THE GOOD SHEPHERD

I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd. [John 10:14-16 (NLT)]

lambIn Ezekiel 34, the Lord commanded Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel—not the caretakers of sheep but the prophets, priests, and leaders who were supposed to protect their people in the same way a shepherd does his sheep. He accused them of not searching for lost sheep and abandoning their flock to be attacked by wild animals.

Surely the people were familiar with Ezekiel’s words when they heard Jesus tell the parable we know as “The Lost Sheep” or “The Good Shepherd.” Told both in Luke 15 and Matthew 18, the shepherd leaves his ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness so he can search for a lost one. Although its point is to illustrate God’s overwhelming concern for saving His people and to explain Jesus’s conduct in associating with sinners, the shepherd’s behavior in abandoning ninety-nine sheep seems irresponsible. Who’s going to keep them from going astray, drowning in a pond of water (that wet wool is heavy), or being devoured by hungry wolves? Won’t the shepherd return with the one stray sheep only to find a dozen or more missing or dead? That’s hardly cause for celebration! Did that shepherd abandon his flock like the shepherds in Ezekiel’s prophecy?

If this was a true story, before heading off into the wilderness, the good shepherd would have entrusted his flock to another shepherd. Biblical scholars, however, remind us that Jesus’s parables weren’t meant to portray real-life situations any more than were Aesop’s fables. We know a tortoise won’t challenge a hare to a race, geese don’t lay golden eggs, and a fox can’t talk to a crow. Yet, in spite of their inconsistencies, both Jesus’s and Aesop’s stories make their points.

Nevertheless, Jesus always seemed to be very concise in His choice of words and I wonder if he deliberately omitted a second shepherd or caretaker for a reason. Perhaps there is only one shepherd because there is only one God. He is not about to share us with another god so the shepherd won’t entrust the care of his beloved flock to anyone else. God is omnipresent, unlimited by time or space, and can be in all places at the same time. When the good shepherd rashly goes into the wilderness for the one lost sheep, he hasn’t abandoned the other ninety-nine. Ever-present, while he’s off saving the stray, he also is there tending the rest of the flock.

The Pharisees never questioned Jesus about those abandoned sheep. Like their predecessors, they’d abandoned their flock and failed to seek the lost; Jesus’s parable made it clear that a new shepherd was in town. Perhaps the parable also helped prepare the disciples for a time when they would feel abandoned. Jesus soon would be leaving them but, like the good shepherd, He would return. His disciples, like the sheep left behind, would remain safe in His care. I’m no longer troubled by those abandoned sheep because I know God will never desert us. Indeed, the Lord is our shepherd and we will not be afraid. Whether or not we are aware of His presence, He is close beside us.

I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for He is right beside me. [Psalm 16:8 (NLT)]

I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. [John 17:11-12a (NLT)]

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OUR STUFF

I had everything a man could desire! … Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. [Ecclesiastes 2:8b-10-11 (NLT)]

We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. We can’t take our riches with us. [Ecclesiastes 5:15 (NLT)]

chipmunkWhile reading Ecclesiastes, I thought of comedian George Carlin’s “Stuff” routine that was first performed for Comic Relief in 1986. In his monologue, Carlin made fun of our obsession with consumerism, the importance of stuff in our lives, and described our houses as places to keep our stuff while we go out and buy more even more of it! When we downsized eleven years ago, we got rid of all sorts of stuff. Yet, when I walked into our storage room recently, it looked like all that stuff had returned and brought along friends! Where did it come from and why did we ever think we needed it all?

The King of Israel, Solomon also was the King of Stuff. Denying himself nothing, he had 500 gold shields, an elaborate throne of gold and ivory, pure gold goblets and utensils, 12,000 cavalry horses and even more horses for his 4,000 chariots. Along with all of the gifts he received from other kingdoms, he took in the equivalent of over $1.1 billion a year in tribute and taxes. Every three years, his fleet of ships returned with more horses and mules, gold, silver, robes, ivory, apes and monkeys. He collected women as readily as the rest of his possessions and ended up with 700 wives and 300 concubines. With 1,000 women in his household, I’m sure there was a vast amount of stuff in the harem, as well. Yet, in spite of all that stuff, Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes are not the words of a happy or contented man.

Having lots of stuff becomes a burden; we must take care of it, insure it, worry about it, and find a place to put it. Some people have so much stuff that they hire professional organizers to sort it all out. In fact, a few of us have so much stuff that we must rent storage units for some of it!

Apparently, retailers don’t think we’ve collected nearly enough of their stuff so they fill our mail boxes with catalogues and our in-boxes with advertisements for even more of it. They want us to think that the new stuff is better than the old and that we can never have too much of it. Then, since we can’t take our stuff with us, we must decide who gets it when we’re gone. We write wills and put labels under the figurines, behind the pictures, or on the boxes. What we don’t understand is that, while they’ll be happy to get our money, our heirs probably don’t want our stuff. It’s meaningless to them; besides, most likely, they have too much stuff of their own.

