The Lord Shepherds Us Through Darkness

The Twenty-Third Psalm

Darkness, separation, isolation, despair, and hopelessness abound in this day and age. With pandemics, viruses, social distancing, selfishness, hoarding, and panic describing how much of the world is reacting to crisis, the church should be different, and offer a counter-narrative to the world. Hope, peace, charity, love, selflessness, joy, and faith need to be our hallmarks right now. Even if we are not pleased with the condition of the world, and we shouldn’t be, we must respond to the darkness with hope. 

David, a man after God’s own heart, saw darkness, experienced tremendous loss, and had his life threatened on many occasions. In the midst of these dire situations, he teaches us about this hope, through the way he addresses God. He never loses sight that God is in control, so we too should never lose sight that God is in control. This is apparent as we look at one of the best known Psalms, the 23rd Psalm.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside the still waters.

He restores my soul;

He leads me in the paths of righteousness

For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;

For You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

My cup runs over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Forever.

The Psalm reminds us that we have a God that loves us, cares for us, and instructs us in all times. There is nothing that separates us, pulls us away from the provision that is found in God’s grace. Even when the world becomes dark and it looks like evil is winning each and every day, God is beside us, gently leading us into places of peace and restoration. The Lord Almighty, creator of the universe, comes alongside us and shepherds us in our time of need away from fear and into hope.

Our Shepherd

During uncertain times, we find that we are desperate to be led. Unfortunately, the default for many is a descent into panic and fear. We see no exception today, with images of people rushing into the stores to buy up all the supplies, hand sanitizer, soap, toilet paper, and non-perishable food. The world economic markets are crashing because they do not like uncertainty, but none of us can tell what the future holds. The source of the uncertainty is our belief that we had control. Furthermore, it is our lack of faith that God is in control of our circumstance and our lives. While the adage states, that “nothing is certain, except death and taxes,” our faith must instruct us that nothing is certain except that God is in control.

When we begin to submit our lives to God, we then will seek God in the midst of everything. The Psalm opens up with a clear statement about God, and our relationship with God, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This is a two-fold recognition about the character of God, as a shepherd God cares for His creation and desires for His people to remain safe, and fulfilled, and it recognizes that we have no need that God is not able to provide. 

Therefore, it is imperceptible to have God’s people, those that are part of His flock, go out to the stores and stockpile supplies at this time. If we truly believe that God is in control then we should be gathering what we need for a week, and not being the cause of shortages. If anything, we should be looking out for one another, and be aware that there are many people that simply cannot afford to go out and stockpile. We need to be looking out for one another, and if anything we need to help those of us that need assistance at this time.

The Lord, as our shepherd, instructs us where to go and what to do. This is not because God is ruthless or self-serving, but because it restores us and keeps us safe and whole. Lay down in the pasture, find restoration along the still water, receive the healing that we need in our bodies, these are all the desires of a shepherd that loves His flock. There is a calm confidence and knowledge that God leads His people with, a calm confidence that desires for us to live lives fully in line with God’s law, because He knows what is life giving, and what is destructive. 

The calm and stillness we are all called to do in this Psalm is life giving. God calls on us to bring this peace to the world around us, and not react to the world by ramping up anxiety, fear, and panic, but rather we must be calm, rational, and healing. 

As churches throughout our community have made the decision to not hold regular services, there has been some criticism that we are being fearful of the virus, and contributing to the fear and panic. However, this is far from truthful, the church instead is responding to this out of love and care for our congregations, as we want to help keep people safe, and as such seek to allow God to shepherd us at this time, and follow God’s example to be sacrificial and caring to the congregation. That is why we have implemented the necessary physical distancing as suggested by the government. This does not mean that we cut off communication or connection, but rather because we serve a God that is not confined by physical space, you joining us here is worship, and the Holy Spirit is present. Our obedience to the orders of the governmental agencies is keeping the flock safe, and as such is done not to inhibit the work of God, but rather to show how powerful God really is at this time, that even though we are physically distant, God’s Name will still be praised.

In Darkness

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to remind us that darkness is all around us. The temptation to fear the future and worst case scenarios are always present. The enemy is out there trying to destroy the church, out there trying to destroy our bodies, out there working against our best interests. Our vulnerability to deceptions and lies is heightened at this time, as we are tempted to think we need to gain control over our circumstance. 

