The Good Shepherd

darkest valleyNext week I will teach preschoolers the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, incorporating Psalm 23. I will use objects and songs and movements to help these little ones remember that Jesus leads them and cares for them and finds them if they get lost.

I am meditating on Psalm 23 and John 10 as I prepare for this teaching, and the pictures that keep rising in my mind are not of green pastures and still waters but of the wolf and the dark valley. I find myself singing phrases from two songs based on Psalm 23: Audrey Assad’s “I Shall Not Want” and Marty Haugen’s “Shepherd Me O God.”

These two songs are expanding my understanding of the dark valley and the wolf.

Not long ago my youngest child and I were talking about the wolf, the evil one. My child wanted to know how the evil one feels about people, specifically about him. And we talked about a depth of hatred that is beyond what we can understand, a desire for our destruction that is so great it will not be satisfied except by the complete separation of humans from all that is good and right—from God.

We talked about the varying tactics of the evil one, how at times he appears as an angel of light—as comfort and safety and self-interest and belonging—how at others he beckons with the dark seduction of power and fame and revenge. How the effects of the evil one’s deception might be more obvious in the broken families, high drug use, and violence of at-risk neighborhoods but the complacency, independence, and aloofness of well-off neighborhoods is just as much his work.

Both distract us from our greatest, deepest need. Both blind us to the goodness of God.

This past week I told the story of the Fall in church and then taught the children to tell it. “Did God say…?” the evil one asks, casting doubt on God’s truthfulness, on God’s goodness. God has lied to you, he suggests. There is a way for you to be like God, and God, being greedy, does not want that. He wants you stupid and grateful and content in not knowing what you lack. He has tricked you.

We have believed this lie ever since. It has its many variations—for the evil one is forever subtly and craftily undermining the goodness and trustworthiness of God toward us.

In the prayer of St. Francis, these lines appear: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console/to be understood as to understand/to be loved as to love.” I see these same ideas in Assad’s “I Shall Not Want.”

From the love of my own comfort/From the fear of having nothing/From a life of worldly passions/Deliver me O God

From the need to be understood/And from a need to be accepted/From the fear of being lonely/Deliver me O God/Deliver me O God

From the fear of serving others/Oh, and from the fear of death or trial/And from the fear of humility/Deliver me O God/Yes, deliver me O God

The needs identified—for comfort, provision, passion, understanding, acceptance, belonging—are good. They are among our deepest desires. It is these needs the evil one taps into, magnifying and twisting them. We cannot, do not trust God to fulfill these needs. He is either not big enough to or not good enough to want to. He is not the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. So we must take matters into our own hands; we must prize our own needs above those of others; we must lose our good sense of smallness—as one among many created in the likeness and image of God, as one of many, many beloved sheep. We leave the fold and strike out on our own.

We cannot, will not trust the perfect love of God to provide our needs and wants, and, ironically, only that perfect love drives out the fear that keeps us from trusting.

And this brings me to Marty Haugen’s song “Shepherd Me O God,” with its chorus that puzzled me the first time I heard it: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants/beyond my fears, from death into life.

Beyond the shallow wants that distract me from my deepest needs.

Beyond the fears that blind me to true goodness and faithfulness.

It is in the “beyond” that we are fully satisfied.

And it is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who takes us there.

The chorus of Assad’s song looks to this “beyond.”

And I shall not want, no, I shall not want/When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want/When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want

Our Good, Good Shepherd did not abandon us to the wolf but laid down his life for us, so we could be his own, could be his known sheep who know him, who live in his goodness and in the fullness of life.

And in this life, there is no want.

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside still waters;

He restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

For his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I fear no evil;

For you are with me;

Your rod and your staff—

They comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

In the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

Forever.

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the power of the resurrection

396467780000-Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 10.59.09 AMGrant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and forever.

We stood on the shore of Lake Geneva, gathered for the baptism service of two young members of our church family—a brother and sister. Our pastor spoke of their entering the water as Christ entered death. He reminded them that in submitting to baptism, they were announcing their identity; they were renouncing darkness and entering a new life of trusting in and following Christ. They would not do this through their own strength but through the power of Christ, through the power of his resurrection.

Power implies authority. Power implies the ability to make another person do whatever the person in power wants. Even when power is used benignly, it generally carries an unspoken threat. Power separates those with it from those without it. It diminishes those who are being controlled.

