Fear of the Fear of the Lord

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Exodus 14:21-31, 1 Peter 1:1-12, John (14:1-7) 8-17


After God parted the Red Sea so Israel could flee Pharaoh’s advancing army, God closed it again over the soldiers and the chariots and drowned them all. Afterward “the people [of Israel] feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” Psalms and Proverbs tell us “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but modern Christians, particularly more progressive ones, aren’t always comfortable with the idea of a God we should fear. After all, doesn’t Jesus tell us repeatedly: “Be not afraid?”

After four centuries in slavery, the Israelites were not at all convinced the Lord was either powerful or on their side. As the story of Exodus unfolds, their lack of faith surfaces again and again, but the demonstration of power at the Red Sea must have been unimaginably (if temporarily) sobering. This God they didn’t think much of – and practically mocked – could wipe out armies at will. Serving such a God had to be at least a little intimidating.

The most commonly used Hebrew word for this type of fear is yirah, which can mean anything from an anticipation of pain or danger to a sense of reverence, awe, or wonder. We like to emphasize that second part more than the first, but straight-on fear is a healthy part of our emotional makeup.

Even loving parents know fear is sometimes a necessary element of teaching children; a one-year old can’t be reasoned out of touching a hot stove. Throughout childhood they force us to do things for our own good. As we mature, that fear evolves into more of a healthy respect. Don’t many of us, on some level, well into adulthood, retain a fear of disappointing our parents not because we think they will punish us or withdraw their love, but because that relationship means so much to us? In a similar manner, hopefully our childish notion of a God waiting to smite sinners eventually gives way to understanding the God described to us by Christ. Fear of God may be the beginning of wisdom, but it is never the end.

Comfort: Our understanding of God and relationship with God are always evolving. It is OK to feel many ways about God, from fearful to playful, as long as we maintain respect.

Challenge:  Meditate on how fear might be masking other feelings.

Prayer: Grant me the courage, O Lord, to follow you wherever you would lead me. It is in your service that I find freedom. Amen.

Discussion: What is something you fear? What other emotions are entangled in that fear? Respect? Shame? Confusion?

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The Great Author

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 150, Genesis 41:14-45, Romans 6:3-14, John 5:19-24


Joseph was a pivotal figure in the history of Israel. His brothers – angered by their father Jacob’s preferential treatment and by Joseph’s visions predicting his rise to power over them – sold Joseph into slavery and told Jacob he was dead. Though Joseph was respected by his master and made head of the household, the master’s wife framed him for assault and he was jailed. After years of imprisonment – where his talents  again put him in an unlikely position of leadership – Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams landed him a role as Pharaoh’s chief adviser. When a famine fell over Egypt and the surrounding lands, Joseph’s foresight kept the people from starving and he was able to save his long-estranged family by welcoming them into Egypt.

The story of Joseph is full of ironic turns.

The beautiful coat his father gives him to express love becomes falsified evidence of Joseph’s death.  When he refuses the advances of his master’s wife, Joseph’s integrity lands him in jail. Dreaming causes his family to cast him out, but eventually allows him to save them – and ultimately all of Israel. After his death, the Isralites fall out of favor with the Egyptians and become slaves, setting the stage for Moses and the Exodus.

Ferdinand Sabino said: “Everything will be fine in the end; if it’s not fine, it’s not the end.” Joseph’s story has a slightly different message: there is no end. What works against us today may work for us tomorrow. Yesterday’s triumph may be next year’s tragedy … and the following year’s triumph again. We never know how things will work out, and the end of our individual story is not the end of the greater story. Tying it all together is the presence of God inviting dreamers and kings, slaves and kidnappers to open themselves up to possibility and move the story of God’s kingdom forward. Whatever your situation is today, it will eventually change. Like Joseph, we do best in good times and bad when we hold tight to our faith while we wait for whatever unfolds in the Great Author’s next chapter.

Comfort: Change is inevitable, but God’s love is constant.

Challenge: God’s love is constant, but change is inevitable.

