COWBOY OR SHEPHERD?

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. [Psalm 23:1 (NLT)]

cowboy - Losee Canyon - BryceIn A Gentle Thunder, author Max Lucado compares the hero of the Bible, the shepherd, with the hero of the American west, the cowboy. They both herd livestock, their home is the range, and they sleep under the stars. The difference, says Lucado, is that the shepherd knows and loves his sheep because he leads them to be shorn. The cowboy, however, doesn’t get attached to his cattle because he’s leading them to slaughter! While several cowboys drive a herd of cattle and know one another’s names, just one shepherd leads a flock of sheep and it is their names that he knows!

Lucado’s comparison got me thinking about the cowboy heroes of my youth: Marshalls Matt Dillon and Wyatt Earp, widower Lucas McCain (the Rifleman), gunfighter-for-hire Paladin, and the Lone Ranger with his trusty sidekick Tonto. They were larger than life heroes. Along with being excellent shots, they lived by a strict moral code, fought for law and order, and only used their fists or weapons in the cause of justice. I seriously doubt those cowboys bore much resemblance to the real thing.

The masked Lone Ranger stands out in my memory. He and Tonto rode through the West, doing good deeds and fighting evil. The stories were formulaic and, when the townspeople were in dire straits, our heroes would save the day. With the “William Tell Overture” playing in the background, they would ride into town, guns blazing, and rescue the good citizens from the forces of evil. Then without waiting for thanks, they’d ride off into the sunset with Rossini’s music in the background. We’d hear the Lone Ranger call, “Hi-yo, Silver” and someone would ask, “Who was that masked man?”

We no longer face the challenges of frontier life: desperadoes, stagecoach robberies, cattle rustling, hijacked stage coaches, gunfights, claim jumping, or evil land barons. Nevertheless, we need to be rescued from more realistic problems: fear, worry, poor choices, illness, anger, broken marriages, estranged families, doubt, indebtedness, addiction, disabilities, loss, and the challenges of care giving. Sadly, no cowboy in a white hat is going to ride to our rescue and the solution won’t occur in a thirty-minute time slot. Nevertheless, sometimes we seem to think Jesus will do just that (only without the silver bullets and white hat).

Fortunately, as Lucado points out in his book, we don’t have a cowboy; we have a shepherd. Unlike the Lone Ranger, He doesn’t travel around until He comes upon someone in trouble and, unlike Paladin, we don’t have to hire Him. Moreover, He never rides off into the sunset after helping us. Like a good shepherd, Jesus is always with each and every one of us. Being the sheep of His pasture, however, doesn’t mean we won’t encounter predators, pests, harsh environment, storms, or sickness. We’ll occasionally stumble, wander off, or be tempted by poisonous weeds. Having a shepherd means that we’re never alone in those trials. We don’t need to wait for a hero to save the day because our savior is in the day with us! The few times the Lone Ranger was caught, he never was unmasked and no one except Tonto knew his identity. As Christians, however, we know the identity of our shepherd. If we truly follow Him, we’ll never need a cowboy to save the day.

We need a shepherd. We don’t need a cowboy to herd us; we need a shepherd to care for us and to guide us. He’s not a cowboy, and we aren’t cattle. He doesn’t brand us, and we’re not on the way to the market. He guides, feeds, and anoints. And Word has it that he won’t quit until we reach the homeland. [Max Lucado]

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. [John 10:14-15 (NLT)]

Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls. [1 Peter 2:24-25 (NLT)]

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WHY PRAY?

You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.… You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. [Psalm 139:4,16 (NLT)]

Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray. [Samuel Chadwick]

blue flag irisAs I offered prayers for a good biopsy report, it occurred to me that my prayer was too late. Already excised, the tissue had been sent to a pathologist; for all I knew, the report was written and waiting to be read by my physician. Was God going to rewrite the report? Any troublesome cells in my body had been there awhile. Most likely, the biopsy result was decided months ago so I probably should have been praying about it long before anyone knew a biopsy was needed. Since the pathologist’s report was determined long before my prayers, “Why bother to pray at all?” was the whisper of doubt in my mind.

