Monday

Shepherd or Cowboy?

In Photoshop, there’s a filter that you can apply to a photo that converts it from a nice color photograph to a black and white drawing. I’m using that filter in this entry. I know I’m unnaturally separating an issue with thousands of gradients into extremes, but I’m trying to make a point.

I have friends from New Zealand. They don’t understand our Westerns: the movies that are built around the Old West mean nothing to them. New Zealand doesn’t have cowboys; they have shepherds. And shepherds have as much in common with cowboys as sheep have with cattle: not much.

Nowadays, neither sheep nor cattle have much say in the matter: they’re both mechanically guided through the process of feeding, caring, milking or shearing: it’s all automated.

Back in the day when human beings were the shepherds or the cowboys, not robotic fences, and milking machines, in that day, you learned a lot from watching how the two related to their animals.

A shepherd, in the pre-automation world, knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. I’ve heard stories about how in early agrarian societies, when the shepherds would come to town, they’d put all the sheep in the same pen. When it came time to leave, the shepherd would come to the pen and call his sheep; they’d recognize his voice and distinguish it from the other shepherds’ voices, and follow the shepherd out of the mass of other shepherds’ sheep to follow him.

More than that, when the shepherd had called his sheep to himself, the shepherd directed his sheep by leading them, not driving them. He would go before them, and they would follow. It might be too much anthropomorphism to say that they followed out of love, but certainly they had enough experience with him to trust that when they’re with the shepherd, they’re safer and better fed than when they’re not with him.

When it comes time to bed down for the night, the sheep all lay down together, and the shepherd lays down among the sheep, in the midst of them. They keep him warm; if he has wounds, the lanolin in the sheep’s wool worked to protect and heal him. And there’s no question of knowing about what happens during the night, or about discerning when an enemy shows up to stalk the sheep: the shepherd is already there among the flock, and his presence there comforts his sheep and deters the enemies. It’s almost like he’s one of the sheep himself.

The cowboy accomplishes similar function – moving a group of animals from one place to another – but by an entirely different method. Think of the what we see in the cattle drive. There are a thousand misconceptions, but ultimately, the cowboy gets behind the cattle and drives them. He may crack the whip, or shout at them, or whatever, but the cowboy is behind the cattle, driving them away from himself, toward the goal. It’s helpful for the cowboy to know something of the ways that cows work, and he should have some understanding of the trail ahead, but ultimately it’s still a process of “Get behind and push.”

When they settle down for the night, the cowboys gather together by the chuck wagon, tell stories by the fire, and generally make their own community, apart from the animals they are caring for. They’re over here by the fire; the cattle are over there. If something happens during the night, they find out about it in the morning. If there’s enough trouble, they’ll get up, go to the herd, deal with the problem or the interloper, then return to their place by the fire.

American corporate business leadership is very often built on the metaphor of the cowboy. The corporate leader sits in his corner office and directs his managers who cause the people to do the work at hand. He studies his spreadsheet and trend reports, and issues orders to the cattle that do the actual work. When night comes, the managers gather in one place, and the blue-collar workers return home to another neighborhood. When was the last time that you saw the company owner having lunch with the junior mechanic? If it ever does happen, it’s either time for the mechanic’s review, or it’s such an uncommon occurrence that everyone talks about it.

There are a thousand allegorical issues we could look at, but ultimately a cowboy drives his herd and a shepherd leads his flock. A cowboy gets behind and pushes the animals; a shepherd is in front calling for his animals to follow him.

God likes shepherds. The agrarian society had both cattle and sheep; God could have drawn His analogy from either. But He didn’t. He portrays Himself as shepherd. (I can hear it now: “The Lord is my cowboy, I shall not be bored.”) He portrays the leaders of His people as shepherds, and calls His apostles to the shepherd model. It was to shepherds that He announced the birth of His Son. In fact, in the scriptures, the concept of shepherds is used more as a metaphor than it is literally. There isn’t even a word for cowboy in the Bible.

