The Excellent Shepherd

In the Summer of 2010 I took a few dozen high schoolers plus a handful of adults to NYC to work with a summer program for kids. While there we took one day to go be tourists in The City. We split up into groups (each with their own pair of leaders), and I was the Chinatown leader. So the kids that wanted to roam the streets of Chinatown, eat great food and buy cheap knockoff sunglasses came with me. Seemed like a good idea at the time, until we got down there. Let me assure you, it is an amazing and terrifying adventure to shepherd a handful of teenagers up and down strange and busy city streets. In order to keep reasonably safe we had a rule that if one person wanted to go into a store, we all went into the store. Nobody could go off by themselves. We had a leader in front (me) plus another leader in the back to wrangle the stragglers. Everything went fine at first. Kids buying street food (which we were warned to not do, but we did anyway), and giant gaudy watches that would end up breaking within the week. Then it happened. As we were walking past a small dingy side street one of our high school girls heard the siren’s call: “Gucci purses. $20!” She looked down the alley and saw a guy about 50 feet away, waving her over to see his selection. It was just too much for this young lady to handle. She broke from the group and started walking into the abyss. When she was about 1/2 way down one of our giant high school guys (that would end up playing college football) noticed that she had broken away and started to run after her. The purse-peddler saw this giant young man running, so he took off. Catastrophe Averted.

Why did she go down that alley? What voices to you hear (maybe not literally) that call you into something that is too good to be true; offering hope while producing death.

John 10
7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

We aren’t much of a shepherding community anymore, but we can still (partly) understand what Jesus was talking about when he made these agricultural parallels. In John 10 Jesus self-describes with TWO of his seven “I AM” statements. These statements are meant to reveal one of his powerful unique characteristics, but also to describe how He (and he alone) is able to heal one of our powerful and unique needs. In this chapter we get “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the door” — But in reality, we aren’t getting two identities but two sides of the same one.

But to get there we need to first understand sheep. It’s not that they are super dumb like us pastors have made them out to be. It’s just that they are really limited. They are very valuable, but also very vulnerable. They need to be led, fed and protected. Constantly. They have pretty bad eyesight and need a leader to keep them from the dangers that surround them: predators, thief and the environment. But, probably even worse, they are prone to blindly follow whoever is in front of them. If the sheep in front of them is walking down a fatal path, he’ll most likely just keep following without looking up, stepping right into whatever danger lies ahead in true leming-style.

Which means that these sheep really need a Shepherd to Provide and Protect. A Shepherd who knows the terrain, the dangers and the places for food. But also have the grit to fight off wolves, lions and thieves. Purge from your mind the pictures of the introvert and goofy sheep-keeper and picture instead Rooster Cogburn from True Grit. Rugged and Determined.

So when Jesus claims the identity of the Good Shepherd, he is taking on a multi-faceted and strong role (minus the debaucherous traits of Rooster). He is standing atop the three great leaders of Israel: Abraham, Moses and David, who were all Shepherds. But Jesus is THE Shepherd who leads His People through the Sea and through the Wilderness and into THE Promised Land as he protects and provides not just here and now but forevermore. He protects us from the horrendous predators and thieves that seek to steal, kill and destroy. He even took on the brunt of these murderers, throwing himself in front of their arrows on the cross in order to keep us save and lead us Home. And this is where the other I AM comes in: The Door. 

The Door is actually one of the essential and glorious roles of The Shepherd. In Jesus’ time they didn’t usually use a “corral” like we think of from the western movies. When they were out in the hills they would stack up rocks in a circle, making a make-shift fence. He would then stand in the entrance as “the door” keeping the sheep in and danger out. But him doing this the sheep (turn the corner in your mind to yourself) could actually breath freely without the anxiety of being carried off by a thief. They can actually rest and have peace because the Shepherd is on his watch. And OUR SHEPHERD never sleeps. When evil tries to come in or climb the walls, he is there with his staff in hand.

BiblePlaces.com

Go back to NYC with me for a second. We are so susceptible to dangers, many of which actually come from within us, our own vulnerability. We are prone to wander after the shiny objects and $20 Guccis. While Jesus as Shepherd and Door is perfectly providing and protecting, our calling is to listen and follow. We need to stick together as a flock rather than run off on our own. We need to hone our ears so that we can actually recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit, which takes practice and repetition. To be in The Word (which we know is his voice) so that when the Spirit speaks into our hearts we can ask “does this sound like Jesus?”