I imagine I’m not alone in questioning the purpose and efficacy of prayer. When I question if my prayer right now can affect a report written two days ago, let alone a situation that probably has been months or years in the making, I am thinking in human terms: past, present, and future. While we can remember the past, we can only remember that which we know about, not what was hidden from us. We can see the present, but only that which is immediately in front of us and we are blind to the future. God, however, is infinite. Unlimited, He exists outside time or space. Omnipotent, He knows everything that has happened, everything that is happening now, and everything that will take place in the future. Before I was born, He knew the choices I would make, what those choices would mean, whether or not I would pray, and what I’d say in those prayers. He even knew I’d be having a biopsy, its results, and whether or not I’d pray about it. Having given me free will, He didn’t determine my choices; nevertheless, He knew the choices I’d make. Not only did He hear my prayers before I spoke them, He heard my prayers before I’d even thought about praying them.

While I know prayer changes people, I don’t know if prayer changes history. Rather than changing history, perhaps our history is already determined because God knows whether or not we will pray. Rather than changing history, perhaps prayer determines it. Did God change His mind about destroying the people of Nineveh because of their prayers? Or, even before sending Jonah to them, did He know that, having been warned, they would pray and repent so Nineveh would be spared?

Our vision is limited but God’s is not. Without twenty-twenty hindsight or a crystal ball allowing us to see the future, we’re not likely to understand the way He answers our prayers. Clearly, Jesus believed in prayer. He often prayed, taught the disciples to pray and we know of his anguished prayer in Gethsemane. God the Father knew every prayer Jesus offered, not because He determined them, but because He lives in a continuum of time and sees yesterday, today, and tomorrow as one. I think God already knows the prayers we’re going to offer tomorrow (even though we don’t) and that He has already set in motion whatever needs to be done to answer those prayers according to His will! I don’t understand how prayer works but I’m not going to allow uncertainty or doubts keep me from praying.

Let us pray!

I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me. [C.S. Lewis]

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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REMEMBER

We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us. [2 Corinthians 1:8-10 (NLT)]

osprey600 war chariots and at least 1,200 soldiers were fast approaching and the Israelites were trapped between the mountains and the Red Sea. Panicking, they immediately blamed Moses for their predicament. No longer regarding Moses as the man who freed them from years of suffering slavery, he was now the fool who’d led them to certain death in the wilderness. In despair, the Israelites second-guessed their decision to leave Egypt. Facing such a formidable army and sure they were to die, the miseries of slavery now appealed to them. Ungrateful, unarmed, on foot, and with no place to turn, they lost heart. Failing to recall God’s powerful hand in releasing them from Pharaoh’s tyranny just a few weeks earlier, they immediately conceded defeat.

Have you ever felt like the Israelites: between a rock and a hard place, with no place to turn? When that happens, we usually do what they did: panic, find someone to blame, lose heart and want to quit because the circumstances seem greater than our God. Assuring the people that God would fight for them, Moses said, “Watch the Lord rescue you today.” I’m not sure he had any idea how the Lord planned on doing that but Moses trusted the God he knew for a solution he didn’t know.

Following God’s instructions, Moses raised his hand over the waters, the Red Sea parted as blowing winds turned the sea into dry land, and the Israelites walked across the seabed. Although we know that all the Israelites safely made it across, they didn’t know that’s what would happen! Can you imagine the faith it took when the first of them stepped onto the dry seabed with a wall of water positioned on each side? Were they fearful the waves would come rushing at them without warning? Did they literally run for their lives as they crossed? We know the rest of the story: Pharaoh and his army gave chase, their chariots got stuck, Moses raised his hand once again, the waters surged over the Egyptians and none of them survived.

Seeing God’s tremendous power, the Israelites were filled with awe and again put their faith in Moses and the Lord. What a great ending to their story, but we know it doesn’t end there. That won’t be the last time they complain, the last time they think slavery in Egypt a better option than freedom in the Promised Land, the last time they rebel against Moses’ leadership, or the last time they stop having faith in the Lord. Sadly, it won’t be the last time they forget God’s faithfulness, power and might!

