So Where is Jesus when we struggle?

If you are like me, it always feels so lonely when I am dealing with hard times. It is as if God decided to take a vacation when I need Him the most, only to return when my life is less dramatic. Only then His presence is felt on my side. So what happens to Him when we face trauma, when we fail miserably, or when we face a breakup? Are we truly alone until we get our life together again?
There was a woman who, for reasons we don’t know, decided to find love elsewhere and engaged in an illicit extra marital relationship. If it wasn’t for the religious leaders of her town, she might have been able to hide it. But, like any decent Palestinian community, such woman ought to be dragged out of the village and stoned to death. Adultery was thought to infect the whole community back then, and it was the responsibility of the religious leaders to render a verdict and the town to carry out the stoning.
For this woman, and by her I mean every single one of us who have sinned, being brought to a religious leader by our peers can be quite traumatic. Remember when one of your classmates got caught red handed cheating at an exam. Remember the sense of justice and vindication you felt when he was ordered to go to the principal’s office? It was only right that the guilty be punished, especially since you had worked so hard on your exam. The whole class would have been more than happy to drag such cheater out in the open to be emotionally stoned.
But for the woman, her life was at stake. Standing in front of the Holy man, she could feel the judging gaze of the ones who dragged her half naked to Jesus. Each set of eyes filled with disgust and anger. Each face contorted by disdain and judgment for what she had done. The only thing covering her was the shame she held closely as a garment in the midst of a mob of righteous men ready to throw stones gathered while walking to the Temple. She was guilty, caught in the very act. She deserved a painful death. There was no one to vouch for her, no one to point to the good things she may have done in the past to sway her accusers to drop the stones.
Looking around the many faces, she was looking for one soul kind enough to be on her side, just one merciful man, sympathetic to her plight, but all she found was cold hearted killers. She was completely alone in her struggle. She has disobeyed the God of her ancestors and there was nothing more she could do. Surely this Jesus would uphold the law.
Yet from the stories of this man Jesus, she had heard of a God who loves, one that forgives sins. So where was that God now? Just like her, in our own mental trials, the sleepless nights filled with anguish, or when we feel so lonely, when we seem abandoned, we desperately look for God to lean on. The problem is we search for Him in the eyes of the accusers, and the disdainful, hoping to catch a glimpse of God’s distant compassion. We look for Him in the seats to judgment, in the thrones of the not so magnanimous kings ready to kill. We look for Him in the harsh disappointed parents, the police officers’ intransigence. We look for Him in the seemingly prideful religious leaders. We hope to find some mercy in our well deserved pain.
Yet no matter how hard we look for Him, no matter how desperate we are for a cup of water in the inferno of our soul, we never find Jesus where we thought He ought to be. After all, surely our behavior, our pain, our struggle is deserved since we have disobeyed Him. It would makes sense to find Him on the side of the accusers, and the judge all at once.
Yet we cannot find Him and the feeling of being alone is made even more present. So where is Jesus when the bottom falls off, when the evil twins shame and guilt are tormenting us with gnarly fingers pointed straight at our failures? Why is it that we feel so alone with we need Him the most? Could it be because we are looking in the wrong place?
I find it fascinating that among the well defined circle of accusers dragging the guilty to be judged and condemned, Jesus finds Himself not on the outskirts of the finger pointing self righteous, but his place is amongst the accused, inside the circle of disdain and judgment. He was found in the middle of the Pharisees, thirsty for justice, standing with the woman caught in sexual sin. He was found with the notorious sinners throughout Ancient Palestine. He was found at the center of a mocking crowd when He believed the child was sleeping and not dead. He was found at the center of an execution for political rebels. He was found with those who felt abandoned, with the bastardized, the rejected and the misfits, or as Brennan Manning calls them the ragamuffins. He is not found amongst the marching armies treading the conquered. He isn’t with the empires abusing the poor. There is no condescending look, no repulsion of our current state.
There is however a joining in with our pain, a soft whisper reminding us that He will never leave us no matter how lost we feel. This is too the cross that He bore, and if we could just once trust that God has not abandoned us in the treacherous sentencing of others or our own self, we would experience the tenderness of a God who joins us on our cross. He stands with the broken, the unclean, the atheists. He walks with the sentenced to death, with the gays and lesbians, with the racially rejected groups. He is found in prison, and sitting next to the junkies. He is found with the adulterers and the oppressed. God’s holiness isn’t so fragile that He needs to protect it. He isn’t afraid of tarnishing His reputation to stand with you and me.
So where is God in our struggle? He is the companion that will never leave us, no matter how deserving we are of the pain and loneliness we feel. He is suffering with us, and if we let Him, He will restore us. Like the woman caught in the act, she came naked dressed only in her shame, but she left covered in love that is better than any robe one could desire.
So what is Jesus doing standing next to us while all hell breaks loose? Why isn’t He kicking some butt and taking names to protect us from the pain and unjust treatments. Isn’t He the God who destroys His enemies as we have been told so often? The reality is that Jesus doesn’t belong to the DC COMICs or the MARVEL superheroes. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus has superpowers but not the kind that fries people with laser eyes, or freezes them with a slight of hand. Even if we would like to see Jesus in a spandex uniform (of course the spandex will be kosher), defending the weak and the single moms, His powers aren’t destructive.
His greatest power, and that is what sets Him apart, is always to restore the broken-hearted, heal the maimed and gives life to the dying. In essence, His ultimate power is to rebuild and restore, it is to heal and to love. When Jesus is standing next to us in our worst day, what he so loves doing is healing us from the lashes of others. His favorite thing to do is to teach us to forgive and to love no matter what. There is no greater power than to love our enemies, even when all we want is justice and vindication against those who surround us to throw rocks.
The most wonderful thing is happening while no one is watching, when we begin to release others from our own judgment, and forgiving them, we lose a little bit of our superhero mindset and truly become more like Him. The most extravagant power Jesus displayed wasn’t healing the sick, or raising the dead. It wasn’t feeding the poor or walking on water. These miracles are great, yet there is one much greater that all of these. The humanity of Jesus was fully powerful when he forgave the ones who accused Him and nailed Him to the cross unjustly. That power is why all powers pale in comparison.
So while we feel lost, and alone, Jesus is doing is most magnificent works, that is restoring us and changing us into someone more like Him. The idea of a God who should zap that church leader who ostracized and abused us, the spouse who cheated on you, the boss who fired you for all the wrong reasons, is based in our need to have a superhero Jesus who takes sides.
A little cautionary advice. Let’s not be tricked to think that God chooses sides as we choose between two things; dark chocolate versus white, French wines versus Californians, or between republicans versus democrats. By standing with the woman in the middle of the circle, Jesus isn’t playing the victim’s card either. He isn’t judging those who came to demand an execution. It would be terribly easy to look at the people around us who should have be helping us in our time of trouble and lash out at them for being more on the side of the accuser than the helping friends. People have a tendency to want to explain our tragedy and painful seasons. They want to find reasons why God would let pain come our way. Remember Job’s friends?
Jesus had the audacity to remind the crowd that them too have had moments of weakness. In our needs to find right and wrong we make the tragic mistake to separate people. It was the dirty woman versus the upstanding citizens. The single mother who surely deserves her struggle versus the picture perfect family. The poor man on the street with a not so well hidden bottle of cheap whisky versus the man in a business suit drinking his Starbucks coffee. We want Jesus to take side, we want him to stick it to these stuck up Pharisees standing with a clenched fist and a rock large enough to crack the bones of the guilty.
But Jesus so graciously offers the same restorative power to the woman and to the men standing in a circle ready to kill. There was no accusation in His voice, not even a stink eye. What He offers the accusers is an invitation for themselves to be restored and experience His unconditional love. There is no duality in Jesus. There is no us versus them, or the bad guys versus the good guys. For Jesus there is only people, some more broken than others. That power is something so incredible, so full of life and so life changing that when we encounter it we get transformed into the same nature.
We are not alone in our worst moment, God isn’t absent from our moment of pain and loss, He is right there with us inviting us to a life so compelling of a love that transforms even our accusers, not only the physical ones but the one inside our minds so eager to destroy us. The one called disappointment!
Reference: John 8 1-11, Hebrews 13:5, The book of Job.
Painting: The woman caught in adultery by John Martin Borg 2002

