Tag Archives: courage

Wise… and gentle

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Wise …and gentle

As would be wholly expected, there is a growing swell of backlash and criticism of those using #MeToo and #ChurchToo to draw attention to sexual misconduct in our culture.  I get it.  I even agree with some of it.

There is little doubt that there are those who are (ironically) abusing it for personal gain or even vendetta.  False reports of sexual assault are rare, but every false allegation is wrong and should be dealt with accordingly.

Additionally, within the ranks of Christendom, we tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to anything with origins in the secular mainstream.  There are some angry, foul-mouthed, inarticulate, illogical voices in the #MeToo choir, but as both a leader in the body and a victim, I’m asking the church to listen anyway – to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

The problem is messy … really messy

Like trauma, #MeToo and #ChurchToo are messy.  It makes sense that this dam of silence would break open with a wild, reckless torrent that is slicing through society.  Whatever you think about all of this, one thing is sure – this involves a lot of people.  This is not a movement being led by anyone – it’s a phenomenon of individuals publicly declaring that they have been the victims of everything from unwanted sexual advances to gang rape and childhood sexual abuse – and that they have been largely silenced by the very systems of power perpetuating the abuses.  Also like trauma, it is a confusing deluge of stories that will take time to sort out and make sense of.

It’s going to take patience and wisdom, and a great deal of truth-seeking, but I contend that all sexual misconduct is inherently wrong, and it is, therefore, worth wading through the mess in order to pursue righteousness.  I also contend that despite the inarticulateness and offensiveness of some of the voices connected to #MeToo and #ChurchToo, that we should listen discerningly.  Any problems associated with the way things are coming out are worth sifting through to seek to understand what victims are trying to say.  Someone angry about their abuse should not be chastened because of their anger – they should be listened to in spite of it.  It will require godly insight for hearers to get past the bitterness and hurt and listen to the message behind it.

I’ve heard men complain that they are afraid of being wrongly accused no matter what they do or don’t do.  I’ve heard them complain that harmless flirting is now being called sexual harassment, and that they are afraid to help children in distress for fear of being labeled a pedophile.  I’ve listened to concerns that believing victims without due process will lead to witch hunts.  And though sexual misconduct is almost never committed publicly, I’ve even heard it (absurdly) suggested that allegations not be taken seriously unless there are at least two witnesses.  Brothers, I understand these concerns – they spring from rational objections and need to be taken seriously, too.  I’m not advocating that your concerns be dismissed, but you may need to get used to feeling uncomfortable with some of this process.  It may actually be the means God uses to increase your compassion for those who have been treated so unjustly and insensitively.  These things are worth working through with reason and compassion – wisely and gently.

The problem is massive

We have a massive and, until recently, largely unaddressed problem.  The church has the problem, too.  Until we address it with honesty and humility we will effectively continue to contribute to it rather than offer any real solutions.  None of the concerns that men have – no matter how valid they might be (and they are) – should be used to dismiss or silence the women crying out for justice.

No arbitrary “grading system” of severity – with unwelcome sexual advances being at one end of the continuum and violent sexual assault being at the other – should be used to dismiss anything on that continuum.  They are all wrong and no one should be pressured into tolerating any of them.  Not all of these offenses result in trauma, but all of them are inappropriate and unacceptable – and they have been rampant.  The lumping of all the offenses on the spectrum together into one complaint might be confusing, but the reason for this is actually pretty straightforward:  all of these offenses involve the abuse of power for sexual gain.  Period.  And no Christian anywhere can make a case for this being acceptable – ever.  In fact, we absolutely must say just the opposite.  But we can do it with wisdom and gentleness.

This is going to be incredibly difficult for a long time

I know that listening to story after story of sexual abuse is wearisome.  But it is necessary because defending the vulnerable is right, and we cannot begin to understand the magnitude of both the offenses and their impact without listening to those affected.  It might be helpful to remember that the weariness in listening to the stories – even thousands of them – cannot compare to the agonizing burden being borne by the ones living them.

Jesus told his disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so, be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16)  Snakes sense danger coming a long way off.  They constantly monitor their surroundings for the approach of predators and effectively ward off both stealthy and brazen attacks with decisive and effective offensive abilities.  I can’t help but think that this is an appropriate choice of analogies when considering confronting sexual predators hiding in sheep’s clothing.

Likewise, at the same time, we are to be gentle – innocent, harmless – as doves.  Also an apt analogy when considering caring for the abused.

