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. 

Devotional – 1 Samuel 3.1

Devotional:

1 Samuel 3.1

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

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It’s mean, but one of my favorite games to play is called, “Is it in the bible, or not?” I could be in the middle of a mission trip with middle school students, or in a nursing home with residents, or in a preschool surrounded by 4 year olds, when I will start the game and relish in the responses.

I’ll usually start with something tame like, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and the participants will nod their heads in affirmation. But then I’ll up my game a little bit with something like, “With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.” People will usually scratch their heads wondering why I brought out something so unpleasant, but it’s there in Deuteronomy 23. By the end of the game I usually drop something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” To which people often express their agreement when in fact it’s definitely not in the bible.

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We no longer know the story of God like we once did. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, but it’s true. During the time of Jesus, young men grew up having most (if not all) of the Psalms memorized. Today we’re lucky if we can get through the 23rd Psalm. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was able to quote scripture left and right. Today we need bible apps and Google searches to find the right verse. Even preachers like me fail to love the Word of the Lord in a way that is comparable with the preachers of the past.

Perhaps our lack of love for scripture is due to the fact that we have other things to distract us constantly, or that we have tools that can give us scriptural answers whenever we need them, or that we no longer revere the text for what it is. It’s impossible to particularly pinpoint the reason for the bible’s fall from grace in our contemporary world, but it’s something we are called to combat.

Because, unlike the days of Samuel, the Word of God is not rare today.

We live on the other side of the resurrection, we have churches with more bibles than they know what to do with, and we can jump into the strange new world of the bible whenever we would like to.

If you want to hear the Word of the Lord, if you want to receive a vision about what is to come, if you want to encounter the living God, you need not look further than the bible.

Devotional – Psalm 106.1

Devotional:

Psalm 106.1

Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.

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On Sunday morning we will spend most of our worship service confronting the question “Why Do We Pray?” Prayer has been part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ from the very beginning of the church. Prayer, fundamentally, is about taking time to be with the Lord as well as a desire to change our circumstances. And for as important as it is to talk about why we pray, the question of how we pray is equally worth our time.

When I was a kid I was taught how to pray using the acronym PRAY: Praise – Repent – Ask – Yield. We begin praying by praising God for the marvelous works God has made real in our lives, then we repent and apologize for how we have failed to be the people God has called us to be, then we ask for how we need God to change our present circumstances, and then we conclude by yielding to God’s will. The PRAY way to pray is helpful for setting up a rhythm of what it means to commune with God, but it can also be limiting.

If our prayers follow the same pattern over and over again, we run the risk of no longer meaning what we say, or worse: we say things without realizing what we’re saying. Additionally, the PRAY model can result in us being tempted to ask God to change trite and insignificant things in our lives, instead of the deep reflection on what it means to yield to God’s will being done in our lives.

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Praying through PRAY can be helpful when we no longer know what to say, but some of the best prayers I’ve ever heard (or read) do not follow the model at all. Because, after all, prayer is not about checking off the box; prayer is about learning how to listen to God in the midst of loud and chaotic world.

Sometimes faithful prayer looks less like getting on your knees and clasping your hands together, and more like sitting in a quiet space for five minutes. Sometimes faithful prayer sounds less like all the big adjectives we use in church on Sunday and more like a conversation we have with a friend over the phone. Sometimes faithful prayer is less about following any model or rhythm and more about finding a way that works for us in order to hear what God has to say.

I have friends for whom using crayons in a coloring book is the best way to pray. For others, prayer is at its best when it is the complete absence of any distraction. And still yet for other, the PRAY model is the best way to pray.

The point of prayer is not so much that we have to pray a certain way, but that we do it in the first place.

I AM WHO I AM

Exodus 3.1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up our of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses sais to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

 

I have always loved churches. But before I loved the church for the people in the church, I loved churches because of their sanctuaries. Ever since I was a young child I felt a since of awe and wonder and peace whenever I entered a sanctuary. When I got my driver’s license I would drive myself over to the church in the middle of the week just to spend some time in the sanctuary. And it’s not like I would always kneel at the altar and pour out my soul to God, though I did, I just loved the feeling of being in the sanctuary.

When I was in seminary I was part of a church worship band, and I would drive to the church really early every week just to sit in the sanctuary before the rest of the group arrived. On one such occasion, I was sitting in a random pew and looking at a stained glass window when a man ran into the sanctuary screaming for help.

I immediately rushed to him and we met in the middle of the center aisle and before I had a chance to ask what was wrong he mumbled something out about being afraid and needing help and wanting prayer. I took him by the arm and tried to calm him down but the more I soothed the louder he wailed. Finally I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “What’s your name?”

He stopped.

“I’m Marcus,” he said almost as if he was asking a question.

“Well then, Marcus, tell me what’s going on.”