 

If Christianity looked like a Choir

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“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Colossians 3:14 

 

If you know me, music isn’t my thing. I’m more likely to get an emotional response from stimulating lectures or books than songs or music. So what I am about to share with you was significant enough to break the barriers of my own soul. It reached deep inside my heart with a resounding sound that shook me to the core. And to be quite honest it came from a place I would have never considered before; that is from a choir! For me, a choir is associated with churchy stuff  more than deep revelations of God, or at least that is what I thought until I saw this:

Click on this to view the video

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This is renowned composer Eric Whitacre. This project started with a fun little experiment. What would happen if he wrote a song, posted the sheet of music online, and invited people around the world to sing different harmonies? What if he joined them all together in a master track as if one was conducting a  large choir, but instead of being all in the same room they are connected via internet? What you just heard is the result of such experiment! Whitacre’s first virtual choir featured just under 200 people from 12 countries. The astonishing final product garnered so much attention that on his fourth project more than 5900 people from over 100 countries participated.

So what is the big deal about this? This choir was the picture of perfection of what I have envisioned the church as a whole to be like. It is made of individuals of different backgrounds, different social statuses, different cultures, with different educations, and especially different struggles, challenges, and success and failures, all coming together for one selfless act. Suddenly their dissonant noises becoming a mystical harmony. My friend Brandan explained it to me this way: “A choir is one of the most symbolically rich form of music. The voice is the most personal instrument, totally unique, and each one has a different timbre (whereas in orchestras, all the instruments have a much more similar timbre). The many voices coming together into one new sound. It really is a beautiful experience of our oneness.” 

Think about it: people separated by thousands of miles, yet beautifully connected as a community, for a project greater than themselves. These people had no pretentious attitude, and quite honestly looked awkward when taken separately from everyone else. If you look closely at each person, you would never give them any attention.

One of the participants wrote: “Aside from the beautiful music, it’s great just to know I’m part of a worldwide community of people I never met before but who are connected anyway”

This sound is what undid me, the sound of common union. The sheer beauty of such a choir coming together should bring anyone to tears considering that we are driven to be ego-centrists in our culture, and our needs to be seen oftentimes go against the nature of God’s kingdom. Despite the “Me” syndrome, all of us crave connection, as Whitacre says: “Human beings will go to any length necessary to find and connect with each other”. There is a mystical sense of connection we all so desire that transcends our own hurts, fear, and rejection.

Our world is so conditioned to have one man, one woman, one entity on a pedestal to to lead the rest of us that we miss the obvious message Jesus continually spoke of in the Gospels, The kingdom of God is not comparable with the ways of the world. It is different, other-like. It doesn’t function under the same values found in empires with individuals at the helm. The kingdom of God starts with the weak joining strength for the sake of a greater purpose.

What this virtual choir director shows is what happens when one is connecting people with a piece of music so compelling that each person is willing to forego their reputation to be part of something greater than them.

Let me finish by asking this: what would happen if a community of believers was more focused on changing society with selfless acts of love rather than being self focused? That would be the kingdom of God!

 

“Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Philippians 2:2

If you want to know more, check out his TED TALK, where he explained how this project came to life.

 

The Woman at the well: A Story of restored hope. Part 3

You can find Part 1 here

You can find Part 2 here

 

Broken Vessel

Who would qualify to be used by God? In our preconceived ideas of God, the vessel He uses has to at least be holy or “christian”. After all, if God is holy, His vessels ought to be also. Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned about our expectation and our own qualifications. A woman with a string of broken relationships is a perfect mouthpiece for His kingdom. This is a momentous shift from our preconceived idea that God would use the well to do, the people who have their lives all together, the preachers in suits, to carry His salvation message to the world. Our idea of a liberator is oftentimes steeped in the heroism of old, the exploits of brave conquerors, or the wit of political leaders.

But this encounter between the Lord and this Samaritan will stir freedom from the unlikeliest of places in the form of a downcast, emotionally weak and socially rejected woman. Her encounter with Jesus, like many before her and many after her inspired so much courage that she rushed back to her village to become their voice of freedom. Just like the disciples leaving their nets and their boats when Jesus calls them, this Samaritan leaves behind her bucket to tell the whole village about this strange man sitting alone at the well. It would have been one thing for a man to return home and announced he had met the Messiah, but it is completely another for a woman to do so.

Back in the Second Temple period, the testimony of women was not admissible in court. Some would say this disdain for women originated in the Garden when the woman was deceived and as such no one would trust what she had to say. This Samaritan couldn’t care less about what people would think. What she had just experienced was valid enough to share with her own people, and as a result engender the salvation of them all. Isn’t it fascinating that the carriers of the most important revelations in the Gospel about Jesus is oftentimes through women? Here, His identity is revealed to a woman who goes out to preach it, and later in a garden when He appeared to Mary Magdalene on His first day of resurrection, telling her to go back and tell the disciples that He was in fact alive again. I suspect Jesus orchestrated that to restore women back to their proper respectful places in society, and to undo centuries of rejection. It would have made more sense for Jesus to really remove any doubt about who He was to use a more reputable source since the unbelief was so rampant. Yet here, Jesus isn’t concerned about the vessel carrying His message of hope as He is concerned about the restoration of all things.

So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” They went out of the city, and were coming to Him. John 4:28-30

From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all the things that I have done.” John 4:39

 

Simple Faith

Consider for a moment that the Samaritan turned a whole village upside down while the disciples had mixed results on their missionary journeys. We don’t hear of cities being turned upside down through the disciples until the day of Pentecost. The contrast is baffling. The disciples had powerful encounters, they healed the sick, they performed miracles and their success was mitigated.

This woman on the other end is nothing like the disciples. She has no training, she hasn’t been taught much, she is of questionable character and her message – to be quite honest – isn’t earth-shattering. All she said was “come see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” That is it, nothing less and nothing more. Yet this seemingly insignificant revelation is every bit as powerful as any miracle anyone could perform. The frailty of her newfound faith becomes evident when she even questioned His identity: “could this be the Messiah?” One has to ask the question; what was so radical about her encounter? She had just met a man and instead of being judged and rejected like she was accustomed, He completely and utterly accepted her without judgment or condemnation. She was for the first vulnerable and fully emotionally exposed and yet what she felt from Jesus was unconditional Love. She was fully known and yet fully loved. This alone was transformative enough to get her out of her isolated life away from the judging eyes who knew her, and straight into the village unashamed and totally loved right in the midst of the same people who looked on amazed at her boldness.