At the end of the day, what we can take away from these two I AMs is that we are loved, valued, protected, provided for and led. Jesus himself has come to give us “Abundant Life” — not steal our joy and give us oppressive rules but give us green pastures and secure fences, with him standing guard. So we are able to breath, have peace, and be assured that our Shepherd is at his watch.

Truth and Freedom

John 8:31
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The US National Debt is over $30.6 Trillion…and growing rapidly.

The average American owes over $90,000.

The average college student graduates with $27,000 in debt.

This kind of financial debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Without taking out a loan very few people would be able to buy a home. But debt can very easily become a vicious overlord, pressing us down into submission, fear and anxiety.

When the Bible talks about being a “slave” the term is “DOULOS” which means bond-servant. It most often refers to being in such overwhelming debt that you have no chance of getting out from under it. So (often out or grace and generosity) somebody will pay your debt off and, in exchange, you essentially become their full-time servant until your debt is paid off (which will likely never happen).

It is into this context that Jesus brilliantly re-defines the word DOULOS into a spiritual scenario. In a much bigger and deeper way the debt of sin is absolutely insurmountable — “The wages of sin is death” Rom 6:23 — This is our great slavery, our great doulos. We have dug a debt-pit and we keep on digging. It is the spiritual and eternal side of a shocking, humiliating and enslaving personal debt which has left us utterly bankrupt, without hope of getting above water.

Into this enslaving despair Jesus procured and proclaims the most ridiculous freedom. Get past the churchy cliche of “Jesus paid a debt he did owe” (which is utterly true) and realize the stunning truth of our debt and his gift.

Timothy Keller has explained it like this (I can’t remember where): Say you came home and your house-sitter told you that a bill came and she went ahead and paid it for you. How happy and thankful would you be? Well, it totally depends on the amount of the bill. Was it a “postage due” of 5 cents or was it your mortgage?

This is where we sit, and why it’s not “bad news” to talk about the depth of our sin-debt. The older I get the more I realize the extent of what Jesus has forgiven (once again, even the word “forgiven” is a debt-erasing term). So it’s not shamful and oppressive to consider the level of debt, but a springboard to praise, thanksgiving and responsive living. Jesus doesn’t rub it in and remind us of what he’s done. He doesn’t abusively turn to us and say “I forgave you of all that, and this is how you treat me?” Instead, he has taken our debt and fully paid it off…AND he has given us a full inheritance!

Paul tells us in Galatians 4:6-7 “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

We aren’t simply debt-free. We are wealthy with righteousness beyond belief.

So what do I do about this? How does this translate into me knowing and living free?

Jesus tells us in John 8:31 — ABIDE in TRUTH.

Abide means to personally and perpetually be saturated with the TRUTH. (As opposed to sitting under the lies of the devil (John 8:44) who tell us how horrible, un-savable and un-lovable we are).

The Truth that I owed and insurmountable debt.
The Truth that Jesus became a bond-servant (Phil 2) for us, even to the point of the cross.
The Truth that when he was raised from the debt (paying our debt) he brought the keys to Death and Hades with him so that they can no longer has mastery over us! (Rev 1)
The Truth that we have been given the Righteousness of Christ (Phil 3).
The Truth that we are sons and daughters of the King with an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1)

To find FREEDOM means to know, believe, enjoy and live out these Truths. This is done through weekly gatherings with one another; through personal relationships where we speak TRUTH into one anothers’ lives; through authentic, saturating time with the Lord in The Word and Prayer. It’s utter saturation in the Gospel because we perpetually forget and fall back into listening to the devil’s lies.

All of this good news leads into a new life of being a loving-doulos — this time to Christ who loves us and has given himself for us.

As he became a servant for us, we are now servants of Him, and of one another. Not out of threatening obligation, but out of joy and love…

“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20).

Pillar of Fire

At the Feast of Booths the people would gather around the temple treasury celebrating how the Lord guided (carried) Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the Wilderness and into the Promised Land. Part of this celebration included 4 enormous 86-foot tall pillars with a massive fire on top, representing the “pillars of fire” (Exodus 13) that led God’s People. It was here, at this time, that Jesus proclaimed “I am the light of the world!” (John 8:12). He was not just being artistic and interesting. He was boldly proclaiming that HE was the same Lord that led the people out of Slavery and into Life. He was proclaiming His Divinity in a personal, practical and purposeful way. It was a shocking and world-altering proclamation!