Prayer: Loving God, I will trust you always to see me through hardships and joys. May I be open to playing my part well in the endless story of your love and your kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: What have been some of the unexpected twists in your part of the great story?

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Celebrity Gossip

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Genesis 37:25-36, 1 Corinthians 2:1-13, Mark 1:29-45


The fastest form of communication known to humankind may be … gossip. The most mundane fact becomes interesting if someone tries to keep it a secret. Celebrities and publicists take advantage of this quirk of human nature all the time by “leaking” information to stoke curiosity about a project or event that otherwise might have garnered little notice. Both giving and receiving such information produce a thrill of being part of an inner circle.

So why would Jesus – with his incisive understanding of human nature – bother to tell a man he had healed of leprosy to “say nothing to anyone?”

Maybe it was because he knew that the wrong kind of fame would attract the attention of his enemies sooner rather than later. Even for Jesus, fame was a difficult beast to tame. Like many modern “superstars,” he quickly became a victim of his own success. He wanted to control the spread of his message, but the more famous he became, the less he was able to travel and teach freely, or to find solitude to renew himself. Eventually he stayed put while the crowds came to him.

If the healed man is any indication, it seems that while God invites us to cooperate with “the plan,” its eventual success doesn’t hinge on our individual compliance. Our disregard may even be turned to an advantage. Jay Bakker, son of controversial televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, abandoned the church and turned to substance abuse as a reaction to scandals plaguing his family. Surely substance abuse is not part of God’s plan for anyone, but his experiences equipped him to co-found Revolution Church, a successful ministry reaching many people neglected or feared by more traditional churches.

It can be comforting to believe everything happens for a reason. Could it be even more comforting to believe that, no matter why something happens, even if it initially seems to go against the plan, God can turn it toward his purpose? From loose-lipped lepers to prodigal sons, we can all be instruments of the divine will. Who are you going to let in on the secret?

Comfort: You can be part of God’s plan, but it won’t be derailed when you are.

Challenge: Be sure information you pass along is true and necessary.

Prayer: Loving God, please help me to discern your will, and to trust you when I can’t. Amen.

Discussion: When have you seen seeming disaster turned around for good?

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Ego to Ashes

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Amos 5:6-15, Hebrews 12:1-14, Reading Luke 18:9-14


Ash Wednesday is the day Christians around the world begin the annual Lenten pilgrimage. Most of us will travel more spiritually than physically, and hopefully in a direction taking us closer to God in Christ. Our modes of transportation vary: prayer, fasting, giving something up, taking something extra on – the possibilities are limitless. And like physical pilgrims, we may find we need to carefully select which belongings will travel well to a destination we may not know much about.

Today’s parable from Luke highlights one possession it might be better to leave behind: ego. When we read about the Pharisee who thanks God he is not the tax collector praying nearby, we aren’t surprised Jesus says the tax collector (who is humbly praying for mercy) is more justified before God. Most of us – even religious leaders – identify more with the character of the tax collector than the Pharisee. But should we? Is it truth or ego that tells us we are appropriately humble?

The moment we thank God we are not the Pharisee (or one of the people at that church), we are guilty of his sin: pride and judgment. In Jesus’ time, the message of beloved sinners was revolutionary. People needed to hear it. Twenty centuries on, as a faith community familiar with Jesus’s teachings, we need to be careful not to wear the tax collector’s humility as the latest fashion of outward righteousness. Letting go of the idea that we have the right ideas about God can be scary, because it erodes our comfortable, Christian identity.

As we prepare for our Lenten journey, let’s unpack the thick cloak of ego to make room for humble uncertainty. This type of uncertainty isn’t so much doubt as an intentional loosening of our preconceived notions of God and self, so we can be open to growth. If we cling too tightly to who we are, we are closed to who God would have us become.

Sometimes we are the Pharisee. Sometimes we are the tax collector. Most often we are a mix of both. God will help us find the balance.

Comfort: Our Lenten journey to the cross may be frightening, but the promise of resurrection is certain.

