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.

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.

The New You, and a New Year

In 2016, we begin a new year, and so many people make resolutions and goals, and so many of them go “unacheived” as my Runkeeper reminded me last night. We try to be better people, but these goals and resolutions are really our trying to make ourselves better. This was clear as I introduced my wife to the Star Wars franchise this week, and as Yoda is training a young Luke Skywalker, he responds to Luke’s whining about trying, by saying, “You either do, or do not, there is no try.” Thus informing us thatwe all need to stop trying to be better people, and just be better people.

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Luke completed his training by controlling his feelings and allowing the force to move through him, but we have a powerful “force” that enables us to be a new creation, in our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus. We need to humble ourselves and allow the power of Christ to make us into more than we were.

The Message paraphrases this passage in 2 Corinthians 5 as the following:

Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you.

2 Corinthians 5:16-20 MSG

Therefore, the power and force that leads us into becoming more, and bringing peace and hope to the world begins with a step toward Christ. The work that will be done through you is mighty and miraculous and is not about goal setting, but about witnessing the power of God at work within each of us.

The Magic of Christmas

As kids, many of us grew up, and waited for Santa to come and deliver us gifts under the tree. However, as we got older this mystery has dissipated and become the drudgery of dealing with the chaos that ensues during every holiday season. On social media, we see the obligatory posts about stores putting the Christmas stuff out earlier and earlier each year. All the more seeing our Christmas slip into a commercialized blob at the end of each year.

When we have children, or new little ones enter our lives this spark is renewed, as some of us get to play Santa to our children. However, eventually they too, lose the Spirit and are more concerned about how many gifts they receive and the smiles are harder to come by, because commercialism becomes king in their Christmas.

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The problem we encounter is the fact that we chase those smiles. We want our children to be in awe and believe, and we think the best way to do that is to make sure we make sure those lists are fulfilled. Unfortunately, this would be a never ending process, because each year would be more, and the smiles get smaller, no matter what we try.

Last night, my daughter surprised me, because she showed me that the mystery of Christmas is alive, when she was reading the story about Jesus’ birth to her siblings, and they were all enraptured at the story of God’s perfect gift.

I was reminded that giving is not about chasing smiles, but about reflecting God’s love shown to us in the free gift of GRACE. This reflection is not about chasing, but about loving, and blessing those we encounter. This is the mystery of Grace and the true mystery of Christmas promoting giving freely to those we encounter, and doing so without wanting any credit, but rather giving others the joy that God has given us through the gift of Christ.

Happy New Year

As we say goodbye to another year, I would like to wish everyone a prosperous, blessed, and joy-filled new year. Today we say goodbye, reflect on what the past year has brought us, and looking forward to another year. I am hoping that 2015 will be revolutionary with regards to my personal life, family, work, and our world. 2014 was a year like no other, but that is the case with every year I can remember. Some of us got married, some of us got divorced, some of us had to deal with loss, while others among us celebrated new life, some of us got new jobs, some of us lost jobs, some of us moved into new homes, some of us had no significant change to our life status whatsoever. Whatever happened in 2014, it is a part of our past, and each new day brings us hope of a new future in front of us, and I hope that 2015 helps us recognize that.

Hawaii-DayOne-2014

So many of us make resolutions this time of year, but I am burned out on resolution making, because they don’t work for me if they aren’t specific enough, or aren’t detailed in how I am going to go about accomplishing them. If you believe what they say on the news every single year people tend to make resolutions toward getting in shape, (hence the boom in gym memberships at the beginning of the year); losing weight, (the number of weight watchers, nutrisystem, jenny craig commercials has gone up tenfold this week); or improving their money management. In Christian circles, we also see a lot of people wanting to pray more, or read their Bibles more frequently.

At the beginning of the year we are filled with so much hope and vision for a promising new beginning, but as soon as we stumble off the track toward becoming our new selves, we fall back into the same routines. I remember writing this last year, and I write it again this year because I need the refresher course, and I need to embrace not only the pursuit of long term goal setting, but also the grace when I begin to head in the wrong direction, and need to remind myself of the promise and hope that came at the beginning of the year. (Maybe I will set this post to come up on my feed every two weeks as a reminder of what I said as 2014 wrapped up.)