 

Conclusion

This story defies all current western logic of evangelism. Unlike power we perceived to be the seal of approval of God, this woman is everything but well grounded in her faith and complete in her doctrinal understanding. We tend to reduce the power of the Gospel with the need to have healing and miracles flowing out of our hands to hope that our message will be heard and have an impact of whomever to talk to. Her faith is tentative at best, and yet this is exactly the kind of faith that is enough to turn cities upside down. There is nothing supernaturally extravagant about it. There is nothing pompous and extroverted. There is nothing doctrinally deep and complex. It isn’t the rumbling mountains, the power or physical miracles, and the supernatural glory that will convinced unbelievers to come meet this man called Jesus. It is the simple yet profound truth that Jesus fully knows us, fully accepts us and fully loves us just the way we are.

Love is everything in the kingdom of God,  as Paul would later highlight in his letter to the church in Corinth in Corinthians chapter 13. There is something undeniably powerful we someone tells their story about how they brushed up against Jesus. There is something powerful happening for those who hear it and for those who tell about it. The transformative power can be seen in this Samaritan woman when she believed that this man knew everything about her whole life and He was completely in love with her no matter her past.

Our story with Jesus is the most life altering power we can share with people however insignificant we think it is. It doesn’t have to be pretty or exceptional to convince our friends and neighbors of God’s love and goodness it just needs to be fresh and honest, raw and unrefined, simple and beautiful. This is not to undermine what Jesus continually does in terms of powerful encounters when he heals the sick, raised the dead, or feed the multitude with the smallest amount of bread. Of course Jesus is powerful and a miracle worker feeding multitudes and restoring vision to the blinds. Of course His mission was also to destroy the workings of the enemy and to show how big our God is. But apart from all that, what this story is telling us is what people really hunger for isn’t a deity who can fix everything for them or perform miracles. What is going to transform lives is knowing that this powerful God is more interested to restore the broken, the misfits, the outcasts and the least amongst us then to be demonstrative is power to cause people to bow in fear. The world is desperate for your authentic story.

For this woman, she doesn’t need to hide who she is any longer, as we often do with people around us for fear of rejection. She has met Jesus and through her encounter, and she felt fully exposed and vulnerable and yet fully covered in His love and acceptance. Whatever caused her to live a secluded life far from those who had hurt her in the past is now a beautiful scar inviting people to meet Jesus. She is completely loved and completely accepted. We hide our true self is because we think if people knew what we have been through or what we think or what we have done, it would somehow make them love us less. There is a longing inside of us to be truly seen and truly known and yet fully loved and accepted. Jesus is offering us this kind of relationship, will we accept His invitation?
Painting by  Emmanuel Nsama

The Woman at the well: A Story of restored hope. Part 2

You can find part 1 here.

Bring your Spouse

cccccTo experience this kind of love requires that we respond to the invitation. It’s one thing to know that Jesus loves us, it is entirely another to fully experience it. It demands that we face whatever substitute we have had, whatever mechanism we have used to look for love in all the wrong places, whatever relationship we have had to mask the pain of our loneliness. This is exactly what Jesus is doing by asking her to bring her husband.

 ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ verse16-18

cccccFor this woman, getting her husband would be quite complicated. She had had five, and the one she was currently living with wasn’t yet officially her husband. From our western perspective this doesn’t seem to be a big deal, but for the Jews she wasn’t considered marriage material. Nowadays, women can divorce whomever they want for whatever reason they want. One can think of Liz Taylor as an example. If you don’t remember, she had eight different husbands. But this wasn’t in 2017 America, it was Palestine in the early 30’s BCE.

cccccWhat we know about this period is that women were not permitted to divorce; only men had that right. This raises a number of possibilities about her situation. She could have been widowed 5 times. Or she could have been rejected by her husbands five different times. It could also be a combination of both. Additionally,  it was pretty common for a woman to be passed down to her husband’s younger brother in case of his death. What we can be sure is this woman isn’t the picture of promiscuity or immorality as we have so often been told from our pulpits. Had this been the case, the law of the land would have required her to be stoned to death. The overwhelming evidence is that she is the epitome of rejection and brokenness. She is the poster child of what it means to be unloved and cast away. This woman is-painful relationship- personified. What she longed for in her many failed relationships was never truly experienced.

cccccOne may wonder what Jesus was doing reminding this woman about her own story of brokenness. I don’t believe He was trying to impress her with His omniscience. What would be gained by doing this? Consider this, up until her encounter with Jesus, she had been hiding most of her life with the burden of shame and dejection around her neck like the anchor of a ship holding it down. Her pain had been stored away in the confines of her mind not to be coming out again. Avoiding the crowds was a coping mechanism to indelible pain. Not only was  she a woman from Samaria rejected by the Jews, but within her own ethnic group she was low on the totem pole because of her many failed marriage.

ccccc These places of pain and emotional suffering have a way to keep us in bondage. What Jesus so clearly expressed with His all-knowing gift is that He is more interested in freedom than simply demonstrating his power. He wasn’t even interested to know how she got to this place in her life. He simply wanted to let her know that despite being an outcast, she was fully known by Him and fully understood. That’s all! There is nothing implicit or explicit that Jesus had any judgment on her story either. The whole point for Jesus was for this woman to be seen and to be known. That is the crux of the story. No matter how despised this woman may have been from the Jews and from the Samaritans, she is still known and loved by Him. This unconditional love is what brought this woman from the brink of total rejection to a place of complete openness.

Worship bridges the Gap

cccccThe Samaritan is now encountering the prophet as she calls Him. And in typical fashion, when one encounters a prophet, one will take this opportunity to ask questions that demand answers. She wants to know where the proper place to worship is. “Is it your place or my place?” she asked.

The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem. John 4:19-20

cccccJesus once again wants to reconnect what has been divided for so long. Samaritans did not believe that true worship was to be done in Jerusalem. They had their own special place called Mount Gerizim. For the Jews it was all about Jerusalem. This was one of the many differences between the two ethnic groups and for the past 400 years their division grew bigger and wider.

Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. John 4:21-24

cccccGod is looking to settle the issue about the ‘right place’ once and for all. But this doctrinal division is just that; a dividing mindset keeping people away from being connected to one another. As it has become quite obvious in Jesus’ ministry, He isn’t giving a straight answer to settle the debate He changes the question altogether. Jesus isn’t correcting her theology about where to worship, but how to worship. The great unifier isn’t a location, it is a heart. The day was coming where neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, brothers or sisters would be divided. True Worship will transcend all boundaries!