Challenge: What person or group do you possibly feel superior to? Pray for the humility to love them without judgment.

Prayer: Merciful God, give me a heart humble and open enough to know your glory.

Discussion: How are you observing Lent this year?

Systems Check

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Proverbs 30:1-4, 24-33, Philippians 3:1-11, John 18:28-38


When the Jewish leaders arrested Jesus and took him to the Roman governor Pilate, “they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” Let that sink in for a moment… They found ritual uncleanliness unacceptable, but framing a prophet because he might actually be speaking on behalf of God was fine. Jesus was right to compare them to tombs whitewashed on the outside and rotten on the inside.

Under Roman occupation, Jewish leaders had no authority to execute anyone but they didn’t let this technicality discourage them. By saying Jesus claimed to be a king, they made him a rival of Caesar and therefore backed Pilate into a political corner. Jesus was advocating throwing off the Roman yoke for the Kingdom of God, but that didn’t suit their purpose so they twisted the truth to fabricate evidence against him. The tactic could be ripped from today’s headlines: self-righteous group misrepresents the facts to serve some narrowly defined greater good. Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” and we’ve been fudging the answer ever since.

Who are the villains in this piece? Should we point to scheming Pharisees, oppressive Romans, treacherous Judas, or fair-weather crowds? The truth is, everyone was guilty. The systems in place allowed corrupt leaders to act with impunity, communities to shift blame upward, and individuals to convince themselves they had no choice when they didn’t want to consider real but difficult options. In other words, business as usual.

In what Christ-betraying systems do we knowingly or unknowingly participate? How do we help perpetuate poverty, discrimination, violence, human trafficking, and other evils? If we knew the child sold into slavery to provide us cheap sneakers was Christ, would our cries for justice be louder and our choices different? We need to examine these questions when we make purchases, accept employment, and wield – or fail to wield – privilege and influence. Choosing God’s justice often requires choosing inconvenience, discomfort, and expense.  In God’s system, where the last are first, what does it mean to look out for number one? It means working toward justice for countless others.

Comfort: Every step you take toward justice is a step toward Christ.

Challenge: Lent starts tomorrow. This year give up apathy.

Prayer: Forgive me, Lord, for not wanting to know what I do.

Discussion: Have you ever made different choices after learning “how the sausage was made?”

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Fail to Succeed

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Today’s readings (click to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Proverbs 27:1-6, 10-12, Philippians 2:1-13, John 18:15-18, 25-27


Bodybuilders know the secret to success is failure. A muscle grows bigger and stronger only when it is worked until it fails. They reach for more than they know they can do, because they know the reward will be a stronger body. Every successful workout teaches them the limit of their strength.

Most of us are not experts at judging our own limits, physical or spiritual. When pressed we overestimate or underestimate our abilities. Many people who have gone through a crisis with a parent or child have said: “I didn’t know I could do it until I had to!”

Peter didn’t understand his own limits. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus predicted Peter would deny him three times. Of course Peter insisted he would never deny Jesus, but once the rubber hit the road Peter’s fear was greater than his faith. We can shake our heads at Peter, and insist just as hard as he did that we would not have been so faithless, but the truth is we don’t know. We have the advantage of knowing how it all turns out, but for Peter and the other disciples, Jesus’s death brought terror and confusion.

And yet … Jesus also predicted Peter would be the rock upon which he built his church. Jesus didn’t pick someone with a perfect faith, because that someone doesn’t exist. Later when Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, he asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” For each failure, Jesus offered an opportunity for redemption.

Attempting only what we know is possible is not faith, it is fear. To grow our faith, we must be willing to test its limits – to trust God to carry us through things we don’t think we can do. When things don’t work out, remember Peter.

God knows we will fail. He can use each of those failures to make us better: more humble, more compassionate, less judgmental. We may need some recovery time – bodybuilders typically wait 24-48 hours before working the same muscles again – but after we recover we know our faith is stronger than it was before.

Comfort: Failure is always an option. Through God, so is redemption.

Challenge: Pick something you’ve been afraid to try, and trust God to see you through it. Even if you fail at it, God will be with you to dust you off.

