Shepherds and Pastors

I kept a flock of Shetland sheep for ten years. I got out of shepherding reluctantly, for the good of my remaining sheep. We intend to start a new flock this spring, here on the croft. We will keep a couple of goats for milk and kids, but I believe at heart I am really a shepherd, not a dairy maid.

I learned, as a shepherd, that when Jesus told his shepherd parables, He knew what He was talking about. I wonder if His growing years were spent in the Galilean hills, working with family who were shepherds. It wasn’t an unusual event in a boy’s life then. While shepherds had sort of a rough reputation in first century Palestine, that applied to hireling shepherds, men without resources, who would work for a few pennies a month, along with rough barley bread and rougher beer.

I don’t know if it is evolution (probably not) or cultural training (most likely) but humans respond to lambs very strongly. Humans are naturally attracted to and protective of neo-nates (newborns) of mammal species; it’s the squished up face and big eyes. Lambs, though, seem to be especially winsome. Our species have been keeping company for 10,000 years or more, so it is no shock to realize that humans and sheep have many good traits in common.

I know that the modern political attitude is to compare people to sheep in an unflattering way, but a shepherd sees it differently. Sheep aren’t stupid, or identical, or blind followers. Nor are humans, really. One trait sheep and humans have in common, though, is a need to gather, and find a leader of sorts.

Sheep may be smarter about that than humans. Sheep are never influenced by how pretty another sheep’s fleece or face is; they are not swayed by the vocal prowess of another sheep; they don’t care how many of the other sheep like one certain sheep. Sheep have a need for a leader in the flock who can find food and water, who senses danger, and who can remember how to get to the safe and warm places. That leader sheep also must have a strong parenting instinct and recognize the lambs of its own flock.

Maybe sheep are smarter than people that way. We are too easily beguiled by promises. You can’t promise to animals – they don’t have a future tense in their language. We are apt to follow the person with the friendliest smile, the most flattering words, the ones who give us a sense that we are special while the other people are fairly wrong-headed and even damned. Sheep don’t have a concept of damnation. If they have a concept of salvation, it is probably a lot like, “Green grass, clean water, cool shade, every day.”

I can stand amongst the flock and say, “I have a vision for your future!” and they will go on eating the same good grass. If I fail to keep them in good grass, they will look elsewhere. It would take Sing-Sing to keep a flock in if they really want out. They push, dig and jump. They stay where they are fed well, or they are gone.

Think of that as an analogy for the church and its leaders. Sheep can’t be bribed with doughnuts and sweets. They get tired of that pretty quickly, and will not make a diet out of it. Entertainment might get their attention for a little while, until they realize that it isn’t connected in any way to getting fed. They are interested in the basics of life – food, water, shelter. If pastors thought more like shepherds, I think their flocks might be coming around the old barn more often.


How Long O Lord?

I probably put my foot in my mouth very recently, in a brief discussion about what to expect from a new parish.

“If they are not prepared to do mission,” I said, “then the rector is there just to start shutting it down.”

It sounds, now, as if I have no patience. This is true.

I certainly do not have patience with “keep the homefires burning” churches. They aren’t interested in fulfilling the Great Commisssion; they are interested in maintaining the status quo. And I am so not status quo. I am also so not take-it-easy, get-concensus. I’m not. Just know that.

But can it be changed? I think so; it’s happening all the time. The Holy Spirit is moving through the churches, lighting new fires. It will be up to ministers, priests, and church leaders to fan that flame and feed the fire.

I’ve said previously that the churches must take on mission. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned. The church is cool water in the desert, literally as well as figuratively.

Expect this, parish-to-be: I will change things. I will shake things up. I will challenge the status quo.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to give you some new liturgy, introduce a new hymnal or change the hour of worship. I might, but that is the least of my concerns. What I will do is redirect your energy, away from maintaining the building and the structure and into making change in the world, into feeding and healing and clothing and visiting. There’s only one reason for doing that, though.

Jesus told us to. He wasn’t polite about it. It was a commandment: If you follow Me, He said, this is what you will do.

How we do it depends on who we are, where we are and what we have. There’s no formula, no plan, no training course to do this.

We just must do it, and do it now.

If we don’t do these things, all the water of baptism and all the bread and wine on the altar is meaningless. “If you have a quarrel with your brother, leave your offering and go apologize. Then your offering will mean something.” The exploited world has a big quarrel with the exploiters; the have-nots have good reason to demand from the haves. Can we meet Our Lord’s expectations?

There’s no one answer to injustice. Each case is different. But here are my suggestions.

Reduce your consumption by the end of 2010. Sell a car, cut your driving, grow some food or shop locally. Buy nothing new unless you absolutely must. Stay out of shopping malls and big box stores. Dump your television. (Well, send it to recycling.) Don’t go on a travel vacation; stay home and volunteer at a shelter or food bank or training centre.

Set up a regular time for family and personal prayer and scripture study.