I am 

cccccWith each passing moments spends with Jesus, this Samaritan began to feel more comfortable as she engages with Him on spiritual matter. Worship was the key factor to usher a new kingdom, but this kind of worship was something they have not heard before. It was filled with the power to restore all things and make room for the King to reign. ”I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” she said. For the past four centuries, Israel was nothing more than a land occupied by oppressors beginning with the Babylonians all the way to the current Roman Empire. They all hoped for a mighty King to come and kick some Romans out of their land, and restore all things. Jesus acquiesced that indeed this Messiah was coming. But Jesus went further than she expected. His longing to be known suddenly ripped the veil of His true identity.I am he, the one who is speaking to you. (John 4:26). 

cccccHere, right in front of her was the promised savior who would restore all things. Without any hesitation, Jesus removes any possible doubt about Himself. This simple confirmation “I AM” is earth shattering to say the least. The first time God introduces Himself to a man is at the burning bush. Moses, the patriarch, the great leader who would lead the captives free is facing the irreducible magnificence of the presence of God. Through the never consuming fire came a voice; I AM. This Old Testament leader had met God and through his own encounter became the biggest figure of Jewish history. What a contrast! Back in the days God reveals Himself to a giant of history, a powerful figure of Jewish antiquity, but here – sitting at a well in a rejected land – Jesus makes Himself known to the least of these in the form of a Samaritan.

cccccDon’t you think it would have made more sense for Jesus to present Himself as the “I AM” to the disciples and the chosen people first? Yet Jesus isn’t your typical well-behaved religious leader, and as an act of reunification makes this woman the recipient of the greatest unveiling in the Gospel way before the disciples heard Jesus Himself revealing His identity in Caesarea of Philippi. This revelation would forever change the city of Sychar. Just like Moses liberated a whole people out of their bondage two thousand years earlier, this woman would set a village of misfits and outcasts free to meet Jesus.

Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him. John 4:28-30

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done. So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world. John 4:39-42

This is the revelation for us, He is our messiah, our deliverer. Not just for the religious elites but for all the outcast, misfits, rejected and downtrodden.

Painting: Christ And The Samaritan Woman At The Well by Henryk Siemiradzki

The Woman at the well: A Story of restored hope. Part 1

 Connection


     Connection with others; we all long for it like magnetic poles looking for its opposite. From the moment we are born, we are driven to find who we belong to. This primordial need  will be a relentless pursuit to search for connection. Children look for safety in their parents’ love. Wives need to feel connected to their husbands’s heart. Players on a sport’s team crave for unison with their teammates to be successful. This longing to connect is everywhere we look—at the parties we attend, the trains we take, the planes we ride on with strangers; we are all looking for connectedness. This comes at a heavy cost in our quest to be accepted by strangers. Instead of letting people see who we truly are, we hide behind an ideal image that people might be more comfortable having a connection with. We only let people see what we want them to see about ourselves.

The fear is that if they knew the life we have inside, the struggle, the pain we hide, our ugly past, our shame and guilt and the thoughts we battle with, we most certainly think we would not be accepted. The thought of being rejected drives us to a game of pretension. We have become experts at it.

We first size up the people we want to connect with with a quick scan to assess what we think people would like about us and what we absolutely need to hide. Unfortunately in hiding our true self, we never allow people to fully see who we are when no one is watching. We stay on our best self until we go home and stare down our own demons hiding so well inside of our minds. In other words, nobody truly knows us for who we are. They don’t know our pain, our tragedy, our struggle. But is there a way to be truly known and truly loved at the same time?

Through this series, I want to answer this question with a conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman found in John 4. Incidentally, this is the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and anybody else in the Gospels. But first let us set the stage within the context of Jews living in occupied Judea during the first century.

Jesus is thirsty

He left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.(John 4:3-6)

     In a hot middle eastern day, one will invariably become thirsty. Jesus was no exception to this. After having spent some time in Judea debating some Pharisees, He purposed in His heart to go to Galilee. The road one would take to go to Galilee was around a dreaded plot of land called Samaria.

     Jews and Samaritans had a profound disdain for each other because of their differing views regarding worship and all things related to the Law. The Jews thought of the Samaritans as the vilest ethnic group within their land. Talking or walking through Samaria would be a gross defilement that Jews were not ready to deal with. Consequently, Samaritans had become the outcast and the misfits of the region; the ultimate rejects. If a Jew had to travel from Judea to Galilee, he would purposefully go around Samaria. The risk of having an encounter with these disgusting people was enough to justify a two hour detour instead of the most direct route.

     But Jesus isn’t your typical Jew. He doesn’t abide by the prejudice of His people, nor does He care. He is the Messiah of all not just some, and restoring the people of Samaria was very much part of His agenda. Jesus purposefully breaks away from the cultural norm, and to make matters worse, sits on a well all by Himself in the middle of the day. This is where the story gets really interesting.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) John 4:7-9

Coming to the Well

Coming from the village of Sychar, a woman was making her way to the well all by herself in the mid summer day. This is an unusual sight since women would go in groups early in the morning or at dusk to draw water. There is safety in numbers. It was also while going together that their social life would develop. It was there and then that interactions would lead to connectedness. However, this Samaritan woman isn’t part of the group for reasons we will identify later. Being by herself, she apprehensively gets to the well where this man – a – Jew is sitting down waiting. It was quite a scene for anyone looking from afar and looked more like an ambush than a casual encounter. As the woman was about to draw water, the atmosphere filled with awkwardness until Jesus opened His mouth. “Give me a drink” He said. This seems like an anodyne request for us but this isn’t the western world of today. It is Samaria around 30BCE. What Jesus does is a scandalous faux pas by asking a woman for water. No man, especially no renowned rabbi, would be seen in public talking to a woman. To give some context, a Jewish rabbi would even refuse to talk to his own wife in public. It would be a sign of disgrace for him.

In antiquity women aren’t on the same parity on in the social ladder as men. They are simply not seen, not known and often times overlooked. This Samaritan has been accustomed to this most of her life. She is after all getting water by herself. Yet she is suddenly accosted by a man from Judea. She is being noticed instead of the customary rejection she should have encountered. Once again, this is something very unorthodox for the time. It not only appears that Jesus is talking to a woman on equal footing, but this conversion is happening at well of all places.

Wells; Where Sparks Happen!

For the Jews, wells carry a signifiant symbolism. Within the Biblical narrative, especially in the Old Testament wells are synonymous with romance. Many of the patriarchs’ love stories have this in common. They started at a well. It was at a well that Isaac found his wife Rebecca. It was also at a well that Jacob met Rachel, and Moses met Zipporah. It would be shocking to talk to any woman as a rabbi but to do it at a place known for love is utterly scandalous on so many levels. To put it into context, imagine your favorite single preacher being seen at a well-known romantic spot on the 14th of February with a woman. It doesn’t get more suspicious than that. What I want you to see is that romance was happening between Jesus and the Samaritan, but it wasn’t the kind that we think. Got has always loved the Samaritans, the outcasts, and outsiders. They haven’t always known it but Jesus was making it a point for them to rediscover it once again. This is a love affair between God and people who have been disconnected, rejected and overlooked.