Prayer: Thank you, O Lord, for the challenges which strengthen me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been stronger than you thought you could be? If so, what or whom do you credit?

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Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 139; 150, Malachi 4:1-6, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Luke 9:18-27


Is the concept of an all-knowing God intimidating or comforting? The author of Psalm 139 finds great comfort in the idea that God has been and always will be with him, from conception through death. He portrays God’s constant presence not as one of judgment, but one of personal investment. As God’s carefully wrought works of art, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” we are each of us His precious creation.

Artists frequently compare their own creations to children; how could we be less to God? Like all good parents, He does not coerce our love through threats, nor does He abandon us when we make mistakes. God has our best interests at heart; Jesus assures us no father, when his child asks for a fish, would hand him a snake. Good parents can be strict, but always with an eye toward guiding and challenging children to be their best selves.

Psalm 139 provides beautiful images of the relationship God intends to have with us: guide, artist, parent, creator. Jesus used similar metaphors to describe our relationship to God, and they can help us explore His unknowable yet always loving nature. Whether we are living in the light or the darkness, God desires an intimate connection with each of His children.

Focusing on  God’s presence in our lives, even when we don’t necessarily “feel” it, inspires us to rise to the opportunity of being our best selves. Without reducing God’s role in our lives merely to a supportive buddy or life coach, we can contemplate God’s presence as we devise plans, make decisions, and take actions. Pausing to reflect on how God might view an action before we commit to it can help us transcend fleeting impulses which may not serve us well. If such reflection nags our conscience or sense of guilt, they may be signposts pointing us to a better – if sometimes more difficult – path. God does not promote shame but does encourage us to have self-control. God’s presence is not a fist knocking us down, but a hand lifting us up. Let’s grab it and be the wonderful creations God intended.

Comfort: God is with us always, waiting to lift us ever higher.

Challenge: Before going to bed each night, reflect on which of the day’s actions glorified God, and which you might have done differently if you’d been keeping God in mind. Thank God for loving you enough to help you do better tomorrow.

Prayer: Thank you God for always calling me toward the right direction.

Discussion: Can you imagine yourself as a work of art? If not, why not? If so, what kind of art would you be?

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The Good Consultant

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Genesis 24:28-38, 49-51, Hebrews 12:12-29, John 7:14-36


As a profession, consultants have a mixed reputation. After consultants have provided expensive professional expertise, employees commonly respond (correctly) with: “They didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.” If this is the case, is the service valuable or not? It can be — if what the business really needed was confirmation, not innovation. It may not sound as poetic as The Good Shepherd, but Jesus was also The Good Consultant.

When Jesus had grown popular enough that Jewish authorities began plotting to kill him, he had two choices: go into hiding, or follow his calling. Despite the danger, he began preaching openly in the temple during Sukkot, one of the most important festivals of the year. People marveled that he, who had not been taught, could teach so wisely. Jesus responded by saying his teachings were not his own but those of God. He advised anyone who doubted his credentials to apply a simple litmus test: was he speaking for his own glory, or for the glory of God? “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”

In this particular case he was preaching about their hypocrisy when it came to applying the Law of Moses, but he wasn’t providing any new information. Many prophets before him told the people of Israel their observation of the law was meaningless — even offensive — to God if they weren’t offering mercy and justice to the least among them. Like many enterprises, they were too busy performing day-to-day operations to step back and ask whether they were really fulfilling their mission in the best way. They knew the right things, but needed Jesus and other prophets / consultants to spur them to change direction.

In our spiritual lives as in our work lives, we need to recognize when established authorities are glorifying themselves and the status quo over the mission, and when outside voices are telling us what we already know to be true. The Good Consultant steers us away from hypocrisy and ego toward mercy and justice.

Comfort: When your conscience tells you to choose mercy over the wishes of authority, you should probably listen to it.

Challenge: Oftentimes following Jesus means defying “business as usual.” Make time to step back and measure your beliefs and actions against the teachings of Christ.