What does that have to do with us?

Our whole lives are filled with Wilderness experiences. This side of heaven we have been brought from slavery to sin by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus…but we haven’t fully made it to the ultimate promised land yet. In this “in between time” Jesus, the pillar of fire, the Light, is the one going before us. Should be easy-peasy, right. Clearly not. We all get so easily distracted by other lights in this world, inviting us to follow them down other paths.

One of the strangest fish has to be the Angler Fish. This little guy lives super deep in the ocean where there is essentially NO light. In the Lord’s mind-boggling creativity this fish has a little lantern coming out of his forehead, dangling in front of his mouth. So when little fish see it, they are drawn to it like a moth to a flame…and into the awaiting mouth of the Angler.

In this dark world I look for lights…What do I do? Where do I go?

In this dark world I am ashamed of my own darkness…Why did I do that? Why did I say that?

When this happens, I have “light options” in front of me, one leading to life and the others leading to death.

I can turn to basic intuition (which the Lord certainly uses). But sometimes the Lord has a stranger faith-path.


When confronted with my own darkness, I can turn to religion and promise to do better and/or rationalize my behavior.

Or I can enter into the fire as the fire enters into me. There is not a magical prayer or secret combination of scripture passages. It is quite simply (yet often elusively) abiding with Jesus. He has entered the darkest of darknesses on the cross (even as it was dark over all the land from noon until 3 while he hung there) which means that he has also personally entered our personal darkness and our personal wilderness. His still, small voice speaks to us through the Spirit, His Word and His People to guide us, prod us, heal us and carry us home.
He is still the pillar of fire. And in the end…


Rev 21
22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.

J+N

Jesus Plus Nothing.
A strange little phrase more over-packed than my free carry-on bag.

At first glance this elementary phrase is Gospel 101. So let’s move on to some meat that challenges my head, heart and soul; solidifies my theology and behavior; gives hope to my eternity and power for my day-to-day.

LIKE the doctor that moves on from basic anatomy in order to do brain surgery.

LIKE the attorney that brushed past the constitution to run for office.

LIKE the football team that hurdles “block and tackle” practice to choreograph their end zone dance.

LIKE the couple that stops saying “I love you” to get to the deeper parts of marriage. (yikes)

You know what I am talking about. We’ve seen it. We’ve been frustrated by it. We’ve done it. It’s the Fundamentals. Over and over and over again. Then when you’ve done it over and over, then start over and do it again.

This is the Gospel. Yes, we absolutely need to study deep and broad. Do your word studies, read commentaries and get into sparked conversations. But always, always, always built upon the rock-solid, immovable, unchanging foundation of “Jesus Plus Nothing.”

Otherwise we will inevitably get lost in information instead of transformation; focused on theology rather than on Jesus; revert back to self instead love. Don’t believe me? Ask anybody who has been to seminary. Or anybody who has been in vocational ministry. I cannot begin to tell the nearly universal stories of myself and others that have lost the power and passion of ministry, and even with Jesus, because we’ve “moved on” from JPN.

So let’s remember

Jesus Plus Nothing

Ephesians 2:8-9
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Jesus is all we have. Jesus is all we need.

For all ages we have added a + and/or a – to this equation not just for salvation but for my everyday relationship with the Lord. Most of us may get on board with this being true for me to get into heaven. But not so much for how God actually sees me and loves me.

Jesus + ____

What dog-trick hoops do we set up in this blank? Specific rules of Baptism; specific (micro) theology points (side note, yes there are basic macro theology points we are called to believe as we are adopted into his family – see Romans 10:9).

Jesus – ____

What itemized and ranked sins might we insert here? It’s Jesus…as long as you DON’T…?

Instead of going on and on with these essentials, I want to move on to the main two points of JPN — that is gives us Infinitely Eternal Hope as well as Endlessly Practical Power

Infinitely Eternal Hope

When Jesus looks on you, what’s the look on his face?

I used this little counseling trick with teenagers. I’d show them different expressions and and ask them different “feeling” questions (how did you feel when…). Because sometimes words don’t suffice.