Jesus really can redeem this

There is an answer to this.  This is not hopeless.  The evil involved in this is incomprehensible – but greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.  Beloved church, let’s not be dismissive or fearful of a messy – but necessary – call to attend to the scourge of sexual misconduct, crimes, and abuses in our midst.  There are many things that need tending to in this – calling perpetrators (and the complicit) to  account, tending to the wounded who have been violated, addressing the larger issues of systemic power imbalances, and looking for ways to teach little boys and girls, teens, and adults how to interact with one another in ways that honor God and his image-bearing likeness we all share, are just a few.  But please don’t let the enormity of the problems tempt you to try to ignore that they exist.  Jesus does provide answers for all of us – victims, perpetrators, and those on the sidelines whose heads are spinning because of the confusion and overwhelming size of it all.  He will give us wisdom when we ask for it.

Let’s help one another be wise… and gentle.

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Enough with the #MeToo stuff already

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jilbert-ebrahimi-33575Enough with the #MeToo stuff already, right?

It’s not going away, is it?  Every week more men are being confronted and exposed by angry women.  Enough already, right?

Christian women are among those reporting, too, however, we, the church, are very uncomfortable with angry people.  We want things quickly tied up into neat theological packages.  We think that because we can read from the “angry” parts in our Bibles to the bits that talk about settled trust in God’s righteous dealings with wrongs in the space of (maybe) ten minutes or so, that our anger, grief, or pain should be dealt with in about the same amount of time.  Sometimes we’ll give it a week or two, but that’s about our limit.  We know that’s silly, but still, we recoil when we hear someone express how the crimes of those in power have impacted their lives and made them angry.  So enough with the angry women and all the tiresome dredging up of old wounds.  Just move on, right?

Beloved church, it’s time to wake up.

John 13:35 says that people will know we follow Jesus because of our great love for one another.  But the very, very sad truth is that a woman can call a Domestic Violence hotline and get more care and compassion than she can from far too many churches if she tells someone there she has been victimized.  They believe her story – we want her to prove it.  They listen to her halting, disjointed words that are almost impossible for her to get out – we get frustrated because she doesn’t make sense.  They ask questions that help her think – we don’t say anything because we don’t know what to say.  They offer real and material assistance to help her get safe and get out of the destructive relationship – we debate whether or not she should go.  They follow up with her to make sure she is stable and safe, they offer counseling, and make sure her children are ok, too.  We… usually don’t.

We have no excuse.  We are wrong to ignore this – painfully, willfully, persistently wrong.  We can no longer claim ignorance.  #MeToo won’t let us – neither will the statistics that reveal the church has the same problem the rest of society has.

When the #MeToo movement hit social media I wondered what the response in the church would be.  To my great disappointment, it has been largely a continued silence or a collective whine about how angry all these women are.  (Individuals are crying out for justice, but churches are not.)  There was even an article touted by people I respect called #MeToo, But God, which was a call to neatly (and quickly) tie up the package of pain that these women bear into tidy theological boxes that make us feel more comfortable but actually increase the pain of the already wounded.

I think that a part of our problematic response is that things like #MeToo lump all manner of sexual misconduct into one complaint.  We publicly agree that all sexual misconduct is wrong, but we privately acquiesce to some of it.  Sexual innuendo in the office doesn’t really seem that bad to some.  “Harmless” touching doesn’t seem like something to really get that upset about – women have been dealing with that sort of thing for millennia, right?  Well, I would argue that is part of the problem.  But even if you think those sorts of claims can hardly be categorized as “sexual harassment” please be careful of your blanket responses to the “lumped together” complaints, too.  Many of the #MeToo participants have been attacked, abused, and treated as worthless garbage by those who exercised positions of power or authority over them or were supposed to love and care for them.  They have been traumatized and typing six characters on a social media post is the closest they’ve ever come to telling anyone.

These are your family

Beloved church, we cannot continue to have so callous a disregard for the broken and the suffering in our midst.  We must learn what we need to know in order to come alongside the hurting in a way that actually offers comfort and care.  These women are our sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.  They are sitting in the pew next to you.  They are teaching your children, holding your infants, and helping you love Jesus.  They are your family.

I agree that the only hope in all of this is God’s redemptive work, but I also know the desperate struggle of wrestling with the dual realities of the abuse of power and God.  The agonizing wrestling that seeks to reconcile a good God knowing about the abuse and him doing nothing to intervene is not as simple as adding ‘but God’ to the end of ‘me, too.’  Think about how difficult it is to get to the place where you might be able to say, “I was molested, but God,” or, “he raped me, but God”… Try to fill in the rest of that sentence  “… had a perfect plan for my life that included violence that radically changed everything and distorted all that I believed before”??  While this might be true, I hope you can see that it is an intensely difficult truth to grapple with – one that requires a great deal of wrestling with God over a long period of time.

