Saturday, January 30, 2016

Shepherds, Part 1

   From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. When they came to him, he said to them…
     “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears.”
-Acts 20:17-18, 28-31 (NRSV)

Phillip Lotter, a sheep farmer in South Africa, was having a problem with his sheep. That isn’t a big surprise, though. Sheep are nothing but problems. They can’t defend themselves very well. They can’t usually outrun trouble. They don’t seem to be all that smart, and, even worse, they have a herd mentality, which means that when a sheep mother asks a sheep teenager if he’d jump off a cliff if all his friends were doing it too, the likely answer would be “yes.” 
     Phillip’s big problem was that his sheep were being stolen. And so he did something about it.
     Phillip developed a collar for his sheep. The collar monitors, of all things, the number of times per minute the animal stamps its foot. Normally, apparently, a sheep will stamp its foot around 5 times a minute. When it’s in trouble, though, it starts tap-dancing at a rate of about 20 times a minute. The collar picks up that abnormality and dials the owner’s cell phone. It also records GPS data to make the sheep easy to find.   
     Shepherding, apparently, has entered the information age. Still, technology aside, there’s something decidedly old-school about shepherding.
     So maybe it’s understandable that we’d struggle with the metaphor of church leaders as shepherds. That isn’t a metaphor that corporate America uses. Corporate leaders are Executives. They’re visionaries. They set a direction and delegate responsibility and hold the people beneath them in the corporate organizational chart accountable. In a lot of ways we’re more comfortable with just borrowing those leadership concepts for church. And so some churches have Executive Pastors, a tenuous mix of leadership models if there ever was one. It borrows the executive title from corporate structures, while splicing it awkwardly to the biblical title of Pastor — which is just the Latin word for, you guessed it, shepherd.  
     Executive, after all, gives that archaic title of Pastor just the right modern cachet. Even without Executive pinned to it, Pastor has become mostly an honorific in many Christian circles. It denotes the most prominent leaders of a church, and is featured on business cards and letterhead and plaques on office doors. It’s roughly equivalent to Reverend or Father, in Catholic circles: Pastor Jones or Pastor Smith or Pastor Mike.
     The New Testament, though, uses Pastor more to denote a function than as a title to be affixed to a names. Pastor — Shepherd — refers to the responsibility that a group of leaders, known as elders or overseers, have toward the church. 
     The word Elder is a holdover in the New Testament from ancient Israel, where it denoted originally an older man who was a tribal leader, and by the time of Jesus a leader of a synagogue. Overseer comes from a Greek word, which is often translated guardian. Suffice to say, the use of the three words together to describe this group of church leaders is pretty instructive. They are mature (not always the same thing as “old”), and they are concerned less with driving a church and more toward leading it, caring for it, and protecting it. 
     Ginny Neil, something of an expert in shepherding, says it well: “Sheep are always looking for an excuse to die.” While I think it can be kind of insulting to apply sheep metaphors too lavishly to the church, it is certainly true that most of us would have to admit to a certain amount of recklessness in our walk with the Lord, at least from time to time. Sometimes we’ll run toward any light we see, even if in doing so we run headlong into something that might kill us. That’s why we need shepherds who are awake enough to come find us and bring us back home, shepherds who are aware of their own failings and temptations, and who for the sake of the church keep themselves honest. We don’t need decision-makers and gatekeepers. What we need are leaders who are people of faith, and who will defend us and fight for us. 
     Churches choose their leaders in all kinds of way. We choose the leaders we prefer: bright, attractive, intelligent, dynamic, personable — we can go a long way before we even consider some of the traits that the Lord is looking for. And that’s why the church needs leaders appointed by the Holy Spirit. The church, after all, belongs to God; we don’t belong even to ourselves, and certainly not to a few leaders we set up. A church is no one’s personal fiefdom. It belongs to God, obtained at the price of his Son’s life. We don’t need leaders who set up their vision as the destination for the church, but who consistently hold up the vision of the Kingdom of God as the church’s polestar, and hold us accountable to him.
     And we need shepherds who’ll defend the flock against the predators that threaten it. We need them to know the gospel, and know what compromises it. There is a tendency for church leaders to think fleas are wolves and not pay attention to the real wolves. We need leaders who are people of the gospel, people shaped by the story of Jesus, and who will pray for us, teach us, counsel us, and lead us to know and live out that story in our own lives.
     “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus once said, the One who was willing even to die for the sheep, the One who knows the sheep, and who the sheep know and follow. That’s how you know a shepherd: he smells like sheep. He knows them, and they know him, and he gives his life for them

     May we be thankful when we see and know shepherds like that. And may God give us more of them.