Over the next fifteen minutes I listened to him as he described his fear and shock. His wife was pregnant and they had gone to the doctor that morning and heard the heart-beat for the first time. And instead of it filling him with joy, it terrified him. Not because of the responsibilities that were about to fall into his lap, but a terror about what would happen to his baby if he, as a father, died. He told me about how he had never been in a church before, that he never even wanted to go to church, but that he had been walking through the neighborhood crying, and before he knew it he started running. He told me about how he ran and he ran, and all the sudden he wound up in the sanctuary with me.

I listened as he shared his fears, and then I prayed for him. After the “amen” he hugged me and he left almost as quickly as he arrived.

Two weeks later I was driving near the church when I saw him walking down the road and before I knew what I was doing I pulled over, got out of my car and jogged up to him. “Marcus, Marcus!” I yelled, when he turned around it was like I was looking at a different person. He talked and he told me about how he was feeling better and that he was excited about the baby, and that he didn’t know who that God was I kept talking to that night but he felt like something changed. And then, as we were getting ready to say goodbye, he grabbed me by the arm and said something I’ll never forget: “Thanks for remembering my name.”

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Moses was keeping the flock for his father-in-law when he came upon a burning bush. Moses saw the strange and wonderful sight and chose to turn toward it. And that’s when the Lord declared, “Moses, Moses!”

What follows is perhaps one of the most well known stories from the Bible. God speaks to Moses through the burning bush and calls him to help deliver God’s people out of Egypt. But Moses, like almost everyone encountered by God in scripture, feels unsure of the call. “Well, when the Hebrew people ask about you, who should I tell them you are?” And God said, “I AM WHO I AM.”

            The Tetragrammaton: I AM WHO I AM. YHWH. Yahweh.

For many Jews, the name of God revealed to Moses is so holy, so precious, that it cannot be uttered by the lips of mere mortals. Instead, there are other names for God like Adonai and Lord. In the Christian tradition, we will call God Yahweh, but the name of God revealed by God is unlike anything else and demands a respect and holiness that is rarely seen.

The passage about Moses in the wilderness with the burning bush is usually interpreted in such a way that it is all about Moses. Moses is walking, Moses is given a command, Moses responds. But there’s more to the story than Moses; it is the revealing of God’s holiness.

We could not have found this name, this Yahweh, by ourselves. Even if we entered into a long and passionate search through prayer or any other spiritual discipline we are not capable of finding out whom God is on our own. God’s name had to be revealed. God alone can tell us who God is.

And what does God say, “I AM WHO I AM.”

The divine name is a non-name in the best sense. Can you imagine Moses returning to the land of Egypt, mixing and mingling with the Hebrew slaves and saying, “Don’t worry, I AM WHO I AM sent me to set us free.”

What’s the purpose of a name? Do we name individuals to distinguish them from others? Do we give names to children in order to stroke our egos in attempts to live forever? Do we give names to people in order to build them up or break them down? What’s in a name?

I’ve been in enough hospitals to hear doctors refer to their patients not by Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones, but by a room number (or worse: by their disease).

There are plenty of people who are judged simply because of the color of their skin, or their political persuasion, or their sexual orientation without their names ever being mentioned.

Names are important.

They are important in our everyday lives whether it’s learning the names of our neighbors, or our classmates, or our coworkers, or even the people in the pews next to us right now. Learning the name of the other, and actually using it, breaks down the walls and barriers that often lead us to judge rather than listen. Learning the name of the other prevents them from remaining a stranger. Learning the name of the other builds a bridge into something new instead of moving in the opposite direction.

God reveals God’s name to Moses in such a way that it bridges the divide but it also keeps the mystery. And I mean mystery in the most beautiful and theological way possible. We finite creatures cannot understand the infinite wonder that is I AM WHO I AM. There is a mystery to who God is simply because God is completely unlike us, but knowing how God reveals God’s name is important.

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If God is not given a proper name, God becomes a faceless unknown god with no story or history. But our God is a God of the story; our God has a name and is known by connections with other names.

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” and God also said so much more. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” Over and over again we are reminded in scripture that our God knows God’s people by their right names; God calls them and us by such: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Hannah, Samuel, Saul, David, Mary, Martha, Peter.

God knows our names, and we should know God’s name as well.

If you’ve turned on your television or opened a newspaper this week you’ve seen some of the horrific and awful images coming out of Houston in the wake of hurricane Harvey. While some have taken to the internet to chastise and ridicule those in leadership about their lack of preparation or their delay in response, normal (and not-so-normal) people have done some heroic things so bring safety, life, and hope to the people who feel no hope.

And as I watched videos from Houston this week, as I saw boat after boat traveling up and down streets in attempts to bring people to safety, I was struck by one thing. In every instance of rescue, the rescuer began with the same question, “What’s your name?”

Think about that for a moment. While surrounded by signs of terror and fear, instead of commanding a person to leave their belongings or throw them over the shoulder, every rescuer looked in the eyes of the fearful other and asked the one question that would remove their otherness.

“What’s your name?”

