Monday, April 30, 2012

We are all sheep gone astray . . .

     In case you have not figured it out for yourself by the readings, today is the day that we in the church celebrate the “Good Shepherd.”  It may come as a surprise to many of you, I know it did to me when I read this, but the vast majority of the illustrations of Jesus in the early Church are not of His nativity nor of His crucifixion, but rather of His role as the Good Shepherd.  Clearly, our brothers and sisters who came before us found this image very comforting.  I wonder whether that image is truly understood in 21st Century America?  We are fortunate to live in Iowa.  We sort of have the best of both worlds here in Davenport.  On the one hand, we have a decent-sized set of cities surrounding us.  Most of us do not have to drive very far to get groceries, clothes, electronics, or pretty much anything we might need.  And, we are close enough to Chicago that we can even get to the culture events that we might lack around here, as well as any restaurants.  But, drive a couple miles west or north, and we are decidedly in farm country.  Our members from Eldridge, Buffalo, Wheatland, and other such communities, are tied closely to the farm life.  Heck, many of us here work for companies whose survival depends upon the health of the agricultural industry here in Iowa.

     But how many shepherds do you know?  I know pig farmers.  I know ranchers who keep cattle.  I know corn farmers and soybean farmers.  But the only shepherd I know in this country is retired and living outside Pittsburgh.  Fortunately, he is a seminary professor, and he gets to share with students some of the meaning behind some of the images that we, quite frankly, have forgotten as a culture.

     One day, as we were setting in class and talking about Psalm 23, one of my fellow students asked about the still waters.  What’s the big deal?  Doesn’t everybody want to lie down where food and drink are plenty?  Leander chuckled.  Then he began to remind us of some of the characteristics of sheep.  Those of you who have been here have learned that sheep are not stupid, that they are stubborn, that they are fragile animals, that they cannot see much beyond a couple feet in front of themselves, and dependent upon a shepherd for much of what we think we take for granted.  In any event, what they lack in smell and sight, they seem to make up in hearing (The sheep know My voice).  The problem with water is obvious once we think about it.  What does rushing water sound like?  What does still water sound like?  If you could not see well nor smell well and you wanted a drink, would you head toward the quiet or toward the babbling water?  Now you know why shepherds have to work to keep their sheep near calm waters.  The sheep wants to go where it thinks the water is.  The problem is that rushing water is usually more dangerous for a sheep than sipping next to a wide spot in the stream (think of swimming in a current in a wet wool coat if you lose your balance, and you might understand why).  Truthfully, the sheep only knows that it thirsts.  It does not understand the danger associated with the sound of the water that would quench its thirst.  It needs the shepherd to show it and teach it where the safe water is, that it might not get injured or drown.  It might seem cruel, from the sheep’s perspective, when the shepherd is pulling it away from the gurgling sounds; but the sheep eventually learns, over time, that the shepherd has something better in mind for it.

     I was reminded of this story during Holy Week.  I know some of you wonder how I ever got anything done that week, given the sheer number of conversations.  Trust me, there was a reason I looked exhausted on Easter Monday.  Another lady from AA approached me.  She wanted to talk about her mistakes and sins in life and wanted to know if God really forgives everything.  You and I would call the Reconciliation of a Penitent.  She called it “just talking.”

     At one point during our conversation, she asked me if I thought that God lets people suffer so that we can begin to know Him better.  I asked what she meant by her question, and she proceeded to tell me her prodigal daughter story.  A few years ago, she was living in another town.  She was pretty happy with her life.  She did not have a boyfriend, but she had a great job.  She made good money, but never enough to stay off or get off the credit cards.  On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, she would party with her friends.  Occasionally she would hook up with a cute guy.  She was enjoying life.

     Then the crisis of life hit her.  I won’t share specifics because I keep inviting her to church, and I hope and pray that one day she will come.  But she had the kind of news that was life threatening.  As she dealt with the emotions of the news, she remembered her time in the church as a youth, and she began to pray.  She asked God for an amazing miracle to fix her problem. After all, He promised to answer whenever she called, right?  Sadly, He refused to listen to her prayers, or so she thought. 