The scandal isn’t lost on her: “how is it that you a jew ask me for a drink”? It is not so much that she is offended, but she knows that culturally Jews aren’t supposed to talk with women and to make matter worse a Samaritan. For Him to drink from her bucket would be the ultimate betrayal of His Jewishness. Jesus answered her:

‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ John 4:10-15

The Love Potion 

There is a motif in the Sacred Texts that we tend to overlook when we read it. It isn’t just that wells that are symbolic of romance, but water speaks of overflowing love. It is used in Proverbs 5:15 to describe the passion husbands and wives will share with each other in the throes of passion. The same figure is used in Song of Solomon, where a wife is compared to “a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.” But in a twist Jesus presents Himself as the source of living water, directly borrowing from Jeremiah 2:13 where God compares Himself to a “fountain of living waters”. The perfect Love story can only be perfect when the source of this love is overflowing and without end. It is then that life is given. Jesus intentionally speaks to her about what it means to be loved by God. Jesus, the perfect lover offering unconditional love as a gift for anyone who longs for real love.

To experience this kind of love requires that we respond to the invitation. It’s one thing to know that Jesus loves us, it is entirely another to fully experience it. It demands that we face whatever substitute we have had, whatever mechanism we have used to look for love in all the wrong places, whatever relationship we have had to mask the pain of our loneliness. This is exactly what Jesus is doing by asking her to bring her husband.

How would you answer?

Excluded or Included?

Wisdom of a Shepherd Part 5

You can find previous posts here:  part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4

 Stories told around the dinner table reveal more about the host, than just a nice conversation piece. 

“Love is not selective, just as the light of the sun is not selective. It does not make one person special. It is not exclusive. Exclusivity is not the love of God, but the love of ego.”— Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

 

This is something the guests at the Lord’s table discovered when a group of religious scholars called Him out on the fact that He was eating with people of-not-so uplifting reputations. Among His guests of honor were prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners and mainly all the people that religion deemed lost and unworthy of their attention. Religious scholars would in no way dare to touch a sinner. For them, they saw this as being defiled and ultimately becoming displeasing to the God they served. For them, religion had created a god so austere and indifferent to the plight of humanity that nothing would ever satisfy his Holy self but total undivided service of worship. Only then God would pour out some of His blessings on them as a token of his pleasure, like a treat one gives to a pet for performing a trick . This separation between the profane and the holy was the reason Jesus began to share the parable of the lost sheep.

…….A shepherd on a quest to find a sheep isn’t an anodyne story. It is loaded with symbolisms that did not escape the minds of scholars hearing it. For those who knew the Scriptures by heart, it was a direct quote from a prophetic text written by Ezekiel some six centuries before Jesus. Foreseeing the ineluctable separation that religion ultimately produced, he began writing about wandering sheep gone astray, and shepherds only caring for themselves. Ezekiel brought a scathing rebuke to the leaders of Israel, and the religious elites who should have taken care of the broken people but instead were more concerned about keeping themselves from getting too involved with what they considered problematic sheep. In verse 3 and 4 of chapter 34 we read:

You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are silly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. (Ex 34:2-4)

…….Jesus is quite intentional in sharing a parable about a lost sheep. For Him, the disenfranchised sitting at His table were the sickly, the broken, the scattered. They were the ones neglected by the shepherd of Israel that Ezekiel wrote about. As usual, Jesus found a way to pierce the heart of religious leaders. He brought into focus how they had singled out those of questionable reputations, and at the same time He revealed the heart of the true shepherd. One who is concerned for every single one of them to the point of risking his own life to find them. Jesus reminded them that these sheep had been abandoned by the very ones who were called to care for them. If we close our eyes we would almost hear Him say: “Look guys, you dropped the ball on these people and now you are acting all self-righteous by rebuking me for eating with them? Don’t you remember what the Scriptures say about the Good Shepherd? Yes, that’s right, He will go after the lost and the wanderers. So to make it clear, I am the shepherd who goes after the one sheep you deemed worthless.”

Ezekiel puts it this way:

“Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. “As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when his is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered”. And: “I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick.”Ez. 34:12, 15,16 (NASB)”

…….Do you realize what Jesus did with this parable? He didn’t pull any punches. He completely embarrassed the religious leaders by identifying them as bad shepherds and most importantly, He identified Himself as the good shepherd of Ezekiel 34.

…….The God they worshiped was never to mingle with sinners but rather was to be found only in the presence of righteous, pious people. Without perfect behavior, God would not dare come down. It was scandalous to have one who proclaimed to be the son of God sit down with these miscreants. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned. As a matter of fact, He came to unveil centuries of false ideas about Abba. Opinions on how God is to act are but fictions of men’s mind based on disappointment and preconceived ideas based on how we would act if we were gods. Jesus, in his mercy, wants to go to the root of their theology. He wants to break down the walls of religion and let God shine through. The same God they put in a box was now busting their own confined mind and they didn’t like it. There was God eating with sinners and He liked it! This was the first seismic shock to their theology. 

…….What Israel’s past history had done to the image of God was detrimental to the revelation of His heart. All the years in exile had branded their understanding of Him as being a disinterested, distant deity only responsive when people obey every little part of the law. To be fair, our actions have consequences. But to impede our consequences on Him as if God was the one enforcing them would be the equivalent of blaming the ground for breaking your ribs when you tried to impress your wife and decided to jump off a cliff. God is not interested in micromanaging our everyday life and dispensing blessings when we do well and terrible catastrophe when we act silly. He does not withhold His love and affection based on our merit and performance. Even earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more is our Heavenly Father who is so madly in love willing to jump off His high places to join us in our mud puddle?

…….The image of a distant God uninterested with the broken is incongruent with the heart of the Father. The reason Pharisees and the likes kept away from sinners was because they believed sin would corrupt their holiness, and somehow in return God would separate Himself from them. They thought God required perfect obedience and moral rectitude in order to be pleased. And if they separated themselves from the ungodly, it certainly meant that God would do the same. But God was not like them. This is what religion does from the beginning of time, it creates an image of God based on our own image. Have we forgotten that It is not God who is created in our image, but the opposite?

…….Invariably we think God is so turned off by our misconduct that He removes Himself from us. We even go at length to show how much disdain God has for sinners by telling the story of the Garden of Eden when the original couple failed to heed to His voice. We are quick to point out that God kicked them out, but forget that God didn’t stand back in the beauty of Holiness and sterile environment of the Garden. Quite the contrary, He left everything behind and began a long journey of restoration that would climax on a piece of wood millenniums later. If we remove our preconceived ideas of God, and begin to read the narrative with an open heart, The “God too holy” to be in relationship with creation isn’t real. If God was too holy to be close to sin, then the first killing in history at the hands of Cain would be the ultimate repellent to a God who cannot tolerate sin. Yet, He reached out to Cain to converse with him. The reality is that His love for humanity was fully manifested when He came to embrace creation at the cross, His arms stretched opened on the rugged wood to receive all humanity.

 

Nutella and the Cross

…….To better drive this important distinction home, let me share a personal story. White shirts and Nutella do not go well together. This is the discovery I made one morning as I was getting ready to leave for our Sunday service. Feeling fashionable, I decided to wear a nice white button down shirt. As is a custom in our household, my children want a kiss from daddy before stepping out of the door. Sitting at the breakfast table was my twins girls, eating their bagels covered by a generous layer of Nutella. Even though I am a fan of the hazelnut chocolate paste, that particular morning it wasn’t on my list of likes. After all, have you ever tried to remove chocolate stains from a white shirt? Mia couldn’t contain her love for me, and got down from her chair to chase after me for a big ole hug and kiss. The problem was her hands and lips were smeared with chocolate. This was a beautiful sight, I mean a child running for a kiss breaks down every rejection issue any man would ever have.

