The Fourth Sunday After Easter: Sheepishly Dependent

This week was a whirldwind of violence, accusations, accidents, fear and loss. In the midst of the confusion, I knew I needed to turn of the news, step away from my computer and do some healing work in my garden. As I trimmed, weeded and transplanted, I was serenaded by the wrens who are checking out the new bird house, and the keening of red shouldered hawk, lusting after the baby chicks next door. (Said baby chicks are against our Home-owners Association covenant, by the way… and will be relocated.)

But in the yard, as I began to tend the plants and count the budding flowers, there was a sense of peace. Yes, a strong storm could indeed topple a tree right on top of the new roses. The predicted cicadas could chomp our lilac buds right off. I could forget and leave the gate open and find deer munching on my tomatoes, or trimming off the tops of the hydrangeas and hostas. But as possible as those gardening frustrations could be, I would still be OK. My family and friends could still be safe and healthy.

As I worked and reflected on life in general, I thought about how far removed we are, as a society, from the agrarian lifestyle of the Bible. Farming, tending sheep, sowing seed — they just aren’t part of our normal routines. So taking a step back from commuting and thinking about composting has its spiritual benefits!

For this week’s readings, in particular, we need this land-based mindset. The readings from the Lectionary point us to our dependent and needy relationship with God. The Psalm reminds us to trust that The Shepherd will be with us in “the valley of the shadow of death” and that we will be well-fed.

Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
he leads me to restful waters;
        he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
for the sake of his good name.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they protect me.

You set a table for me
right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house
as long as I live.

Sheep are silly things. They run away from danger without looking, without a clear plan of escape. Their lives can be expressed in a panicked flight from one fear to another. They will eat things which not only make them sick, it could kill them (think broken glass!) They balk from accepting things that are good from them. And when they ARE being cared for, particularly when they must be separated from the herd, they bleat their distress. Loudly. And often.

But sheep also have some instinctual behavior which helps protect them. They want to be in flocks. They keep their young on the inside of the flock’s perimeter whenever possible. They accept the protection of other animals (including other herding animals) and seem to keep a truce with their herding dogs. And they understand, even though they are raised in a domesticated setting, that the world is a dangerous place. And if they stick together and watch out for each other, life is a little sweeter.

By design, sheep are kept in a protected environment so that they can spend their days grazing, drinking, and resting. And growing wool. By preference, or perhaps centuries of domestication, they forget that their every need is met. They will test the boundaries, the fence-lines, and the herder. When I first learned this from a shepherd, I asked, “Wait! Sheep have sin natures, too?”

We had a good laugh.

Ah, I am so much like sheep. Eating, sleeping, reacting, engaging in ways that are not the best for me. Aren’t we all?

In a week of distress, real or implied, where our assumed safety is threatened and our previously “safe pastures” are invaded, it’s easy to react in a panic. To forget that there is a Good Shepherd who hears, who sees, who cares. To remember that there are real evils in this world and that the spiritual enemies we face invade hearts and lives and actions every day.

We can’t live in fear. Or panic. Or anger. Nor can we forget that the stronghold of evil in this world will come and do battle in our comfortable lives, whenever and wherever it chooses. We have to accept that this life is occasionally difficult, frustrating, and even full of evil. The difference is that as we band together, and watch over one another, we know Who eventually wins this battle. Consider these words from Ephesians 6:

11 Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. 12 We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. 13 Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. 14 So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, 15 and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace.16 Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.

18 Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers.

As members of One Flock, as comrades in times of pleasant pastures or dangerous valleys, the Church can’t become split or disintegrated when we are under stress. It is easier to scatter than to band together, to run in our own inclinations instead of moving across obstacles together. Being One Church means that we have to fight our instincts for self-preservation and  sheepishly depend on God.

Shepherds know this. And sometimes, pigs do too.

“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says in John 10. “I know them and they follow me.”

The problem is, we listen to our own voices, or only each other in times of stress. We set up our own “passwords” and put contingencies on whether or not we think God really cares about us.

