he was able to offer.
I have gotten dismissive, even bad, advice from people in the church. I have been hurt, judged, and ignored by those who are supposed to be serving God. But just as God provides grace to cover our own failures and mis-steps, He asks us to extend forgiveness and grace to those–even those who serve Him.*

Having said that, I think there is a warning here for those who serve the Lord. Eli ends his days in tragic fashion, his family legacy in ruins, because of some of the details we glimpse even in this short passage about Hannah. Eventually, her son, Samuel, will be tasked with the job of delivering the fullness of God’s judgment against Eli and his sons. Eli’s priesthood was not a cushy position of sitting at the door of God’s tabernacle enjoying an afternoon breeze. He was in charge of setting the tone of reverence and worship for the nation. His sons were corrupt; everyone knew it, including Eli, but nothing was done about it. He sat there, and let evil happen around him.
Church workers, pastors, and priests who do evil and abuse their positions may get away with it for awhile, but God will not hold them guiltless. Nor will he hold those guiltless who cover up or deny the guilt of those around them. No matter how high the position, no matter how much “good” they have done, unless they repent of their actions, they will face God’s wrath over their evil acts.

Finally, we need to see Hannah’s response. Regardless of how evil the sons of Eli were, or how spineless Eli was as a parent and a High Priest, Hannah found faith– not in the priests– but in the God they served. She had seen the dedication of her husband, Elkanah. He served God with reverence, and he served his family with love and honor. She saw that Eli, even sitting down on the job, was still aware that hope and healing come from the Almighty.

Hannah’s response to Eli, and the God he served so imperfectly, deserves another look– one we will take in the next post.

I pray that today, we will be grateful to God for the faithful servants he sends into our lives, and for his grace when we or others “sit down” on the job of serving others and showing Him the reverence He deserves.

How Firm a Foundation

  1. How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
    Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
    What more can He say than to you He hath said—
    To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
  2. “Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
    For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
    I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
    Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.
  3. “When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
    The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
    For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
    And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
  4. “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
    My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
    The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
    Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
  5. “The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
    I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
    That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
    I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

“How can you believe in a God who lets bad things happen?”
We live in perilous times; dangerous times.  Right now, fires are sweeping through the western United States.  Earlier this year, the world was shaken by earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, cyclones, volcanic eruptions, dust storms, and typhoons–all natural disasters–as well as gang violence, mass shootings, and political unrest.  Often, it seems as if God is absent or powerless–sitting on the sidelines and letting bad things happen.  Those of us who claim faith in an omnipotent, loving, and gracious God are mocked and challenged.  How can we believe in the face of such evil and injustice?  How can we offer the empty comfort of prayers and assurances?

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It can be very difficult to face such challenges– there are no easy answers and “mic-drop” moments for us in this world.  But that doesn’t mean that there are no answers or that our faith is “blind” or without merit.

The Bible is filled with examples of people who followed God in extraordinary circumstances, often in the face of great evil and with little logical expectation of God’s blessing or help.  Abraham traded a wealthy, safe, and honorable life in his native land to live as a stranger and a nomad among foreigners.  Even after God seemed to fulfill the promise of a son, he tested Abraham’s faith, asking him to sacrifice his only son Read the complete story here...  Many people see this story as a horrific example of injustice and cruelty– and if Abraham had been required to go through with the sacrifice, it might seem even more unjust and cruel.  However, there are two points to consider:

  1. God clearly planned to rescue Isaac–there was a ram in the thicket all ready and waiting.  Abraham may not have known God’s purpose in asking such a thing, but he had faith that “God will provide for himself the lamb…”  God may have been “testing” Abraham, but he already knew the outcome.  The “test” was not for God–perhaps not even for Abraham–the test was for Isaac and all who would follow and experience the blessings that came through this amazing act of faith.
  2. The story of Abraham, like so many others, is given to illustrate difficult truths– sometimes about God’s character, or OUR character, or the nature and consequences of Sin.  These stories also often form patterns of allegory, foreshadowing, or illustrations of key principles and events.  Abraham was told to sacrifice his only and very beloved son– a horrible prospect for any father.  But God provided a substitute sacrifice– a lamb– allowing Isaac to live and become the father of many nations.  God’s plan for the salvation of the world was built on the same pattern.  God sent his only and very beloved “son” to be the substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all mankind– a horrible prospect for a loving Heavenly Father.  And this time, the son willingly gave His life to become the fulfillment of the promise acted out in Abraham’s story.