This darkness seeks to turn us against one another, it seeks to take advantage of our distancing and makes us feel as if we are alone. This seeks to isolate us and tear us apart, and when this happens fear and panic are easier to access than faith. Both of these feelings acknowledge our lack of control, but one grasps at anything to attempt to gain control, while the other yields control to God. When we yield to God, our mindset is transformed into one that focuses upon hope rather than fear.

The promises in this Psalm are safety, protection, comfort, restoration, and abundance. Like a good shepherd, God protects us even in the face of death and darkness, even in the face of a global pandemic. Though we are in the place of ultimate risk, where the darkness protects those who do evil and death casts its shadow, our fear is eclipsed by the presence of God. Where God uses His power to fend off the attacks on us, and God protects us by pulling us back from the areas where we wander into harm’s way.

In life, God doesn’t prevent evil from happening, but rather God offers us a response to the evil around us. Instead of fleeing from evil, God allows us to safely navigate our way in our enemies’ presence. Even going as far as preparing us a table, providing for us in the most turbulent times. When there appears to be little reason to hope, God gives us an abundance of hope, and casts out all fear.

At this time God is here to provide us with all that we need, and more. Out of the abundance God provides to us, we must in turn share that hope with one another. While you may not be able to physically be present with one another, there are an abundance of ways you can provide this hope. Call each other, pray with one another, be socially present for one another while you are physically distant.

So What Now

Now is the time to be directed by our faith. Respond to the panic and fear that is abundant in our world with God’s love, peace, and hope. While we physically cannot be close, we can socially connect with one another through phone calls, prayers for one another, connection through social media outlets, and sharing our excess. Some of us may not be connected through all of these outlets, but we must continue to pray for the needy, the sick, and the brokenhearted.

We must continue to strengthen our relationship with God, seek his grace and mercy, and continue reading the Word, keep praying, and be present for God’s mission in the world. This requires listening to the Holy Spirit. Many of us have so many voices and noise rolling through our ears, especially now that we are going out less. We should take the time now to turn off the noise, and listen better to one another, and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit

Our enemy seeks to hurt us, distract us, and lead us to believe that we are self-reliant. We are tricked into seeking our own self-interest first and foremost. However, we look at the world, and need to recognize that we cannot rely upon anyone other than God. We need to recognize that God is present with us at all times, and that at this time we need to allow our own self reliance to fall, and our dependence on God to rise.

This is a healthy dependence. Such dependence upon God makes us independent in this world. When we find our identity and our security in Him, we are free to deal with life and not cave in. Our heavenly Father longs to meet our dependency needs, so that we can be mature and healthy in this world—a sign of the new humanity redeemed by our Lord and invested here for His glory.

Simplify: Time

There is never enough time to do everything, or is there?

Looking through our days we have time when at work, time at play, time spent with others, time alone, time eating, and time sleeping. However, every day has the same number of hours included. Well, almost every day in the places that still observe the practice of “Daylight Savings Time”, because they get one 23 hour day and one 25 hour day a year. Many of us got to experience our 23 hour day this past weekend. However, no matter how we try and manipulate it, there are simply only a set number of hours to do the things we want to accomplish.

Time always seems to slip away like the sun at sunset

This fact requires us to assess what items for which we have time. If we try and do everything, ultimately we will only be able to set aside a small amount of time for each, and as such they may not bring as much joy, or not worth the sacrifice needed to make room for it. For instance, if you want to start taking an art class, it meets at a certain time, and you need to make the time necessary to take the class and do the work required. If art is something you are only marginally interested in, then you have to decide whether taking that class is worth the time.

Sometimes there are things that you know you need to add into your life such as: prayer and devotional time, exercise, church, Bible Study, work, sleep, etc. Adding this requires us to trim something or eliminate something to allow the space in our life. It is never as easy as we might think, because to start a new pattern requires us to break old patterns. It is the pattern of life that often leads to complexity, and the inability to make the necessary adaptations in our lives.

In the book, Love Wins by Bob Goff, he details how every Thursday he quits something. This practice always allows him the space to add something that may be life giving and fulfilling. Understandably, most of us are not as eccentric as Bob Goff, but the simplicity of the task of quitting something to make space is something we may all learn from. Most people have devotional time and exercise time in the morning. To put this practice into place, the space needs to be made in the morning, which means wake up earlier. This doesn’t just mean set the alarm to go off earlier, because that would be sacrificing sleep, which is essential to our health and wellness, but rather we need to go to sleep earlier. That undoubtedly requires quitting something in order to get to bed at the required hour to get a full night’s sleep.