Two weeks ago, the Scriptures focused on the doubts and fears we all face. Last week, we heard Christ’s instructive words to Peter to tend the lambs and feed the sheep. It’s a journey we take together, with our questions, our anger, our cries for justice and for peace.

The words of Psalm 23 are so familiar that we can gloss over them. Yet they invite us to stop and lean in…

Listen. Stop and breathe in the rhythms and heart of Grace. The Shepherd’s voice speaks over the chaos, and cuts through our complacency. You will hear the tender voice of the Shepherd. Calling you. Inviting you. Reminding you that though is a valley of death, there is also goodness and mercy and a place of Eternal Safety.

Thanks be to God!

———- 0O0 ———-

In closing, listen to this arrangement of Psalm 23, created by Bobby McFerrin. The Trinity is offered in a feminine voice, and the rich chords bring a sense of safety, wholeness and love. I invite you to turn up the sound, close your eyes, and feel The Shepherd’s warmth and care — for you.

Shalom.

NO Alligators Allowed in the Pool!

I’m kind of done with the election rhetoric. Of my party. Of the other party. Of the parties of the second part and the third part. Of parties, talking heads, editorials, commercials, PACs and committees. Enough.

It’s easy enough to say that “you don’t have to go there.” But that assumes that everyone can read the sign.

It’s really NOT that obvious.

Sometimes when the “hot button” issues are being tossed about in an election cycle, it’s hard not to want to dive into the arguments. So much muck, so little time.

Then, when the elections are over, we’re back to the same tired arguments of theology. It’s not easy, but you can thoughtfully and graciously articulate your position, while remaining considerate of the opinions of others. I appreciated that in a couple of blogs that I read this afternoon.

First, Kurt offers a guest post by his friend Alan Molineaux, who discusses the conundrums of “discussing” anything related to complementarianism and egalitarianism. (Note: if this isn’t something that interests you, please feel free to move along and watch an NFL game or something.) 🙂

From there, I found Caroyln’s blog where she shared an excerpt from Dr. Roy Ciampa, Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, on his recent article “Ideological Changes for Bible Translators”. The full text of his discussion is here.

After some of the recent comments by Dr. Dobson and others, I am encouraged. I am encouraged when I read the thoughts of well-read, thoughtful people. I am encouraged when there can be dialogue and we don’t automatically assume that one of us is “not a Christian” because we have different hermeneutics.

I am encouraged because it does not depend on me, but on the work of the Spirit to bring the same edges of the conversation together for a cohesive whole.

That’s good news?

It’s been a good news/bad news kind of day. From the moment I discovered that the maple syrup jog had opened and glugged quite a bit of its contents over a shelf of the fridge… What a mess!! It not only messed up a shelf, the syrup seeped into the vegetable and fruit bins. That’s bad news, right? Well, sorta.

The good news is that I now have a partially clean fridge! Bearded Brewer and I tackled it while our caffeine took hold. (Yes. I discovered this before my morning coffee… I ask you… is that fair?)

So I tried to have a good attitude, and went off to the NIH Clinical Center, where I am now officially done done DONE!!! with my fourth unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education.) That’s good news? Well, sorta.

Except that I will miss my fellow students from the CPE cohort! We got along famously, even though our denominations and nationalities were very different. And I now move out of “student” role into “professional chaplain” role. Which is GREAT news!

It also means that I am now, after having completed (survived?) four units of CPE, a “board-eligible” chaplain according to the guidelines of the Associations of Professional Chaplains. I still have hours and hours to earn, and then must go through a lengthy certification process. But it’s a great feeling.

So then on my way home, I stopped to trade cars at the auto repair shop. (Yeah, that’s rarely good news. Hopefully the second car will only be minor stuff.) The ancient faithful Buick has extensive under-body rust issues.