Adding, ‘but God’ will make you, the listener to the story feel much better. But it won’t help the woman in your church fighting for faith.

Grieve with those who grieve without insisting they say things in a way that helps you feel more comfortable with their pain. If you can do that, you may indeed comfort them and eventually have the standing in their lives to help them discover the ways they can include the, ‘but God’ parts – when they’re ready to do so. Taking them there because that’s what you want to hear is neither comforting nor helpful. You end up being like Job’s friends and have the potential to add more pain and do significant damage to an already wounded person.

Let them be angry if they are angry – you probably would be struggling with anger, too.  But don’t stop there – ask them if they would be willing to tell their story, then listen way more than you speak.  The story may come out in bits and pieces, it might not seem to make much sense, it may be fuzzy and unclear (kind of like the #MeToo narrative) – listen anyway, and don’t draw conclusions about where you think she ought to be. Just be there and listen, and try to imagine the gravity of what she is telling you.  She has witnessed evil incarnate and that is no small thing. Please be gentle.

Redemption will be revealed, but not by you

There is redemption to be revealed in every one of these stories, but the victim needs to uncover it.  But listening (or not) will reveal something about us, too.  Standing with someone in pain is also painful. None of us wants to stand there for very long without relief.  Your presence in their pain communicates a great deal.  Do not underestimate this.  But ignoring it communicates something, too.  It communicates that their grief does not matter to us, that their painful wrestling with God is not significant, and that what we value most is theological accuracy and not the human being wrestling with it. I have been blessed by a few faithful comforters along the way.  But I have encountered far too many who have lacked the strength and courage it takes to walk alongside suffering well.

This coming Sunday is Right to Life Sunday.  It is about the dignity and value of each life.  It is not essentially about life vs death, but it is about the inherent value and worth of each human being made in the image of God.  Sexual trauma shatters that image for each victim.  We see ourselves as worthless, invisible, and discarded.  And part of that message comes from being silenced into obscurity.  You can help restore it if you simply listen and seek to understand.

Jesus showed us how when he entered into the grief of, and wept with, Mary and Martha over the death of their brother, Lazarus.  He went to them, and he wept with them, knowing full well that the very next thing he was going to do was show them, ‘but God’…

Fight for joy…

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Jim Winn winter painting image

James Winn (acrylic on paper)

Fight for joy…

I’ve referenced the above painting before by my friend James Winn  – it’s one of my favorite possessions.   While the bleak mid-western Winter imperceptibly creeps slowly, oh so slowly toward Spring, it takes a lot of faith to believe that things will ever look differently than they do in this painting.  Winter is long and hard – brutal at times – on the plains.

Intellectually we know that Spring will come – it always does.  But there are days, cold, dark days, when it is difficult to believe it.

I don’t live on the Plains anymore.  In comparatively balmy Delaware, Winter just isn’t that bad.  But the painting continues to lift my thoughts to higher things.

Some days – weather aside – that long-endured battle to be warm grips my soul.  The grass might be green, the humidity and temperatures high, and flip-flops the norm, but lurking in the corners of my mind are the dark days of endless, frigid, face-numbing cold and the struggle against it.

As I struggle to replace that feeling of dread with truth I am reminded how easy it is to believe a lie.

It’s all too easy to believe my emotions and dread the coming months, believing they will be filled with hardship and struggle – simply because that’s how they have been for so long.

My fear of what might be, based on what has been, wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Faith is the same way.  Sometimes what I have lived wants to dictate what I believe.  Experience tells us to look at a certain set of circumstances and presume the outcome:

“This will always be this way…”

“She’ll always do these things…”

“He’ll never change…”

“This is what I can look forward to…”

But faith says,

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough care for itself.”

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for a future and a hope…’”

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”

I’ve been kicking around the phrase “The Joy of the Lord is my strength” and have been wondering, “What does that mean – really?”   What does the Joy of the Lord look like?  Is it the happy “season’s greetings” kind of “joy” that tv, or hallmark, or Hollywood puts forth?  Is it supposed to be that 30- or 60-minute contrived, happy-ending kind of gladness, that is somehow meant to mysteriously last longer… if you just get a few things right?  I don’t know anyone who really lives like that – do you?

As is often the case for me, turning the phrase around a little bit has helped me to think about joy from a different angle.  Rather than a church-y cliché that people sometimes use to mask the struggles they are really having, the Lord’s Joy is something altogether deeper and more meaningful.

The Lord’s Joy is my strength.

Think about that.  The Lord’s joy – not mine, or yours – is given to us.  Far from the “find it inside yourself” kind of joy that we try to manufacture, the joy of the Lord isn’t something we come up with at all!

