Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Good Shepherd

If you know me, you may know that for the past 6 years I have volunteered at a week long retreat for middle schools at Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina.  I remember how exhausted I was after the first year I was there, but also how fully renewed I was in my love of youth ministry, in my own formation, and how much it helped me on my own spiritual journey.  A group of around 18 volunteers all gather to work this event (JYP) year after year to help guide and mentor youth from around the country.  Little do they know the amzing impact they have on the lives of every "adult" figure there!  They are the true teachers and I am blessed to be a part of this week.  I only bring this up, because today I wanted to talk about a lesson that I learned this past year.
The theme for the week was prayer.  We really focused on different ways to pray and what it means.  Naturally, Jesus was a prime example used to show how we pray and the importance of prayer.  In these examples, the reference to Jesus being the Good Shephard would constantly show.  Something we all hear all the time.  The symbol on the front of the altar at church is...The Good Shephard.  Children's Formation classes are called, Catechesis of the Good Shephard.  The Good Shephard.  It is a very very common theme for us at church.  Since we all grew up in rural 4th century BC Middle Eastern cities, we all agree on what it means to be a shepherd, right?
In today's society, we are just not that accustomed to hearing that term outside of church, shepherd.  When you think of that word in todays terms, what do you picture?
something like this?
or this...
maybe this...?

If I had to take a guess, I would guess that a lot of people had images simliar to this in the minds.  If they didn't, well they probably do now.  In today's society, this is as close as we come to shepherding in real life.  So why on earth is our Savior Jesus Christ refered to as the Good Shepherd?  Does he chase us down to amek sure we are on the right track?  Use a large stick or whip to keep us in line?  Someone that we are scared off and that is why we don't want to wonder off?

These images are not of shepherding, but of herding.  A herder is someone who would walk behind and keep the animals in line but pushing them and literally "herding" them in certain directions to get them to go where the wanted.  This is not and should not be the image we have when we think of the Goof Shephard.  It probably is not, but still, this concept of what it means to be a true shepherd may not be the easiest to understand.

I had a friend who went to school in Scotland who explained to me what shepherding truly was and how the shepherds worked on the other side of the sea.  The shepherds lead the sheep.  They stayed with the sheep, lived among them, slept outside with them, was always there for them.  The shepherd was a friend to the flock and therefore the flock trusted them.  This was how they lead.  The shepherd knew his sheep and the sheep knew the shepherd.  When they would travel, the shepherd would walk in front and guide them and the sheep followed out of trust and of love for the shepherd.  If one wondered off, the shepherd would stop everything to go get the one that wondered off.  
Who is your shepherd?

~Psalms 23:1-6~
The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not  want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Where do you see Christ working in your life?

So the question I ask today, comes from one of our youth, Eliza.  Today I was thinking of what to write about, her answer was simple.

"Where do you see Christ at work in your life?" 
Very good question.  I respond by asking her,
"Well, how do you see Christ at work in your life?" 
Again, she replies with a very simple answer,
"In the simple things." 
Yet, another very good answer.  "What are the simple things then?" I ask. 
 "What are you asking me for, isn't that your job?"
I laugh. 
So the one questions still remains though, "Where do you see Christ at work in your life?"
Sometimes this is a difficult question to answer.  Sometimes it is as easy as the simple things.  A lot of people refer to these as God Moments or GM's.  We will return to this point in just a moment.
Last year, I was teaching the Rite 13 class.  The class asked to learn more about Lord's Prayer and I was happy to oblige.  In preparing my lesson, I read a book by N.T. Wright where he breaks down the prayer line by line.  I am no author and by no means as educated on the these matters as he is.
(For those of you who do not know, N.T. Wright is an Anglican Bishop.  He is currently the Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary's College, University of St Andrews in Scotland.  Before taking this job, he was the Bishop of Durham.)
So, I am just going to expand on somethings that he discusses in his books.  When we say the Lord's Prayer, are we actually thinking about what it says? 
 "Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven."
So what is "thy Kingdom" on earth then?  Does it literally mean that we will have heaven on Earth?  What does Heaven look like then? Or is it saying something else?  What is his will?  How will he carry this out?
His Kingdom has come.  Easter is proof of that.  That is God's Kingdom.  And we must be Kingdom bearers.  We must be Servants of the Lord.  In this sense, we are must continue to carry out the Kingdom here on earth.  We are carrying out his will here on earth. 
So let's revisit the original question.
"Where do you see Christ at work in your life?"
Yes, Eliza is very accurate in saying that it is in the small things.  When your friend is there for you when you are hurting, when you family is there to listen when you have had a bad day, when your teacher encourages you class...These are all little GM's.  We must be the bearers of God's will.  That is what we are called to do, that is what we pray for every time we say those sacred words Jesus taught us 2,000 years ago!
So yes, Eliza is right.  Where does Christ work...the small things.  And yes, it is my job.  It's your job too.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What does it mean to be a Christian?

So this week I wanted to talk about the Gospel.  When asked what it is, we all could probably quickly ramble of literally what it is, "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John!"  BOOM, nailed it.  Okay, and what does the Gospel say?  Tells the story of Jesus, two for two!
How much longer could you keep talking about the Gospel before feeling uncomfortable or not knowing how to answer the question?  I think for most people, we are already at that point.  Why do I think that?  Fuller Institute for Youth asked college juniors, "What would you say being a Christian is all about?"  Two thirds gave answers to "doing" the faith (loving others, following Jesus' example, etc.).  One third did not even mention Jesus and of them 35% didn't even mention God.  If so many of us don't fully understand what it means to be a Christian, how can we fully understand the Gospel?
There are a few ways to look at the Gospel.  Two of the ways I will briefly explain. 
One way is to fully dive into it.  Read it, be excited about it.  But only while they are involved.  So during high school, they can be very active and engaged in youth group.  Love it.  It will help you make some choices, but once you leave high school, just like when your sugar rush runs out, you crash.  This is known as the Red Bull Gospel.   After all, Red Bull's sugar and caffeine (as well as some other ingredients we can't decipher) can get you through a few tough hours. But eventually you crash. And crash hard.

Similarly, our youth group kids often have a Red Bull experience of the gospel. It's a gospel that is potent enough to help them make the right decision at a Friday night party in high school, but the Red Bull gospel and the support of other Red Bull gospel followers isn't powerful enough to foster long-term faith.
The other way is simply using the Gospel as a set of rules.  A list of things we should do and things we should not do.  Yes, following rules is important and a good thing to do.  But is that the point of religion?  Most youth follow this path, but who can blame them.  It is what they are taught.  By parents, teachers, mentors, church leaders...its a simple answer to a very complex question.  But hey, maybe this way we can keep them out of trouble.   For many of our youth group kids, the gospel has been shrunk down to fit inside the small box of what Dallas Willard calls the "gospel of sin management."  In this gospel focused on behaviors, we've sadly let the gospel deteriorate into a list of good virtues, and then we slap Bible verses on them. We don't blame them for tossing that gospel aside. Wouldn't you do the same?
When asked what it means to be a Christian, I can guarantee that you will hear "loving others" or some form of this by most of the people you ask.  Yes, isn't that the big rule Jesus told us, "Love your neighbors as yourself."  But I think that most people would think it is moral and right to treat others nicely, even an atheist.  That does not mean Christian.  It is called being nice.  But wasn't there another rule that came before this one?  "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37).  That is what it means to be Christian.  To live our life following these words.  This takes more faith than simply following the rules.  We must be more willing to seek and to listen and to learn.  We need to focus on trusting God and not just obeying God.  So I leave with two questions. 
"What does it mean to trust God?' 
"How do we put this into practice everyday?"