Power is too often seen as Might. Force. Control. Dominance.

I thought all this as I watched our pastor bless the water of the lake—the rather large lake! I thought of the story of Jesus calming the wind and the waves. He had authority and power over the storm, power that was so evident the disciples were terrified by it. “Who is this,” they asked each other, “that even the wind and waves obey him?”

The brother and sister, pastor, and youth pastor walked out into the lake. We followed into the shallows. They went further, till the water reached their waists. Together the pastors dipped first one of them and then the other backwards into the water. I saw their bodies resist the descent. I saw their mental effort to overcome this natural resistance, to release themselves into their pastors’ arms.

Years ago I watched the movie Schindler’s List. The overarching story of the German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust has certainly stuck with me, but I can only picture a couple scenes from the film. In one of them Oskar Schindler is on a balcony with the German leader of a prison camp, a man who exults in his complete power to arbitrarily torture and kill the Jews in his camp. Schindler has a different view of power. “Power,” he says, “is when we have every justification to kill—and we don’t.”

Power, he continues, is when we instead extend mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus had power. He calmed raging waves and howling winds with the sound of his voice. He certainly could have controlled the mere men who stripped and beat his body and drove nails through his feet and wrists. Yet he submitted to them, to their assumptions of power.

Did Jesus’ body, like the bodies of our young church members, naturally resist their force? Did his knowledge that he had power—that he could have called down legions of angels, that he could have controlled the very iron of the nails—battle against his intention to submit?

I don’t know what went on inside Jesus’ soul, but I know what he did. I know the nails stayed in his wrists. I know his body remained on the cross. I know he allowed people to taunt him.

I know Jesus willingly died.

In retrospect we see the power of the resurrection fully and beautifully displayed in the crucifixion.

I can’t remember every detail of the scene with Schindler and the prison camp leader. I do remember the camp leader sitting in a chair looking out over hundreds of emaciated, broken Jews. I remember his pleasure in harming them.

In my memory his fists are clenched.

Jesus’ hands, though, were open.

Open in pain, fingers stretched wide with the suffering and brokenness of the world.

Open in pardon for those harming him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Open in compassion for his mother: “Woman, here is your son … Here is your mother.”

Open in acceptance of those rightfully accused: “Today you will join me in paradise.”

The hair and clothes of the two siblings dripped with water. We waded back to shore and gathered in a circle.

Our pastor prayed, “…you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.” He held his hands out toward us. “The peace of the Lord be always with you.”

“And also with you,” we answered. I noticed many of us mirrored the pastor’s gesture, stretching our open hands, palms up, toward the center of the circle.

This, I thought, is the power of the resurrection: the power to live against our natural tendency to resist, to close our hands in fists. Only with resurrection power can we live open-handed toward God, palms bare, willing to reveal the emptiness of our hands. willing to hold our hands out to God, open to receive everything from Him, open to receive grace.

We joined hands then, and in the gentle pressure of my neighbors’ hands in mine, I realized this, too, is done in resurrection power. The power of the resurrection enables us to live with hands outstretched to others, ready to link fingers with the reaching hands of the suffering, the broken, the oppressed, and the widow, and willing, even, to grab hold of the clenched fists of the oppressors, the accusers, the guilty and the condemned.

Grant, O Lord, that all (we) who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection…

Amen

Mixed-Race Kids, the Church, and the Blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim

Please check out not only this article but Esau McCaulley’s blog as a whole. I had the privilege earlier this summer of hearing him speak on racial reconciliation. His voice, crying out for racial reconciliation in the Church, needs to be listened to.

Thicket of the Jordan

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Genesis has long been at the center of Jewish and Christian reflection on what it means to be the people of God.  In the Christian tradition, much has been written about God’s declaration that he made man and woman in his image such that all people deserve to be treated with the dignity.  The Apostle Paul, in his letters to Rome and Galatia, forever solidified the importance of the Abrahamic narrative to Christian self-understanding. The story of Joseph, with its stirring saga of family betrayal and God’s faithfulness, has been fodder for many Sunday school lessons and countless sermons.