…….But this particular morning was a little different, I had a white shirt. What was I suppose to do to preserve the pristine whiteness? You guessed it, I pulled away from my incoming chocolate lover, no matter how cute she was. My shirt suddenly became more important than the affection my child asked for, and should have received. After all, I was going to speak about God that morning and I couldn’t possibly allow stains on a white shirt to distract my audience. This is without a doubt what religion has done to the image of the Father. He is so white, so holy that any kind of potential stain would mar His perfect image. We come to believe God is so clean that a little dirt, a little chocolate, a little humanity would have a negative effect on His glory. We think God cannot tolerate stains on His pristine presence. Unlike me and my attempts to protect my white shirt, the Father opened up His arms, lowered Himself down and picked us up while we were still sinners (covered with Nutella) Romans 5:8. The God who keeps His distance from humanity is only real for the religious demands. He is only real for the ones who think they don’t need Him because they washed their hands before approaching Him, but Nutella has never scared God away!

 

What does it mean for us?

So, returning to our story of the lost sheep, what becomes quite evident is that sheep wandered because bad leaders focused their attention on the ones worthy of their attention. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the disenfranchised, the sickly, the broken, the scattered, and the lost.

When people worship rules, they are kept in a state of fear, which keeps people in bondage with thoughts like “If you sin, God will cut you off”. But, if we dare sit at the table with Jesus, what we will encounter is a love that says “even if your life seems worthless and covered in sin, I will never cut you off”. The power that changes us is not the weak restraints of rules, but the overwhelming, disarming power of His love.

this parable isn’t just for the leaders of Israel some two thousand years ago, it is pertinent to us every day. In our quest to be more like Jesus, let us be mindful of who we exclude based on different set of beliefs or behavior, and learn to love outrageously to the point of being excluded for the love we show.

Next we will look at what it means to go after the lost sheep.

To Find you I will lose Everything

Wisdom of a shepherd part 4

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story. “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.-Luke 15:1-7 (MSG)

       The last place on earth you would want to be by yourself is in the wilderness. Aron Ralston knows this all too well. If you remember, he became famous in the movie 127 Hours, retelling his survival story as an outdoor enthusiast on a day’s adventure through the canyon of Utah. While negotiating the precarious precipices he slipped and fell into an opening, dislodging a large boulder, trapping his arm beneath it. Realizing no one could hear him calling for help, Aron used a pocket knife to try and chip away at the boulder, and as time passed it dawned on him he might not make it out alive. Without giving too much away his freedom would come at a huge price.

…….Because of the scarcity of food, very few  wandering preys survived the attack of predators lurking in the shadows. To make matters worse, one will experience near freezing temperatures at night and sweltering temperatures in the high noon day. Needless-to-say, surviving in the throngs of such a perilous environment is not as easy as it sounds. This became a reality for one sheep who, after wandering off a distance from the safety of its flock found itself in this dreaded and dangerous place.  

You Deserve It

…….The barren land was not simply devoid of growing possibilities, it carried some ominous connotation. The Jews believed the devil made his residence in the desert. It was there that venomous snakes were sent after the disobedience of the children of God (Numbers 21:6). Many rabbinic writings point to the scapegoat, the second goat in the ceremony of the Atonement in Leviticus 16:6-8, as the personification of all wickedness called Azazel. Interestingly enough, this character made his home address in the wilderness

and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

…….If one got lost in the wilderness it was said that he or she deserved it as a form of divine judgment. Whether this is theologically correct or simply a myth steeped in paganism is neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that for the Jews the wilderness was more than just a fruitless plot of land, it was the place where sins, demons, and wickedness go to live. It should not surprise us that it is in the desert that Jesus encountered the devil for an epic mano a mano (Luke 4).

…….Jesus intentionally chose the wilderness as the central location for his parable of the lost sheep. As we have seen in our previous post, the religious leaders became enraged when this righteous rabbi had people of questionable lifestyles eat with him at his table. What we tend to overlook in our modern reading of Scriptures is the very meaning of sharing a meal. Within the Judaeo culture, to share a meal meant a whole lot more than satiating one’s hunger with somebody. For them, reclining at tables with guests meant to enter into a covenant of friendship. From the very moment you dipped your bread in the plate with someone, you became bound to them and them to you in solidarity. This covenant partnership meant that when you are shamed, they are now standing in unity sharing in your shame. When you are successful, they are sharing in your success. When you are hurting, ridiculed, and rejected, they are experiencing the same things alongside you.

…….Because of the significance of meal sharing, and the implication of covenant, one chose his table guests carefully by vetting their social and religious life to make sure none were considered sinners. Pharisees considered tax collectors and prostitutes and  all the disenfranchised to be essentially rejected from the covenant with God. They honestly thought that their lack of religious uprightness and their poor moral choices would be enough for God to cast them into some form of torment and ultimately away from the blessings of being part of Abraham’s covenant. Eating with them would mean that their moral rectitude would be flushed down the toilet as they would now be forever associated with depravity. Is it not funny how a lack of righteous living has the power to defile our fragile religious rectitude?

…….For the religious experts, God cannot look upon sin, which meant He had turned His back on them. It was therefore their objective to eradicate evil from the camp so that the glory of God could once again return to their homeland. Anyone who acted outside of their religious demands was systematically ostracized from the flock of Israel. In this segregated group, one would find sinners, gentiles, pagan worshipers and people so broken that they didn’t fit anywhere. To stay within our theme of sheep and shepherd, these were the “black sheep” believed to carry diseases that could infect the whole herd. That sheep needed to be excluded for the sake of the flock.

…….Religious systems separate based on merits and performances. Those in position of power become the judge and jury and ultimately decide who is included and who is excluded. Nevertheless, what religion had excluded, Jesus came to include.

 

By eating with the disenfranchised, Jesus shared in their plight, He became one with them. He reversed what religion has so successfully done in excluding people.

True religion is caring for the broken by covenanting with them rather than waiting outside the house with a club until they cleanse themselves and become whole. It is therefore not surprising that in order to right what they had done wrong, Jesus used the lost sheep as a metaphor to pierce their hearts and reveal His own compassion for the disenfranchised, the broken, the prostitutes and sinners, the tax collectors and the gentiles, and all who had been excluded.

,,,,,,,In one simple story, The Son of God revealed the nature of a Father who isn’t casting people into torment for failing to uphold every law. And when society casts people in the wilderness amongst danger and loneliness, it is the same Father who leaves the comfort of His own home to join them in their struggle to save and comfort them. He not only went after the excluded, but He lost everything to find them. And when He did, He carry them out on his shoulders, whispering encouraging and strengthening words to nurse them back to life. His heart for the broken cost Him His life, and He was fine with it.