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And, of course, there are hundreds of other stories– throughout the Bible, and throughout history– that demonstrate the blessings that come through radical and even tiny acts of faith in God.

Hebrews, chapter 11 lists several examples.  And a key verse in the chapter points out:

13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13 KJV)

These great examples of faith died without seeing the end results..but the end results are there for US to see!  Faith in humanity– faith in Science– faith in ourselves– these are doomed to end in disappointment.  Not because we don’t believe enough; not because these things are “bad”– but because faith needs an unshakeable, immovable, solid, and eternal foundation.  Our faith in Christ is not a blind faith, an empty faith, or a desperate faith– it is a Faith that is firmly rooted in history, in observable facts, and in revealed truth.  And even in the fiercest storms, the worst of disasters, and the overwhelming flood of hatred and evil in the world, our faith stands firm and sure– not because it is our faith, but because it is built on Him who is before and above all things–yesterday, today, and forevermore.

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“This Should Not Be…”

James 3:9-10 New International Version (NIV)

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

I was caught off guard last night, when an acquaintance of ours stopped my husband and me to warn us about one of our new neighbors.  “You know (person x) has been to jail twice for (X crime).”  Our acquaintance then spewed out hateful curses and fears about all the evil that might/could happen now that this new person has come to the neighborhood, and how they don’t “deserve” to live here.  I hope the fears and curses are unfounded or exaggerated.  I didn’t know how to respond–the anger and fear were palpable, and even understandable.  No one wants to live in an area noted for crime.  But…

What caught me off guard about the encounter was not the possibility that we have a neighbor with a criminal history, or that uncovering a person’s criminal past would make someone fearful or angry.  What got to me was the level of spite and viciousness, and the expectation that our reaction would be immediate and profound.

What got to me even more was my actual reaction.  It wasn’t anger at the new neighbor, but suspicion toward my acquaintance.  Why the urgency in spreading this “news”– why the visceral hatred? (The crime in question wasn’t murder, and no details of the crime were related.)  Following close on the heels of this was the thought that this was very much like some of the posts I see on social media or in my e-mail–sensational reports of crimes, and Hate Speech, and scandals–vicious stories, often exaggerated or even untrue, about everyone from people I know or used to know from my hometown, all the way up to heads of state and “respected” celebrities falling from grace.

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And how do I react to those pieces of cyber gossip and internet sensations, and “fake” news reports?  Do I eagerly spread the word, sparing little thought of the worthiness of the information or the consequences to both the guilty and innocent people involved?  Do I ever wonder what would happen if I were the subject of such wildfire rumors or smear campaigns?

Romans 3:13-18 (NIV)

13 Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit. 
The poison of vipers is on their lips.
14     Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.
15 Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.
18  There is no fear of God before their eyes

Is that me?  Do I, with the same mouth that praises and prays to God, curse and spread poison about people made in His image?  People I don’t even know or never have met?  Do I delight in pointing out the worst in others?  Do I rush to shed blood (figuratively) and destroy the lives of other people from the safety and anonymity of my computer or phone?  Do I play judge, jury, and executioner because it makes me feel clever or self-righteous?

dry animal gift dangerous
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This should not be.

Lord, search me and know my thoughts and words.  Give me the strength to tame my tongue and the fingers that itch to “share” poison and lies and misery.  Help me to know the way of peace, and to speak truth about your grace and your holiness, not what I imagine my own to be.

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