It’s working (for the moment) so I took it to the Motor Vehicle Administration inspection station for the emissions testing. It neither passed nor failed, but was “rejected.” In addition, we were late getting it inspected so there was a big fine. But because it was “rejected” the inspection process gets a 30 day re-boot… and when we bring it back for a check, it will only cost us $14 instead of much, much more. That’s good news? Sorta. Except that the long-term repair issues for this car are going to be a lot, to the point that we have to decide if it is worth keeping.

I came in the door, grateful to be home, and for a car that runs. And… the cats, in their wisdom, decided to decorate THREE different carpets with hairballs. (Perhaps it was only one cat who expressed an opinion so graphically. Perhaps all three voted me off the island because I have a suitcase out for packing for a trip to Oregon soon…) In any case, I don’t call that good news. I call it “life.”

I’m grateful, tired and a little bit whimsical. May you have fewer “interesting moments” in your day…

Fighting the good fight… wearisome. But necessary.

I have been battling a spirit of discouragement. It’s one that comes over me and makes me think,

“I’ll NEVER…”

or

“I CAN’T…”

And as soon as there is the temptation to fall into a self-pity party, I am reminded Who I belong to. And that the self-report I am listening to is not accurate, nor is it of God. This is a wearisome battle. For once, for all, I’d like to say, “got that one licked…” Instead, I fight the good fight in this never-ending pursuit of living where God asks me.

“Compete in the good fight of faith. Grab hold of eternal life—you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses.” I Timothy 6:12 CEB

This morning I sat for while with this battle. Remembering why I went through seminary, why I’m finishing CPE, why I study and pray and ponder things that aren’t on many folks’ radar. Reminding myself why I didn’t “settle” for an invisible secretary-type job in a misogynist church. Facing head on the fact that the source of my discouragement comes from the pit of hell.

In my morning readings, I re-read Romans 8, and the verses reminded me… the battle was already fought and won. Why do I listen to one who has been defeated? Answer: Because I’m human. Sigh…

 35 Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

We are being put to death all day long for your sake.
We are treated like sheep for slaughter.

37 But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. 38 I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

With these verses in mind, I listened to Kathryn Scott’s song “I Belong” and was encouraged… I hope it encourages you, too…

Walking in grace today…

Not angels, nor demons,
No pow’r on earth or heaven,
Not distance, nor danger,
No trouble, now or ever;

Nothing can take me from Your great love;
Forever this truth remains:
I belong, I belong to You.
I belong, I belong to You.

Not hardship, nor hunger,
No pain or depth of sorrow,
Not weakness, nor failure,
No broken dream or promise.

Nothing can take me from Your great love;
Forever this truth remains:
I belong, I belong to You.
I belong, I belong to You.

Forever and ever, I belong… to You.

Grace Has Called My Name

Grace Has Called My Name

– Kathryn Scott

Peace as elusive as a shadow dancing on the wall
life swallowed by the pain of yesterday;
Left broken by the shame of things that I had done,
No freedom from the choices that I’d made;

But with one touch You made me clean;
You met me in my deepest need. 

Grace has called my name,
when all that I had left were just filthy stains;
Grace has called my name;
when hope had all but faded far away,
Grace called my name.

Wounded by words that left their mark upon my soul,
dreams overturned by empty promises;
Well intentioned things I’d heard a million times before
just left my heart to grieve alone again;

But with one touch You set me free;
You met me in my deepest need.

————o————-

I was reflecting on my day… on how I watched someone walk through a difficult day. It’s not that I had a perfect self-discovery for myself today… but I watched in almost shock as the events unfolded in a car wreck of sequelae.

And then I found out… they had walked through this day before. Many times. The same kind of incidents. The same kind of conflicts.

The more they talked, the more I wondered, “why don’t you see it?” The conversation did not illuminate a new perspective. There was no clarity of thought, no acceptance of change. It was painful.

I reflected on my own journey… where I’ve been. What I’ve learned. Even more, how I have come to see life and God’s work within it as a sacred treasure, a honor, a Call to walk beside and listen. And most of all to allow God to use me, a vessel broken and bruised, surely, but one that is being trimmed, turned and polished.

What’s the difference?