     She went through the normal emotions of her problem.  She was scared, she was mad, she was determined, she was resigned.  Finally, her date with the surgeon arrived.  Thankfully, the surgery went great.  The only problem looming before her was her rehabilitation and her follow up treatments.  She said that as she lay there, still in the hospital, she reached rock bottom.  It dawned on her how alone she was.  She had lived her own life, but at what cost.  Who was there for me now?  As you all figured out from the beginning of this story, alcohol had figured prominently in her life.  When men dumped her, she turned to drink.  When work was stressful, she turned to drink.  She had played at recovery several times, but she always relapsed.  She had burned bridges with nearly every family member and real friend she had had in her earlier life.  Now, when life seemed most burdensome, she realized she had even given up on God.

     It was during that stay that she repented of her idolatry of alcohol.  She asked God to please come back to her.  She said she did not want the healing sped up, just for someone to be with her through the days and weeks ahead.  While she was still in the hospital, the pastor of the church where they met came to visit.  She bared her soul.  Thankfully, he was more of a pastor than just a hired hand.  Though she was not yet a part of the flock to which he had been given charge, her life began to change almost immediately.

     One of the ladies at that church, who always said hello and always had a kind word, showed up in her room.  They talked and, looking back on it, this saint was trying to figure the need.  When she was told she was going to be discharged from the hospital, our prodigal daughter was terrified.  She had no money, her credit cards were maxed out, her boss had let her go prior to her surgery because of “too many absences” caused by her illness.  How was she to eat?  How was she to bathe?  How would she ever keep her place?  Even going to the bathroom was going to be a challenge.  You’ll never believe what happened next, Pastor.

     One of the men from the church showed up with a couple ladies to take her home.  Once she was safely ensconced in the apartment, he left and the ladies went to work.  They gave that apartment a cleaning every bit as thorough as your ladies here attacking that kitchen.  And they started making calls.  Much of her early time is a haze, too many drugs and probably a bit of withdrawal.  But somehow, she was fed, she was taken to follow up appointments, her bills were paid, and she was nursed back to health.  When she finally came to her senses, she asked them why on earth they would devote that kind of energy to her.  They told her that in many ways, God had done this for them as well.  Maybe the details differed, but He had been there for them.  The very least they could do was to serve Him through her needs, and thus bring Him honor and glory.

     You know, Father, I had never heard of a group of people doing this kind of a thing outside the Bible.  And yet, I could not help but realize that God had engineered the whole thing.  In many respects, the miracle that I asked for would have been the easy thing to do.  But would have I realized it was Him?  Or would I have slipped into the bottle a few weeks or few months later?  I don’t know how to describe it, but I almost felt like He was there beside me all the time, even when I was not looking for Him.  Knock on wood, I was cured.  My bills were paid.  My body was nursed and nourished back to health.  And even my loneliness is gone. Do you know, I have not had a drink since before I went into the hospital?  Do you think He sometimes lets us hit rock bottom, so that we know it’s Him working?

     Intimacy.  What?  In theological terms we call it intimacy.  I don’t understand.  You do, you just don’t understand the term yet.  You all here know that this was like shooting fish in a barrel for me.  I reminded her of Scripture’s promise that God knows our needs far better than we.  I described some of Leander’s descriptions of caring for sheep.  Shepherds tend sheep.  When the sheep are injured, they nurse them to health. When the sheep need better pastures, the shepherd leave them there.  When the sheep need protection, the shepherds are there to try and save them.  Over time, the shepherd comes to know the sheep individually. Better still, the sheep begin to identify the shepherd as the one voice who is always providing.  Her story was proof of that in human terms.  As busy as we think God is managing the Church, or keeping stars and planets in orbit, or doing whatever He is doing, He still has the time to know and meet our needs.  In the beginning, she was her own boss of her life.  Later, she wanted cured.  He knew she needed far more.  So, He allowed her the freedom to choose.  And when she finally chose Him again, He was faithful.  Better still, He had the power to meet her need, even when the world blinded her to that need’s very existence!

     Brothers and sisters, whom or what are you trusting to meet your need?  Are you, like the lady in AA, turning to drugs and alcohol to forget the pain?  Are you trusting in your ability to earn a living to provide?  Are you, perhaps, convinced of the lie that only your doctor can save you?  Remember our Lord’s teaching this day.  Only one person has the power to lay down a life again and take it up.  Only one person will not act as a hired hand to you.  Only one person knows us each and calls us by Name, our Lord, our Savior, our Good Shepherd.  Why not answer his call today and serve, that He might give you that which you so need . . .
Christ’s Peace,

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