As leaders in the church, we are called to be shepherds. Using that metaphor, we are called to go ahead of the sheep, to know the sheep by name and to call them to ourselves, to devote live in their midst – not separated from them over by the campfire and cook trailer. We are called to draw our warmth from the sheep in the night, and discomfit ourselves for their wellbeing.

OK. That’s the theory. Now how are we doing as leaders of the Lord’s flock? Are we shepherds, or are we cowboys?

When I look at the church in America, I see an awful lot of corporate managers. I see senior cowboys who direct the associate cowboys who do the work of organizing the cattle into their stalls. They declare their vision, and drive the cattle to reach that goal. Then they gather in their staff meetings and cluster around the chuck wagon until the next service. When was the last time that you actually saw the senior pastor being warmed and comforted by the young sheep?

I’m becoming aware of a movement among the church in my nation that is resisting the cowboy mentality, and I see several expressions of it. I see a blossoming house-church movement. I am learning of a revolution growing, as if it were sheep rebelling against cowboys.

I am hearing of believers by the hundreds beginning to question “the way we’ve always done it” and looking for new and more meaningful ways to connect themselves to God. It almost looks as if the sheep were beginning to reject the cowboy leadership of God’s church and, if they can’t find a shepherd who knows their name, then they’ll shepherd themselves, thank you very much.

I hear cowboys bemoaning the sheep that leave them to seek a shepherd. Having been a pastor, and being a cowboy by nature, I feel for them, the frustration, the confusion. But I wonder if it’s really a problem?

Maybe the problem is that we have shepherds living as cowboys, that we have lost track of the gospel of the Kingdom. We have men and women who should be shepherds picking up their spurs and saddles and whips, becoming cowboys, and the church is dying. How then shall we speak life into this revolution? How shall we change the model within our sphere of influence?

I propose that we start by living as shepherds ourselves. We lead by example. We give ourselves for the sheep that know our voice. We live among the sheep, in relationship with them, comforting them, protecting them, and training them that good shepherds lead by example.

Tuesday

Snuggling with the King

There’s a strange verse in the strangest book of the Old Testament. Song of Songs 1:4 says “Draw me away and I will run after you. The king has drawn me into His chambers.”

I’m struck by the three main statements here: 1) I need God to draw me to Himself, 2) I will pursue God in response to His drawing me, and the key part: 3) where we’re going is into His place. He is taking me into His chamber, His private place, His bedroom. Hmmm. What happens in such a place: intimacy happens.

God is calling me, helping me, to come to a private place, an intimate place with Him, a place for His and me to be alone together.

That’s not really new news; God has been saying this for quite some time, and I’m convinced that it’s getting to the point that He won’t really let his kids help with the work of His kingdom unless we – unless I – spend time alone with Him.

A similar verse in the New Testament, in Ephesians, Paul says that God “made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” In other words, God has brought me to a private place with Him, where He and I can be together. He and I sit together. (“Would you like some tea?” “Yes thank you. So tell me about what’s on your mind today.”) When I sit down, I’m generally not working. I’m relaxing. It’s hard to sweat while I’m sitting together with someone.

(Now this is a little odd: it’s an intimate setting, but there are millions of us there. “God… made us to sit together…”)

The odd part is where we’re sitting, and how we’re sitting. We’re sitting together in heavenly places. We’re sitting with God, sipping tea, in the throne room of Heaven.

What do you call a place to sit in a throne room? (Answer: “a throne.”) We’re sitting with Jesus in His chair. What kind of chair is that? (Same answer.) What do you do when you’re sitting on a throne? (“You rule.”) How does a king on His throne implement his rule? (“He issues commands and decrees.”) So what do we do when we’re seated with Jesus on the throne of heaven? (“Uh.. Um... I don’t know!” Wrong answer.)

Our job, as we’re seated in Heaven, is to snuggle up to Jesus, and to issue decrees and commands (yes, in His name) to accomplish the thing He taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Change of scenes. Back to the Old Testament for a moment.