Sometimes God brings us to what seems to be an impossible situation: to that spot between a rock and a hard place or an army and the deep blue sea. Those barriers are put before us so that we have nowhere to turn but to God. While He may not have parted the Red Sea for us, there have been many times that He’s led us safely through a whole sea of troubles. Unlike the Israelites, may we never forget His power and faithfulness in those trying times. Let us always be willing to trust our unknown future to our known God.

And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.” But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works. [Psalm 77:10-12 (NLT)]

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WALKING IN HOPE

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” [Revelation 21:3-4 [(NLT)]

dawnMy Advent devotional suggested taking a prayer walk while looking for signs of hope. I took my regular route and, since I often pray while walking, I wasn’t sure how this walk would be different. Nevertheless, I went in search of hope. The first thing I noticed was the sun rising in the east—a sure sign of hope with its promise of a new day and all of its possibilities. I spotted a family of ducks waddling down to the pond. The five youngsters were no longer little yellow fluffs of feathers but mama duck still kept her eyes on them. Mothers of every species hope to keep their children safe—even when they’re no longer children! I noticed the lilies, canna, and arrowhead that had been planted at waters’ edge last spring to prevent shoreline erosion. They were starting to bear their first flowers—another sign of hope because it means they took root and will serve their purpose. A few people had decorated their houses for the holiday; since not all the décor was secular, I found hope that some people still keep Christ in Christmas. Further on, a patient great blue heron stood absolutely still, neck fully extended, hoping to catch a tasty fish breakfast. It reminded me that we must remain patient in our hope—all things in God’s time. Seeing a few wood storks wading in the water also was a hopeful sign; once an “endangered” breed, their status has been upgraded to “threatened,” meaning there is hope for the survival of their species.

Since this was a prayer walk, I went through my prayer list of hope-filled prayers for what could be called happy endings—things like a successful surgery, passing grades, reconciliation, recovery from illness, sobriety, a new job, successful endeavors, the sale of a house, safe travels, a problem solved, and an obstacle surmounted. Sadly, for some of the names on my list, happy endings on this side of the grass don’t seem likely. Modern-day Jobs, the cards they’re holding are bad ones. Unlike Job who got a better hand in a re-deal and ended up with more than he’d had before, they appear stuck in their dismal situations with no new cards in sight. Barring a miracle, their circumstances aren’t likely to improve. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul mentions the three things that last forever: faith, hope and love. He calls love the greatest of the three; perhaps hope is the hardest.

Wondering about the purpose of my hope walk, I thought back to the day’s Advent readings from Revelation and Isaiah. Advent hope isn’t a wishful thinking/finger-crossing kind of hope, like hoping the pathologist’s report says “benign.” It’s more than hoping a good outcome for something about which we’re unsure. Our hope is in God and He’s already promised us a better future. Advent hope is knowing that, in spite of our circumstances, God eventually will work it all together for our good. While we hope for deliverance from our present troubles, we know that, ultimately, we will be delivered. Our hope isn’t in situations, people, medicine, or the stock market and we don’t need a knight in shining armor to rescue us from our woes. Our hope is in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Whether the hand dealt to us looks hopeless or not, we continue to maintain Advent hope by looking away from our circumstances to the One who holds our lives in His hands.

Our hope is in Immanuel, which means “God is with us”! He is with us in our birth and death, sickness and health, joy and sorrow, good times and bad. Let us remember that, if He is with us, then we are with Him—in His resurrection, ascension, and the glory of His second coming!

Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationship, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. [Henri Nouwen]

The Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)]

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OUR GATEKEEPER

Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life. [Proverbs 4:23 NCV]

Corkscrew SwampActing as gatekeepers for the temple in Jerusalem, the Levites opened and closed its doors and guarded it during the night. Among their many duties, they prohibited entry to anyone considered “unclean,” protected the temple from theft or desecration, watched the offering and tithe money, and maintained proper decorum within the temple. They also were the ones who imposed the death penalty on any who dared enter the temple illegally.