Ultimately, if you are like me, and many people I know, I like to do everything. I run all the races, I work multiple jobs, I volunteer to help, I love spending time with friends, I love going on every vacation, I am go go go, never saying no, no, or no. When I do this I fill up the calendar, and I make my life very complex. Fortunately, I married someone that keeps me in check, and before I say yes, I need to check with her. This is the governor that God placed in my life in order to control me overly complicating my life.

To follow this path to simplify my life, I will take on the task to quit things and say no. Nothing but making space in my life for the things that matter most. I admit I have not been successful at this to this point in Lent, but I seek out the simple life, and offering to God, my time is my fortune, and in this offering I seek to glorify my Creator.

Simplify Social Media

Living a certain way for a great amount of time, develops habits that become innocuous. Social media thrives upon us keeping these habits up and encourages us to get “engagement”, and even as I write this, I realize I look at my page views too frequently, and I want you all to like me. While our purpose for doing a task may not be to get the maximal views or likes or comments, we easily fall into the trap of looking at them for approval, for increasing our social score, and when we reach a certain level our task, our accomplishment, our writing is then validated.

The problem with this type of living, especially as a Christian, is that we seek the approval of others first. Most of us are not attention hounds such going after social media approval, but if we don’t get that validation, we wonder why someone didn’t comment, or like my post. In turn, we reciprocate by liking everything, because our thinking become if I like their stuff, they are going to like mine. This pattern can easily become a time consuming, and add to the complexity of our lives.

For Lent, in a quest for simplicity, let us walk away from the little numbers in the corners that grade our social media validation. Some will choose to fast completely from social media, and that is great, but most of us just need to let that engagement go a little, and simplify our interaction with it. By simplifying these interactions, we make more room to seek our validation from the Almighty God, rather than each other.

Ultimately, that is the ultimate goal in this quest for simplicity. Where do I find my affirmation? If it is in anything other than God, then I have to really question whether it is edifying or not. This does not equate to living as a hermit in solitude, because God does want us to have joy, and we were given bodies to enjoy life, and people are brought into our life to enhance that joy, but God is the source of that joy. Since God gives joy, it is God’s approval we are called to seek.

Welcome to Lent (Ash Wednesday)

The party is over, and today we begin the journey to the cross. This is the beginning of Lent, a period of 40 days (not including Sundays), before we get to the celebration of the resurrection. This is a time of deeper reflection and a season to put aside those items that interfere with our relationship with our Creator, our Savior, and the Holy Spirit. As we reflect upon Christ’s sacrifice, we understand our mortality, and offer ourselves to God as an act of repentance from the sinful lifestyle we live.

Although there are no poppies… yet, God’s promise is evident, even on the bleakest days.

Why Ashes?

The practice of the imposition of ashes can be found to date to the 10th or 11th century. When the church leaders stated, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth.  Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”

The use of ashes in a Christian sense is found throughout scripture during times of
mourning, mortality, and penance. The during Job’s suffering he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, as an act of repentance the people of Nineveh put on sackcloth and ashes, and Daniel in his earnest prayers put on sackcloth and ashes when prophesying. These are only a few places where this practice is found in the Bible, but it should not be construed as an extra biblical idea that ashes are a part of our devotion to God.


Remember, man you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Giving Up

Often during Lent, people turn to giving something up, or fasting from a joyful experience or thing. This is a Christians way to mimic the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert prior to the beginning of His ministry on Earth. It is well known that many Catholics practice giving up eating meat, and even McDonald’s, among other fast food chains, capitalize on this practice by advertising their Filet-o-Fish heavily during Lent. If you have practiced “giving something up” for Lent, that is a great practice, but it must also be something that you don’t do for public consumption, but rather as a practice of private devotion, because we must hear Jesus warnings not to be like the hypocrites.

Many years I too practiced giving things up. Among the fasted items were: soda, sweets, Starbucks, social media, fast food, among many other items that do not immediately come to mind. These were just things that I gave up temporarily, and “celebrated” the Resurrection by engorging myself with them. At times, I joked with the idea of giving up sin for Lent. In this attempt at humor, I might have been closer to the true intention of the fast. Giving things up is a great introduction to the practice, but if we just wait for Easter to dive back into our old ways we miss the point.