Friday, January 22, 2016


     Love never fails. But where there are prophecies,  they will cease; where there are tongues,  they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
-1 Corinthians 13:8 (NIV)

Answer: Betting all of your money on Final Jeopardy.
Question: What is a really bad idea?
     Returning Jeopardy champions Claudia Corriere and Mike Drummond did just that Monday night. Tied for the lead, their best bet for a win was to go all-in on the clue: “A 1957 event led to the creation of a national historic site in this city, signed into law by a president whose library is now there too.” Neither contestant was able to answer the question correctly, so they both lost everything. Which opened the door for challenger Randi Kristensen. Randi, in fact, didn’t even have to answer the question correctly. All she had to do was not bet all her money. 
     So, of course, she did. She bet it all. 
     And, like Mike and Claudia, couldn’t answer correctly. 
     Meaning that, for only the sixth time in the show’s long history, an episode ended with three goose eggs on the board.That means none of the three comes back. Three new contestants took their places behind the podium the next day. Pretty harsh, especially considering that these are intelligent people to even become a contestant. A harsh result from the lack of a little bit of knowledge.
     Have you ever noticed that the more you learn about something, the more you realize you need to know? Knowledge is an infinite nesting doll that somehow gets larger with every layer. It’s a vein of ore that you never finish mining, a well that doesn’t run dry. 
     That doesn’t mean, as some might want us to believe, that knowledge is futile. Knowledge is a good thing, generally, a tool that can help us to understand the world, our place in it, and those we share it with. God wants us to know him, to know his word, and warns that lack of knowledge can destroy us as his people. “The discerning heart seeks knowledge,” the Proverb says. Though human beings can only know “in part”, knowledge is still something to be prized.
     But it only goes so far, for the reason Claudia, Mike, and Randi understand all too well: the most we can know is not enough.
     I grew up going to Sunday School, and each Sunday we had to recite a “memory verse” that we had spent the week before (or maybe the night before) learning. I still have a lot of those in my brain somewhere, in King James cadence and vocabulary. (None of those easy “modern” translations for us!) Since then, I’ve studied the Bible at the graduate level. I know the strengths and weaknesses of the Four Source Hypothesis. I know what Q is (It’s not a Star Trek character), and who Deutero-Isaiah is. When I watch Jeopardy, I can always answer the Bible questions.
     Funny thing is, what I know doesn’t make me spiritual. Paul, points out, in fact, that knowledge can inflate the ego. Knowledge isn’t one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. While lack of knowledge can destroy,  possessing knowledge can too. Always lurking behind knowledge is the shadow of arrogance, the danger that we could confuse knowing with being, 
     As powerful as knowledge can be, knowing is never enough. Knowledge, on its own, will fail. It will pass away. At best, we only know a little of who God is and what he wants of us. What we can know of ourselves, each other, the world and our place in it, is limited. The deepest we can dig is a scratch on the surface. Knowledge alone won’t save us and won’t give grace to the people around us. 
     Paul prays in Philippians 1:9 “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” That’s an interesting verse because it puts together two things that for many of us don't go together easily: love and knowledge. We need to grow in knowledge, in depth of insight, sure: but always in the context of love. In another place he says it even more memorably: “If I…can fathom all mysteries  and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing.
     Knowledge tells us what we need to understand. But love tells us why.
     Knowledge that doesn’t teach us to love more, or better, or more widely, or more completely, is not helpful. It inflates our egos, even as it tears down the people around us. That’s what passes for knowledge in many churches, and for many people who wear the name of Jesus. It’s what passes for spirituality. But it doesn’t deliver what it promises.
     We don’t really act out of knowledge, not really; if you doubt that, the next time you’re in traffic count the number of people you see driving while texting. Everyone knows that isn’t safe, but lots of people still do it. Why? Because we act out of what we love, not what we know.
     That’s why Paul’s prayer for another church is that Christ will dwell in their hearts so that they will be “rooted and grounded in love.” And with that rooting and grounding, they will be able to understand all the dimensions of Christ’s love and be filled to overflowing with God. He wants them to understand the extent to which God has gone for us. There is an important place for knowledge in our walk with God. But if knowledge doesn’t come from God’s love and lead to our knowing and living out his love, then what’s the point? Knowledge enough isn’t enough. Without love, we lose. 
     Oh: Little Rock, Arkansas, is the city in which, in 1957, Central High School was desegregated, and it’s the city in which Bill Clinton has his Presidential Library. Now you know that, and you might be able to impress someone with that bit of trivia. You might even win a game show someday.
     But don’t get too enamored with your own knowledge. It is limited, it’s finite, especially what you can know about God and about his work on our behalf through Jesus. Of primary importance is not that we know God, as though we can come near to him and grasp him through our own intellect and reasoning power. Of primary importance is that he has chosen to know us, and has made himself known to us.
     On that, you can bet everything.

