Wanted: Shepherds and Laborers

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Sheep do not have much in the way of defense mechanisms. They can run, they can climb steep hills, and they can gather in a circle (so it is harder for a predator to single them out). That is it. Domesticated sheep require care and attention in order to survive. Unattended they are prone to infections, parasites and predators. They need to be shepherded or they will die.

As Matthew 9 closes, Jesus looks on the crowds that are following him and is reminded of sheep without a shepherd. The were described as “harassed and helpless.” Other translations say the people were “confused and helpless” or “distressed and dispirited.”

When sheep are fearful, threatened or distressed their instinctive response is to gather together for safety. I wonder if it was the sight of the gathered crowds that triggered the analogy in Jesus’ mind. The people who were following Jesus, who formed the mob in His wake, were the common folk. Under worldly oppression from the Roman Empire and its soldiers and spiritually oppressed by religious leaders who told them they were unworthy of God’s blessing because they did not keep the law as they should, they gathered together and followed after Jesus.

They were a needy bunch. A review of the gospel accounts reveals that they were constantly pursuing Jesus, seeking healing, teaching and miracles. So desperate were they that on more than one occasion they did not remember to take food with them when they followed Jesus, forcing Jesus to miraculously feed over 4000 people.

Demanding, needy people can be annoying. It is easy to look at them and think they should be smarter and better. To conclude that they should plan better, prepare better, and take better care of themselves. I have often felt this way when confronted with particularly needy people, sometimes asking myself, “Why are people so ________” (Insert derogatory term here)

Jesus did not do this. When he looked at the needy people He saw them differently than I do. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd, as people in need of guidance, care and direction, people burdened and threatened by the world, gathered together in search of safety, in search of a savior.

Because Jesus saw them in this way his response was different than the one that has characterized me too often. I get annoyed, Jesus was moved with compassion. Deep inside his being, the plight of the people moved Him. It moved Him in a way that led Him to turn to his disciples with a specific request. He asked them to pray that God would raise up workers, workers who would reach out to the crowd and invite them into the kingdom of God. Their downtrodden state, instead of being a cause for dismissal was evidence that God was working in their lives and preparing their hearts to hear the Good News. Jesus saw this.

Jesus, who taught that it was the Poor in Spirit to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs, reminded his disciples that these people, poor and distressed and helpless, had been brought to a place where they could receive that kingdom.

This discussion from my men’s study led me to a simple and clear conclusion. I need to see the world like Jesus does.

Bart

There are no Steps to Success or Happiness

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As with most people, I like clear directions. Tell me the steps to take and the boxes to check in order to achieve success and happiness and I will follow them. Unfortunately for me (and everyone else) life does not work that way.

This has not stopped people from trying. A quick search on Amazon for “steps to a happy marriage” results in books declaring marital bliss can be achieved in 4,5,7,8,9,10,12 or 50 steps. (Why would anyone would pick the 50 step process over the 4 step process?). Christian pastors have apparently imbibed the same Kool-Aid, as a Google search for “Sermon steps to a happy marriage” yielded links to sermons declaring 4,5,7,8,10,12, and 17 steps to happiness.

The tendency to search for a secret formula, the hidden recipe, or the magic steps seems to be deeply ingrained into human nature. Which is what made our study of Matthew 9 this last week so surprising. As we reviewed the actions of Jesus described in the passage it became clear to us- Jesus did not follow a process, He did not check boxes. He had a clear mission, but he did not have a set process for carrying it out.

Several healings are described in the passage. A paralyzed man, a dead girl, a hemorrhaging woman, two blind men and a demon oppressed mute boy. For two of them, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well”, for the other three, no reference is made to their faith at all. Three of them are healed with a touch, the other two are not. Two of the healings occurred because the sick ones personally sought Jesus out, the other two the seeking was done by someone else on their behalf.

This seems to be characteristic of Jesus. There are several instances in which Jesus is described as healing blindness. In Matthew 9, the blind men called out to Jesus, and followed him, calling out to Him and asking for mercy. It seems that Jesus just kept walking, and that the men ultimately followed Jesus into the house where he was staying. It was only then and there that the men were healed. On another occasion, a blind man called out in the same fashion as Jesus passed by. That time Jesus stopped, acknowledged the man, spoke to him and healed him on the spot.