This act of giving something up is better expressed in the practice of burying our Hallelujah during Lent. This means that during our times of worship and praise we put away the songs that are upbeat and filled with Hallelujah language. We do this for a time, so that when we bring them back on Easter it is a jubilant and joyful reintroduction celebrating Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We don’t pretend that Christ is not risen, but rather we put these types of praise away for a time, so that we appreciate them even more when they are out. The UMC site compares this to having our Christmas lights out, and that we don’t appreciate that neighbor that has them out all year, but when they come out in December we get a special sense of joy.

A Simplified Season

At the beginning of this season, the Holy Spirit draws us deeper in, and asks us to put aside those things that get in the way of our relationship. Let go of the other voices pulling us in different directions, and fully embrace our calling to Jesus, and to follow Him. This may mean giving things up, but it may not just be for 40 days, it may actually mean give things up. Use this season as a season of simplicity. Give up what you need to, and don’t give into the temptation to give up. Simplifying, like Sanctifying, are processes and may not be mastered overnight.

This is my drive this season to simplify, not just as an act of penance, but as an act to bring me closer to the man God wants me to be. Also, I have already messed up, but I don’t stop working on it. May God be your spark of joy this season, and may we use this season to draw closer and closer, getting rid of everything pulling us in every and any direction.

May you find blessing today and this season.

Standing with the Accused

The world is full of less than perfect people trying to figure out how to best cope with the imperfections in the world all around. When we all approach situations we have to make serious decisions about whether or not go one way or another. Some decisions made are right, some are wrong, and still others are ambiguous. The world is full of people doing wrong or regrettable things. At the same time there is a crowd waiting to pounce, waiting to tear the people apart that don’t have the power to hurt them back.

We live in a world where the powerful do wrong, and then when caught in the act they shrug it off because very often the people that accuse have no power over them, and no ability to enact change in their lives. When this happens we cry and yell about the injustice of the act and that something needs to happen to upend the power structures. In politics, this often turns into the imbalance of the power structures that lead to divisiveness that our political systems thrive upon these days. Power makes you think you can get away with anything, and if that power is not checked you become more bold in doing wrong things. Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and any number of tech companies have all been caught in the same traps, that people will follow you and use your product, no matter what you do, because the followers or users feel powerless against the powerful companies doing things that are detrimental with their data, with their privacy, and with their loyalty. In this environment, we feel about power and wrong-doing, when we find wrong-doing that we can affect change upon we pounce.

Unfortunately, this leads to the mob mentality that wants to burn the house down of those caught in the act. You have no power to do anything to me, therefore I will destroy you. This has happened too many times in our society, especially in the social media age. One person gets accused of something, and then their social media accounts get published on the internet, and sometime worse their physical addresses get broadcast, and then the physical safety of the person standing accused is put in danger. The mob justifies the actions based on the accused gave up their freedom when they did wrong, but this justification is truly toothless. Rather, it is just an excuse to get release and try to establish justice in a world that is often devoid of justice, but this justice is not truly justice. Justice is essentially life giving, but the actions of the mob are truly destructive.

Jesus, in John 8, shows us a better way. Here a woman is caught in the act of adultery and the mob is seeking to destroy her and make her pay the price for her misgivings. However, Jesus doesn’t simply allow the mob carry out their intended action, but rather he makes them contemplate and asks if they have no sin then carry on, but if not then drop the stones. He doesn’t do this to point out their sin, but rather to stand in between the woman and the angry mob. Obviously, the only reason they pulled this woman out was that she could do nothing to defend herself, where was the man? Adultery takes at least two, but the man probably had too much power, too much voice to bring out into the light, therefore the justice they wanted to carry out was incomplete and destructive.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of people in our world that are willing to pull the woman out for public scorn, but unwilling to stand up to the mob. Jesus calls us to stand with the woman, and to stand with the accused, even if they have done something wrong, even if they are guilty. There is no chance for reformation, and no chance for shalom if the person is destroyed and stoned and broken, and Jesus came to bring shalom not shame, He came to bring love, and not blame, and we are all invited to join in the Kingdom of God to defend the defenseless.

One last aspect of this is that we encourage those to go and sin no more, and it is vital that we do this. We need to do whatever we can, in order to help them carry this out, but if the mob wins, they do nothing but carry with them the Scarlett Letter and are not granted grace, but surrounded by scorn and ridicule that leads them to feel and know that it doesn’t matter if they turn their lives around, they will always be that of which they are accused. We want to defeat and enjoy the grace that God gives us, and share it with everyone, especially the accused.

