The Parable of the Lost Sheep

The crisis began when one sheep went missing. There seemed to be no reasonable explanation for the disappearance, which made it all the more disturbing for the ninety-nine sheep who remained in the Good Shepherd’s sheep-pen.

The parents whispered their theories to one another, so as not to frighten the little lambs.

“Perhaps a thief broke in at night and took her…”

“There are wolves out there, and they are crafty…”

“She was always a black sheep, maybe she just left…”

The more they talked, the more their anxiety grew and before long the entire flock was in a near panic.

Eventually, an elderly ram decided he needed to say something in order to calm everyone’s nerves. He gathered the whole flock together on the greenest patch of grass, near their picturesque pond, and began to console them.

“Remember,” he said, “the Good Shepherd brought us here years ago. Have you forgotten what it is like on the outside?” A murmur of shared trauma spread through the crowd.

“Do you remember what our old lives were like when we had to fend for ourselves? We lost sheep everyday to wolves, to coyotes, to thieves. We were miserable until the Good Shepherd came into our lives. He saved us!” One of the older sheep who had lived through those terrible years shouted, “Amen!”

“And the Good Shepherd brought us here,” the elderly ram continued, “to live in safety.”

“We have plenty to eat and drink. Our fences and gates keep us safe. We can raise our lambs without fear. So we should keep in mind the words of the Good Shepherd himself: Do not worry.”

The flock was silent until one brash young ram spoke up, “But where is the Good Shepherd, now? We haven’t seen him in years! If he is so good, why doesn’t he come back to us?”

The elderly ram bristled and shouted back, “The Good Shepherd knows what he’s doing! We have always trusted him and he has kept us safe!”

“Until now.” said another sheep – this time a middle-aged ewe.

This was quickly getting out of hand, so the elderly ram changed tactics.

“Listen, I know you are scared. We will post guards at the four corners of the pen, they will keep watch at night and ensure that we lose no one else!”

This seemed to satisfy the crowd and everyone went off their own way.

A few weeks passed and the sheep pen returned to normal. Everyone had all but forgotten about the one missing sheep when she showed up again suddenly at the gate of the sheep pen. The other sheep immediately ushered her into the safety of the pen and began peppering her with questions:

“Where were you?”

“Are you hurt?”

“How did you find your way back here?”

But she refused to answer any of their questions and instead startled them with a troubling pronouncement: “I’ve seen the Good Shepherd and he sent me here to take you all to him!”

The shock of this statement disquieted the growing crowd.

“You want us to leave the sheep pen?”

“But it’s dangerous out there.”

“Why should we trust you?”

Finally, one of the young ewes asked, “What is the Good Shepherd like?”

The missing sheep turned to her and said, “He is the most wonderful Shepherd in the world. He is gentle and caring, but brave and fierce at the same time. He knows the land inside and out – every pond and stream, every meadow and mountain. Wolves hear him coming and run the other direction. You never have to be afraid when you are with him.”

The young ewe thought about it for long time and then finally said, “I’ll go with you. I want to see the Good Shepherd myself”

So the flock looked on in horror as the two sheep left the security of the pen and wandered away in search of the Good Shepherd.

When the elderly ram heard about this, he was furious. Immediately he doubled the number of guards at the gate and at each corner of the pen. He set curfews for the youngest sheep and demanded that everyone stay in groups of three or four at all times.

Yet, despite his best efforts, sheep continued to go missing. Everyday, there were less and less in the pen.

He tried to reason with the flock, “Don’t leave the safety of the pen. The Good Shepherd promised he would come back for us. Where is your faith? Stay here. He will return some day!”

But no one listened. And eventually, that elderly ram was the only sheep left in the sheep pen. He was lonely and scared but trusted that the Good Shepherd would return – even if he was the only one left who had been faithful.

And one day, the Good Shepherd did, indeed, return.

He entered the gate, smiled, and gently placed the one lost sheep on his shoulders.

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A Prayer for Preachers

This prayer is written by Augustine of Hippo and can be found in his spiritual autobiography Confessions. As a preacher, it’s a prayer that I find myself needing to pray.