So what about you?

When you really mess up…When you are really generous…When you realize you haven’t even thought about God in over a week. Which of these represent how you “feel that God feels about you”?

No, God isn’t ambivalent about your heart and your behavior. But unlike humans, his love for you isn’t adjusted by your behavior. It if was, then Christ’s death wasn’t sufficient. That means that it’s “Christ Plus (my behavior)”. Nope. It’s not.

Put another way:

Unconditional Love doesn’t exist.
Quote me on that. But hear me out.

The Lord doesn’t love you unconditionally, because that would simply be unjust. Instead, and SO MUCH BETTER, the Lord’s love for you is CONDITIONED on Christ, who has satisfied the Law’s demands and was made a propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10 – In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.) This means that Jesus “appeased” God’s just wrath by paying that price for us.

And therefore…God’s love has met it’s needed conditions, and you are SET FREE. His love is NOT CONDITIONED on you in any way, at any time. Not what you’ve done or what you haven’t done.

It’s over.

It’s finished (I seem to remember Jesus explicitly saying that at some important time)

This Infinitely Endless Hope rests solely on Jesus and his Righteousness. I am safe, secure and wrapped up on the wings of my Father. This world will hiss and spit, but I am my Father’s and He is mine. Locked and secure.

Since the days of Paul the first critique of this is “Well, if it’s secure, then I can do whatever I want…live it up and enjoy myself because God won’t reject me.” Well, Yes. But, BY NO MEANS (Romans 7)

This security actually means an unimaginable and powerful freedom…not just “FREE FROM” but “FREE TO”…

Endlessly Practical Power

The Infinitely Endless Hope of JPN means that my days count more than ever. I don’t have to spend my days in any kind of worry or fear. Did I do this right? Did I do enough?

Instead I can realize that, since Jesus died, rose and was lifted up, I have now been given the Holy Spirit to abide in me and me in Him. And, get this, that will never ever ever change. I am so fully loved and knit together with Him that I am free to give and play, grieve and pray, serve and dance, rest and strive.

It is because of JPN that Paul wrote Philippians 4:13 to all the football teams to come “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” — He said that while in jail awaiting execution. He was FREE and POWERFUL because man has NOTHING on me; this world cannot take what God has locked up in his vault.

I need the Spirit to preach this into my heart everyday. I need Him to shove it past my insecurities, successes, fears and failures. I need to hear the perpetual and unending Truth from the Bridegroom “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (SofS 6:3 – written to a married couple as a foreshadowing of Christ and His Bride, The Church, You, Me.)

There is too much more to say and almost all of you have already stopped reading. So if you are still here, sit on the words of this 200 yr old hymn.

Rock of Ages, Augustus M. Toplady

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

You > Me

2 Corinthians 8:5
and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.

This is nothing new, but COVID has thrown fuel on our addiction to personal preferences. Before I go on, what I will describe as Netflix Church cuts both ways, including congregants as well as pastors….if I am coming across as a finger-pointer, please forgive me. We are all in this Pit of Preference together.

When I was a little kid our media entertainment was pretty much limited to what was on the three major networks plus PBS, and only at the exact time it was showing (VCRs came out a bit later, but not used that terribly often). We had to actually be home Thursday nights at 9pm to watch Cheers. The first remote control I ever saw was at my great-grandmother’s house. It was connected to the tv by a wire and it had 2 or 3 buttons: I think (not sure) that it had an on/off button, plus a volume up/down button and a channel up/down button. And my mind was blown at the technology.

Now we have thousands of channels and the instant ability to start, stop, pause, record and change the show, all while sitting on the couch eating Cheetos. And we still say “there’s nothing to watch.”

With infinite choices for food, exercise, entertainment etc, it is completely natural that we begin to live every other part of our lives with a Netflix-Mentality. When we come to church it will be an aggressive and overt battle to NOT see it as “entertainment” – we want to hear what we want, for how long we want, and leave feeling the way we want while not being “required” to do anything that we don’t want. This is the human condition which has been injected with beastly steroids over the past decade.

– How have you mentally “rated” the worship service based on your preferences?
– How has corporate worship been treated as convenient and/or inconvenient?
– Try to differentiate the difference between a worship essential vs. a preference.
– Why do you suppose we all have gotten comfortable with this mindset?
– What do you think the solution could be?

