Stories of Comfort and Hope

I Want to Be a Shepherd

The story of Dolly Parton’s life has captured the admiration of people all over the world. She has risen from humble roots to become a wealthy super star who has money and fame. Many of us who are poor and ordinary not only admire Dolly we may wish that we might get lucky and also become rich and famous like her.

But do we really want to be rich and famous? We have all seen that money and fame bring their own set of problems. We have seen countless rich and famous people die young from drug and alcohol abuse. We have seen adoring fans quickly disappear as the next rising star comes along. I am a fan of Dolly but I do not envy her fame and fortune.

In fact I want to be a shepherd rather than a country music super start. I know you think this is pretty crazy especially when you think of what it is like to be a shepherd. Spending a lot of time with dirty, smelly sheep whose odor permeates his clothes doesn’t exactly make the shepherd welcome to other people when he comes to the market place to buy food and supplies. He is going to see lots of people move away from him and give him looks of disdain and disapproval. Kind of reminds me of how the kids from town could smell the kid from the farm because the smell of manure clung to his clothes. Aside from the smell is the skill level involved in watching over the flock. It probably took about a day of on the job training to show the new recruit where the water hole and the pasture were. A staff and a sling to throw rocks in case a wild animal tried to attack the sheep pretty much completed the training and then you were on your own to figure out how to deal with the monotony of watching a flock of sheep graze and chew their cud.

Why would I want to be a shepherd? Why would you want to be a shepherd? Because while they were watching over their flocks by night “Suddenly the glory of the Lord shone around them.”. So many questions come to my mind as I imagine that moment. Why did God send His angels to reveal His glory to these shepherds? Surely there were so many others more rich and famous and important than the shepherds. Surely it should have been the king or the governor or some military hero who would have been more worthy of having God’s glory revealed to him. And that makes me think that this is precisely the point. This is not about worth. It’s about grace. It’s a gift. And if its about grace the way you make that message clear is that you start with the lowest of the low. If this message is for all people then you start at the bottom not the top. In fact the lowest of the low are the people who understand grace more than the high and mighty who mistakenly believe they don’t need grace because they have fame and riches.

I think of this every time I sit with a patient in the hospital and the patient ponders the meaning of his/her cancer diagnosis.  What did I do to deserve this is a question frequently asked?  It’s a question that sounds like why is God mad at me?  Why is He punishing me?  

Contrast these questions with the words of the angels who said God is not mad at you.  He is not punishing you.  He is at peace with you.  In fact this is the sign that He isn’t mad.  You will find a baby wrapped in rags lying in a manger.  You see there is no place so dark or dirty or smelly or dangerous or vulnerable than a baby in a manger. So you can be a patient receiving chemo and your hair falls out and you smell and you hardly recognize yourself in the mirror and you can find out that God is not absent He is present. He is there wrapping His arms around you to help you get through.  All you need is someone to be a shepherd to tell you this news.

I want to be a shepherd so I can sit with a patient in a hospital room and share the glory of the Lord with that patient.  I hope you want to be a shepherd too.  Do you have a friend in a nursing home who is ashamed of how they smell because they have trouble controlling their bowels?  Do you have a friend who feels worthless now that he can no longer hold a position of responsibility?  Do you have a friend that feels changing her baby’s diaper and wiping the snot off his face is demeaning and unimportant?  Do you have a friend whose life has been so disrupted by COVID-19 that they despair if they can survive it and recover from it?  Then you can be their shepherd to let them know that in the dark and smelly and scary place where they are you have the glory of the Lord to share with them.

Bloom Where You Are Planted

Recently I heard a meditation on the subject of peace.  The speaker read from Jeremiah 29:4-7.  In this reading Jeremiah was instructed by the Lord to tell his fellow Jews who were in exile in Babylon to come to peace with their being captives in a foreign land.  He told them to make the best of what they were experiencing.  They should build houses and plant gardens and settle down and get married and raise children.

I’m sure that when the Jews in Babylon first read Jeremiah’s words their first reaction must have been these are the words of a crazy man.  They must have thought we have lost everything that mattered to us.  We’ve  lost our homes, our businesses, and our farms.  We’ve lost our temple, the center of our religion.  We’ve lost our capitol city.  We have been transported to a foreign country.  We are treated like dirt.  We have no opportunities.  We are surrounded by foreign customs and foreign foods.  And now our religious leader is telling us that we should get comfortable with this!  We should embrace this!  As the Jews thought about Jeremiah’s words their instincts were telling them that they should fight their circumstances not come to peace with them.

I think many of us can relate to how the Jews felt in  Babylon.  Some of us have been pretty much in lock down since the COVID epidemic kicked in last March.  We haven’t been able to see members of our families.  We haven’t been able to go out to eat or out for entertainment.  We are getting pretty tired of looking at the four walls and wondering how much longer is this going to go on?  Some of us have lost our jobs and have had to scramble to find something to make a few bucks to keep our heads above water.  We too are wondering how much longer before things ease up and business starts to pick up again?  Some of us have entered the medical world of cancer treatment or some other serious illness that has changed our lives.  We have spent too much time in the hospital or in the doctor’s office or in the clinic and now with visitor restrictions we have found ourselves not able to have a family member at our bedside when we need them the most.  How long is this going to go on?  Each of us in these kind of situations find ourselves in Babylon.  We are in a place we don’t want to be.  We may be scared.  We may be angry.  We for sure aren’t happy about this.  So as God told the Jews in Babylon and He tells us today to go on living, to build houses and plant gardens, to make the most of the opportunities that lie before us, it is a little hard to accept these words.  It’s a little hard not to reply with words of anger or reproach.