I watch the Old Testament prophets exercise authority in their words. Certainly, the church is growing in her understanding of the prophetic, but we still don’t have anyone that walks in the authority that Elijah or Elisha walk in. Between them, the Bible records more than 20 serious miracles. Time and time again, they’re saying, “The Lord declares this” or “As the Lord lives, that will happen.” They seemed to have a pretty good grasp on the decree thing.

Here’s my problem: very seldom does the Word record that God told them declare thus, or proclaim that. It’s apparent that God backed them up, because the thing that they declared came to pass with the result that people came to respect God.

Wait, they declared something, but there’s no record that God told them to? And God backed up their word with power? God put His reputation on the line to back up their words?

Sure looks like it.

I have got to look into that! I see a couple of possible reasons for why the Word doesn’t record God instructing them to say “thus says the Lord.” I work with the foundation that scripture is profitable and for our example, there’s profit in the example of the prophets. Some possibilities:

1) It isn’t important to God: God did not consider the example of His leading the prophet to be as necessary for our teaching as the prophet’s declaration. Maybe He did give them the instruction, but He didn’t instruct the authors of the scriptures to show that part to us because we didn’t need to see it, because there was no lesson in it for us. My initial reaction to this thought is frustration. As a man who is still growing in hearing and following God, I would have loved to have their examples to learn from.

But there’s another possibility:

2) God didn’t speak to them. Perhaps God didn’t record the story of how he told them what to say because He did not tell them what to say. In other words, God speaking to the prophet isn’t a significant part of the prophet’s declaration. This is a frightening thought my evangelical roots. I need to look more closely at this.

We, as God’s people and co-regents with Christ, have responsibility to declare the will of God on earth. We have at least two channels, two sources for determining what to declare:

The first is clear: We can do what God is doing, say what He is saying. We listen, we hear what He is saying and we say that. We observe, we see what He is doing, and we do that. Clearly, this is a biblical model.

The second is just as clear in the Book, but sometimes harder to wrap my mind around. Jesus has handed us a checkbook full of blank checks, already signed. He says, “Spend them any way you like.” The New Testament is full of places where Jesus is hammering on the issue: “What do you want? Ask! It’s yours!”

It’s apparent, from experience if not from the Book, that this freedom comes from intertwining ourselves with Him, from conforming ourselves to Him, so that our personality is free and unfettered, but our desires – our will – become intertwined with His. That’s the place where He can trust us with the blank checks. Come on, our models are Elijah and Elisha: the guys who really hung out with God, not some Joe Schmotz whose only knowledge of God comes from what reaches his back pew on Easter and Christmas Eve.

But at the same time, this is not some high and lofty place that only ascetics can attain to. This freedom to cash the checks of heaven, the “ask what you want, it’s yours!” is not limited to people with camel-hair robes who live in caves. This is for people who love Jesus. This is for you and me, but this is for you and me as we let Him draw us to the King’s chamber, as we’re intimate with Him.

I think that Elijah & Elisha caught on to this: they didn’t wait for God to tell them; they hung around with God well enough to know His heart, and so they spoke with His authority. Their heart beat with His heart’s rhythm. God hadn’t particularly spoken those particular instructions to them. They knew His heart, and they spoke what was on their heart because their heart was like His heart.

So I come back to where I started this whole thing: this all starts in the King’s chambers. If I let Him draw me, if I follow after Him as He leads me into His private chamber, if I lie down with Him and let Him impregnate me with His kind of life and power, then I’ll catch His heart like Moses did, like Elijah and Elisha did. And when I catch His heart, I can proclaim the will of God, because my will is the same as His will. And if I proclaim something that's in line with His will, it's going to happen.

Cool!


Monday

Fixing the Gospel

There’s something wrong with the gospel.

Think about it for a minute: It used to be that when people declared the gospel, it “turned the world upside down.”