Wealthy and wise, Solomon had lots of stuff but lacked contentment. Money can buy many things but it can’t buy joy, meaning or purpose. Contentment is not found in stuff but rather in our confidence in the sufficiency of God.

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Haddon Spurgeon]

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content. [1 Timothy 6:6-8 (NLT)]

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STILLING THE WATERS

Their ships were tossed to the heavens and plunged again to the depths; the sailors cringed in terror. They reeled and staggered like drunkards and were at their wits’ end. “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. [Psalm 107:26-18 (NLT)]

sunset - Naples FLMark, Matthew, and Luke all tell the story of Jesus calming the sea. He and the disciples had started to sail the five miles across the Sea of Galilee when a fierce storm struck. Tired from a day of preaching, Jesus remained asleep in the stern while the storm raged. As the waves broke and the boat began to fill with water, the disciples were sure they would perish. After they woke Jesus by shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” He rebuked the wind and the storm ended.

Since we’ve probably heard more than one sermon on this story, we know that the presence of Jesus in our boat is no guarantee of a storm-free life and that, even when it seems like God is asleep on the job, He has the situation firmly in hand. But think about the storm and imagine the sounds that night: the howling of the wind, waves smacking the sides of the boat, rain pounding down, sails furiously flapping, the crack of thunder, and men shouting to one another as they tried to lower the sails, bail and row. With all that noise and the boat pitching and heaving as the waves tossed it about, even the soundest sleeper would have difficulty sleeping. Jesus, however, was undisturbed by the commotion and remained asleep. Although the storm couldn’t wake Him, the disciples’ call to Him did! Whether we are shouting over the sound of thunder or whispering to Him beside a loved one’s hospital bed, this story tells us God will hear our call.

My final take-away from this story is not to underestimate the power of Jesus, something I think the disciples did. When they spotted the first black clouds on the horizon, they didn’t wake Jesus and ask Him to send the storm elsewhere. They tried to sail through the storm on their own power. It wasn’t until they feared they were at death’s door that they finally called to Him. Did the men wake Him because they thought He could still the storm or because they needed His help bailing and rowing? In spite of the miracles they’d seen Jesus do, their shock and terror when He stopped the wind and calmed the sea instantly (something that normally took 24 to 48 hours after a storm’s end) makes me think they expected a helping hand rather than a supernatural solution.

I wonder how often we, like the disciples, underestimate God’s power to handle the crises in our lives and wait until we’re desperate before calling to Him. While we may not get a miracle, His power is enough to get us through any storm. Even if He doesn’t calm the waters, He will bring us safely into harbor.

He calmed the storm to a whisper and stilled the waves. What a blessing was that stillness as he brought them safely into harbor! Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. [Psalm 107:29-31 (NLT)]

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ALL FOR THE GOOD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, the True Judge,” is a blessing often said by Jews when they undergo a death or tragedy. “This is all for the good,” or “Blessed is the true judge,” is often said by other Jews in response to their tragic news. Rather than being about God’s final judgment of a person, these words remind them that only God can judge whether events are good or bad. To illustrate this point, the Talmud has a story about the second century sage, Rabbi Akiva. One night, the rabbi, along with his rooster and donkey, arrived in a village. When no one would give Akiva a place to stay, the rebbe said, “All that God does, He does for the good.” He then walked to a field outside of town, set up camp, and lit his lantern. That evening, a gust of wind knocked over the lantern breaking it, a fox came and ate the rooster, and a lion came and killed the donkey. In spite of all that, Akiva said, “All that God does, He does for the good!” Just before dawn, marauders came and attacked the village but, camped in the field without light, crowing rooster or braying donkey to reveal his presence, the rabbi remained safe.

The Talmud explains this story by saying that we must bless God for the bad news that comes our way in the same manner we bless Him for the good things that befall us. Indeed, when Scripture tells us we are told to love God with our whole heart, soul and strength it doesn’t mention any exceptions for circumstances we don’t like. While it’s easy to love God with our entire being when all is good, we must also love Him that same way in our suffering, sorrow and misfortune. Rest assured, in the long run, whatever happens to us is for our good. That, however, does not mean everything that happens to us will be good. Indeed, even when we don’t know why, pain, grief and adversity are blessings. All that God does, He does for the good! Blessed be the true judge.

