Sheep Without A Shepherd

Devotional:

Isaiah 53.6

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

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My son’s preschool class announced a few weeks ago that there was going to be a school wide field trip to a farm in order to celebrate the season of fall. Parents were encouraged to attend and act somewhat like chaperones as the children would have access to most of the property including many of the animals. In the days leading up to the field trip, I didn’t give it much thought, until yesterday morning when we arrived at the farm and saw the hundreds of other kids and families descending on the farm.

The place was massive and filled with all sorts of activities – there were pirate ships to climb on, pumpkin patches to weave through, and a 45 min long hay ride through the whole property.

The best way to sum up the experience was something I overheard between a husband and his wife (outside of earshot from their children), “Who needs Disney World when we have this???”

All in all it was a great experience, and one that my son talked about all afternoon, evening, and even while I was putting him to bed last night. And I hope he will remember with fondness the slides, and the doughnuts, and the castles, but the thing I will always remember will be the wandering sheep.

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It should go without saying that sheep are dumb. They are some of the most simple minded creatures and they have to be taken care of with particular attention.

The sheep at the farm yesterday morning was wandering around outside of any fence or pen and no one seemed to notice. But the longer it paced back and forth, the more it commanded my attention. At least, it did until one of the farm workers walked over and presumably began directing the sheep back to its proper place, and when he saw me watching he said, “She’s nothing without a shepherd.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray,” says the prophet Isaiah, “we have all turned to our own way.” We modern people tend to think that we’ve got all of this life stuff figured out; we wake up day after day and go through the motions we presume give us meaning. But the hard truth of the matter is that, many of us, are no better than the wandering sheep. 

When we become so consumed by our own desires, our own hopes, our own expectations, we become like that farm animal trapped in our own loop of isolation.

Thanks be to God, then, that we have a shepherd named Jesus – the one who comes when we are lost and guides us back to the flock – the one who pulls us out of our self-absorption and helps us to see that there is a better way.

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Daydreaming About God

Devotional:

Hebrews 1.1

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed her of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

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One of the things I loved most about the church I grew up in, is that I always felt like I could bring questions about faith to the pastors. They, like good clergy in the UMC, would come and go but no matter who stood in the pulpit on Sunday they offered a willingness to hear what was stirring within me, and they were always prepared to nudge me in the right direction. 

For me, a question would usually begin to percolate in the middle of a sermon. It would be a line, or a phrase, or even just one word that would stick out and from it I would journey into the unknown. Sadly, there were many times when that precise moment of question formation was when I tuned out the rest of the sermon and started searching in a pew bible for an answer. However, I would inevitably find myself more confused than when I started and I would patiently wait in line after church to drop my bombshell on the pastor.

It’s like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, “People don’t come to church to hear preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”

And it was on one such Sunday, long ago, while I was daydreaming about God that I got stuck on a particularly profound question: “Why don’t we hear God speaking to us like how God speaks to the people of the biblical narrative?” The text that morning must have been from a moment when God definitely spoke to a particular individual, and I wanted to know why I couldn’t hear God in the same way.

And so I dug into the pew bible and went looking for an answer. But by the final hymn I was no wiser than when I started, so I asked the pastor on my way out.

To this day I remember exactly what he said: “God spoke God’s truest and best Word in Jesus. If we are waiting to hear God speaks in our lives, all we have to do is open our bibles because God is still speaking to us through Jesus.”

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I only later learned that the pastor got the answer from the first chapter of Hebrews.

That memory has stayed with me over the years because of how profound it actually was. Many of us expect to hear God audibly speak to us in the midst of our prayers like we’re talking to a friend on the phone, and then we immediately become disappointed when God appears to be silent. However, my pastor was right: God spoke God’s fullest word in Jesus because Jesus is, was, and forever will be the incarnate Word. God can and still does speak to us through a variety of means like a conversation with a friend, a particular verse from a hymn, or even in the rare decent sermon, but God will always speak into our world through the stories of Jesus in scripture.

So, instead of reading the Bible like a collection of stories from the ancient past, can you imagine how life-giving it could be if we read it like Jesus was still speaking to us here and now? 

The beauty of the Bible takes on a whole new dimension when we stop limiting Jesus to the past, and start hearing him in the present. 

Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak

Devotional:

James 5.13

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

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 On Friday evening I stood in the sanctuary with a wedding party and was attempting to guide them through a rehearsal of what would be the wedding ceremony on Saturday evening. The bridesmaids, of course, were attentively listening to my directions and promptly moved through the church accordingly while the groomsmen, of course, were joking with the groom and trying to distract him from everything we were doing.