But attention wanes, and by the time we get to the end of Genesis, which recounts the blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim we are no longer concerned with the Patriarchs and their progeny.  We are ready for the Exodus. This is a mistake. I want to suggest that the blessing of…

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Blindness to God and neighbor

The story of Bartimaeus, as told in Mark 10, seems very straightforward: Jesus restores the sight of a blind man.

First, Bartimaeus calls out for Jesus to have mercy on him.

When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers, “I want to see.”

Jesus says, “Go; your faith has healed you.”

And Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus.

I love Bartimaeus’ response to Jesus (click here to read a post on that), but as I have read, listened to, and told this story several dozen times in the last several months, I have come to appreciate an irony in it.

Bartimaeus is not the only one in the story who is blind, and Jesus is doing two kinds of healing: he is restoring physical sight to Bartimaeus, and he is revealing the spiritual blindness of those who think they already see.

They have good reason to believe this; they see the sun, the sky, the trees, the grass. They see quite well the people around them who are wealthy and powerful. They see those who run in the “same circles” as they do themselves. Most of all, they see themselves.

They even, to a certain extent, see Jesus: see his miracles, see his power, see the possibilities following him might bring them.

But they are spiritually blind, and this is revealed in their response to Bartimaeus. They don’t notice him, don’t acknowledge him, don’t listen to him. They even try to shut him up when he dares to speak.

Bartimaeus, though, is named in Scripture. Though so many others are not, including those with wealth and/or status (the rich young ruler, most of the scribes and Pharisees who interacted with Jesus, the Centurion), both the personal and family names of this blind, begging man are shared. Jesus, the Son of the Creator God, filled with the Spirit of Life, hears and sees Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. He loves him.

Jesus does not want the crowds to be wowed with his miracles. He does not want them enamored with his power. He wants them to know God; he is revealing God! He wants them to understand that the God who rescued them and made them his people did not do so in order for them to become proud and separated. God did this so he could teach them to love as God loves, with heart and soul and mind, to love both God and neighbor in this full, complete way—and then to be a light to all people, being themselves a mini-revelation of this incredible God.

Bartimaeus somehow understood this, at least on some level. He was not truly blind, for when he regained his physical sight, he didn’t use it for his own purposes. He followed Jesus, and I can imagine Bartimaeus running up to downtrodden individuals all along the way, inviting them to Jesus. “Come and see,” he would say, “Come and see Jesus!”

It was the people around Bartimaeus who were actually blind. They chose not to see God as the Yahweh who had rescued and covenanted with them for no reason other than love. They chose not to see God’s love for all people, and instead they loved as the world self-servingly loves, showing attention only to those whose response might be beneficial.

All this was evident in their attitude toward Bartimaeus. “Be quiet,” the crowds around told him. “We don’t want to hear about your needs. We don’t want Jesus’ attention to be focused on you. Stay down there, on the ground.”

But Jesus stopped to listen to Bartimaeus’ cry, and he responds in an interesting way. He does not call out directly to Bartimaeus. He tells the crowd, “Call him here.” See him, Jesus is saying. Notice him, talk to him, interact with him. You are both creations of the living God. You cannot love God and refuse to love your neighbor.

In Jesus’ view, Bartimaeus already possessed sight; he had faith vision. Maybe he’d heard stories of Jesus announcing himself with Isaiah’s words and then actually doing them, preaching good news to the poor, restoring sight, pronouncing healing and freedom to the downtrodden and burdened. Bartimaeus was convinced by what he’d heard. He knew he needed Jesus; he believed Jesus would want to help him (and could!); and he cried out for help.

The crowds, however, were like the Pharisees, who saw no reason to throw themselves on God’s mercy and lovingkindness. They believed they possessed special favor, and they didn’t want God’s favor to be extended to anyone else.

In Jesus’ estimation, they were the blind.

Jesus longs to heal our blindness. He longs for us to see God more and more clearly, to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly…

And to love our neighbors–all our neighbors!–as ourselves.

Anything less is blindness.