————————————————————————————-

Alright church leaders, this is for us. It’s so easy to arrogantly sit on our high horses as we look down our noses at those that feel to us like consumers and critics. But how much are WE consumers and critics?

Pastor as Consumer: As broken people we pastors are powerfully drawn to “consume” the approval of others. It is most certainly a mixed bag (like it is with all of us) but it is so easy to come in on Sunday not just with an excitement and calling to open the Word of God to the Body, but also with an expectation that the Body will satisfy my craving for approval, respect and a feeling of accomplishment. As Timothy Keller has mentioned before when talking about the insecurity that comes from pride, we pastors are drawn to compliments like a shark is to chum (while criticism sends us to the depths).

Pastor as Critic: It is likewise so tempting (and easy) to paint people with a broad and judgemental brush as we make assumptions about why people do what they do. We can find ourselves internally criticizing people for not behaving the way we WANT them to behave (and, to be honest, sometimes the way Scripture has told us to behave).

With all of these in mind, from the viewpoint of the congregant and the pastor, how often do we internally give one another a low YELP review? How often do all of us complain because things aren’t personally pleasing?

The Gospel equips us to be fully secure in the value and identity that Christ has procured for us on the cross so that I don’t have to expect others to satisfy me. I am loved and adopted, which means I am equipped to hear compliments AND criticisms with a humble heart; and give (appropriate) compliments and criticisms that are truly for the growth of that person (and not simply to reduce my annoyance levels).

In order to grow in that direction (I intentionally didn’t say “get there” because we won’t in this lifetime) we need to 1) be secure in our value as God’s Children, and 2) be in actual, strong, loving relationships with one another, which will enable us to speak and listen because we will be (reasonably) sure that we are FOR one another, not trying to merely fix one another. And this needs to begin with church leaders.

So join me in this. Let’s prayerfully look at how a Netflix-Church mentality may have infiltrated our hearts. How do I treat others (worship, God, friends etc) from a “preference” point of view rather than from (like the Macedonians in 2Cor8) a “giving my very life” point of view?

Wow. I need even more of the Holy Spirit’s power than I imagined.

Wow. I HAVE more of the Holy Spirit’s power than I ever dreamed.

Sorry

I told you last week I’d spend a few weeks on prayer. Sorry. I was wrong. I’ll pick up the prayer discussion next week, but this week I wanted to add a bit more to last week’s sermon on repentance.

In the sermon we walked through 2 Corinthians 7, with emphasis on 7:10 “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” When we see the pain of this world and, more especially, the pain (i.e. “sin”) that emanates from my own heart, we turn to two different kinds of “grief” : “worldly grief” or “godly grief.”

Worldly Grief can look like godly grief but is characterized by a self-centered point of view as we are more concerned with how getting caught impacts me than the sinful behavior itself. Here are some examples of what Worldy Grief smells like:

  • “I’m such a horrible person” – We turn downward in despair and really make it all about ourselves and how wretched we are.
  • “I didn’t mean to” – We agree that we did something wrong, but don’t take responsibility for it.
  • “I’ll never do it again” – We own the fact that we did it but make it about behavioral management rather than relational breakage. (Yes, true repentance can smell a little like this, but repentance results in changed behavior, it isn’t behavior change in itself.)
  • “I’m sorry if you were offended” – This is a classic these days. It can almost look like repentance, until you realize that the wording implies that the problem isn’t in what I did, but in you being so soft and weak that you were offended, which means this is all your fault.
  • “What’s my punishment” – So often (if we are really honest) the deepest grief we feel when we do something terrible is the realization that we’ll have to “pay a price” for our behavior. We are devastated that the “bell tolls for me.”
  • “Yeah, but you…” – These are the days of gaslighting, and many of us have made it an art. We don’t necessarily disagree that we’ve done something wrong, but IN COMPARISON we aren’t nearly as wrong and bad as you. It’s the jujitsu of repentance.
  • “I’m sorry that happened” – I was reminded of this one after my sermon. It happened after a hockey game where one player severely (and intentionally) injured another player. When asked for a response, he was “truly sad that something like this happened” while taking no responsibility whatsoever that it was HIM that caused the injury.

One thing I didn’t really get to in the sermon is WHY we are so bad at repenting, and was quickly reminded. On Monday an article popped up on my regular news feed titled “Why Is It So Hard to Apologize?”

