Friday, April 27, 2012

Eight Days Later

Eight days later the disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them . . . (John 20:26)

Thomas had made himself perfectly clear.

He was resolute in his ‘unless.’ Absent compelling evidence, the kind that he could see and touch, he would not believe. Never mind that he was surrounded by believing friends. Their enthusiastic reports were not enough to pull faith from the clinched jaws of doubt. Thomas would need something more.

And something more appeared. Jesus came and stood among them: “Put your finger here . . . put your hand here.” The resolute ‘unless’ gave way to worship. “My Lord and my God.” The one who had announced his unbelief was now a believer.

We are hardly surprised that Thomas’ story ends as it does. How could it be otherwise? Thomas refuses to believe. Thomas believes. He insists on evidence. He erupts in worship. The scenes unfold quickly, a seamless transition from here to there, from doubt to faith.

Except for this: Eight days.

Jesus does not rush in to rescue Thomas from his questions. Before Jesus appears among his disciples there are eight days . . . of what? We are not told. Most likely those eight days were days of conversation, eight days of argument, eight days of efforts to persuade met by stubborn resistance, eight days of frustration.

Why does Jesus linger? Why does he take so long to show up and show off and bring the skeptic to his knees?

Such questions are hard for us. We may not doubt God, but neither do we understand God’s ways. We may not question God’s love, but we have plenty of questions about God’s timing. We may not question God’s power, but we have plenty of questions about God’s plan.

This we know for certain: For eight days Thomas had friends who were willing to tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” He didn’t believe it – but they told him anyway, probably over and over again. And what’s more they stayed with him. They didn’t leave. When Jesus appeared they were all there.

It is in those eight days that all of us a prone to be doubters. As unlikely as it seems, God is at work in the ‘eight days.’ When it looks as if nothing is happening, more is happening than we know. We may be stuck; the Spirit moves freely, often in ways unnoticed.

Are you waiting for someone to come to faith, make the move from resistance to receiving, from questioning to believing? That can be a long story: it may be eight days . . . it may well be eight years. Keep saying what you know to be true. And stay with it. Stay with him or her, lost friend, wayward child, stone-cold spouse, just stay there and live a life that says “I have seen the Lord.”

Trust Jesus to show up and do the rest. He is at work, even in the eight days. Don’t miss the end of the story.

Few things are harder for us, O God, than waiting. We crave quick results and speedy answers to prayer – eight minutes rather than eight days. Keep us faithful in the waiting seasons, whatever they may be, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Needed: A Shepherd

“I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11).

Not too long ago I read something that bothered me. I’m not sure it should have – but it did.

The author, a highly regarded pastor-teacher, is someone whom I greatly respect. I listen often to his podcast. So when he said in an interview that the word “shepherd” was irrelevant, he got my attention. Here’s the quote, admittedly removed from context:

“That word [shepherd] needs to go away. Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to . . . I’ve never seen a flock. I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus but it’s not culturally relevant anymore.” (Leadership Journal, May 28, 2007).

Ok . . . I think I get that. I claim little to no experience with shepherds or flocks of livestock of any kind. In my first church in Oklahoma I knew that several of my members owned cows, but I never actually had interaction with their cattle. Shepherds are not easily found in metro-Atlanta. But while I acknowledge the truth of what this fellow-pastor says, I just can’t reach his conclusion. Bottom line: I think he’s wrong.

For one thing, his position elevates (his) personal experience to an unworthy height while it sells people short. Meaningful knowledge cannot be tethered to what I myself have seen and done. And it is also possible that intelligent people are capable of comprehending the meaning of a metaphor that is foreign to their own time and culture.

Jesus didn’t use the word “shepherd” because there was one in a field that he could see and point to. Jesus used “shepherd” because he had read Isaiah and the Psalms. The concept came to him from Israel’s history, not a Judean hillside.

But beyond that there is this practical matter. If you jettison the biblical image of a “shepherd” what will you use in its place? Is there anything that we can see or identify that offers an adequate substitute for the Biblical image? What speaks most powerfully to the deepest needs of our life?

The Lord is . . . my adviser? We need far more than advice. The Lord is . . . my boss or CEO? That hardly stirs our affections. The Lord is my . . . coach? That might get at what we need. Personal coaching is big these days. The Lord is my . . . counselor? Maybe – but good counselors pay close attention to boundaries. The shepherd risks his life the sheep. Counselor is close, but not quite there.

Maybe what we need is exactly what Jesus said he was in John 10:11. We need a shepherd.

How do you see it? Why does it matter that Jesus is a “good shepherd?” Could he meet you in the details of your life or at your point of deepest need as something else?