…….It doesn’t matter if we are lost and don’t even remember who we are, or if we think we deserve the torment and pain. We may think that our lack of worthiness made God  distance Himself from us, but the undeniable truth of the Gospel is that  Jesus will continually pursue us in our worst days to show that the Father is fond of us. He will even offer a place at His table to share in our shame, and search for us in the wilderness,  joining us in our struggle until He finds us. For our sake, Jesus the Good shepherd goes into the wilderness to destroy the religious belief that bad things are deservedly brought on by our lack of moral rectitude. He will never forsake us, never abandon us, and never pull away from us when we fail. He will always have a morsel of bread and a cup of wine extended to us for a communion of friendship, even when the religious forces point an accusatory finger at us.

To put it simply, you are invited to eat at his table to share in His reputation. He braved the proverbial wilderness to rescue us from our torment and nursed us back to health. He rejoiced over us.

 

 

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/demons.html

Lost and Found?

Wisdom of a Shepherd part 3

You can read part one and part two here

“It’s strange how much is revealed when we are lost”

aaaaaLost and found; every store, every public facility, every church, every hotel has one. Often located somewhere behind a counter one can find all kinds of goodies in the lost and found. From umbrellas, travel mugs, Bibles, notebooks, cellphones, to some of the more exotic items too awkward to mention. Some items found their way in the lost and found by people who left them behind. Others stay in there because items aren’t that valuable. On the other hand, one will go through tremendous hurdles to get back billfolds, cellphones, car keys, and wedding bands.

aaaThe feeling rising up from within is so overwhelming that anything around is but a blur. One is on a mission to find whatever one has lost and nothing will do until the elusive item has been found. In many cases, the more important the object, the more intense the search. Finding what has been lost takes precedent over everything else. Now, there is a difference between losing something and being lost. But who are the lost? This is probably what people wondered when Jesus talked about the lost sheep.

aaaaaIt was precisely at a table that Jesus began to tell the story of a shepherd who had one hundred sheep but one got lost. Jesus was quite fond of eating with people from all walks of life. He was especially fond of the disenfranchised, the rejects of society, the sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. The latter group was considered to be a lost cause by Jewish standard. We all know people who keep falling back in the treacherous ways of any form of addiction that they have been considered lost causes by our society. Such was the case of the Tax collectors in Galilee. These guys were not your typical IRS agent knocking at your door to audit you. These Jews had abandoned their faith all together and had defected to the Roman Empire. They left their heritage as sons of Abraham for the lucrative business of excising taxes from their Israelite brothers. Rome was an expensive war machine that could only be sustained by imposing heavy burdens on the conquered countries. To do so, Rome offered large sums of money to anyone willing to turn their back on their countrymen for the purpose of taxation.

aaaaaOnce you became a tax collector, you would be guaranteed a high salary, nice abode, and nice clothes, but with all the benefits of such a high paying job came the disgust from your own. You were a traitor, a vile individual who sold his soul to the tyrannical empire for the sake of riches. Not only were they getting rich by their salary but since Tax collectors were so despised by their own, it was quite natural for them to skim some of the taxes for themselves. Rome knew it and was okay with it since no one wanted to do their job. They were the miscreants of the Jewish culture, the cockroaches in someone’s house. Even the thought of touching one of them would send shivers down anyone’s back. So to sit and eat with them was the ultimate offense. Eating and drinking wasn’t an activity simply meant to satiate natural hunger. To eat and drink with people was the quintessence of covenant friendship, therefore one would choose wisely who was at the table with him. Yet, Jesus must have failed to notice who was sitting with Him, or did He?

aaaaaJesus had an untoward tendency to have the disenfranchised at His table. It was exactly at this table that the pharisees, the self-proclaimed guardians of the law, pointed out to Jesus his disregard for the unspoken societal rule.

“By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends” Luke 15:1-2 MSG.

       Had Jesus been sensible enough, or prophetic enough, He would have known not to eat with them. After all, in their minds God didn’t sit down with sinners. But Jesus was not the image of their own god, He was the perfect image and the radiance of the Father (Heb 1:3). Their concept of God separated from humanity was so mingled and grotesque,  that Jesus began to tell them a story.

“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!” Luke 15:4-6 MSG 

aaaaaFor society, sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and the disenfranchised were not welcomed at the table of the ones who pretentiously believed they were accepted in the Kingdom of God. By the way, this is no different than some streams of Christianity who notoriously castigate people behaving differently or believing different doctrines than theirs. They will reject them because they feel they have betrayed the faith. But Jesus would not be conformed to their rules.

aaaaaFor Him, these broken people were not some lost causes one discards because there is no hope. These were the lost sheep who needed to be found. He did not see them differently than the ones who were following Him, in this case the ninety-nine safely in the sheepfold. Jesus made it clear that these lost sheep were His own.

aaaaaTo lose something means that it first belonged. A shepherd is not hunting for sheep wandering on their own in the wild like a cowboy searching for wild horses. No, sheep don’t live in the wild by themselves. Sheep are utterly helpless, they have no sense at all of directions. Unlike cats and dogs who can find their way back home from hundreds of miles away, sheep are not capable of such a feat. They have no means of defending themselves from predators. Sheep more than anything need a shepherd to thrive. Their environment for existing is solely in the presence of a human leading them and caring for them. Their basic needs are met by their caregiver. No one will find wild sheep like the mustangs of the western plains. There is no feral sheep. To be a sheep means you first belong to a shepherd, and as such, if a sheep gets lost the shepherd who owns it has lost what truly belongs to him.

aaaaaWe all have been lost at some point or another. It is quite nerve-racking when we finally realize we have gone so long on our journey in the wrong direction that every tree, every path, every glimmer of light brings more confusion than comfort. That is true when we are by ourselves. What the story of the lost sheep tells us is that in the worse state of lostness, there is always someone who will come and find us because we belong to Him. He will not stop when it gets too difficult or the search is too perilous. Just when we lose our keys to the house or our smart phones, Jesus will not leave a stone unturned, a path untraveled, a ditch unchecked until He finds what belongs to Him, because we matter to Him.

aaaaaJesus is unequivocal about it, the rejects of society are His and therefore He will go and put His life at risk to find what is lost. Our value is not determined by what we have missed or where we have been or how together we have it. We are not losing value when we forget who we are. Our value comes from the life one is willing to give in order to find us. Jesus does not regard lost causes as projects to fix, He values them because they are His own sheep. Whether we are married or divorced, black or white, confused about our identity or secure in who we are, promiscuous for a fleeting expression of attention or a religious devotee, we all are His! He treasures us enough to come after us when we are so lost that the only possible outcome we see is death. His life for our death. What is revealed when we are lost is the love that the Creator has for us to come into our own darkness, braving the dangers to carry us out on His shoulders. The value of a sheep (i.e. our own life) is completely and undeniably wrapped up in the life of the shepherd and not in its own concept of worth.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Wisdom of a shepherd part 2

“Imagine the grief of a passionate God who longs to be Father, Friend and Lover to a people who thinks God is so distant that what they are hearing is the figment of their imagination”

          God speaking to us; is it one of those mystical things only reserved to the initiated or can everybody hear Him? The reality is most of us think we hear God only on special occasions or when we are in desperate situations. There is an underlying idea that God is frugal about His words, that He only speaks to us when He absolutely has to. This idea is reenforced by a seemingly mute God who is more interested in responding to right religious rituals rather than helping us with our daily mundane lives. Add to that the countless religious teachings about a distant God demanding that we come to Him for dialogue and you have a toxic image of a god busy sending earthquakes and  hurricanes to judge people.