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. [Saint Augustine]

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:35,38-39 (NLT)]

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MEH

When the master of the house has locked the door, it will be too late. You will stand outside knocking and pleading, “Lord, open the door for us!” But he will reply, “I don’t know you or where you come from.” [Luke 13:25 (NLT)]

Not to decide is to decide. [Woodrow Kroll]

Tetons - Wyoming“Meh,” the verbal equivalent of a shoulder shrug, was added to the dictionary in 2008. Popularized by The Simpsons, it is a decisive assertion of non-commitment (or as decisive as having no opinion about something can be.) The New York Times used to run a list with the tagline, “Not hot. Not not. Just meh.” The list has included assorted celebrities and such things as Harrison Ford’s earring, petting zoos, Febreze, stocking stuffers, Tufts University, pumpkin ale, mugs with slogans, and the Golden State Warriors. The magazine’s culture editor, Adam Sternbergh, said the list was meant “to celebrate all those things in life that [are]…neither adored nor reviled, but, simply, meh.”

Whether we say “meh,” or dismissively use words and phrases like “whatever, it is what it is, I don’t care, not my problem, booooring, who cares” and “so what” we’re expressing indifference and an unwillingness to think about something. Apathy and disinterest are insulting: we don’t care enough to muster up any sort of approval, support, or regard for something but we also don’t care enough to dislike, oppose, or reject it.

Some in the media call Millennials “The Meh Generation,” but I fear that indifference, cynicism, disillusionment and jadedness are not limited to those born between 1982 and 2002. They’re not the only ones who find it easier to live together than commit to marriage or to walk away from a marriage than fight to save a family. They’re not the only ones who find it simpler to go along with the crowd than to stand up and speak or to accept what’s wrong rather than try to make it right. They’re certainly not the only ones who’ve decided the concept of sin is out of date, right and wrong is relative, or that anything goes as long as they aren’t the ones who get hurt. An ostrich puts its head in the sand to turn eggs but we put our heads there to avoid seeing what we don’t want to see. And, sadly, way too many in this world would put Jesus on “The Meh List” because He is “neither adored nor reviled, but, simply, meh.”

Jesus spoke of going through the gate to God’s Kingdom. At some point, we can’t ignore the gate’s presence or fail to form an opinion about the gatekeeper. We can no longer remain impartial, dispassionate or wishy-washy; a decision about following the shepherd has to be made. While neither death nor taxes can be avoided, remember that only the IRS grants extensions! Adore Jesus or revile Him but don’t simply shrug your shoulders and say, “Meh!”

I believe in my soul that there are more at this day being lost for want of decision than for any other thing. [Dwight L. Moody]

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. [Matthew 7:13-14 (NLT)]

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THE HACKER

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. [1 Peter 5:8-9b (NLT)]

red shouldered hawkAfter asking us how we protect our personal safety, the cyber-security specialist asked how we protect ourselves from cyber attacks. One woman proudly told how Microsoft had recently saved her from a hacking attempt. After a message popped up telling her to call them, she gave them remote access to her computer. The necessary patch and technical advice only cost $700 and now her computer was secure. Until the speaker told her, she didn’t know the hack was the $700 she’d spent, access to her credit card, and possible malware now active on her computer. While she never would have allowed a complete stranger into her home, she unwittingly opened the door to a criminal and welcomed him into her life.

Following the seminar, I couldn’t help but think about Satan. Scripture describes him as a serpent, lion, liar, thief, and tempter with adjectives like prowling, cunning and crafty. Those same words describe a hacker rather well. Both Satan and the hacker want to take over our lives and they can do it without our even realizing it’s been done. The weakest link in both cases is the user—us. Outside consultants regularly try to hack into our bank and the good news is that their security software works. Unfortunately, in every test, someone (who clearly knows better) was conned into replying, hyperlinking, or opening an attachment. When Satan comes trolling, how often do we err by ignoring God’s guidelines, not examining the source of the message, going somewhere we shouldn’t, or letting curiosity get the best of us?

Our speaker spoke of maintaining the security of the devices and networks we use. Since new hacking techniques are developed continually, once secured doesn’t mean forever secure; software must be updated to stay current with new threats. Once saved doesn’t mean forever safe, either. We must keep updating our soul’s software with regular prayer, Bible study, and church. Where we use our devices and the sort of data we transmit and receive affects their safety and where we go and what we put into our minds affects our souls. We don’t hang around dangerous neighborhoods but, sometimes, that’s exactly what we do with our computers and phones or our friends and media choices! When the considering the importance of backing up data, I thought of the value of Christian friends who have our backs and both encourage and support us in times of trouble—times when we’re most vulnerable to Satan’s attack.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) was another security feature discussed. Although a website can use 2FA to make sure it is us, we should use 2FA to make sure those great ideas we get have come from God rather than the enemy. A little two-factor authentication in the way of seeing whether those thoughts match up with God’s word and Jesus’s actions could keep us out of a lot of trouble.

Good cyber-security habits include malware protection, virtual private networks, cloud storage, secure routers, password protection, 2FA, and common sense. None of those, however, will protect us if we fail to use them. The same goes for the armor of God. We’ve been given the best protection money can’t buy but God’s armor won’t defend us from the enemy if we don’t put it on!

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NLT)]

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