Though not from a faith-based perspective it gives some good insight into our hearts of unrepentance. The one I want to focus on, and offer some healing from, is this:

“As Schumann reeled off these barriers to apologizing, I thought, Not me, nope, not that one either. Then, there it was: Apologizing, she explained, is hell on one’s self-image as a decent, caring, sensitive, moral person.”

https://www.mindful.org/why-is-it-so-hard-to-apologize/

There it is. The biggest barrier to repentance is our arrogance and insecurity. In order to repent we have to admit and own our deep flaw, making ourselves vulnerable in the worst way possible. We spend our whole lives trying to convince others (and ourselves, and God) that we are ok, valuable, worthy. To repent is to come to the end of our self-made righteousness. It is a true and deep death. And it’s exactly where we MUST be in order to have empty hands that can receive the gift of Christ’s Righteousness.

As long as my fingers are clutched around the idol of my self righteousness there is no room for the righteousness of Christ. But this idol is a facade at best and a disease at worst. Not only is it a figment of our imagination, but we are actually clutching a poisonous beast that aims to destroy us.

But Jesus invites us to let go as he clutches us in his own hands. He invites us to a godly grief where we own what our sin really is: spiritual and lethal adultery against our holy Groom. And this grief brings us not to denial but repentance, which opens the gateway for the perfect Righteousness of Jesus to be poured out on us because our lethal poisonous beast was unleashed upon Him on the Cross.

When I get tiny glimpses that even my repentance needs to be repented of, I can turn to Jesus and realize that my worth, value, hope, identity and very being isn’t based upon what I do and don’t do, but upon Him and My Adoption into His Family, which makes repentance not just possible, but a joy that brings freedom.

Prayer: #1 – Divine Communication

Communication is so hard.

What we call communication is actually us talk for a while, then pausing a little as the other person talks as we wait for a break so that we can begin to talk again. And the other person is probably doing the same thing. This isn’t communication, it’s just two entities talking. Communication, by definition, is two sided. It’s relaying information as well as receiving (and hopefully comprehending) information. It’s not just talking. It’s listening.

Even as I write this a quick article popped up in my feed where the author quotes Cash Nickerson, author of The Samurai Listener: “Unfortunately most people don’t remember because they don’t hear it in the first place.”

We are inherently bad at communication with one another so naturally it seeps into our prayer life, which is the origin and foundation of all communication. The very first conversation in history was between one man and God, where each spoke and each listened. But then came the Fall, where our communication became warped with selfishness, ignorance, judgement and agendas.

For the next few weeks I want to wade into the warm waters of Prayer with hope and practicality. Personally I feel like I am still in Prayer Elementary School and am usually embarrassed by my felt inability. But I know I am learning and growing. There are times in my prayer life that I am actually listening to God, and sometimes find out that God is also listening to me (why does that surprise me?).

Let me tell you this story from last week, and then in my next post we’ll pull out our archeological tools and begin to uncover the ancient art of prayer:

I was sitting in a chair on the beach at sunrise last week, reading my bible and praying. I felt really stuck in my prayers, not even knowing how to vocalize what was in my heart…no even KNOWING what was in my heart. So I began to literally and simply pray to the Holy Spirit, confessing that I didn’t know what to pray for and asking Him to pray to the Father on my behalf. Two minutes later a lady I’ve never seen before slowly passed in front of me on a bike, turned to me, and said “I’m praying for you this morning”.

That’s it. I never saw her again. I didn’t run after her and asked why she had said that. I just sat there and thanked the Holy Spirit for this gift, for this reminder that He is listening…AND He is communicating with the Father on my behalf.

So why does this matter? We are free! Free to pray, and free to stumble in our prayers. Free to be eloquent and free to sound like an incoherent child. The Spirit is the translator that connect our mouth to the Father’s ears and the Father’s mouth to our ears. So take the pressure off and just begin.

Romans 8:26
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

For more depth on the Holy Spirit prayer on our behalf, listen to THIS sermon by Ligon Duncan (super amazing pastor/preacher/professor).

Refuge

Psalm 62:7

On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.