The perfect, full, rich, abundant, and over-flowing joy that the Lord possesses has been given to us.  How much joy does God possess?  Infinite amounts.  What kind of joy does God have?  The very best of perfectly complete joy – and nothing less.  What is he joyful about?  In a word, Christ.  And, inconceivably, that includes you and me.  We are his and he delights in us.  All of creation has been racing toward one fantastic fulfillment – redemption!  That is you and me living for eternity in sweet, joy-filled fellowship with the Father because of the Son.   That is the great news!  We get to be there.  FOREVER.  If that doesn’t fill you will the Lord’s Joy, what can?

What is meant by joy strengthening us?  If all this joy is ours, why do we need to be strengthened at all?

Because sometimes, often times, My fear of what might be based on what has been wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Life can be unimaginably hard.  We have trials.  We have pain.  We have searing disappointments and heartaches.  These things can threaten to undo us.  They can cause us to want to give up.  They can cause us to question the goodness of God and the purpose of his will.  They can gnaw at our confidence in Christ’s work on our behalf and they can attempt to grind our faith into dust.

The Lord’s Joy is our strength.  It’s there.  It’s already been freely given.  But sometimes it is so buried under our circumstances that we have to fight to hold onto it the way Jacob clung to God in the wilderness and would not let him go until God blessed him.

Sometimes we have to fight for the joy that already belongs to us.  The world may look a bit like that painting above – bleak and cold and dark.  But that is not the whole story.  Strength is growing under those furrows.  Perseverance and character and hope are being produced there.  Hope for the things that we know but remain as yet, unseen.

And just as winter always yields to spring and reveals what has been covered under cold and dark layers, the seen will yield to the unseen and we will see what we already know to be true: that every hardship, every tear, every lament has a purpose for good.  Nothing is aimless, nothing is a waste.  It is all making us fit in ways we can’t imagine, so that through them we will be made like the One we love.  Perfect.  Righteous.  Pure.  And most of all, ready.   Jesus is gathering his people to himself and preparing us to live forever with him in beautiful, wonderful, perfect joy.

In the meantime, fight for joy.  It is already yours.

Yet…

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Yet…

These familiar verses have been spoken many times to me over the years, but I have only recently begun to understand their beauty – and their weight.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls

yet

I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Habakkuk was facing no small thing – the enemies bearing down on his people were ruthless, merciless, vile perpetrators and the terror they induced was real and justified.  He was not exaggerating in his complaints to God, and it is perfectly understandable that he would want God to intervene.

He called upon the character of the God he knew – the God he served and trusted – but who seemed silent and distant in the face of unimaginable horrors and carnage advancing upon him.  You can almost hear him pleading, “I know you’re there – where are you?!?”

Mercifully, we have the record of God’s response.  But when we already know the outcome of a story, it’s hard to absorb the weight of how it unfolds.

Habakkuk is bewildered why God isn’t doing something to correct the evil of his own people – the evil God abhors and he knows needs to be corrected. Bit why, he laments, can’t God just take matters into his holy hands rather than putting them into the hands of ruthless, vicious men? Couldn’t he do something a little less destructive to call his people back to living the way they should have been living?  Why did it have to be so unbelievably severe?

God reminded Habakkuk of who he is.  He reminded Habakkuk of his character, justice, power, and might.  He reminded Habakkuk of his promises and of his faithfulness.  He validated that the desolation that Habakkuk saw coming was accurate and true.

And then he did nothing.

Absolutely nothing changed… except Habakkuk.

Like Job, Habakkuk meets the God he loves and trusts in a way that knocks him off his feet and back to his knees in wonder and praise.  Like Job, Habakkuk realizes that there are many, many things about God and his purposes that he cannot begin to fathom.  And like Job, Habakkuk shows us that we need to encounter God the same way.

The terror was real – the nation that was coming for them was despicable in every way.  The destruction of everything they knew was bearing down hard on them and there was nothing Habakkuk could do about it.  And now he realized that there was nothing God was going to do about it, either.  It would happen, as God said it would, and that was that.

But knowing the character of the God behind all the carnage made Habakkuk praise him anyway.  How could this be?  How could someone clearly see destruction and waste just ahead of him and yet… rejoice?

The answer, of course, is that he was able to rejoice in God – not in his circumstances or even in what they would produce.  Habakkuk laid out all the impact that was coming – no food, no income, no provision at all.  And said, “yet.”

I might lose everything, yet

I might be starving, yet

Everything might look hopeless and desolate, yet

I know you, God.  I trust you.  You have proven again and again that your faithfulness is unbreakable.  You love your people.  You will do right by them.  These circumstances are terrifying – they’re dire – and yet…

I will rejoice in YOU.