Although many churches have implemented security measures, we no longer have Levites at our church doors. Most of us, however, could use a similar gatekeeper to protect our minds (and mouths) from anything that could defile us. Like crashers at a party, negative thoughts can sneak into our heads. Once in, they tend to prop open the door so more negativity can follow. Anger often brings his pals animosity and resentment. Once fear steals in, worry slips in right behind him; doubt, regret and suspicion are sure to follow. Before we know it, bitterness and hatred have joined the party, along with envy, lust, and their old friend guilt. When our minds are filled with undesirable and unwelcome callers, there’s little room left for any positive thinking. Once those bad thoughts have gotten into our heads, they want to continue their damage by spilling out through our mouths.

The mind’s gatekeeper must be diligent, on duty 24/7, and refuse entry to any thoughts and feelings considered “unclean” or inappropriate. He’d maintain order in house and keep our thinking in line. On the lookout for hazards, he’d steer us away from situations that could bring trouble or temptation. Rather than kill temple trespassers who stepped beyond the warning stone, the gatekeeper would squash any negative words before they could escape!

Unfortunately, the books of Kings and Chronicles tell us that the Temple’s gatekeepers fell down on the job. They allowed the dwelling place of God to be defiled by idolatry and fall into disrepair. When King Hezekiah ordered the Temple’s purification, it took more than two weeks simply to clean it!

At the moment of Jesus’s death, the Temple was no longer the place of God’s presence. Because of Christ, God dwells within each one of us. Having provided each of us with a far better Gatekeeper in the Holy Spirit, Levites are no longer needed at our doors. We, however, must cede control to the Spirit so that He can do His job!

You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God. So you do not belong to yourselves. [1 Corinthians 6:19 (NCV)]

Those who live following their sinful selves think only about things that their sinful selves want. But those who live following the Spirit are thinking about the things the Spirit wants them to do. If people’s thinking is controlled by the sinful self, there is death. But if their thinking is controlled by the Spirit, there is life and peace.  …The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:5-6,14 (NLT)]

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THE STORY CONTINUES 

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. [John 16:33 (NLT)]

mute swanYesterday, I wrote of those times when we’re blind-sided by challenges and difficulty. When that happens, it truly is difficult to accept and trust God’s love and wisdom. Unfortunately, while Jesus made many promises, an easy life was not one of them. In fact, we’re told that troubles are pretty much guaranteed.

Just as a book has several chapters, some happier than others, so it goes with our lives. Often a chapter filled with challenges is followed by a chapter of blessings. That happened for several of those people about whom I wrote. Three estranged adult children came together to help their parents during that series of medical crises. Better yet, their mother recovered from her stroke and her cancer treatment was successful. The man defrauded by his business partner paid off his debts and started over again; he has become a wealthy man. The woman betrayed by her husband met a widower and fell in love; the two married and she is now mother to his three children. God blessed the couple who lost their twin boys with a beautiful healthy little girl. Although she didn’t beat cancer, the fifteen extra years God gave the last woman allowed her to raise her children and hold her first grandchild. Her once heartbroken husband recently remarried and started a new chapter in his life.

Does this mean an end to all of their troubles? No; troubles will come and go. More chapters will be written, some better than others, but none of us should worry or be afraid while waiting for the next chapter to unfold. We must trust God’s plan for us and live each day, one day at a time, secure in the knowledge that God will provide us with all we need to meet every challenge. We can remain confident that the last chapter of our lives, the one when we enter God’s kingdom, will be the best one ever!

If God can bring blessing from the broken body of Jesus and glory from something that’s as obscene as the cross, He can bring blessing from my problems and my pain and my unanswered prayer. I just have to trust Him. [Anne Graham Lotz]

My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever. Those who desert him will perish, for you destroy those who abandon you. But as for me, how good it is to be near God! I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do. [Psalm 73:26-28 (NLT)]

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