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Archive for April, 2015

Staying Connected

“I am the true vine, and my Father I the vineyard keeper.  He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit.”  John 15:1-2 (CEB)

Ouch!  I’m not sure I want to be “trimmed” and “pruned” like that!  Yet, I know from my own experience that when I rid myself of bad habits and unhealthy choices, I am in a much better place.  For years I was in a very unhealthy friendship that was oppressive and toxic, but I didn’t see it or realize it consciously.  Others could see it and would try to tell me, but I refused to believe them.

When the friendship finally did end, it was extremely painful.  Fortunately, I was able to find a counselor who helped me work through my feelings, and when I looked back on the years I spent around that person, I had to acknowledge that everyone else could see what was going on, but because I was entrenched in the friendship, I couldn’t see it.  I realized that I was in a much better place having left that friend behind.

Of course, that is only one example of ways in which our lives need pruning.  We tend to separate faith and life at times, and this reminder from Jesus to his disciples – including us – invites us to remember how important it is for us to be connected to him – and to each other.  The connection with him is always open, always able to grow, and always growing, even though there are times when we have to prune away the things that get in the way of our connection with him.

It’s the same when we think of the connection we have with others.  Healthy relationships need pruning through good communication, forgiveness, grace, and letting go of things that might keep us from being up front and loving with the other person or group or congregation.  In churches, it is the stuff that needs pruning that blocks us from staying healthy with each other.  When we learn to work through conflict, sort out our own feelings, ask for forgiveness, listen to others carefully and lovingly, accept that none of us is perfect and all stand in the need of God’s grace in Jesus, we actively prune so that our connections can be healthy and life-producing.  That is bearing fruit.

When we are connected in healthy ways, we can minister to others knowing that we are following Jesus’ teachings and living in his ways.  We are connected with him which then helps us connect with others.

1.  Is there someone who needs our forgiveness and grace today?

2.  How can we promote and build healthy relationships?

3.  In what ways can our communication keep us connected?

Shepherd/Flock/Shepherding

“The Lord is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.”  Psalm 23:1 (CEB)

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  John 10:11 (CEB)

Shepherds aren’t a common sight today, at least in most places.  In Jesus’ day, they were often seen on hillsides with their flocks.  There are two sides to being a shepherd in that day.  One is that the “good shepherd” was someone who loved the flock, took care of them, protected them, guided them, and was loyal and faithful.

On the other hand, there were those shepherd who were hired to take care of the flock, and they really didn’t have any commitment or loyalty to the flock or the owner of the sheep.  Perhaps they were the ones who gave shepherds a bad name because apparently there were some who stole from the town merchants on those occasions where they were seen in the villages.

I suspect that all shepherds had hygiene issues since they were pretty much with their flocks morning, noon, and night.  In that case, they might not have been particularly welcome in close quarters!  Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd echoes the assurances of the Psalmist that the shepherd is with the flock through “thick and thin” and will not abandon the flock.

The Good Shepherd is one who will even die for the flock.  When we think of this image, the Good Friday and Easter messages connect.  Jesus is the one who died for us and was raised from the dead so that we might have forgiveness of sins and life eternal.  This is God’s gift to us.

So does that mean we are the flock?  I guess so.  I don’t know a lot about sheep, but I’m not sure I really like being compared to sheep.  From what I understand, they will follow anyone; they stray easily; they can be so busy eating grass that they don’t realize they have wandered away from the rest of the flock; they are too quickly led astray.  Oh – wait – maybe we as human beings are a little like that!

Maybe that’s why it’s so important to be connected to a community of faith.  We shepherd each other even as we invite others to be part of the flock.  We are shepherded by the Good Shepherd and we in turn care for and guide each other.  So many people scoff at the church folks and say it’s outdated, but I wonder if they ever really became involved in a caring and supportive church community.

Oh, I know that we humans are so VERY human!  We make mistakes, say the wrong things, don’t listen very well at times, and do a lot of things that are particularly reflective of being a follower of Jesus.  Yet, as a community, we can set an example for forgiveness and acceptance; we can work through problems and move forward.  What a great witness to the world!

Recently I needed to fly to my home state of Iowa where my 91 year old father was moving to senior apartments after having fallen in his home three times.  He realized that he needed a safer place with more people around.  In spite of his physical challenges, he is totally with it, and a very intelligent man.  I had just been out there only a month and a half earlier, but I felt that I needed to be there to help my siblings clean out the house and assist him in settling in.

On the Sunday before I left, one of the churches I serve surprised me with a collection to help offset my plane fare.  Their love and support touched me so deeply, and it paid for over half the cost of my ticket.  They, to me, represent what community – being part of the flock – is all about.  This isn’t a one time event, I have seen them collect food for the hungry, money for the United Methodist “No More Malaria” campaign, send a child to church summer camp, over load a tree full of gifts for needy families, collect shoes for the homeless, donate gift cards to someone in the church who lost their job, and so many other “faith in action” things.  Prayer empowers them to be the shepherds in Jesus’ name.