I live in North America. I don’t see any part of my homeland turned upside down by the gospel. I see parts of my society being heavily impacted by liberals or by conservatives in politics. I see a self-centeredness infecting a generation, and I see influxes of Islam, Hinduism (in several forms) and Deism, but I don’t see the gospel turning anything upside down.

There’s something wrong with the gospel.

But I hear reports from other continents and they’re amazing. Indonesia has more Muslims than any other nation in our little planet, and more persecution of Christians. It also seems to have more natural disasters than any other planet. But Indonesia is also home to a move of God that really is turning their world upside down. And have you heard the stories from Africa? They boggle my mind. I hear wonders from India, from Mongolia, from South America. The gospel is turning other places upside down.

But North America remains unchanged.

There’s something wrong with the gospel. No, there’s something wrong with our gospel.

I wonder if we preach the wrong gospel. We preach the gospel of salvation. Jesus and the apostles preached the gospel of the Kingdom.

They taught, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It’s in reach. Then they healed the sick to demonstrate. They cast out demons. Once in a while, they’d raise someone from the dead for variety.

The people they raised from the dead were certainly convinced that the gospel was real. The lives of those-formerly-known-as-lepers were transformed: these former outcasts were suddenly productive members of society and they had a following, a following that was listening to them talk about Jesus.

We preach the gospel of salvation. We have special Easter services where we bait the hook of the gospel of salvation with pop music and a “culturally relevant” message, and we invite the world to come look at our bait. We preach a “You need Jesus” message and everybody closes their eyes while some raise their hands – or not – and we never see them again. Once in a while, someone is changed, but mostly, they’re just immunized from the Gospel of the Kingdom. “I already did that!” they tell the next Christian they encounter.

And North America remains unchanged.

When Jesus modeled the gospel, he went to where the people were. He proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom, and he healed their sick.

Then he taught the boys to do what He did. Go to where they are. Proclaim the Kingdom. Heal the sick.

I have to admit: that this model scares me. It’s much easier to wait for the fish to swim into my church, and to give them a low-fat gospel that requires nothing more than to raise their hand when nobody’s looking. It doesn’t require me to look stupid, though, and so I and my brethren by the millions have chosen this pattern.

We’ve been scared to death by the risk that Jesus has asked of us, and as a result we really are pretty much dead. We’re safe, but we’re not alive. I’m not alive.

And North America remains unchanged.

When Jesus commissioned us as He left, he gave us the same model: Go. Preach. Heal.

(OK, He actually said “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons and raise the dead,” but it all fits under the general category of “heal.”)

We don’t usually go to the people. We don’t go to the fish, we advertise for the fish to come to us. We don’t preach the gospel of the kingdom, most of us, and we don’t heal their sick.

And North America remains unchanged.

The reports I’ve heard out of Africa say that it’s the healing that capture people’s attention. A friend reported that he attended a church service there recently. A man got up and started his message by saying, “For these three days last month I was dead.” He had their complete and undivided attention for the rest of the day.

So I am repenting from my shallowness. I am repenting from preaching the gospel of salvation when I preached anything at all. I’ve started to embarrass myself by asking people if they want prayer. I’m not ready yet for the “Such as I have I give unto you” thing that Peter did, but I can at least pray for people who are sick or unclean, or have demons.

Maybe I’ll take my time before I raise the dead too. Except for me. I think I need to be raised from the dead first.

And maybe North America can be changed.

(If you’re interested, there’s a PowerPoint presentation of some of these thoughts here.)

How are Your Figs?

The other day, God challenged me from his parable of the fig tree in Luke 13. “What fruit have you borne me,” He asked me. I feel the need to quote the parable.

He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’”

His question caught me completely off guard. I’ve spent so much of my time and energy working on being faithful to the obligations before me that I haven’t paid attention to the fruit of my faithfulness. I’ve been working hard in my garden. I’ve been planning and planting and watering and planting some more, and tilling and weeding, and planting some more. It never occurred to me to see if there were any veggies for me to pick.

What kind of a gardener never picks his veggies, never looks to see if he has veggies to pick? A fair answer might be “a stupid one.”

