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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No Turning Back

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 14:5-22, 1 John 1:1-7, John 14:1-7


Pharaoh quickly regretted his decision to free Israel and sent his army to bring them back. When Israel saw the approaching army, the people were frightened and declared it was better to live in servitude than to die in the wilderness. Moses assured them the Lord would save them if they stood firm.The Lord parted the Red Sea so Israel could pass through it, then He closed it over the Egyptian army of soldiers and chariots.

We often choose servitude when we should be trusting the Lord to lead us  through the wilderness. Maybe it’s the servitude of acceptance; we hide our true selves – the people God created us to be – when we fear the wilderness of judgment. Then there’s the servitude of success. Our culture tells us bigger (homes, cars, etc) equals better quality of life. How many of us would seriously consider scaling back our standard of living to find peace – or follow Christ? Servitude to safety is also common. Maybe we would die for our right to be Christians, but would we put ourselves in danger to actually follow the teachings of Christ?

Most of us are comfortable briefly venturing into the wilderness of hunger, poverty, and sickness like tourists being led on a soup-kitchen safari, but – citing common sense and a need for security – we let others do the dangerous work of exploring that terrain and creating safe outposts for us to visit. We can strike a balance; because Jesus knew he was dispatching the apostles into unfriendly territory, he sent them in pairs … but he still sent them.

Facing an uncertain future, Israel quickly began to look back on centuries of slavery as “the good old days.” When we pine for the “simplicity” of the past, we tend to gloss over the bad parts like slavery, genocide, racism, sexism, disease, violence, and lack of indoor plumbing. Perhaps that’s because we are in the servitude of denial that all these things are still problems today.

Faith calls us to the wilderness. Fear tells us to turn back. Only one of those directions leads to the promised land.

Comfort: The future may seem uncertain to you, but it is all in God’s hands.

Challenge: God not promise us lives of ease or comfort.

Prayer: God of justice, help me embrace your freedom even when it frightens me. Thank you for leading me through the wilderness. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you feel drawn, but afraid, to serve?

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God of History

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 13:3-10, 1 Corinthians 15:41-50, Matthew 28:16-20


God visited ten plagues upon Egypt before Pharaoh freed the Hebrews. Scholars estimate these plagues unfolded over a period anywhere from a month to a year, but even a week of boils, locusts, and other disasters must have felt unending. The last and worst one – the death of the firstborn of Egypt – was so terrible that God assured Moses Pharaoh would finally relent. It would be so effective the people would need to be ready on a moment’s notice, without even enough time to let bread rise. The Lord commanded them to prepare unleavened (yeast-free) dough, and they took it with them when Pharaoh ordered them to depart. Baked in the wilderness, this unleavened bread was literally their first taste of freedom in four centuries.

In Exodus, the Lord gives explicit and emphatic commandments about observing Passover properly. During the Passover Seder meal, Jews recount the story of their flight from Egypt. Maintaining such an observance has helped them preserve their identity across thousands of years. For all of us, remembering where we come from – both the good and bad parts – makes us wiser about where we are headed.

A workplace phenomenon called “drift” – which occurs when someone becomes overly comfortable with a duty and cuts corners – causes many avoidable errors. Many people who reach weight-loss goals find the pounds creeping back on because success has made them lax in their diet or exercise regimens. Western Christians leading comfortable lives can easily forget the Gospel should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” When we forget the past, we fail to understand the meaning of the present. Memories – personal, family, and cultural – need to be preserved lest we begin to think we are entirely self-made.

Edmund Burke said: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Living as if our present situation was inevitable will lead us to take it for granted. There’s no Passover without bondage in Egypt. We can’t be a resurrection people without a crucifixion. Let’s remember the bitter taste of our failures to stay on course, and our sweet successes to keep moving forward.

Comfort: Our pasts – overcoming the bad, benefiting from the good – inform who we are today. Your story is important.

Challenge: Read about the meaning of the Passover Seder.