2020 is the year that the CDC pleaded with us to “shelter in place” in an effort to protect ourselves and others from the looming danger of a potentially deadly virus. Though it has felt isolating and often burdensome, we are naturally bent toward “sheltering.” Scripture calls it taking refuge. The Psalmists frequently invite us to “take refuge” during storms and impending danger. It is like they are standing in the doorway of a brick house during a hail storm calling us out of the elements and into safety. These storms happen everyday, from which we keep looking for refuge.

  • The storm of COVID
  • The storm of financial problems
  • The storm of broken relationships
  • The storm of nauseating sin
  • The storm of addictions

The world gives us infinite (and often very helpful, though temporary) places of refuge during these storms: masks, grief counseling, financial planning, AA, prescriptions. These can truly help when the hail is raining on our heads. But there has to be more. There has to be a Real Refuge because the storms just don’t stop, and The Storm of Sin, Fear and Death is pressing in.

In my regular everyday life, while I am taking appropriate shelters, I need two more things:

  1. Ask what unhealthy shelters am I taking, which takes on two elements?
    1. Some shelters are simply sin:
      1. Jumping into an inappropriate relationship (or porn) just to feel loved.
      2. Financial impropriety to get out of debt
      3. Lashing out at others to gain control
    2. Some shelters might be overboard:
      1. Never going into public to ensure I don’t get sick.
      2. Not confronting sin so that I don’t rock the boat.
      3. Taking a pill for every malady.
  2. Seeing and enjoying the Lord as my refuge.
    1. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5
    2. “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.” Psalm 91:4
    3. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Jn 14:27

I am painfully aware that this can feel like shallow placating. I need something more than “just trust God” and “but God will work this out for your good.” Yes, those are true. But when I am being beaten down by the hailstorm, I need something I can actually hold onto.

In 2018 Fiona Simpson of Australia was caught with her baby in a massive hailstorm that began to break through the windows. In sacrificial love she laid over her child and was brutally beaten by the hail. She and her baby survived, but she was left with horrible injuries all over her body.

This is what I can hold onto: God himself has done infinitely more than what Fiona did for you and me on the cross. The storm of death was raining down, and so he covered himself over us, taking the hit of death itself. We still get pummeled in this life with relational trauma, abuse, sin, slander, ruin. He has proven his immeasurable love for me on the cross, and therefore Paul can tell us (Paul, the one who was beaten, slandered and continually faced death and pain) in Romans 8:32 “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

So what does this mean? Most of us Westerners (me included) have been brainwashed to believe that the utmost goal of life is being safe and comfortable. It is this mindset that determines the type of refuges we create and “rest” in. God has actually told us over and over that sin WILL cause us real pain, discomfort, injustice. Our bodies will decay and our relationships will cause heartbreak, but God has already made all things right and is calling us to begin living the resurrected life now. This is what Easter is about. The cross wasn’t the finale. It defeated sin and the resurrection defeated death.

John 16:33
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”


God’s Names – Shepherd

Psalm 23:1
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Sheep and goats are amazing and ridiculous beasts. They can be really social and even companions to us. And they can get themselves into terrible and dangerous situation. And they have serious issues with eating, especially what to eat and how much to eat. And they are awesome.

So it’s no wonder we are so often referred to as “sheep” in Scripture.

We are community-oriented “companions” to one another and to our Shepherd. When I was a kid (dad-joke intended) my brother and I and a couple of cousins each had a pet goat at the Land Ranch. These domesticated beasts would act almost dog-like, bouncing up to you as you walked into the barn (in hopes of being fed, but more on that in a minute). They travel in herds, listen to their guides and even to a degree cuddle up with you. We all are made for community and joy. We are designed to bounce up to our Shepherd, be fed and tenderly cared for. It makes us come alive.

And we do the dumbest things because we are either not paying attention or just don’t know any better. One of our ranch-duties was to drive the fence lines to rescue goats from their own stupidity. You see, sometimes goats would roam their massive acreage simply enjoying and grazing neat a the fence. The would then spot a little patch of green grass on the other side of the fence, enticing them to poke their heads through the fence to nibble on some greens. The issue is that these goats have horns. Bending backwards. Which means that when they try to pull their heads out from the fence, their horns prevent their escape. So we would regularly come upon these “stuck goats” and have to clip the fence to free them. My goodness how often we do this. We say something moronic and immediately with we could shove the words back into our mouths, but we can’t. Or react out of a fit of rage, only to find ourselves in more trouble than what caused the rage. Over and over. Everyday. So we need “new mercies every morning” to clip the fence and rescue us…so that we can do it again tomorrow.