One way I think we can combat the resolution making fatigue is long term goal setting. Last year I set for myself a goal to run 1700 miles, and somewhere in June I realized that training for two marathons was going to take me past that mark in late October, so I revised my goal at that point to 2000 miles. As of my last run of 2014, I have run just over 2015 miles this year. Those type of goals, for me, are easy to realize and track throughout the year. However, I learned in the process of setting this goal that I was too conservative in my goal setting, and realized I needed to adjust midstream. Sometimes, however, our goal setting might be too ambitious and we need to give ourselves enough grace to modify them midstream.

This year I encourage you to set some goals for yourself, and if you need to adjust them at the midpoint, feel free to do so. I am setting some goals for myself and will list them below to give you an idea of my goals for the year.

I want to use 2015 to run 1500 miles, swim 150 miles, and bike 2000 miles.

I want to use 2015 to read 12 novels (10 new, 2 rereads), and 12 non-fiction books.

I want to use 2015 to write 50 blog posts.

I want to use 2015 to write a short book for my kids at Christmas time, and begin work on my first book.

I want to use 2015 to write my wife a love note once a week.

I want to use 2015 to spend at least 15 minutes in quiet solitude each morning before I go exercise.

As you see above three of my goals have measurable statistics that I can easily modify, and three are behavior modifications toward helping me become a better man, husband, and father. Maybe you think I went to far, or maybe you don’t think I am stretching myself enough, but I think this is what it will take to create a revolution in my behavior, and after that I give it to God to actually do the changing in my heart.

With all of that said, I want to wish you all the happiest 2015, and may we all accomplish our goals toward further sanctification in the new year.

The Cult of Stuff

Much of life is filled with stuff. This stuff invades our lives, consuming our time, our money, our energy, and our strength. The stuff tells me that I need more of the stuff, and that in order to get this stuff I need to work harder, consume more of myself, and move further into the cult of stuff.

My interests push me further into this cult. I have tablets, laptops, the latest iPhone, and each of these items make my life easier (I think), but they also cause me to crave another piece of technology. Guess what, in six months to a year, there will be another device that will be better, and I WILL WANT IT, because I have bought into the cult. Every year I think I will finish my desire to get a new device, but every year I want something new. In recent history, an iPad was going to solve everything, next it was going to be a new phone, then a new tablet, then a new camera, then a new computer, then a shiny new iPhone. The craziest part about this, is that many of the items that I NEEDED are either no longer in my possession, or are just sitting in a desk drawer not being used.

Even the things, outside of this cult have been infiltrated by technology. I cannot remember the last run I took without a wire attached to my body telling me if I need to go faster, slower, and filling my head with music, podcasts, all while telling me how far and how long I have run. I love writing and photography, and I believe that these devices essentially will help me do that more, do it better, and do it more efficiently. Maybe technology does make it better, but the amount of time consumed lusting and coveting the new tech probably balances out the efficiency gained.

The evidence that I have bought in shows itself blatantly, as my wife can attest, when I go to church. By church, I mean the Apple Store. I look at their new devices, and I lust after them, I look at the 27″ iMac, and I covet. Further, I entertain the thought of going into debt to bring home the box, THE BOX THAT WILL BE OBSOLETE IN MONTHS!!!  This is pure craziness.

I am reminded that I am so terribly consumed by these things, and I burn so many calories thinking about what I want, and that this takes away from the energy I should be putting into my job, my family, and even more importantly my God. There is hope, because I don’t have to be consumed by this, and I am reminded that I have carved out a space in my heart for tech that rightly belongs to The Almighty, and that I can be redeemed. Tech isn’t everyone’s cult, but so many of us put so much effort and energy into so many other things. The Almighty God offers us peace and freedom from the pull of whatever it is that consumes our energy in ultimate futility.

A Time for Listening

This time of Lent has reminded me and taught me to be a better listener, and made me aware of how I feel when I am not being heard. This time of going without is not merely an attempt to get in tune with the people that God wants us to be, but also allow ourselves to hear the voice of God speaking to us. Tune out the grumblings of our stomach, tune out the entertainment and other items that vie for our attention, and really listen to the voice of God speaking to each one of us in this season.

Not only have I tended toward the corruption of the season by a focus on self, but I listen to my yearnings for the things that keep me from hearing God. Ecclesiastes 3:7 ESV says, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;” I have learned that silence is something I’m bad at, and speaking is something I do to fill that silence. I need to learn to be quiet more, and just simply listen.

Anyone with me?

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