God describes Himself as a gardener, and He makes it abundantly clear that He’s looking for fruit. Remember the other fig tree? When Jesus was coming into the city, He was looking for figs, and He was pretty upset when He couldn’t find any. He took out the fig tree. He killed the tree because it wasn’t producing any fruit.

Now I already know that most commentators talk about how that other fig tree was a prophetic picture of how Israel had lost its place of fruitfulness to the new work that was “coming into the city”: the church. Yada yada yada. My point is that He’s looking for fruit. He’s expecting fruit.

I’m raising some spectacular kids, but they’re bringing some remarkably ugly philosophy home from the public schools. One of the worst is this: “You don’t have to be concerned if you can’t do it, you just need to try your best.”

Yes, there’s some room for grace when we’re dealing with little kids. But we hang onto that mentality: It doesn’t matter if I succeed or not, as long as I’m doing my best. (This is best when said with an indulgent smile, almost a sneer.)

That attitude makes good garden fertilizer.

What employee among us would keep our job if we continually said to our boss, “I gave it my best, boss, but I just couldn’t do it.” What coach would keep us on the team if we continually made excuses for why we weren’t keeping the other guy from outscoring us?

And yet we say that to God all the time. And unlike the boss – who will fire us – or the coach – who will kick us off the team, we expect God to not only keep us on His team (which He will) but to give us His best blessings! Fortunately, our relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of All Humanity is not based even a little bit on what we can produce.

On the other hand, a relationship grown in grace doesn’t give me permission to not produce fruit. The excuse of “I gave it my best” doesn’t work with Him. He doesn’t want my best anyway. He didn’t pour the resources of Heaven into my person so that I could ignore the Power of the Almighty and use my pitiful little muscles, my pitiful little will? (Someone has said, “Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place? Do you think that's air you're breathing now?”)

I can hear the boss now: “Son, why isn’t that foundation prepared by now/” “Well, Sir, I just couldn’t dig that well. The soil is so hard, and my hands hurt. I tried my best!” “Son, why aren’t you using my backhoe for that? And I’ve already assigned Fred and his bulldozer to help you. Why are you not making use of him?” I’m guessing that I wouldn’t keep that job too long if I held that mindset.

And He doesn’t seem to care if we think He’s being fair about it. The fig tree that He killed because it had no fruit: it wasn’t the fig season, and yet He seemed to think He could expect figs. In the parable of the talents, He says this about Himself: “… I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed.”

So God is challenging me about fruit. If I am not producing fruit, it is because I am either using my muscles, or I am not doing the work for which He has called me, or I am not paying attention to what’s growing on the vine where I am working, perhaps.

So what’s the consequence of not bearing fruit? “So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Yikes. If I am not bearing fruit, then the things that God has given me, the seed (to return to the metaphor of the garden) will be taken from me and given to someone who actually produces fruit. I’m afraid to look too closely into that “weeping and gnashing of teeth” phrase, but I can tell you that I don’t want to see it first hand!

Fortunately, fruit-bearing is not a case where the final exam is 100% of the final grade. In the Luke 13 passage, the Master comes looking for figs – for the third year in a row- and finds no figs, no fruit. Since this is the third year of fruitlessness, he’s upset because the tree is using up the ground and giving nothing in return. He issues orders to cut the tree down, but the Gardner, Jesus, interrupts Him and says, “Hang on, let me till around it and see if I can get some fruitfulness out of it this year. Otherwise, let’s cut it down next year if it’s still fruitless.”

So I have a chance: if my garden shows lots of activity, but not much fruit, then I have opportunity to clean some things up and take another run at fruitfulness. If I haven’t brought much into the storehouse yet, if Father hasn’t been pleased with the fruit He finds on me, I can submit to Jesus’ digging around my roots and filling it with crap (which He calls fertilizer) and I can grow some fruit. I can pull my talents out of the ground and find someplace to invest them. I can begin looking at my garden for fruit, not just work to do.