Friday, January 15, 2016


“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
-Matthew 5:19-21 (NIV)

Wu Chen didn’t mean to lose all his money. It just happened.

     The 67 year old retired fisherman from China’s Sichuan province put away his life savings five years ago. The funds amounted to about 35,000 Yuan, or a little over $5200. Wu felt that it was too much trouble to put the money in the bank, but he wanted to keep it safe. So, he chose a time-honored method.
     He buried it.
     Pirates famously buried chests full of plunder taken from, well, their pirating. Bilbo Baggins followed a map to a dragon’s treasure hidden deep in a mountain. Centuries of legend, literature, and film turn on the pursuit of buried treasure, hidden and recovered. Wu probably figured that if so many pirates and dragons buried their loot, it had to be a good solution for keeping his retirement fund safe.
     One difference: pirates and dragons usually aren’t heavily invested in paper currency.
     And they don’t usually choose biodegradable plastic bags to bury their treasure in.
     Wu, unfortunately, did both. And when he dug up his money, the bag he put it in had started to degrade. Water, mold, and insects had done what they do. His cash had crumbled and rotted away into a wet, shredded mess.
     Doesn’t that just about sum up our relationship with money? We work hard to accumulate it. Try to use it wisely. We do our best to keep it secure, make sure we have enough stashed for the future. And then, in spite of our best efforts — we find we can’t hold on to it as long or as securely as we imagine. 
     We have to try, of course. That’s how the world works. Money can’t buy everything, that’s true, but the things it can buy are pretty important to most of us. That’s why when we read about a retiree in China losing his life savings, we cringe and worry and feel compassion.
     Thankfully, Wu’s local bank helped him out. He brought in the fragments of banknotes he dug up, and some workers painstakingly started piecing them together. Eventually, they were able to piece together enough to replace about 21,000 of the lost 35,000 yuan. It’s only three-fifths, but it’s something. And, hopefully, Wu will put it in the bank, or invest it, or something. 
     That’s what money’s for, after all, isn’t it? It’s to be used. Not hoarded, not stashed, not kept in a vault or buried in the ground. Money is a tool to be used for the things that matter most to us. Jesus, who has a lot to say about money, reminds us that stockpiling wealth can prove disappointing. Thieves break in and steal it. Moths and vermin destroy it. Even now, when wealth more likely takes the form of 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive, it can still be stolen. It can still be lost: A few greedy bankers write a few high-risk mortgages, a few financial institutions start to fail, and suddenly retirement funds all over the world are bleeding profits. What you thought you had, you no longer have. 
     Still, Jesus talked about a greater problem with hoarding treasure than the risk of losing it. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We like to think that if our hearts are right, we can hoard as much as we’re able. Jesus implies that it doesn’t work that way. Your heart follows your treasure, not the other way around. Your real values and priorities, your true love, the god you really serve, will inevitably be found wherever you keep whatever you hoard and stash and stockpile — whether it’s money or the things we buy with it.
     Even if we want to argue — and sometimes we do — we know it’s true.  
     I’m thinking of Cameron’s dad’s car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s a red 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder (“it is so choice”) that’s kept in a glass-walled garage overlooking a ravine. Ferris “borrows” it for his day off, and through a long series of events it gets destroyed. When they bring the car back, Cameron launches a tirade against his dad while kicking the car over and over. “What do you love?” he shouts as he lays into the Ferrari. “You love a car!” We’ve all known folks who serve as cautionary tales, who sacrifice everything, even relationships with those they should love most, for wealth. We know it could be us.
     So how do we make sure it isn’t us? Well, a good start is to take Jesus seriously. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” is his obvious suggestion. That’s a bit cryptic, to be sure, but you probably get the idea, right? Jesus himself unpacks it: Whatever else it might involve, he definitely means sharing what you have with those who don’t have
     It’s a choice to consciously do the opposite of what we’re unconsciously conditioned to do. Instead of stockpiling wealth, we give some of it away. We use it to bless others, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to share the gospel, to fund education, to care for the orphans, to lighten the load on a single mom. It can take a thousand forms. What they have in common is that they raise our hearts to heavenly places, draw our attention and our priorities and our energy to the work that God is doing in the world, and keep us safe from the danger of loving things and using people, instead of the other way around.

     It isn’t only the Warren Buffetts and Bill Gates of the world that are tempted to store up treasure on earth. It’s you and me. So may we resist that temptation by investing what we have in what God wants done around us. And then we can sleep soundly, knowing that our wealth is in good hands.