And we all have terrible eating disorders where we either starve ourselves or gorge ourselves on unhealthy food (and I’m referring more to spiritual food, though worldly food certainly applies as well). Sometimes goats put their heads through the fence for some “forbidden” grass, and sometimes they just eat the “wrong” stuff that’s right in front of their faces. Ironically I met a goat yesterday whose name is Woody. I was sitting around town when Misty and her goat Woody walked up and sat near me. As we talked about life, goats and what makes for good BBQ (cabrito was on the menu) Woody kept sniffing around and trying to eat pretty much everything, much like a toddler who is learning to walk pulls everything off the shelves and tables he can find. Not only that, but some goats (not sure if it’s all goats) don’t know when their bellies are full…and they keep eating, even to the point of death. This parallel is my everyday life. I want to consume all sorts of things that aren’t on God’s “healthy menu” — and not just the “bad” stuff. I consume too much media because it looks good. I consume too much approval from others because it feels good. I stick my head through a fence to eat up gossip or slander. I need a shepherd to come alongside and feed me the good food, and pull my mouth out of the wrong trough.

And we are awesome, men and women made in the very image of God. Goats are so annoying, and so amazing. They are fun to hold, to play with and enjoy. This is what we are made for in the Lord. In the midst of our ridiculousness we are image-bearers of God himself, and he has designed us for the purpose of enjoying one another and, most especially, enjoying Him by glorifying him as our Shepherd. Our sustainer, feeder, rescuer and friend.

Jesus made this point himself:

John 10:11
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

He is the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4) that so deeply loves us that he comes out searching for and rescuing us morning by morning. But we’ve gotten ourselves in so much trouble through the depths of sin that Jesus is not only our Shepherd, but the Lamb of God who was sacrificed so that we would not have to be.

And now, being loved, freed and empowered, we the lost-but-found sheep are sent out to be under-shepherds, as we see Jesus telling Peter and us:

John 21:16
He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

God’s Names – Mighty Rock

I love the picture YouTube chose for this video. It summarizes my character pretty well.

Psalm 62:7
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.

We are going to do a little Devotional Series on the Names of God. Not the more “formal” names we might think of, but the personal character-names the Psalmists give God…like Shepherd, Portion, Help, Salvation, Rescue, Fortress, Shield….etc. There are so many great ones.

To start I want to talk about God our “Mighty Rock.”

One of my college summer jobs was being a beach lifeguard at Port Aransas, Texas for a really cool camp. We would position two guards on the beach about 50 years apart and 2 guard in the water at the 2nd sandbar (maybe 50 yards out, about 4 feet deep), making a big square that the kids had to stay in. Several times while being out in the water we’d have a teenager that was getting overwhelmed with the water, current, waves or exhaustion and begin to panic, frantically dog-paddling and feeling like they are going to drown. We’d go over to the kid, speak calmly to them, telling them that all they have to do is stop flailing about and…simply stand up. It looked like the water was deep and the future dim, but in fact there was solid ground available, if they would just stop, and stand.

This is my daily life. It happens in the little things and the big things. Like Peter in Matthew 14 the “wind and the waves” eclipse Jesus and I can’t see how or feel solid ground. And Jesus reaches down, time and time again, to lift me back up and “set my feet on a rock.”

In real life my feet search for solid ground…acceptance by other, financial security, physical health, relationship healing…so many things that I desperately want in order to feel secure. But EVERYTHING in this world is shifting sand. Things change, people fail (especially me), stuff falls apart, injustice continues, pain is chronic. But not so with Jesus. As Peter himself wrote, quoting Isaiah 28

1 Peter 2:6
For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

On Christ the Solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.

  • When my financial sand moves, Jesus provides.
  • When my relationships shake, Jesus loves.
  • When I feel all alone, Jesus is the Immanuel.
  • When I am rejected, Jesus was rejected so that my Father will never reject me.
  • When I feel unable, Jesus gave me the Spirit to empower and gift me.
  • When family is difficult, Jesus has made me a co-heir of the Father.
  • When death looms, Jesus died so that it no longer has power.
  • When my body deteriorates, Jesus’ resurrection promises me a new body.