“Lord my God, ‘h300px-Sandro_Botticelli_050ear my prayer’ (Ps. 60:2), may your mercy attend to my longing which burns not for my personal advantage but desires to be of use in love to the brethren. You see in my heart that this is the case. Let me offer you in sacrifice the service of my thinking and my tongue, and grant that which I am to offer, ‘for I am poor and needy’ (Ps. 65:15; 85:1). You are ‘rich to all who call upon you’ (Rom. 10:12). You have no cares but take care of us. Circumcise my lips (cf. Exod. 6:12), inwardly and outwardly, from all rashness and falsehood. May your scriptures be my pure delight, so that I am not deceived in them and do not lead others astray in interpreting them… See, your voice is my joy, your voice is better than a wealth of pleasures (Ps. 118:22). Grant what I love; for I love it, and that love was your gift.”

– St. Augustine, Confessions, Book XI. ii (3)

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Enough Love/Shortage of Love

I recently stumbled upon a great exercise for ministers, elders, and anyone who wants to grow in their ability to love others well.

It’s a simple exercise:

“On a sheet of paper make two columns. Label the left column, ENOUGH LOVE, and the right, SHORTAGE OF LOVE. Go through your membership list and place people in one category or the other as honestly as you can based on whether or not you think they receive enough love in their lives. You now have people categorized in the only manner that is ever helpful. Keep this list before you and make the right hand column a matter of prayer” – William C. Martin, The Art of Pastoring: Contemplative Meditations, pg. 27

Enough Love:Shortage of Love Exercise

Some Reflection Questions:

1. How is this different from the typical ways we “categorize” people in our churches (i.e. – giver vs. non-giver; active member vs. inactive member; mature vs. immature; conservative vs. progressive; leader vs. follower; etc.)

2. How might this exercise change the way you do ministry in your church?

3. Why is this a helpful way of categorizing people – what is this exercise getting at?

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“Certainly, Certainly, Certainly Lord!”

The following is an excerpt from Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by Walter Wink

Before reading the excerpt it might be helpful to read the Wikipedia entry on the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965 – especially the section about “Bloody Sunday.”

———–

One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of civil rights struggle, the large crowd of black and white activists standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church was electrified by the sudden arrival of a black funeral home operator from Montgomery. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback, all escape barred, and cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. Our informant was the driver of one of those ambulances, and he had driven straight to Selma to tell us about it.

The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind us,  across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama State Troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” to which those who knew the song responded, “Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!” Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?” – the Sheriff?! “Cer… certainly, Lord” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Certainly, Lord” – it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in… “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!”

Rev. James Bevel then took the mike. We are not just fighting for our rights, he said, but for the good of the whole society. “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark – do you hear me Jim? – we want you converted. We cannot win by hating oppressors. We have to love them into changing.”

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What Does The Bible Say About Immigrants?

President Obama’s executive order has made the issue of immigration front-page news, once again. And once again, a contentious issue has people taking to social media, blogs, and coffee shops to express their (strong) opinions on the matter. A few weeks ago we were arguing about mid-term elections and Net neutrality, this week it’s immigration reform and Bill Cosby. Now to be sure, immigration is a complicated political issue that deserves rigorous and thoughtful dialogue (and action). But that’s not what I am concerned with here.

Because, I’m convinced that immigration is also a complicated spiritual issue that deserves rigorous and thoughtful dialogue (and action). I’m convinced that the way we view, talk about, and treat immigrants, as individuals and as a nation, has spiritual consequences. And I get that idea from the Bible. 

Today, I’m not going to weigh in with my opinion of the President’s executive order or immigration reform. Instead, I just want to contribute to the conversation by sharing what the Bible says about immigrants.

So, what does the Bible say about immigrants? Quite a bit actually. Take a look:

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“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Exodus 22:21

“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” Exodus 23:9

“Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 19:10

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.” Leviticus 19:33

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 19:34

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 23:22

“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you.” Leviticus 25:35

“Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great god, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:16-19

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” Deuteronomy 14:28-29

“Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.” Deuteronomy 24:14

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of a widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back and get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.” Deuteronomy 24:17-22

“When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. Then say to the LORD your God: ‘I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them.” Deuteronomy 26:12-13

“’Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’ Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” Deuteronomy 27:19

[During Solomon’s prayer of blessing of the Temple] “As for the foreigner who not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name – for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm – when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.” 1 Kings 8:41-43/2 Chronicles 6:32-33

“How long, LORD, will the wicked,
how long will the wicked be jubilant?
They pour out arrogant words;
all the evildoers are full of boasting.
They crush your people, LORD;
the oppress your inheritance.
They slay the widow and the foreigner;
They murder the fatherless.” Psalm 94:3-6

“The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” Psalm 146:9

“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I have your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.” Jeremiah 7:5-8

“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3

“See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow.” Ezekiel 22:6-7

“The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.” Ezekiel 22:29

“’You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe a foreigner resides, there you are to give them their inheritance,’ declares the Sovereign LORD.” Ezekiel 47:21-23

“And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against one another.’” Zechariah 7:8-10

“’So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the LORD Almighty.” Malachi 3:5

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Of course, this isn’t EVERYTHING the Bible says about immigrants (I encourage you to go to biblegateway.com, search the word: “Foreigner” and see what else you can find). But it does reflect a significant thread of Biblical teaching: God cares about the foreigner and we should, too.

