Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Lord Is My Shepherd

Perhaps one of the most beloved Psalms is the 23rd. I was reminded of that this morning as I was officiating at a graveside service. And there is probably a good reason that it is so popular.

"The Lord is my Shepherd..." This metaphor captures so succinctly the nature of our relationship with our precious Lord.

Psalm 100 also mentions this idea: "We are His people; the sheep of His pasture."

Probably with this in mind, Jesus says of Himself in John's Gospel: "I am the Good Shepherd...and my sheep hear my voice."

I remember reading a story in a book about pastoral ministry, They Smell Like Sheep, by Lynn Anderson. In the Middle East, unlike cattle in the Old West, sheep are not driven in front of the shepherd. Instead, they follow the shepherd. And, in fact, many herds may graze together, watched over by their shepherds. But when the time comes to leave, each shepherd calls them in a unique voice. The sheep know the voice of their shepherd and follow him out of the other herds.

"...the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice" (John 10: 3-5).

Walking with Jesus is listening to the voice of the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. He calls us by name and, because we belong to Him, we respond and follow--to green pastures, beside quiet waters, and even through the valley of the shadow of death.

As we listen to his comforting voice, we do not fear evil. His guiding and correcting rod and staff are comforting because we learn to trust His lovingkindness.

Perhaps my greatest challenge is to simply follow Him like a sheep, letting go of my incessant need to be in control, and trusting in His love for me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Trudging the Road of Happy Destiny

In the Big Book of Alcoholic's Anonymous, it says "we shall be with you in the Spirit as you trudge the road of happy destiny."

This phrase has always struck me as entirely insightful and profound. The fellowship of encouragement and support that is the 12-Step community joins with the individual addict on a journey towards a happy and blessed future free from the addictive lifestyle. And what is the nature of that journey? It is described as a "trudge."

Websters says that "to trudge" is "to walk or march steadily and usually laboriously." And "a trudge" is "a long tiring walk."

Of course Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, was a Christian who was influenced by the Oxford Group in formulating the 12-steps. The first three steps are the essential ingredients of conversion. First we have to admit we are sinful. Second, we have to admit that God exists. And third, we must surrender our lives to Him.

But the remaining nine steps are more about the continuing process that we must pursue in order to obtain and maintain freedom from sin and to walk in a deep and life-changing commitment to God. Conversion is the easy part. The difficult part is the "trudge," the long tiring walk that is our daily life.

Of course, this is true of the Christian life in general. Turning over our lives to God so that we are now "born again" is the easy part. But walking out our faith through the painful trials of daily life is the hard part.

Jesus says that those who would follow Him must "pick up their cross daily and follow him." Put another way, we must look at the example of Jesus' trudge and imitate Him.

Jesus laid aside the "self-directed life" and took up the "God-directed life" when he picked up the old rugged cross. True discipleship means picking up the symbolic cross given to us and following His example of obedient submission to the Father. He trudged the entire Via Dolorosa to Calvary. And even beyond Calvary. You could say, to hell and back again. A trudge that brought him to the place of Happy Destiny at the right hand of God.

As the writer of Hebrews says: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12: 2-3).

Is life hard? Don't lose heart. Join with us in the Spirit as we all trudge the road of happy destiny together.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Simple Instructions

What is the most complicated set of instructions you've ever had to follow in your home? For me it was the assembly instructions for my gas barbecue. Not only were the instructions complex, but it seems that they were written by non-native English speakers. "Take up through slotted down-piece." What?!?! I had several pieces left when I had finished assembly. Oh well, it seems to work.

What is the least complicated set of instructions you've had to follow in your home? For me it is written on the side of my shampoo bottle: "Lather. Rinse. Repeat."

It doesn't get any easier than that.

Growing up in the church, I often felt that Christianity was mysterious and complicated, like my gas barbecue assembly. With all the trappings of religion, how can anyone understand whether God is pleased and you are in the center of His will?

But Jesus, when confronted by the scribes and Pharisees in the Temple courts was given a nagging question that was probably commonly discussed by the scholars, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" (Matt. 22: 36).

The question was meant to trap him by getting him mired in the complex theological debates of the religious leaders. They read the Torah and got caught up in all of the minutiae. To them, religion was like my gas barbecue, a myriad of instructions. The successful holy person could bring all the pieces together into a harmonious whole. The answer is a 5-volume Systematic Theology.

But Jesus' answer was simple. "Jesus replied, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt. 22: 37-40).

Jesus is essentially saying that God's Torah can be boiled down to two simple instructions: Love God and Love People.

When I started to realize that this was indeed the heart of Christianity, I thought the church's mission statement should really be more like my shampoo bottle: "Love God. Love People. Repeat."

It doesn't get much simpler than that. What would happen if we all read these simple set of instructions every morning and then just tried to follow them?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Swept Away

I often think of God's Kingdom as a kind of powerful river. When we place our faith in the King, He invites us to get swept away by the current. And one of the ways we often experience that current is when He calls us to send out workers into the harvest.

Jesus sent the 12 out two-by-two (Matt. 10 and Luke 9) to extend His own ministry. And in Luke 10, he sent out "72 others" to do the same. At the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus delivers the "Great Commission," essentially commanding the church to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28: 18-20). And at the beginning of Acts, Jesus tells His disciples to "be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1: 8).

The book of Acts is the story of the Gospel being brought "to the ends of the earth" by the Holy Spirit-empowered disciples. A good example is in Acts 13, 1-3:

"In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off."

In two Sundays my church will be laying hands on someone who has been my Youth Pastor for the last four years. He is leaving us to serve a sister congregation as Assistant Pastor. I feel proud and happy for him as he goes, but I am also feeling the pang of loss.

In my years as a member and then a pastor at the Anaheim Vineyard, I got used to building relationships with pastors and leaders, often to see God "send" them somewhere else to serve the Kingdom of God. John Wimber, the founding pastor, often said that God called us to send our best. And when we did, that spirit of generosity would result in increased blessing.

The answer is not to protect myself from the pain of losing relationship, but to embrace it as a part of Kingdom life. Each one of us is called to jump into the stream called the Kingdom. It has a force all its own. And when we jump in, we will be swept away in it's powerful current.

This weekend, a friend of mine who planted a church 16 years ago surprised me when he showed up unannounced at our Sunday service. At lunch, we were able to reminisce about the adventures of Kingdom ministry that have made our lives so exciting. On two sides of the continent, we have impacted the lives of many others.

And we agreed that, as pastors, we can't cling to people as if we own them. They belong to God. He will lead and carry them to their own destinations.

Instead, let us rejoice that the Gospel is being carried "to the ends of the earth." And let us look forward to swapping "Holy Ghost stories" when we meet again.