We finally got to the portion of the rehearsal when I lined everyone up by the altar and gave the bride and groom a glimpse of what would be said and done during the exchanging of vows, when one of the groomsmen leaned over to the groom and made a jesting comment about his weakness and inability to get the thing done. To which the groom triumphantly declared, “No! Seven days without prayer makes one weak, and I am strong!”

Which just so happened to be the words on our church marquee when he arrived for the rehearsal!

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When should we pray? Some might say that prayer is necessary when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness of life and we are in need of the light. Some will say we need only pray when we actually need something. And still yet some will say that we should pray only when we are in a place to properly praise the Lord before asking for something.

Sadly, prayer is often made out to be a conditional proposition in which we must be in the right place, or we must offer God the right words or phrase in order for it to become efficacious. 

However, prayer (at least according to St. James) is something that we should do, regardless of the circumstances. Pray when you are suffering, and pray when you are cheerful. Pray when you are alone, and ask other people to pray for you when you’re in community. Prayer, in and of itself, is not something that can or should be relegated to particular times and moments. Instead, it is something we are called to do without ceasing.

For it is in prayer that we are made strong in our faith, in our convictions, in our beliefs that we are who God believes we are. 

So pray when you are up and when you are down. Pray when all is well and when all is hell. Pray when you are received and when you are nowhere believed. Pray until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied.

Stupid Questions

Devotional: 

Mark 9.32

But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 

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“There is no such thing as a stupid question.” 

I have heard that sentence more time than I can count; at the end of a lecture, in the middle of a bible study, at the beginning of a date… It drives at the heart of inquiry, a desire to process information to grow in knowledge.

But, honestly, stupid questions do exist:

“If money doesn’t grow on trees, then why do banks have branches?”

“Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?

“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”

However I do appreciate the intent behind the claim of the non-existence of stupid questions, because the worst questions of all are those not asked.

We’ve been going through the book of Mark chapter by chapter in our Sunday school class and one of my favorite refrains has been “Well, why didn’t they just ask Jesus?!” It’s as if while reading through the gospel we’ve become so intimately familiar with the characters that we want to shout out directions on to the pages. And who can blame us? Time and time again the disciples encounter something absolutely holy only to completely miss it or ask a question that has far more to do with them than it has to do with the Lord.

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And here’s the crux of it all: for as much as we might lament the disciples inability to further their knowledge of Jesus, and therefore limit our ability to know the truth of Jesus, they were really no different than us. We read that they regularly did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask. And that’s actually a good thing! 

There are some things that are simply too mighty and too holy for us to understand. And even if we had an inkling of the depth of Jesus ministry and we were so bold to ask a question, it would probably be one that blew up in our faces. 

Sometimes, in fact a lot of the time, it is good and right for us to not have all the answers because so much of our lives are mysterious. And the more we try to pull back the curtain the more disappointed we will be. 

So we can raise all the questions we want, we can even scream at the disciples in the pages of our bibles, but God has revealed to us what God wanted to reveal, the rest of it is left to that thing we call faith.

Equity and Equality

Psalm 45.6

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity. 

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There are some images that stay with us long after we see them for the first time. For instance, someone only needs to mention the man and the tank and we might immediately conjure in our minds the defiant Chinese man who stood solitarily in front of a column of tanks immediately after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Or someone might mention something about a solider in love and we’ll see the black and white photo of the sailor kissing a woman in the middle of Time’s Square after the end of World War II. Or still yet we might overhear a conversation about the Great Depression and we’ll remember the young woman staring off into the distance with her children crying into her shoulder.

There are just some images that remain fixed in our minds.

For me, one of those memorable images is a cartoon depicting the differences between equality and equity. In the first panel there are three figures attempting to watch a baseball game over a fence. One is tall, one is of average height, and the last is small. The panel is labeled “EQUALITY” and all of the figures have been given the same size box on which they can stand to watch the game. However, because their heights are so varied, only the tallest and average size figures can see anything.

The second panel contains the same three figures, only in this one we see the label “EQUITY” and each figure has been given a box appropriately sized so that all the figures can watch the game.

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I can’t remember when I came across the image for the first time, but it has been stuck in my head ever since. It highlights the often ignored side of equality that still leaves some people forgotten, while also addressing the difficult truth of equity that some require more than others for true equality to be present.

One of the most prevailing motifs in scripture is that God is a God of leveling. God will bring the mountain down and raise the valley up; God will make the last first and the first last. And part of God’s desire for equity is one in which the kingdom God rules provides ways and means for all to participate in this new reality. 

That can be hard to swallow for those of us who already have so much, but it truly is Good News for those who cannot “watch the game.” It means that some of us will be called to forfeit our privileges so that others can stand shoulder to shoulder with us. It means that God is working in and through people like you and me to make leveling realities. And it means that one day all of us will stand before the Lord with the same equity. 