Lord Jesus, you called yourself a good shepherd. While the image is strange to us, we know you in what you do with us – the way you guide us and seek us out when lost and lead us to what will sustain us and give us life. We will not fight over words. We only seek to follow you as you do your work among us by your Holy Spirit. Do that work today, we pray. Amen.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Exclusive Claims, Inclusive Aims

“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also . . .” (John 10:16).

Exclusive claims. Inclusive aims.

The minute you begin the Christian life, the moment you take a step on the Jesus way and begin living his life, you’ll find yourself in this tension. There are some things that simply do not work properly without tension. Relieve the tension on guitar strings and you’ll get no music. The Christian life is not too different from this.

Jesus made exclusive claims. He said he was the gate for the sheep; he said no one came to Father except through him; he said that if you have seen him you have seen the Father; he told very devout people in his day that they were blind because they couldn’t accept his words; he told top-flight Bible scholars that they were ignorant because they refused to see that scripture pointed to him. Time and time again in John’s gospel Jesus speaks of his own identity with variations on “I am.”

But Jesus also had radically inclusive aims. For Jews, Samaria was a very bad neighborhood – but Jesus gladly went there. Lepers were to be avoided and quarantined – but Jesus willingly touched them. Tax collectors were thieves – but Jesus had a good time at their parties. No decent Rabbi would be caught dead in the presence of a prostitute – but Jesus allowed one such woman to weep at his feet. Jesus had “other sheep” and he was intent on bringing them into the fold.

This tension can be uncomfortable, even tiresome. But we need to be careful about hastily seeking to resolve what makes us uneasy.

Holding deep convictions about Jesus’ exclusive claims should never produce a heart that is stingy and small, or a reach to the world that is stunted in its scope. And embracing the world with a generous heart, inclusive and broad, should never produce thinking about Jesus that has morphed into something generic and benign.

Some of us are very clear about what we believe about Jesus, but we’re ensconced in a small world that looks like we look and thinks like we think. Others of us are intent on making the tent wide, vaulting over the ethnic or ideological walls that so easily divide us, but discovering in mid-air that we’ve left a clear and compelling word of ‘good news’ about Jesus.

Exclusive claims. Inclusive aims. They must be held together, no matter how uneasy it makes us.

Ever tempted to ease this tension? How are you most likely to do so?

Help us, Lord Jesus, to love and to treasure both your claims and your aims. Grant us the boldness of deep convictions firmly held. Grant us compassionate hearts intent on bringing all people into the care of the good shepherd. We pray this in your powerful and merciful name. Amen.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Unmet Expectations

The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they head he had done this sign (John 12:18)

Few places are harder to live than in the gap between what we expect and what we get, that barren stretch that separates what we think we deserve and what our lives have actually delivered to us. We can barely tolerate being there and we’ll do anything to find a way out.

Sometimes that means we adjust our expectations. The pain of disappointment is alleviated by lowering our sights. But with every downward adjustment hope is diminished, and eventually we find we’ve stopped dreaming altogether.

Another strategy moves in the opposite direction. Sometimes the tension between what we expect and what we get pushes us to do whatever we need to do to secure our own happiness. We lash out at whoever or whatever gets in the way of what should have been.

Of course, we often ricochet back and forth between both of those responses: resignation or anger, passive acceptance or violent force. What we find most difficult is what the Psalmist urged. “Wait on the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).

Holy Week is bracketed by shouting crowds. On the front end of Holy Week we remember the day Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem. Luke tells us that the crowd that welcomed him that day “praised God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen” (19:37). Their shouts were grounded in past events, but those past events had shaped their expectations of what would soon be.

Holy Week is the story of what it means to walk with Jesus in the midst of unmet expectations.

This kind of disappointment isn’t unique to the godless or the wicked. Even Jesus’ closest followers struggled during those final days of his life. And they failed. Some of them failed big.

And as for us – plenty of us live every day with unmet expectations. Some of them are minor. Others go to the core of who we are. The long-awaited retirement brings a deadening boredom and feelings of uselessness. The new purchase becomes a draining burden rather than the status symbol it was supposed to be. The promotion proves to be a wrong fit for your best skills. In short, things are not working out like you had hoped they would.

That gap between what we expected and what we actually experience is the place where faith wanes. During this week – or for that matter during any week – when the tension between what you hoped for and what you’ve received feel unbearable, hear the invitation of Jesus. Stay with him. Don’t get swept up the noisy demands and expectations of the culture. God is at work. Such hardly seems to be the case, and you may not see it now. But God is at work.

To all who feel the ache of something that hasn’t worked out according to plan, welcome to Jerusalem.

Lord Jesus, keep us close to you in the final days of this Lenten journey. Our expectations so easily become demands. We stop praying and start giving direction. Keep us attentive to what you are doing, especially when life unfolds in ways we didn’t expect or ask for. Teach us trust, even in the shadow of the cross. Amen.