From the burning bush God called Moses by name. Through words and flames Moses was changed through learning the name of God. I AM WHO I AM shows up in our lives at all kinds of strange moments, we could be shepherding, or sitting in a sanctuary, or waiting for rescue in a flooded house when the Lord calls out to us.

And we can trust I AM WHO I AM for the very same reason that Moses could. Because I AM WHO I AM is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Yahweh is the God who made a covenant with out ancestors, who delivered God’s people out of captivity in Egypt, who delivered us out of our captivity to sin and death. I AM WHO I AM is the God who was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. I AM WHO I AM is the Spirit that lives and moves among us.

I AM WHO I AM is as mysterious as it is intimate. I AM WHO I AM comes to us in the intimacy of a piece of bread, and through the mystery of is being the flesh of Christ. I AM WHO I AM is as close as the person next to us and is as mysterious as the person sitting next to us. I AM WHO I AM is the name of our God who calls us by name. Amen.

Devotional – Jeremiah 15.16

Devotional:

Jeremiah 15.16

Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.

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Cokesbury Church celebrated its 58th anniversary on Sunday. For our Founder’s Day we had the choir singing and clapping, we were blessed by a sacred dancer, our children marched through the sanctuary singing happy birthday, each person in attendance was given a puzzle piece to add together in order to produce an image of the church, and we had one of our former members return to offer the sermon.

It was a strange a beautiful thing to witness a church reunion for which I am the newest part. While I am still learning about all of the traditions of the church, I had the opportunity to meet so many people on Sunday for whom Cokesbury is/was their home church for longer than I’ve been alive. Before the service started I was able to mill about and observe reunions between people who had gone far too long without seeing one another, and I overheard stories about the church from the past while also listening to hopes about the future.

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All in all, it was a remarkable worship service and I count myself blessed for having played a small role in it.

When the service came to its conclusion, and I offered the benediction, I stood like I always do in the narthex and shook hands with people on their way to the social hall for our reception. The food was hot and ready by the time we finished and we could all smell the delicious feast awaiting us in the air.

While I was walking around and shaking hands a man walked up to introduce himself and I made some offhand comment about how he needed to stick around for the food otherwise I’d have to eat it all. In response he smiled, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Son, we just feasted on the Word and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more full in my whole life. But I’ll see what I can do.”

We can feast on any number of things: food, experiences, even television shows (aka binge watching). But how often do we feast on the Word? The prophet Jeremiah knew that feasting on God’s Word would bring a delight unmatched at any church potluck or dinner function. Jeremiah knew that God’s Word would fill his heart in a way that no relationship ever could. Jeremiah knew that when the Lord called his name it would sound better than any music to have ever touched his ears.

We feast on God’s Word whenever we worship, whenever we pray, and whenever we read the bible. And though we might try to alleviate our hunger with a number of empty solutions, God’s Word will always be there to offer us true satisfaction.

Devotional – Psalm 133.1

Devotional:

Psalm 133.1

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

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It is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity, but it rarely happens. Instead, in-laws fight over table decorations for wedding receptions, children argue over who received the most Christmas presents, and spouses argue about the strangest things until they lose their voices. Even beyond the nuclear family, kindred (in the larger sense) are divided over a great number of topics including politics, economics, and ethics.

I am convinced that for as much good as social networking and the 24-hours news cycle have brought into the world there is also just as much evil. In the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, VA people on every spot of the spectrum have come out to voice their particular opinion as if shouting into the void without a care as to who might hear it. I have friends, good friends, who posted on their Facebook pages some truly hateful language regarding the protestors and anti-protestors. One person said that the young woman who was murdered by the driver who drove into the crowd of people would still be alive if she wasn’t a fat-good-for-nothing trying to interrupt a “peaceful protest.” Another person wrote about how we should jail and/or physically punish all white republicans because they’re all “racists on the inside.” And still yet another person wrote about the need to reassert the values of “white America” over and against all other types of Americas.

And all of this was posted publicly for the world to see.

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The psalmist declares, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Unity is a rare thing in the world today, let alone in our individual communities. Rather than seeking unity we almost always just spend our time with those who already have our opinion and instead of seeking to find common ground we stake our claim and dig deeper into our own ground.

As Christians we believe that the church is the better place that God has made in the world. For us, the church is the place where even though we do not think alike we can love alike. We sit down in pews with people who are of different opinions, we gather with them at the altar, and we are sent forth with them to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world. If we cannot have unity in the church, unity in a common purpose to love, then the world will continue to be a place of walls and divisions and disunity.

This week, as we continue to take steps in faith and seek God’s kingdom here on earth, let us join our voices together in a common prayer:

“Almighty God, help us to remember that before Jesus marched to the cross he prayed for his disciples that they might be one. In the same fellowship that is between you and your Son and your Spirit, in the same hope of the prayer that Jesus offered in the garden, we pray for unity in your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you. Help us so to love you and one another that your kingdom might reign here on earth now and forever. Amen.”