I will take joy in YOU.

YOU are my strength.  YOU are my provider.  YOU will offer defense.  YOU will raise me up and I will live with YOU forever.

Habakkuk got to the place of not only knowing that he should praise and rejoice in God in the midst of pain and fear, but why he could.  We all need to get to that place, because that is where we plant our feet squarely on the rock-solid foundation of faith and realize that it is strong and secure.

We are blessed when we are able to join Habakkuk (and so many other faithful saints who have gone before us) in saying,

“Even when everything around me looks utterly hopeless and there is nothing about my circumstances that points to deliverance, yet

“Even if all the gifts you’ve given are taken away, yet

“Even if I have no idea how this will all work out – or IF it will all work out, yet

will rejoice.  I will take joy – in YOU, God, who are my strength.  In YOU who are my defender.  In YOU who are my fortress and strong tower.

Even if everything around me points to destruction and desolation, if You give me YOU, all will be well, for I will have everything.

 

Shepherds gather, wolves scatter.

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The Bible doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about wolves – or more precisely, people who are described as wolves.

 

Zephaniah and Ezekiel both describe Israel in her stubborn, defiant rebellion as being like wolves who devour and leave nothing behind.

 

Isaiah describes them as inhabiting the desolate places with jackals and hyenas.

 

Jesus told his disciples to be on guard because he was sending his disciples out like lambs among wolves – and we all know what happens to little lambs in the clenching jaws of wolves.

 

The people who are wolves in our lives have voracious appetites to destroy.  They don’t just want to take us out of commission.  Their desire is not to make us simply limp, or waver, or even just to shut us up.  They want to take us out completely.

 

And the first thing that happens with every wolf attack is that he (or she) bounds into and scatters the flock seeking out the target and going for blood.

 

Such a lovely picture, eh?

 

So why would I be thinking about wolves on New Year’s Day?

 

Because they’re everywhere, and if Jesus thought it was important to warn his disciples against them, then it must be important to remind every generation about them, too.

 

Most of us are pretty naturally on the lookout for the wolves “out there.”  We are on guard against the atheist aunty to loves to come to family gatherings and openly mock our faith.  We pray for wisdom and discernment in dealing with the militant co-worker who wants to goad us into a religious argument just to try to make us look like the racist-homophobic-intolerant-judgmental-bigot he’s already declared all believers to be.  We are even on guard against the Hollywood machine that wants to pound your faith into the ground with production after production of buffoonish portrayals of weak-minded “Christians” who are idiotic in their approach to…everything.

 

Those things are real, and we need to guard against them, but I don’t really think they are the wolves in our lives.  Those are the things meant to embarrass, insult, and maybe even injure – but they don’t destroy.  If anything, they (hopefully!) sharpen our defense of the hope that is within us and motivate us to live above the fray in a manner worthy of our callings – worthy of the Name by whic we are called.  “Christians” mean we belong to Jesus the Christ after all.

 

But wolves are much more dangerous than any of these things.  Wolves are malicious, calculating, and cruel.

 

Wolves destroy marriages, friendships, mother-child bonds. Wolves split churches and denominations. Wolves tear down and never build up.  Wolves target godly reputations, fruitful ministries, and long records of good works to twist and distort them by making them appear prideful or weak or wanton.  Wolves target the good and want to rip it to shreds.  

 

We’ve all seen it happen and so we might be duped into thinking that we would quickly recognize when a wolf has crept into our sheepfold, but we don’t.

 

There is another passage that is chilling when you know how brutal wolves can be.

 

Matthew 7:15 states, “Beware the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

 

They’re in the sheep pen folks.  They look like sheep and sound like sheep.  They quote Scripture and tell testimonies and teach your Sunday School classes.  They are not the cartoonish wolf with a sheepskin badly slung over it’s back with wolf claws and jaws sticking out so you can immediately sound the alarm bells and put everyone on high alert.  They’re good at looking like sheep.

 

In fact, they’re so good at it that Jesus then gives us instruction for how to recognize them – he says, “you will recognize them by their fruits.”  Thorn bushes don’t grow grapes and thistles don’t grow figs.  And ultimately, though they might fake it for a good long while, wolves don’t grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, or self-control.  Only the Holy Spirit can produce that kind of fruit.  Wolves seek to destroy all that.

 

The remainder of Matthew 7 describes other ways that we will be able to recognize those wolves who pretend to be sheep – they will produce diseased fruit, they will do many things, “in Jesus’ name,” and they will be fools who build on shifting foundations.