Rather than beat myself for every foible and mistake (geez… there are so many) I heard Grace call my name. And I respond with thankfulness and joy.

I’ll stumble again. I’ll be angry or hurt. But Grace continues to call me OUT of the mistakes and frustrations… Grace calls my Name.

It’s a slow melt…

It was over a month ago that the first storm covered the ground and frosted over the driveway. We pushed off the snow from the driveway and front steps, of course, but we left the snow drifts in the yard and patio to melt at their own pace. On the advice of experienced arborists and gardeners, we even let the snow-laden branches and bushes alone. As one put it, the branches are so fragile with the cold that shaking them would probably cause them to break. I was told to wait out the cold, that the thawing would come.

We did walk in the yard, refilling the bird feeder and taking out the compost. Those paths in the snow and ice, along with the travels of squirrels and such, were the only marks in an otherwise smooth frosting on the yard. Now, as the sun begins to do a little melting every day, it’s those places where we travelled that are melting down first. You can see pieces of dirt and grass underneath. It will all melt and spring will come.

But in February, it just doesn’t seem soon enough!

In the crash-bang-boom pace of a busy week as a chaplain, I often don’t see the places of “snow melt” in my life. My Saturday mornings have become that time where I either catch up on sleep (overnight calls are a killer on my sleep rhythm!) or I revel in a quiet house, read, pray and write about the last week.

Today I realized how “far” I’ve come in some areas of spiritual growth, and where other places are as yet untouched by the Spirit, not yet thawed by the Breath of Life. It’s encouraging and humbling at the same time.

So I take the next steps in this journey, confident and encouraged that God is in the mix, that the blooming will come after winter. It’s just that it’s a slow melt.

Thanks be to God!

Reflecting on what hinders

This afternoon and evening I have been trying to write my weekly CPE reflection on what the week was like, where I learned, where I gained, and where I struggled. It was a hard week physically since I came into the week on much less sleep than usual. It was a draining week also because of another protracted dentist visit (ugh) and the stress that causes. And it was a relationally taxing week because of mid-unit CPE evaluations which are necessary, but not fun.

It was therefore a real “God-incidence” for me that today at church the focus was on Hebrews 12:1-3

1Such a large crowd of witnesses is all around us! So we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially the sin that just won’t let go. And we must be determined to run the race that is ahead of us. 2We must keep our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes our faith complete. He endured the shame of being nailed to a cross, because he knew that later on he would be glad he did. Now he is seated at the right side of God’s throne! 3So keep your mind on Jesus, who put up with many insults from sinners. Then you won’t get discouraged and give up. (Contemporary English Version)

The chance to consider what holds me back, or what hinders me from fully living out the life God offers was a good exercise for me today. I suppose there are places on the planet (churches included) which can offer you “Seven Steps to a Life of Freedom” or give you some U2 and the promise of puppy dogs and rainbows. That if you just follow this guru or chant this mantra, you’ll achieve sublimation. And I don’t doubt that for some folks, that would their choice. I’m equally certain that in a pulpit somewhere in America this morning, someone pounded out a list of “sins” that must be laid down at the altar, and a guilt trip was laid so thick that people left burdened, not freed. Or perhaps there was a phrase by phrase exegetical dissection of the text, puffing up minds and leaving hearts dry. Or folks heard a self-help sermon that included cute quotes and a rousing closing chorus in a carefully programmed and plastic worship service. And yes, there is probably a time and place for that, too.

Boy, I just don’t think that’s how God works! Christianity, particularly Western Christianity, is not a cookbook concoction that will touch and transform. It’s not about a building, a group or a tradition – it’s about lives which are transformed by God, about people who are ready to be released from their habits and frustrations, and take up renewed living.

And I want to be counted among those people…

=======o=======

The prayer from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises said it well:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
Whatever I have or hold, you have given me.


I return it all to you and surrender it wholly
to be governed by your will.

Give me only your love and your grace
and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.

St. Ignatius of Loyola
from the Spiritual Exercises