The question still remains, “How should we apply these verses in today’s world?” But as we think about the issue of immigration, these verses need to be part of our consideration.

So what do you make of these verses?  Some questions to consider:

1. Which of these passages stand out to you?

2. Why do you think God expresses such concern for foreigners (along with widows, orphans, and the poor)?

3. What questions do these verses cause you to ask?

4. What was your emotional response as you read these verses?

5. In what ways do these verses challenge you to re-shape your thought on immigration or undocumented immigrants?

6. If you were going to preach a sermon on these verses, what would you say? How would you “apply” these verses to today?

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An Open Letter to our Wednesday Night Volunteers

To our Wednesday Night crew,

I just wanted to write you all a note to tell you thank you. I appreciate what you do for our Elementary and Middle School students on Wednesday nights.

I don’t know about you, but last night I went home tired, frustrated, and convicted.

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I was tired because Wednesdays are long days. For those of you who are teachers and moms, I recognize the sacrifice it is to come to church on Wednesday night, after working all day, in order to take care of and teach even more children! To our cooks, I see how much work and planning goes into preparing each meal – not to mention cleaning up the mess afterward! Wednesdays are exhausting! Do I hear an Amen?

And I was frustrated because it doesn’t seem to matter how well I plan my lesson – something always seems to go wrong. The kids won’t listen, they won’t be quiet, they makes messes, they get off-topic, they try to run off, they all ask to go to bathroom at the same time, they throw things, they get distracted, they refuse to participate, they are impolite, the list goes on… Do I hear an Amen?

But even worse than that, I know their stories. I know why they act up. I know how hard many of them have it at home – runaway dads, drugs, poverty. And I feel powerless to change any of that, and it’s frustrating. I hate what these kids have to go through on a daily basis and I wish I knew how to help them. Do I hear an Amen?

But I also went home convicted last night. Because in the midst of my tiredness and frustration, I know that these young people are exactly who Jesus would be spending his time with if he lived in Winters, Texas. They are the “least of these” (Matt. 25:31-46). These young people are the reason God established the Church, they are what we are here for. The 1st century Church rescued unwanted babies and took care of people during plagues. The 19th century Church took in runaway slaves. The 20th century Church hid Jews in their attics. They each did the hard thing that Jesus would have done, too. Because that’s what the Church does. The truth is: real ministry is ALWAYS tiring and frustrating (and sometimes a little scary). And because of that, my prayer today is not that our Wednesday nights becomes easier or less frustrating (though that would be nice!). My prayer this morning is that God would help my ministry to these young people become more and more like Jesus. Ultimately, that’s really what I want, and what they really need. How about you? Do I hear an Amen?

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I Am Young: A Prayer of Confession

The following is a prayer I wrote a few weeks ago. As I continue to grow into the work of ministry, I wanted to confess the distance I felt between where I am and what I sense this work requires of me. I am young and this line of work makes me feel my age.

———–

Father,
I am young.
And I say that as a confession.
I confess my neurotic optimism that is not yet faith.
I confess my passive rebelliousness that is not yet love.
I confess my self-conscious competence that is not yet humility.

The trouble is,
I know enough that I can make these vices appear as virtues –
Neurosis as passion,
Optimism as hope,
Passivity as patience,
Rebelliousness as leadership,
Self-consciousness as self-awareness,
Competence as giftedness.

But you and I both know that’s not what’s going on here.
Not when I am so consumed with worry about the Church’s future
— my future.
Not when I continue to assume that if I don’t get my way,
I have failed.
Not when I smile at being able to diagnose someone’s problem,
Whether or not I have actually helped them.

So I confess that I am young.
And that even my best ministry is about me right now –
My technique,
My self-esteem,
My impressiveness.
Forgive me, Father,
For I do not know what I am doing.
And be with Your people.
Give them Yourself despite me,
That my growing pains might not become their chronic pain.
And give me wisdom beyond my years.
No – beyond the years.
Your Wisdom.
You.
Amen.

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