 

It is often very, very difficult to recognize a wolf.  It is especially difficult because each and every one of us can have wolf-like fangs of sinfulness that we bear if we feel threatened or claws that take swipes at our fellow sheep.  Knowing the difference between a sheep behaving badly and a true wolf is exceedingly difficult, but Jesus told us to beware of them so it must also be true that he will give us the wise discernment we need to learn to do tell the difference.

 

In recent years I’ve had my spiritual eyes opened a bit to this and have begun to learn what it means to “beware the wolves among you.”  A few patterns have emerged, and in my observations, it has been particularly helpful to note the stark contrast between wolves and shepherds.  Jesus, our ultimate Good Shepherd, is also our ultimate standard.  Of course, no earthly shepherd is as all-Good as Jesus, but in general terms, the shepherds among us demonstrate some characteristics that are in notable opposition to those of wolves.  Comparing the truly good with the truly evil makes the differences easier to see and recognize.

 

So here are ten comparisons that have been particularly helpful to me:

 

  1. Wolves tend to themselves – Shepherds tend to the flock.  
  2. Wolves use people for their own purposes – Shepherds use themselves up for the good of others.
  3. Wolves make much of their willingness to stand against evil – Shepherds make much of God and how He enables them to stand against it, especially through their weakness.
  4. Wolves like to keep things secret and in the dark – Shepherds know that the light of truth clears away the darkness.
  5. Wolves call goodness, truth, and beauty into question – Shepherds praise these things.
  6. Wolves impugn motives without knowing enough – Shepherds are slow to judge motives, knowing that they usually don’t know enough.
  7. Wolves say harsh things to cut down and destroy – Shepherds say hard things in order to build up and restore.
  8. Wolves seek attention, praise, and status even at the cost of others – Shepherds deflect attention, praise, and status especially to bless others.
  9. Wolves skillfully gossip, malign, and covertly discuss the situations of others – Shepherds hold confidences even at great cost to themselves.
  10. Wolves drive people apart – Shepherds draw people together.

 

Again, any one of us can display wolf-like sinfulness.  But these wolf-characteristics cannot be generally true of a sheep.  The two cannot co-exist in one person.  In short, Shepherds gather, wolves scatter.

 

Near the end of Matthew 7 Jesus says that the wise man will be able to withstand the storms and the floods and the wind that seek to destroy because his foundation is Jesus – the rock.  It doesn’t take a theologian to figure out that the wolves he spoke of in the previous verses might be some of the storms and floods and wind.

 

As this new year emerges it presents us with untold billions of things to be talking to God about.  One major theme in all of these is the increased persecution of the church around the world.  Those persecutions could take the form of mass executions, imprisonments, or torture.  Or it could come walking into our fellowships – our sacred families of believers – and sit down among us and eat with us and pray with us and then seek to devour and utterly destroy everything good it can sink its greedy jaws into.
Beware the wolves among us, but don’t fear them.  Because the Good Shepherd continues to care for his sheep and has already laid down his life for them!  Ultimately, we can rest in the knowledge that He will deal justly with the wolves even as He gathers His sheep to Himself.

When we focus on the problem rather than the promise…

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I read again this morning the account of Joshua and Caleb and the other 10 guys.  You know, the 12 who were sent into Canaan to spy out the land… that God has promised to give to them.

 

After reading I asked my husband, “Would you have been a Joshua or Caleb, or would you have been one of the other guys?”  I know we can never really know what we would do in someone else’s circumstances, but it is good to play “what if…” now and then.

 

We’ve been talking about “risk” lately – when it’s right to take risks and when it isn’t.  And as I heard the story of the 12 spies again this morning a connection was made:  we are not willing to risk when we ought to be eager to do so when we are focusing on the problem in front of us rather than the promises given to us – or more precisely, Promise-Maker who has given them.

 

Example 1:  The Israelites had just left their 400-year slavery in Egypt.  They walked right out from under Pharoh’s nose because God made it possible.  But they encountered a road-block – the Red Sea stretched out before them, and Pharoh’s army was not in hot pursuit to get their slaves back.

 

Admittedly, this was a big problem.  But they had just witnessed their deliverance from the 10 Plagues – including the Angel of Death!!!  They had seen the pillar of cloud that day and the pillar of fire last night that had protected and guided them!  Had they forgotten already?   I mean, we’re talking hours at most here.  Were their memories really that short?  I don’t think so.  But their faith was really that small.  Moses saw the problem for what it was, too, but focused on his great God, who had already proven Himself to be a Great Promise-keeper, instead.

 

Example 2:  The Israelite army was at a stand-still, being held hostage by the taunts and derision of a surly, stupid, bragadocious bully (named Goliath).  He was an oaf, but a huge one, and apparently big enough to send a whole army of God’s men to the other side of the valley to quake in their boots.