But is it so? Is God so bothered by our humanity that talking to us like a friend talks to a friend is a task too great for Him? Or have we been influenced by the idea of a God too holy to care for our lives that we justify our broken dialogue?

The beautiful truth is that God is much more loquacious than we give Him credit for. In fact, John tells us that God is our shepherd, not the kind that sits around all day bothered by the bleating animals. No, God is part of the rare, the good kind of shepherds.

“But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” John 10:2-5 ESV

          There, in this simple story, Jesus destroys every myth and doctrine of separation. The Lord is making a point that He has a voice and He uses it. Note that He didn’t say, “my prophets hear my voice” or “my leaders hear my voice”. What Jesus emphatically says is “my sheep hear my voice”

What is missing from our modern point of view is that being a shepherd isn’t an occupation you pick for the summer. To be a shepherd in the Ancient Near East was not a job like any other, rather it was a lifestyle. Those choosing to raise sheep dedicated their lives for the flock, which meant spending time away from society for long periods of time. Their only interaction was with animals in the field day and night. Shepherds provided care and safety for the flock, and at night they slept next to the sheep to make sure they were protected against predators (I will address that in more details in another post).

Sheep, unlike other animals cannot survive on their own, they are utterly dependent on the shepherd for everything.  The importance of hearing the shepherd’s voice is a matter of life and death to them. But as most of us know, sheep are pretty dumb animals. They aren’t proactive in building strong listening skills. They have more important things to do like grazing fresh tender shoots of grass, and meandering around. The responsibility of communication, and becoming familiar with the shepherd’s voice  rests solely on him.

It was quite normal for a shepherd to give a personal, peculiar pet name for each of his sheep. He even had a special way he would use to speak to each of his lambs from the time they were born, effectively allowing them to know his voice for themselves.

Sheep were notorious for getting lost and the only way a sheep would find the way home was to hear the familiar sound of the shepherd’s voice calling out. For a sheep it was like the lighthouse on a stormy night. It meant safety and direction. It was imperative that the shepherd imprinted his voice to his sheep, and there is no better way to do that than to sing. Yes, that’s right! Shepherds would hum songs while leading them throughout the day. Each intonation acted as a well worn path in the field, leaving a indelible mark in their mind. And this was not a one time event. Remember, sheep are pretty dumb, and as such continuing to speak to them was not only necessary, it was part of the ongoing relationship the shepherd had with his sheep. We could say that the shepherd loved his sheep.

Jesus, like the shepherd, talks to us every day, every night. His voice is continually speaking words of encouragement and love. As much as we have been told that the burden of relationship rests on us, the truth is quite the opposite. God wants to be so relational with us that day after day He speaks His lovingkindness to us even when we ignore Him. The Scriptures even tell us that He sings over us.

“For the LORD your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” Zeph 3:17

          That distant god is not the image of the love and passion of a father, a friend or a love, and especially not of a shepherd. None of us would go a whole day without talking to our children. How much more is the Good Shepherd eager to speak to his own. The Lord is constantly wooing us with his voice like a shepherd would with his sheep. Because we do not truly believe that Jesus talks to us that often, or that He is that into us, we have developed a hearing problem.

If all of us would settle our hearts with the fact that Jesus talks to us all the time, then we would start paying more attention to His voice. Let us be convinced that God is emphatically more personal than we care to imagine. Just look for a moment at parents who have deaf children. Do you think they aren’t making every effort to communicate to their children? In fact, they go through different ways to make sure their children understand them, even to the point of learning sign language for their children’s sake. In the same token, God has been using multiple ways to communicate with us as we have been hard of hearing. Rest assured that He will find a way to make His voice known to us despite the many filters we have layered over our understanding.

You are a Work of Art

Do not look at yourself as a singular cell apart from the whole. No good stories end in the middle,they make sense only when we reach the end. Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 1.33.07 PM

Evaluating our lives in the midst of imperfection and setbacks can be rather challenging. We all face seasons when things just don’t seem to fit, or when plans get thrown out, or when our weaknesses become a tripwire sabotaging our success. But what makes some over-comers, while others just give up and sink in their mistakes? From the moment we are born, we are evaluated according to charts and systems designed to measure ideal weight, head size, length etc… Each milestone in our development is to be compared with averages. Our education rhythms with IOWA, SAT, and GPA. We grow up fighting to be accepted within the confine of societal comparison.  We live in a constant expectation to be a “certain way”. There is a base measure by which we are evaluated, controlled and measured. But what happens when our flaws and hiccups, on our journey to maturity, fly in the face of standards? 

Have you ever stared at a painting in an art museum, mesmerized by the incredible aptitude of a painter to convey emotions, beauty, details and perceptions? A painting is best appreciated from the right distance. A little too far and you miss the awe of standing in front of a work of art. A little too close and you lose the perception. To enjoy a painting you have to be at an optimum distance. In the painting of our life, God sees things as a whole not in a singular brushstroke, or a unique speck of paint within the sum of a painting. God looks at the finished work. If you were to look closer at any painting, what you would discover is that each brushstroke, each single ridge of paint isn’t that perfect or pretty. Those imperfections are often used to decide, and judge the authenticity of a painting. Experts will look at the way paint was applied to a canvas, and how imperfect it looks as a whole to authenticate a newly discovered painting. Counterfeiters, in their effort to copy a famous canvas, will tirelessly remove mistakes in order to remove suspicion. But, a little too perfect and the painting is declared a fraud. Our mistakes, our imperfections are what authenticate our true identity.

Our very first encounter with the Lord comes at the genesis of time, when God comes on the scene as a master craftsman. His very nature is to be an artist, expressing His heart, mind and intentions through the artful things He imagines. He is the one who defines us, not the standards and measurements established by men. Unfortunately, what makes us focused on the little things is the influence of the Law. In our attempts to be perfect, we often use the standards of the Law to measure what we are, and how well we are doing. Have you ever followed a police car, or noticed an officer following you on the road, and suddenly you find yourself checking everything you are doing to make sure you comply with the demand of the law? You could have been traveling for hours completely unaware that you were respecting the driving regulations, but as soon as the marked car is present, your focus switched to how fast you are going, how well you are driving, if you are using your turn signal, and so forth. What happened? The law; that is what happened. When the law is present, we turn our attention to the little details to insure we are doing it right!

With this in mind, we begin to think that to be loved is a matter of how we measure up to the standard instead of being accepted for who we are. To go a step further, we even tend to dislike who we are based on our flaws. In order to step out of this deathtrap, we have to start evaluating ourselves as a whole rather than as specks of paint. Love is not defined by the absence of imperfections but by the choice to cover such flaws, and love beyond perceptions. The right way to evaluate ourselves should be with the One who went to the extent of becoming like us so that we could come into relationship with Him, and be made perfect in Him (2 Cor 5:20-21). The details that we don’t like, the idiosyncrasies, and the imperfections are only reminders of our authenticity. Let’s look at our lives from the right distance, as a whole rather than focused on the tiny things that we missed along the way. The one who created everything big and small, beautiful and less appealing, the majestic flight of an eagle and the creepy bumpy skin of a frog, is the same one who has made us a beautiful work of art in Him (Eph 2:20).