Talk to other Christians about how to change things. Organize a food drive or daycare at your church. Raise money for an orphanage in Asia, South America, or Africa. Go door to door collecting unwanted shoes and boots to donate to a homeless shelter. (I know this sounds weird and patronizing, but better that your old Nikes and Hush Puppies get some use before they are completely dried out. Homeless shelters can almost always use good recycled shoes; people without transportation go through them quickly. Call first and ask if they can use them.)

If you change your attitude and how you do things – if you draw closer to the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ sent as our aid and comforter – if you live out the gospel – then many things will change around you. Your family will change. Your neighbours will change. Your church will change. It doesn’t take money, but it wil take prayer, effort and sacrifice.

Mission Credibility

I think I’ve done quite a bit of ministry out in the world. I’ve been overseas on mission three times, served with two inner city missions, and done a lot of fundraising for local, regional and foreign outreach. I think I’ve got mission cred. I’ve even gone door to door in my last parish, to meet the folks and show the flag.

So here’s the question: How come the rest of the church is taken up with missional or emerging church as if it were something new? We are only doing what the apostles did two thousand years ago, and what the regular old Christian in the street did – helped the neighbour, fed the poor, nursed the sick, visited the imprisoned, clothed the naked, (or somewhat naked – I’ve rarely come across someone completely naked in the street.) Is it because the rest of the church, despite the kick in the pants they got as much as forty years ago with the Jesus Movement, is still sitting in the pews, waiting for the Lord to return? That’s a long time to sit without doing anything, and it can’t be good for the circulation.

I’ve been reading John P. Bowen’s book Evangelism for “Normal” People, (Augsburg Fortress 2002). What is “normal” evangelism? Not approaching strangers with “Are you saved?” or handing out leaflets on street corners! It’s living peacefully, helping our neighbours, reaching out to those in need, and generally following Christian principles. It’s taking some risks when people question us about faith. It’s being bold in witness, but in witnessing with love. It’s more that we are farmers for Christ, not soldiers for Christ.

The soldiers of the cross model only works so far. We are to be courageous, strong in faith, and willing to die. But unlike real soldiers, we must not kill. (How often has the church and its followers forgotten that!) Farmers for the cross sounds better, since we’re going to water, fertilize and weed the crops, and help gather in at the great harvest.
Missional church is not new, obviously. I was raised to expect to do that work, part of the Calvinist, evangelical teachings. Emerging churches – those with new ways of being a church – aren’t new either. Sometimes “emerging” churches got suppressed as heresies, even if they weren’t, but others thrived and grew, hence the Protestant movement. Even mainline denominations, if they look at their immediate past, will see major changes at forty, eighty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty years ago. Liturgies get rewritten. New music comes in. The altar is redecorated, stripped, moved. We have nothing to fear from this. It’s part of the growth of the church.

Sometimes we don’t want things to change because we are afraid to wake up from our snooze in the pews. We aren’t paying attention anymore. We come to church on autopilot. We mumble the responses. We even forget responses (why aren’t congregants saying “Amen” anymore?) and the officiant lets us get away with it. As Mother Kay said to one group at a worship gathering recently: “If you don’t say ‘amen’ you aren’t agreeing to it!” “Amen” means “so be it!”

This is missional church: Getting your feet on the street, working with your neighbour, not to give him or her a handout so you can feel superior, but because Jesus told you to do it. Missional church means living out the gospel imperative (Matthew 28:18-20.) It means we are not just Sunday morning Christians, nor are we Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics or Baptists. It means we are “little Christs” here in God’s creation, doing as He instructed us to do. No one said it would be easy; there’s no handle on the cross.

Emerging church is allowing and embracing and welcoming those who feel left out of our timeworn old ways of worship. I love the Book of Common Prayer – I’m an Elizabethan at heart. But you can’t drop people into that liturgy without a little preparation. It will leave them feeling like spectators from another culture, and they are no more likely to come back than if they had visited a Hindu temple with the service in Sanskrit. Our churches aren’t very welcoming. I don’t remember the last time I visited a church – or even after attending for weeks – where anyone invited us to their home. Coffee hour, yes – but that’s a horrid experience if you don’t know anyone, and everyone is divided up into little groups, discussing committee work. And the coffee is often bad. (Note to church coffee committees: Get good fair trade coffee and stop using those old aluminum coffee urns.) Even the place where we have coffee is uninviting – a huge parish hall, cold and stale, with tatty posters on the walls from Sunday Schools gone by. I wouldn’t visit a coffee house that had such decrepit furnishings. Set up a proper coffee corner! Get some comfortable chairs, have some music playing! And talk to the new people first – you can chat with your old friends later. Don’t ever let a newcomer get away without a chat, a cup of coffee, a loaf of fresh-baked bread, and an invitation to dinner. We’re the church. That is our heritage. We welcome people, invite them in, make them one of us.

Witness by example. When newcomers to the church look at (all of) you, they should be able to say,” That’s the kind of person I want to be. That’s someone living out what Christ taught.”