 

So, OK, Goliath set the terms for a potentially bad deal.  But the Philistines had invaded Israel’s land that God Himself had given to them.  Every single Jewish boy or girl grew up from infancy knowing that God had given them this land as an inheritance.  It didn’t get lost in history but was central to their identity as a people!  Saul’s army of capable, trained warriors knew it, too.  But they were focusing on the problem of Goliath.  Youthful David, (aka shepherd boy who had just been named King) saw the problem, too, but focused on the Great God who was also the Promiser of the Land (and ultimately their securety) instead.

 

Example 3:  Jesus had begun his ministry and had gathered his 12 specially chosen, closest disciples.  The word had gotten out about Jesus and he was attracting multitudes of men, women, and children who wanted to hear for themselves what great things this teacher was saying.  They had gone out to the countryside and the spent the entire day traveling and then listening to Jesus’ every word.  When the day was waning Jesus told his 12, very special, hand-selected, closest followers to feed these hungry people on whom he had compassion.  Their reaction?  They looked at their relatively empty hands, then at each other, then at Jesus and said, “Umm…With what?!?”

 

OK – there was a lot of people – 5,000 men, plus women and children.  And OK – they didn’t have much to work with – five loaves of bread and two fish.  The problem wasn’t the situation – the problem was that the disciples were focused on the PROBLEM and not the Promiser.

 

So we’re clear here, these guys – these 12 close students of Jesus who followed him everywhere he went – had just seen and heard Jesus do amazing things.  They had just heard him preach the Sermon on the Mount, they had just seen him heal a woman with a long-standing bleeding disorder that no one else could fix.  They had just seen him deliver a man from a demon, heal the Centurion’s soldier without even touching him, raise a little girl from the dead, and oh yeah, calm the storm that the seasoned, hardened fishermen thought they were going to die in.  We’re talking just seen and heard these things!!!  

 

Jesus, however, knew well the Father he served and knew that He would supply all their needs.

 

It seems, folks, that we might want to pay attention to the typical, human responses here.  We are prone to doubt.  We are prone to lose sight and forget.  We are prone to focusing on the problems rather than the promises.

 

We don’t do ourselves any favors by reading these accounts and thinking that we’d be the first to line up to take the land, watch for the sea to part, fight the giant, or figure out how to feed the crowd.  We probably would be with the group that said, “We’d be better off dead than in this predicament!”  But if you’re at all like me your heart leaps at the prospect of being with Joshua and Caleb, David, and Jesus instead!

 

The key in all of these accounts is to KNOW THE GOD WE SERVE.

 

We do not have to fear natural or man-made disasters when we know the One who holds every molecule in his hands.

 

We do not have to fear those who can hurt – or even kill – us when we know the One who has already numbered our days before one of them ever came to be.

 

We do not have to fear the challenges that we face that seem impossible when we know the One who shall supply all our needs – and give us abundantly more than we could ask for or imagine according to his riches in glory because He loves us and takes care of us.

 

How do we know God?  It’s really, really, really simple:  read his love letter to you.  Open up the pages of Romans and John and Isaiah and Genesis and all of it and soak it up as your personal love letter to you from your Dad.  Then, read it again because there are layers and layers and layers of love and goodness there that you can never fully plumb the depths of.  And share it with someone who really needs to know God, too.
*You can read the fuller stories of the examples above in Numbers 13-14; Exodus 14; 1 Samuel 17; and Luke 9.  But I would encourage you to also read the surrounding chapters (and books!).

When Loving Seems Risky…

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image-of-broken-heart-e1438801033741“Risk is right,” or so says John Piper.  And David Platt.  And my pastor, and a bunch of other people I respect and admire.  I’ve heard risk loosely defined as, “an action that exposes you to the possibility of loss or injury.”

 

Well, sometimes that word “possibility” is a little misleading…

 

We take risks all the time (unless we live in a hole somewhere).  We consider the “pros” and “cons” of a situation – and what that often really means is:  If I do this what could I gain compared to what it will cost me?  We are willing to take risks because there is a chance – often a good chance – that it will pay off and bring us great rewards.  We take a new job, we move to a different house, we go to grad school, we get married, we start businesses all because the possibility of reward is worth any loss that we might have to face.  We risk, because we’ve measured and concluded that there is a reward to be had – here, now.  A tangible, definable, measurable reward.

 

But there is one area of our lives that doesn’t – or really shouldn’t – work that way.

 

Love.

 

Let me try to explain first by way of example.

 

When you have a child, an odd (but wonderful) thing happens – to many of us for the first time.  We love another being more than we could have ever imagined being capable of loving without that creature being able to return that love – or anything – at all.