Similar examples abound in the New Testament. As we discussed the lack of pattern in Jesus’ actions we came to the conclusion that it seemed Jesus was intentionally varying his approach. In so doing he made it impossible for people to put their faith in a process. There is no set behavior that resulted in Jesus responding. The gospel accounts make it clear, it is the person, Jesus, who matters, not a process.

This is a lesson we all need to learn. We need to focus on Jesus, not on process. As my friend John joked Tuesday morning. “If we took away of the books in the Christian bookstore that offered check boxes and processes, the only book left would be the Bible!”

Bart

This is the third post in a series based on insights from my weekly Men’s Bible Study group. Faith based posts are typically shared midweek (this one was a little late), non-religious posts on the weekend. If you want to receive these posts in your email, click on the subscribe link on the page. Comments are always welcomed.

In

Do You See Who Jesus Sees?

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Matthew was a tax collector. He made his living by taking money from his fellow Jews and giving it to the Romans. To be more specific, if he was like other tax collectors he made a living by taking more than required from his fellow Jews, giving the required amount to Rome and then keeping the extra for himself. It is not a stretch to assume that he was not a well-liked man.

Tax collectors were despised by the religious leaders, considered unworthy. Which makes Jesus’ choice of Matthew to be one of his 12 closest disciples remarkable. Why would Jesus pick him? Didn’t Jesus know Matthew’s history?

There can be no doubting that Jesus knew. Matthew was sitting in his tax collection booth at the moment Jesus called to him and told Matthew to become one of his followers! Why would Jesus do this?

The Bible does no specifically answer this question but in Matthew’s account of this interaction, found in Matthew 9:9, there may be a clue. Look at how Jesus’ actions are described-

“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.” Matthew 9:9 ESV

Take note of what Jesus is described as seeing. “A man called Matthew.”

Jesus saw Matthew as first and foremost a man, not as a tax collector. It appears that to Jesus, Matthew was a man who happened to be a tax collector, not a tax collector who happened to be man. I think this is how Jesus sees everyone. He sees us as people, created in the image of God, deserving of love, and he desires to enter into relationship with us. What we have done is insignificant when compare to who we are.

Jesus’ attitude was the polar opposite of the attitude of the religious leaders of that time. We see in the passage (and a parallel passage in Mark 2) that after calling to Matthew Jesus went to a dinner at Matthew’s home. They were joined there by several of Matthew’s friends. See how the pharisees described the members of Jesus’ dinner party-

“And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Matthew 9:11 ESV

It seems that the pharisees saw the men and evaluated their worth first and foremost on their past actions, not on their humanity. Their judgmental attitude led to their judgmental response.

Makes me stop and think about how I look at people. When I look at others, what is the first thing I see? What do I see as their identifying characteristic?

If I want to be a follower of Jesus, I need to first see their inherent value as people, created in the image of God and worthy of love.

-          Bart

This post is one in a series of midweek posts based on lessons learned from my weekly men’s bible study. Other posts on non-religious topics are usually shared on weekends.

               

In

A Tale of Two Lives

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It has been a week for remembering.

In my Wednesday morning men’s group one of the young men shared stories about his grandmother who recently died from cancer. He had been raised by her, lived with her when his father was in prison while he was a child. She taught him about right and wrong, about what it means to be a person of faith. “If it isn’t in the Bible, I probably don’t know much about it,” was one his favorite grandma quotes.

She had been a source of strength and guidance for him, a constant presence of hope and faith. He told us of going through her things and finding the book in which she wrote her prayer list. The book was thick, its pages filled with handwritten names, many of whom he did not even know. Her passing meant there was now one less person praying for him every day.

Three days later I attended a memorial service for a patient, Mr. M, who had been my patient for 8 years. At his second visit I diagnosed him with a large melanoma. Within a week a surgeon removed it and for the next five years it seemed to be gone. The cancer was seldom mentioned when he came to the office. (He had a back that went out on him a few times a year, so I saw him often.)