My Team, My Family

This past weekend was filled with dirt, sleep deprivation, wind, cold cold wind, freezing temperatures, calorie deficits, cold, port-o-potties, but mostly running, laughter, encouragement, craziness, eating, and a whole bunch of love. Our running OHANA brought two teams to the Ragnar Trail Los Coyotes Event this past weekend, one team was eight-ish members that ran three different trail loops once a person, and an Ultra team of four members that ran the same loops, except they did it twice per person. This is a relay style event where each team runs around the clock until 24 loops are completed. This is the third year that these teams have participated in this event, and the fourth consecutive year I have done one of these in the fall. This has become the event I look forward to all year long, because it is a mixture of difficult running, spending time with my best friends, and growth as a person.

2018-11-12 16.08.35-1

Throughout my later in life running life, I have many accomplishments having run ultramarathons, marathons, half marathons, obstacle course races, among other races, but I would have to say the accomplishment of running this race with three of my running beasties (spelled that way on purpose), covering over 112 miles in a little over 30 hours, is one for which I hold in a special special place. This was hard, probably harder than I had given it credit, but I believe we need to do hard things to push us and mold us into being better tomorrow than we were yesterday. We are better having done this, when the soreness wears away, and I ask them if they are ready to do it again, I know without hesitation the three of them will reply, “Let’s do it!”

I am proud to be their captain, but I am filled with joy that they call me friend, and family. We have been on many adventures together, some running related, others not as much, we have rejoiced together in our successes, and been there for one another in our failures. This group is my blessing, they push me beyond what I thought I could be, and they make me want to constantly strive to be better. A better runner, a better friend, a better human being, just better. I am thankful for them, and that is why this medal will always mean more because I didn’t earn it alone, I earned it with them.

Running in an event like this breaks you down because you get deprived of sleep, the elements are something to contend with, and you are not at your best. It is setup to throw you off schedule, run at crazy hours, always trying to figure out how to get enough calories in your system, and push you to your breaking point. However, when you have the right family behind you, they tell you when to sit down, shut up, and let yourself get taken care of. That is what I experienced with this crew, and because of them I am blessed.

I raise my proverbial glass to you my Crazy.Ultra.Love and Crazy.Slower.Love Ohana! You are a blessing and I thank you for letting me be your captain!

Stress and Embarrassment

My life has many stresses on it right now, as most of us live with some sort of stress at one time or another. However, my constant focus has always been to allow the stress of the situation make you stronger, but don’t let it break you. Unfortunately, it almost broke me last night, as I drove home in tears, sad, disappointed, and grasping for control. The signs were there that I was allowing the stress to pile on without a valve to release. My blood pressure was high, my emotional control was waning, and I was feeling isolated in a room full of friends.

The thing about stress is that it can either break you, or make you stronger, but if you just allow it to pile on without a release valve, then it will break you. I was beginning to crack, and even though I always tried to put up the facade that I was alright, my body was physically rejecting that, and was telling me I needed a relief valve pulled. I have always had running and exercise as a valve to give me relief, but with a leg injury that has finally sidelined me, I needed something else as a relief valve.

Sorrow and embarrassment clouded my mind last night, and I was not my usual jovial self. I was not a person that anyone would want to be around. I was lost in my own mind while my body was paying the price; my relationships were paying the price; my sanity was paying the price. I felt out of control, I felt for the first time since I had lost my weight as if I was the unhealthy person, which was too much for me to handle. My pride broke. The stresses were mounting, and my blood pressure was spiking.

I ultimately did something I had to do, and I sought solitude. Ironically, I had just preached on how Jesus needed solitude after feeding the 5000, but I literally had a hard time practicing what I preach. The mounting stress had caused me to isolate myself even among a group of people I call friends, and the only way to break from this isolation was to find solitude. To find a place where my mind was free, and I could commune with a loving God that wants me to simply raise my arms and cry out, “Save me!”

Stress can only make me stronger if I manage it, and admit that I need help dealing with it, dispersing and relieving it when necessary, for that I need to acknowledge I am mortal and I need saving. When I need solitude, I need to go and seek solitude. When I need relief, I need to seek relief. Life is a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, but I don’t ride this ride alone, God is with me. When I forget; I embarrass myself, I lose control, and I begin to break.