Prayer: God of History, thank you for the lessons of our spiritual ancestors. May my words and deeds honor those who have gone before, especially Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What important parts of history do you think get neglected?

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Who Gives Speech to Mortals?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 84; 150, Exodus 3:16-4:12, Romans 12:1-21, John 8:46-59


When God appeared to Moses from a burning bush and asked him to confront Pharaoh about freeing the Israelites, Moses was understandably hesitant. After all, the Egyptian king already wanted him dead, and Moses had spent the last forty years as a humble shepherd. How could he effectively present himself as God’s messenger? He wanted assurance the Egyptians would believe him.

To convince Moses that Pharaoh would listen, God commanded him to throw his staff to the ground. It became a serpent, and then a staff again when Moses grabbed it by the tail. The Lord then commanded Moses to tuck his hand inside his robe. When he drew it out again, it was white with leprosy. At God’s command he repeated the actions, and it was healed. Armed with these signs and more, Moses still resisted, insisting he was slow of speech and tongue. God, seeming almost exasperated by the this point, replied: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”

Let’s consider for a moment the assurances God gave Moses. He didn’t arm Moses with magical amulets or enchanted weapons. Instead he said: show them your staff; show them your hands. God was telling Moses: “You are already equipped to do my work. Trust me.”

We often feel unwilling and ill equipped to do what God asks. Excuses come fast and easily. We lack finances. We lack time. We lack talent. But who gives us talent? Who makes us smart or senseless, rich or poor? When we answer the Lord’s call, he will equip us. This isn’t to say things will be easy. Moses experienced many trials both before and after his people left Egypt, and never entered the promised land himself, but God equipped him each step of the way.

Our gifts may seem completely ordinary until we trust God to use them, but when we do … who knows what miracles may happen and souls may be freed?

Comfort: You have been created with everything you need.

Challenge: Meditate on what you have to offer, no matter how small, that God could use.

Prayer: God of Creation, thank you for the many gifts you have given me. Teach me to see myself as you do: a child with limitless potential inspired by your love. Amen.

Discussion: What excuses do you use to avoid what’s asked of you?

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My Own Worst Enemy

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Exodus 2:1-22, 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3, Mark 9:2-13


Identity is a funny thing. We think of it as an internally generated sense of self, but in large part it is externally imposed upon us. The world’s opinion of us does not change who we are, but it does change who we are allowed to be. Take Moses, for example. As a male Hebrew infant, he was considered a potential enemy and targeted for death by the king of Egypt. When the king’s daughter pulled him from the river where his mother had set him afloat in a basket, he became part of the royal household. Scripture doesn’t say how or when he learned he was Hebrew, but by adulthood he was sympathetic to the plight of his people. After he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew, his position in Pharaoh’s house no longer mattered, and the king wanted him dead again.

Moses fled to Midian, where he met his wife Zipporah. Upon their first meeting she assumed he was Egyptian. His accent and clothes told the world he was one thing. Inside he was another … but what exactly? Never a Hebrew slave under the Egyptian whip, never a fully privileged Egyptian, always conflicted. How long was it – if ever – before he felt like a Midianite? Moses had to do the hard work of being an authentic person with no real example to follow.

To some degree, outside expectations limit us all. Culture, economic status, and other forces categorize us without regard to our true selves and needs. It’s easy to internalize those expectations and never challenge them, but there’s more power in growing from the inside out. Able to see both Hebrew and Egyptian culture up close but with an outsider’s critical eye, Moses was uniquely qualified for the service God would soon call him to. Unable to conform to any labels, he was able to transcend all of them.

Your life experiences – especially those that don’t meet expectations – prepare you for a unique role. Moses was the key God turned to free the Hebrews. What blessings are locked behind a door only you can open?

Comfort: Your differences are a gift to the world.

Challenge: When you feel like an outsider, find a constructive way to use that perspective.

Prayer: God of creation, thank you for the good and bad times that have shaped me. Help me to understand my gifts so I may use them in service to your kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: Have you suppressed any of your natural traits and tendencies to fit in better with a group?

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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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