Our conversations frequently drifted away from the medical. We talked of golf, family and work, and developed a mutual respect and friendship. We believed the cancer was in his past and that the future would be cancer free. That belief was shattered 2 years ago when a different kind of pain appeared in his ribs. An MRI scan revealed that the melanoma had invaded the vertebrae in his upper back as well as several of his ribs. It was a battle he could not win.

I sat in his service and listened as his best friend told stories of how they had met 20 years earlier and of the close friendship that followed. He spoke of the laughter, meals and motorcycle rides they shared,  and how ultimately they came to share faith in God. Mr. M’s brother-in-law shared how Mr. M had encouraged him in life and business, how he never would have achieved what he had without his input. His daughter spoke last, reading a letter she had written to her father a few weeks before he died. Through tear-filled eyes she described a man of love, dedication, strength and integrity. It was a lovely service. My eyes did not stay dry.

My patient and the grandma never met, but as I reflect on their stories I am confident that they will. The grandma lived a life of faith, daily serving God as best as she could. She died with the assurance of an eternity with Him. The patient traveled a different road. For much of His life he did not give God much thought. It was only in the last year of his life that he turned his attention to spiritual things. Nevertheless, in  the months before he passed he came to share the same faith as the grandma and the same assurance of eternity. They died within days of one another, brother and sister, adopted by the Father they were going home to meet.

Their stories move me. They remind me of both the transience and the importance of this life. My time here on earth will be brief, and may be over before I know it. Even though my days on earth will be few, the potential for me to have an impact on others is great. Like them, I want to live my life in a way that makes a difference.

- Bart

 

God and Blood Pressure

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His blood pressure was higher than it had ever been. There had been no changes in his medications nor any changes in his overall health, so I asked him if there were any life situations that might be impacting his stress levels.

“I am under a lot of stress right now,” he said. “I am going to be retiring next month and I am really worried about it.”

He was 70 years old and his career as a salesman had been successful. As his retirement seemed both earned and due, I asked what about his exit from the workforce he was worried about. The main source of stress for him was a common one for men in his circumstances. He did not know what he was going to do with himself. He had always lived a life of purpose, but his purpose had always been work-centric. Without work he had no goals, no objectives, no goal for which he could strive.

“Are you a religious person?” I asked, “are you a part of a faith community?” I explained that many people find purpose in serving others. As a man of character and integrity it seemed that mentoring others might be something he could do.

To my surprise he seemed less interested in my mentoring suggestion than he did in my question about faith, for this was what he addressed in his response. “I have never been into organized religion,” he explained, “but I am a very spiritual person.” He shared that he had been raised Jewish but that he was “very interested in Jesus of Nazareth” and that he had been to the Holy Land several times. He spoke of being in Galilee and on the mount where Jesus’ gave the Sermon on the Mount and other meaningful moments from his travels.

I wish he had not arrived late for his appointment that day, for this was one of those “non-medical” conversational detours that I wish I could have followed further. I could not continue the conversation further, but this did not keep me from later wondering if there wasn’t a connection between his fear of retirement and his non-specific faith. When he spoke of “God” he spoke of a “being”, but not of a person, of someone who was “there” but not of someone who was near. His faith was a hope for something but did not include a belief in a specific something or someone. It seemed his faith lacked definition and as a result lacked purpose. He did not have a specific “who” or “what” kind of faith and as a result he did not have a “why” for the rest of his life.

His blood pressure revealed that lack of purpose and meaning is not without consequences. His readings had previously been normal, it was only when retirement became real that they started to rise. There is comfort in having an understanding of our place in life, and of our place in the next one, and unease and stress associated with lacking a sense of who we are and where we are going.

His concerns reminded  me of a common Christian saying, “I do not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.” There is peace in knowing that God has a purpose, even when his purposes are not known. Peace it seems, and for some perhaps, lower blood pressure!

-          Bart

Thanks for reading and for sharing with others. Comments and questions are always welcomed.