Metanoia

Devotional:

Psalm 111.10

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever. 

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Reaching new Christians, finding a way to engage with the so-called “nones” (no religious affiliation), is all the rage these days. Countless books are published about growing church by reaching new people, there are symposiums offered on the subject, and there are even “3-step programs” online about how to knock on strangers doors with the hope of getting them to become Christians.

Since the days of the first disciples the church has grown and changed with the addition of new people. Though, for the majority of the church’s life, it was not done by what we might call evangelism today. Instead it was either a matter of public normativity to be involved in a church, or people were forced into the realities of the church by overextending powers like the nation-state.

Today, however, Christians might canvas certain public spaces in order to “grow the church” by asking people to repent of their sins. Repentance, after all, is what John the Baptist was calling for in the wilderness and it’s what Jesus called his followers to do. But using it as the beginning of faith, as the mechanism by which people are initiated into the church, often falls flat.

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Many years ago the theologian Karl Barth met with a group of Swiss Methodists and they had a rather interesting exchange on the same subject:

Methodist: “Should the church, in its proclamation to modern people, follow the example of Jesus and quite decisively call them to metanoia (repentance) as the first conscious step that initiates discipleship to Christ?”

Barth: “Certainly, this question causes some upset. But to my knowledge Jesus called the pious people of his time to metanoia. These people were the theologians, the scribes, the Pharisees (the Pietists back then and maybe as well as the Methodists just a little bit), and then the Sadducees (these were the liberals). And so it makes me uncomfortable when this picture emerges: the church stands here, and over there are modern people – and now we, the Christians, call for metanoia. Is not metanoia something above all else that we must call ourselves to do, us and those like us? I would say this about our established church. It is precisely the church that actually has need of metanoia!

(Barth in Conversation, Volume 1 1959-1962)

Metanoia, the act of repenting for sins, is at the heart of what it means to be Christian, but that doesn’t mean it should be the first entry point for exploring Christianity. Who wants to join a group where the first thing you are called to admit is your wrong being? Barth was right to call the church to repent first, because the church (today) often appears to be extremely judgmental and archaic. When the church leads the way with metanoia, when the church looks in on itself and admits its faults and failure, it then can encounter those outside with an open heart to the way God is moving in the world.

Metanoia, like fear, is the beginning of wisdom, because in (re)turning toward God we are struck by the profound truth that God chooses us in spite of our faults and failures. God still sends us Jesus knowing full and well that we will have to repent again and again. God makes a way where there was no way for us to enter into the kingdom on earth. But it begins with our metanoia.

Or, to put it another way, we have to get our house in order before we worry about anyone else.

Or, to put it yet another way, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?”

Being A Christian Is Awesome

John 6.48

I am the bread of life.

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The disciples must have scratched their heads a lot. I mean… Jesus can be pretty obtuse. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…” “One must be born again…” “I am the bread of life.” When we read Jesus’ words today, we are blessed (and cursed) with anachronism. Which is to say, we read backwards from our own frame of reference, and it makes it very difficult to hear the words as the disciples heard them.

We know from Sunday School lessons and half-decent sermons that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed because only a tiny amount of faith is necessary to transform the entire world – The disciples’ fledging faith following the crucifixion (and resurrection) was enough to turn the world upside down.

We know from randomly exploring the bible during mediocre sermons that being born again does not mean a literal re-birth from our mother’s wombs. However, we find new life, redeemed life, in and through the person of Jesus Christ.

And we know through regular journeys down the aisle to the altar that Jesus is the bread offered to us as the spiritual food necessary for this strange thing we call life.

But how confusing was all of this to the first disciples? We have the benefit of knowing how the story ends, but they had to hear all of this for the first time, without a lot of context.

Years ago, after a worship service ended, a number of us were standing around enjoying the fellowship when I overheard a grandson talking with his grandfather. The young boy looked puzzled about something when his grandfather finally inquired as to what had happened.

“So let me get this straight” the boy started, “when we have communion, everyone is invited?

“Of course,” the grandfather remarked casually.

“And did the pastor really say that when we do this we are eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood?”

The grandfather hesitated for a moment but then confirmed the question. The boy, of course, stood silently for a moment, and then all of the sudden a huge smile broke out on his face and he declared, “Being a Christian is awesome!”

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That young boy’s encounter with the strange and beautiful mystery of Jesus as the bread of life is as close as I’ve ever seen someone come to how the disciples must have felt. It is perplexing and wonderful and awesome. But even more perplexing, wonderful, and awesome than the truth that Jesus is the bread of life is the fact that people like you and me are invited to it! Regardless of our failures and shortcomings, in spite of our desires and desertions, beyond our anachronism and any other isms, Jesus offers us himself, the bread of life.

And it is enough.