 

NOTE: I have been thinking about this post for a long time. I do not write it only as a response to the white supremacy march in Charlottesville this past weekend, but it is very linked in my mind. We (meaning the Church) must not ignore the spiritual blindness of racism, especially when it is held by those who say they are following Christ or doing the work of God. Christ did not keep peace with the blind; he named their blindness; he called them to admit it and turn to God. We must do the same. Here’s a blogpost by Michael Frost that is very pertinent to this. And here’s another by Jen Oshman–also excellent.

local conference: Purple Reign

A couple months ago my friend Cheri Hartsfield invited me to speak at the annual women’s conference she founded and directs. It’s August 18 (evening only) and 19 at the NIU Naperville Conference Center. Scroll down to see pictures of the flier. The cost is only $65 for entrance into the Friday night event and all-day Saturday conference (you are on your own for meals , or you can sign up/pay at the registration website to eat meals at the conference center). You can also just attend Saturday for $55. I would LOVE to see some of my friends/blog readers there! Here’s the link to the registration page: Purposely Created for Purple Reign.

For you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. I Peter 2:9

Some thoughts on Mark 4:35-41

In Mark chapter 4, Mark recounts a day of Jesus telling stories to a number of people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. When evening came, Jesus told his disciples to cross to the other side. So, leaving the crowds behind, the disciples and Jesus set out in a boat, and other boats went with them. A great storm blew up, with furious winds and waves so large they began breaking into the boat, threatening to swamp it.

Jesus, meanwhile, was asleep on a cushion in the back of the boat.

If you were reading this passage, which is only a few verses long, you would discover very quickly that all ends well. In fact, most Bibles have a heading for this passage that is something like “Jesus Calms the Storm,” so you know the outcome before you even begin reading.

The disciples, however, did not know the ending. All they knew was that, because of Jesus’ instructions, they were out in the middle of the sea in a terrible storm that was filling their not-so-large boat with water, and they react in the same way as many other biblical characters, whose “hard times” left them uncertain and sorrowful and doubting. Unlike many other biblical characters, though, the disciples’ ordeal did not last very long. (A couple months ago I wrote a post about how waiting and suffering are often compressed in Scriptural accounts; ten seconds of reading, and we’re through months/years/decades of struggle. We have to identify with the characters—we have to take time ourselves—in order to gain a clearer sense of the story.) To identify with the disciples in this story, though, we don’t need to imagine the toll of a long stretch of time; we need to imagine the panic of a perfectly good situation suddenly gone terribly wrong.

As I read this story over and over, what caught my attention was this: the disciples were exactly where they were supposed to be. They’d followed Jesus’ directions; he was there with them; they hadn’t left him behind to follow their own whims. They’d made no bad decision or been foolish or rash. They were right where Jesus wanted and told them to be.

But they still encountered a storm.

A great storm, one with howling winds and waves tall enough to menace above the sides of their boat like monsters and then crash down upon them. A storm strong enough that even the seasoned fishermen among them feared for their lives.

Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever done exactly what you thought Jesus was telling you to do and then found yourself in the middle of a storm? Did you start to wonder if you’d done something wrong? Misheard his voice? Wandered off on your own path? Failed to do something right?

My brother-in-law recently suggested to me that perhaps Jesus knew the storm was coming and was actually leading the disciples into a test of their faith.

Could be. Could be that he wanted the disciples’ faith in him to stretch to cosmic proportion—beyond physical healings to authority over the sky and sea.

Could also not be. Jesus, self-limited as he was in humanness, might not have known the storm was coming. Perhaps he just went out on the boat with the disciples knowing he needed rest and in full assurance that no matter what happened, God would be right there caring for them.

We don’t know which is the case. All we know is that when the disciples woke Jesus, asking him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Jesus got up and told the wind and the waves to be still. And after the storm stopped–immediately!–he turned to the disciples and asked, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

And then the disciples were really afraid and they said to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The boat, the disciples, and Jesus reached the other side of the Sea of Galilee with no ill effects. Not all our storms end this way, with every person accounted for, with no lasting injuries or loss. Some storms take years, even a lifetime, to recover from. Some storms don’t end. Some storms are of our own making, and regret compounds our pain.

But, no matter the circumstances of your particular storm, we can know that God has good for us–“best” for us–in the middle of the tempest. God is not spiteful; God does not have an awful sense of humor; God is not conducting a faith experiment for research purposes; God is not plopping us in the midst of it like numbered lab rats. Rather God, who calls His people the apple of His eye, wants us to find that He has provided an eye in the center of the squall specifically planned for each of us. He has for us the certainty that—even when all evidence points to the contrary—we are seen and known and loved and cared for.