Prayer: God, I will do my best to listen to your voice above all others – including my own. Amen.

Discussion: When you ask your friends or colleagues for advice, how often do you already know what the right answer is?

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King Incognito

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Genesis 24:1-27, Hebrews 12:3-11, John 7:1-13


Many cultures have folk tales about a king incognito, that is a king (or sometimes a prince or more unusually a queen) who disguises himself and roams his kingdom. The results of his secret adventure depend largely on whether he is a just king or an unjust one. For example, a just king may uncover plots against him and so prevent them from hatching. An unjust king may be discovered and suffer – even die – as a result. The tone of these stories generally reflect the people’s feelings about their current ruler.

Near the end of his ministry, Jesus arranged such an outing.

The Festival of Booths (Sukkot) was happening in Judea. He sent his disciples without him, saying: “I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After they departed, he went to the festival alone and disappeared into the crowd. In an era without cameras, not having a group of disciples around him was disguise enough. He was the talk of the festival, and many Jews were looking for him. Some said he was a good man, and others said he was deceiving the people.

Have you heard the phrase: “What someone thinks about you is none of your business?” Knowing what the people thought about him had no ultimate effect on Jesus’s mission. Can we imagine he was surprised to hear both good and bad news? Realistically, what else could we expect? In the verses that follow today’s reading from John, Jesus reveals himself to the crowd and begins preaching. His time had come, and in the end the king must reveal himself.

Other people’s opinions do not matter when we are carrying out the work of the Kingdom of God. While we remain open-minded and listen to what people tell us about their needs, we are to respond as Christ calls us to, whether it makes us popular or not. Some people may love us for it, some may hate us, and some of each may be fellow Christians. When we are following Christ, God’s is the only opinion that matters.

Comfort: You are accountable to no one but God.

Challenge: Do not let other people’s opinions and reactions inflate your ego or deflate your spirit.

Prayer: Breath of Life, help me to learn to rely only on you. Amen.

Discussion: Think about how other people’s opinions have influenced your behavior, for better or worse. What would you have done differently if you didn’t care?

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The Cloud

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Genesis 23:1-20, Hebrews 11:32-12:2, John 6:60-71


Pauls’s letter to the Hebrews describes the faith of many heroes of the Old Testament, including Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others. None of them were perfect, but by faith they did amazing things. They are examples and inspirations that endure. Paul describes them – and all the faithful departed – as a “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us always.

Over the years the cloud has only grown larger.

From the 20th century alone we might add names of heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., Edith Stein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or minds like C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Still more are less well known, but influential in our lives. When we struggle we can look to their lives, works, and words for strength.

Yet during difficult times, many of us insist on toughing it out alone. We convince ourselves no one has experienced the pain, grief, loss, or doubt that we endure. We isolate ourselves because no one could possibly understand us, relate to our situation, or stand to be around us. The beauty of leaning on the cloud of witnesses is that they are beyond feeling burdened by us. And they have so much to teach us.

Feeling despair? Crack open The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross, and you’ll probably start to feel like an amateur. Not much of a reader? Listen to recordings of the Psalms – number 137 reveals anguish at its purest. We don’t seek out these works to wallow in misery like a jilted lover listening to break-up songs, but because they offer wisdom from others who have overcome similar trials. Otto von Bismarck wrote: “A fool learns from his mistakes, but a truly wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” We can also learn from their triumphs.

Despite our occasional insistence to the contrary, we are never alone. Those witnesses who have gone before us, and those who stand beside us today, are a mortal manifestation of the strength and hope that come from faith. No matter where we are in life, we can plug into The Cloud.

Comfort: The entire history of God’s people is available to support you.

Challenge: Next time you feel compelled to isolate yourself because you think others wouldn’t understand, get in touch with someone to share your story.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the legacy of all who have come before me. Help me to be a worthy heir and addition to the great cloud of witnesses. Amen.

Discussion: In times of difficult, are you more likely to go it alone, or ask for assistance? What do you think that reveals about your attitude toward those who need help?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!