This is a church that has gone through some rough times and has come out on the other side to serve God by providing a place to grow in faith, remain accountable, and support each other through thick and thin.  Thanks be to God!

How can we all find ways to be shepherds for Christ?

What would we have to change or give up  to be Christ’s shepherd?

How can we improve on what we are doing now?

The Lord is our shepherd!  Hallelujah!

The Other Side of Things

“Jesus said, ‘Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some [fish].’ So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net.” John 21:6 (CEB)

A Native American Proverb states, “Never criticize others until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins.” This is something I try to do as much as possible, and I preach it often.  Do I always succeed in following my own advice or the advice of our Native American teachers?  No, but I keep on trying.  I really wish people would begin to do this more often.  Sometimes I think we become so caught up in our own needs, wants, and demands that we really don’t walk in someone else’s shoes.

In the scripture passage above, we are reminded that Jesus appeared to the disciples following his resurrection and continued to teach them to look at things from a different perspective.  From what I understand, the fishers of his day would throw their nets over the left side of the boat because the catch was always better on that side.  For some reason they “had always done it that way,” so they didn’t even think of casting the net to the right side.

When they followed Jesus’ instructions, they were able to bring in a huge catch.  It was at that point in the story that Peter realized it was Jesus and swam ashore.  That was a pretty interesting thing for him to do given that he had denied Jesus three times and hadn’t been able to apologize once he discovered that Jesus had been raised from the dead!  Jesus eventually takes Peter aside and asks him three times if he loves him, to which Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”  Jesus instructs him to “Feed his sheep,” “Tend his sheep,” and “Feed his sheep.”  Forgiveness, acceptance, understanding, commissioning.

Jesus had a way of being able to walk in another person’s shoes.  He could understand their situation and help them to see things from a different perspective.  He never compromised his own mission and ministry to accommodate their “agendas.”  Rather, he entered into their lives and walked with them so they could find their way, could receive healing, and be encouraged.  Jesus does the same with us.

We don’t walk alone. Jesus walks with us, not only through the power of the Holy Spirit, but also through companions who are on the journey with us.  So, isn’t it remarkable that we continue to forget to look at things from each other’s perspectives.  Criticism comes when someone thinks we aren’t doing things the “right way” which more often than not is “their way.”  I wish we could consistently think about what the other person is feeling and try to enter into their perspective. Maybe our lives would be so much better because we are respecting and caring about others rather than ourselves.

Of course, we don’t need to be a door mat for someone who will not respect us, but we can try to understand what is going on with them and act (or react) accordingly.  That, to me, is looking at the other side of things and following in Jesus’ example.

What are the ways we can become more aware of “walking a mile in the other person’s moccasins?”

In what ways can we make a positive difference to someone else by doing so?

How do we model Jesus’ respect for others by doing so?

Maybe we will make the world a better place when we ponder these questions and look at things from a different side.  May it be so!

Silence

Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  Mark 16:8 (NRSV)

Mark’s version of the resurrection in Chapter 16, verses 1-8, has always fascinated me.  I mean, think about it!  Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome head to the tomb, trying to figure out how they will roll away the huge stone that covers the place where Jesus was buried.  Their intentions were to give him a proper anointing since they didn’t have time to do it after his body was taken down from the cross (the Sabbath was almost upon them, and they would not have been able to do anything that seemed like “work” on the Sabbath).

So, when they arrive at the tomb, they discover that the stone is already rolled away, and there is some ethereal being there telling them that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  (Notice that the angel didn’t say, “Weren’t you listening to him when he was telling you all this?”)  They are instructed to go tell Peter and the others that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee and will meet them there.

Who could really blame the women for being terrified.  This is not an ordinary event!  They NEVER would have expected to find Jesus gone and to be told that he was raised from the dead.  We might think that this shouldn’t have been a surprise, but people in Biblical days weren’t really all that different from us, in fact, in some ways they were far more superstitious because they didn’t have the scientific explanations for everything like we do.  Someone being raised from the dead was NOT a common event!

What fascinates me the most is that the writer of Mark left the gospel with this “Gone With the Wind” type of ending.  We are left hanging, wondering what really happened.  Obviously, they told someone because the writer would not have written the story!  So, what was the intention behind such a “cliff hanger?” I can only guess and reflect on what others have written.

Maybe the writer is telling us that the story isn’t over but that it has only begun.  In “Gone With the Wind,” Scarlett weeps on the steps of her great mansion as Rhett Butler walks out of her life.  Then, gradually she raises her head and delivers that memorable line about getting him back tomorrow.  Her story wasn’t over but continuing.  It wasn’t too late after all!  She would find a way to bring back the man she loved.

Jesus was raised from the dead.  It’s only the beginning.  We don’t have to hide or worry or feel abandoned because he is alive, and we have been commissioned to carry on his work.  We are the ones who manifest Christ to the world as we continue the story of God’s kingdom here on earth.  All is not lost; there is hope; there is promise; there is life.

May you have a blessed Easter as we live in this world as and “Easter people.”

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