We are much like the disciples. The best, in their opinion, was a trouble-free trip across the sea. For the landlubbers among them, the best was probably their feet touching solid ground on the other side after a smooth crossing.

But God, as we are told, sees things very differently. And in God’s view, our presence in His eye is His absolute best for us.

Hymns and Hydrangeas

Tuesday evening I had the privilege of doing a Bible Telling session with a group of women. I chose for us to work with the story of Bartimaeus (partly because it’s very short), and by the end of the session, the women were telling each other the story. This was supposed to be just a quick example of a Bible Telling followed by a time of my sharing about Greenhouse Movement, but when I asked everyone to share what jumped out at them from hearing the story, they had so many insights the session stretched much longer!

Darlene Krueger hosted the event, and I want to tell you about Hymns and Hydrangeas, the business she and her friend Pam Wyma have started to support missionaries. I am one of their missionaries (which I think is so amazing!). They design and make beautiful fabrics with the words of hymns on them and then make tea towels (which would be suitable for wall hangings!), pillows, and baby blankets from the fabrics. Please check out their wonderful work and consider buying something! Your purchase supports their missionaries.

Go to the “About” page on the Hymns and Hydrangeas site to read about Darlene, Pam, and the three missionaries they support. Go to the “order” page to make a purchase. They also have a Facebook page.

One last thing: I am now sending out a monthly email update. If you would like to receive that, just fill out the form below. Thanks so much!

 

 

An Article Share

An article suggested by one of my friends caught my eye, and I’m posting a link to it here. This past winter, for a class taught by Scot McKnight, I read the book of Acts multiple times in conjunction with Paul’s epistles, and what jumped out at me most was Paul’s insistence on the point of unity of the church. Christ’s Body was brought into reality through God the Son putting on flesh and crossing the greatest barrier, and this Body must strive for unity; it must actively work against division. This article, posted in Christianity Today Women, speaks to this and makes some excellent points. It’s written by Helen Lee, whom I heard speak a number of years ago (the link is to her personal website, where she writes much about diversity and unity), and the article is titled “Why White-Centered Discipleship Hurts Us All: A Vision for Bringing Racial Equity to the Spiritual Training of Women.

Silence

I have begun Silence (by Shusako Endo) and have not finished it. It is, as Miriam writes in her blog post (reblogged here), an incredibly difficult read. Her thoughts on it–inspired by a quote from Lilias Trotter (and for more info on Lilias, visit Miriam’s “About Lilias” page)–are well worth reading. They make me want to again tackle Silence as well as Fugimura’s Silence and Beauty. Blessings, dear friends. ~Jen

Lilias Trotter

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                         “He is so gentle and patient with them, the blessed Spirit of God.”                        Journal 1898

Silence.  My copy of this classic novel, by Shusako Endo, remained unopened on our library table for weeks.  Never have I approached reading a book with such a mix of emotions: anticipation of a highly acclaimed book; reluctance given the subject of persecution and apostasy.

The story of the 17th century effort to eradicate Christianity in Japan was told largely through letters of the Jesuit priest, Rodrigues, who against all counsel, made the dangerous two-year journey from Portugal to Japan, knowing that his life would be in mortal danger.  His purpose was two-fold:  to determine the truth about his mentor who was rumored to have apostatized; to be a priest for…

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A blog share

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and when I arrived at church, I received a tulip.

So did both my daughters.

So did every woman who arrived at our church yesterday–whether single or married, biological mother or not.

I am glad of this–because every one of us is called to a mothering of one kind or another. My children have several spiritual mothers, and I’m grateful for every woman who pours into their lives. My children need them. I need them. They receive mothering from all kinds of women–from me, from their grandmother, from their female teachers, from the young women who work in their after-school program, from the coaches who lead their soccer teams…

They are challenged and encouraged and pushed and comforted and guided and stretched and corrected–by all these women in ways that are specific to each one.

They need more than one “mother,” and, most of all, they need the motherly love of God, who, though generally referred to as “Father,” also speaks of himself as “motherly.”

I was very blessed this morning to read Mike Frost’s post “The Ferocious Motherly Love of God,” on this topic, and I am so glad to share it with you. May it encourage you as it encouraged me.

Grace and peace this day.

~Jen