 

Mothers and fathers the world over know this from their experience.  If you’re not a parent you will just have to imagine, and trust that what I’m telling you is the truth.

 

That tiny lump of flesh and bones is precious in your sight despite the blood, the mess, the strange color, and the frantic, self-absorbed screaming coming out of it.  You don’t care about any of that.  You love that little baby with more than all your heart – your capacity to love swells immeasurably and no matter what, you find yourself full to the brim and overflowing with love for that wee creature.

 

They make you crazy.  They suck your energy dry.  They bleed your bank account faster than leeches draw blood.  They are relentlessly demanding, and selfish, and hungry, and needy…

 

Yet, you love them – simply because they are ours.

 

Now we may derive some joy out of caring for them, and we may build relationships that teach them to love us, too – but that is not why we love them.

 

And we know that if something were to happen to them – or if something already has – that would forever prevent them from being able to love us in return, we would still love them with all of our hearts – because our love for them was never based on what they could or couldn’t do for us.  It’s a one-way street from beginning to end, whether or not they ever love us in return.

 

Trust me, I’m thrilled beyond measure that every single one of my kids loves me.  My heart would be broken and full of a terrible sorrow if they didn’t…

 

But I would still love my children if they didn’t love me – and so would you.

 

We feel as if there isn’t a great risk in this kind of one-way love.  Pretty much everyone (unless there are unnatural problems involved) loves their kids.  We know that the normal course of events is that when we love someone, they love us back.  

 

But what do you do when it isn’t that way?  We’re not called to only love our children, are we?  What do you do when the risk of loving is terribly high because you know it will be painful and sorrowful and hard no matter what you do when you try to love a neighbor, relative – or even a spouse who doesn’t love you?  We want a good return on this love-investment.  We want riches and plenty – compound interest on our principle deposits of care and concern.  We’ll settle for equal contributions to these transactions but we’re all hoping for dividends instead.  Who keeps investing in something that never gives any kind of increase or accumulation in return?  It’s just foolish to keep throwing good love, after bad, isn’t it?

 

Actually…. No.  It isn’t.

 

Loving the unlovely – the selfish, the stubborn, the mean, the angry….  This is exactly what we are called to do.   It is exactly what Jesus did.  Loving those who insulted, ridiculed, slandered, maligned, persecuted, and even abused him  – this is what he did.  With compassion he looked at the ones who were crucifying Him and said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”! 

 

I know, I know – there are caveats and disclaimers that always need to go in right about here. I don’t have time to go into the differences between lovingly standing against sin and sinfully letting it go (that’s another post someday).  But let’s not use the exceptions – the extreme cases of horrifying evil and abusive sin – as excuses to keep the rest of us from doing the hard work of loving the unlovely.

 

We all have people in our lives who are truly difficult to love – I do, too.  We have neighbors, relatives, and family members who are so caught up in their own lives that they seem incapable of empathy, much less selfless love.  All hopes of mutually loving relationships have probably vanished long, long ago.  But here’s the thing:  We have to learn to choose to love them anyway.  We have to learn to choose to love them even though there will be little – if anything – given in return.  We have to learn to be willing to risk being hurt – again – by them, because we love them because of who Jesus is and what He has done – not them.

 

“Why?” you ask?….  For the sake of the Gospel.  Romans 5:8 and 1 John 4:10 both tell us the same thing… God demonstrated and proved His love for us in that while we were still sinners – selfish, mean, hard-hearted beasts – Christ died for us.  Did you catch that?  He laid down his life for us – you and me – when we were still nasty, biting, ill-tempered sinners.  He didn’t love us because we loved him back.  He loved us in spite of the fact that we didn’t.  As every good father does, he loves us simply because we are His.

 

What a beautiful portrayal of Christ-like love our journeys can be when others can marvel at the love we give when it looks like this, and know that it comes from a supernatural Source!

 What a loud, unmistakable testimony our lives become when we say from our hearts, “Lord – I can’t do this without you!  I cannot love this person – I don’t even want to – but I love YOU and I know that is what you want me to do.  Help me to be willing to risk the hurt, the pain – all the messiness of this risky, one-way love.   Help me, please to love the way that you have loved me,” and he does all that you ask.

The world notices, and when they do we can point them to Jesus when they ask – “HOW do you do it??” 

But even if they never do – even if they never notice or ask or admire or appreciate this risky, selfless, one-way love you give, God does.  And that is worth far more than we will ever lose in these costly love transactions.  Our returns will be a hundred-fold – and that is a promise from God Himself.  So you see, this kind of “risky” love isn’t really risky after all.  It’s a sure-fire investment given by the One who manages the Books.