But before we do that let’s see if we can let Jeremiah’s words sit in our minds for a moment.  If the Jews would have fought back against the Babylonians and refused to do anything, if they would have gone on strike and refused to work their plots of land, what would have happened?  Either the Babylonians would have sent in soldiers and killed a great number of the Jews, or they would have let them starve to death because they wouldn’t plant crops and till the soil.  In either case the anger and rebellion of the Jews would not have gained them anything positive.  But as the Jews made the best of their situation and became good citizens of Babylon they not only ended up surviving but they began to prosper and the peace they found also blessed the country they were living in.

What happens if we are sitting trapped in our homes going stir crazy because we have so much time on our hands and then we begin to think of what could we do with our time rather than just watching tv or sitting there stewing in our resentments?  What happens when we begin to use our time to write letters to friends and relatives we haven’t heard from in a long time?  What happens when we email or talk on the phone or do a zoom session?  We are only confined by the limits of our minds and our ability to think creatively of how we can still connect with those we love and hold dear.

What happens when we are hospitalized and our health is failing and we begin to realize that maybe our time on this earth may be coming to an end?  We can refuse to accept what is happening to us.  We can curse our fate.  We can put all our energies into fighting to stay alive but then we run the risk of wasting the time we have to address some very important issues.  Then we lose the opportunity to think about those we love and what do we want to say to them.  What important instructions do we want to relay to our children about what we hope for them?  What words of love do we want to speak to our spouse to let them know how much we have appreciated their love and support?

The phrase “Bloom where you are planted” seems to speak to all of us who are in places we never hoped to find ourselves in.  We are like a seed that is blown by the wind.  We wanted to be planted in a fertile garden but we have landed in a garbage dump instead.  We don’t want to bloom and grow in a garbage dump.  But maybe the garbage dump needs the life we can bring.  Maybe our love and our gifts and our talents are needed in the nursing home, the hospital, the community we are confined in.  We’ll never know unless we bloom where we are planted.

So, to all of you who are in exile in Babylon right now I say go on living joyously, fruitfully, and enthusiastically in your present circumstances and let me know if God does prosper your efforts and bring some peace to your hearts.

A Call to Arms

In a recent Gospel lesson from Matthew 10:34 Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law__a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

These words have always challenged me as a christian and as a pastor and a chaplain. I have always thought of Jesus as the epitome of love. He came to reconcile. He came to bring people together. He came to right the wrongs. He came to heal the lame and free those in prison. So when He says, ” I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” it’s almost like getting a pail of cold water thrown in your face. It is shocking to think that if we follow Jesus there will be conflict and warfare in our own families. Surely if we as parents teach and act with love toward our children they will receive it and not rebel against it. Surely we should not expect them to resist the love and the truths we are imparting to them.

In light of father’s day which we celebrated yesterday and in light of the demonstrations and protests we have seen calling for racial equality and justice before the law Jesus’ words have taken on new meaning for me which I would like to contemplate with you and that is how challenging it is to impart life’s lessons to those who are under our care.

Because of father’s day and my mind taking me back to my childhood growing up on a farm I want to share how things went between me and my father as he tried to teach me some things he thought I needed to know and embrace if I was going to turn out to be someone who wouldn’t just take up space but contribute to the betterment of the human race. 

What I remember is that the teaching started early and consisted of much repetition.  There were no excused absences and no acceptance of whining and protesting.  It didn’t matter if was dark and cold outside and my bed was warm and I was still tired.  When dad called up the stairs that it was time to get up and do chores I got up.  I wasn’t happy about it.  I didn’t want to fill the chicken feeders with ground feed and gather the eggs.  I didn’t want to feed the pigs and fill the manure spreader with their waste.  I was able to hold a pitch fork and lift it high enough to get the manure into the spreader so I qualified for the position of chore boy.  I also was old enough to walk the soy bean fields and chop off the volunteer corn.  I was old enough to recognize that cockle burrs and thistles were weeds and so they got pulled out as I walked my rows.  Eighty acres or more, a half mile from one end to the other, on the hottest days of June and July, I walked with my father and my mother and my sister so that dad could later drive by his fields and see nothing but lush, green soybeans.

Dad and I did not have loud arguments or knock down drag out fights about why do I have to do all of this work and have so little fun in my life compared to some of my city cousins.  But there was resentment and unhappiness on my part as I saw him as a taskmaster and a man I couldn’t seem to please no matter how hard I tried.  It contributed to my decision that I would seek a different vocation in my life that wouldn’t involve walking bean rows and pitching manure.  At that time in my life the lessons dad was teaching were not received with thanks or understood in terms of their importance.  The idea that you have to have discipline in order to reach long terms goals, you have to get up every day and do the work, you have to till the soil and plant the seed and cultivate the crop if you want a harvest, were lessons that passed me by because I saw the work and not the reward of what hard work can bring to a person’s life.

But as I grew up and went off to school I found the discipline and determination to finish a job that I learned on the farm helped me master my studies and not mind the demands placed upon my time when I became a parish pastor and later a chaplain.  I saw that whether we are farmers or pastors or any other calling the majority of our hours are spent tilling, planting, cultivating and if God blesses our efforts a harvest greater than we had hoped for.  But the moment that stands out for me above all others in regards to my father was the day shortly before I graduated from the seminary when dad had a severe heart attack while planting corn.  As I drove four hundred and fifty miles in a driving rain storm not knowing if he would be alive when I got there I knew how much I loved this man and how much he had taught me that I hadn’t realized until that moment in time.  When I came into his hospital room and saw how pale and weak he was it almost broke my heart.  He looked at me and said, ” I didn’t think you would come.”  The more I think about that statement the more I wonder how much did the tension that was between us in my young years rest on my father’s heart as he hoped that someday that tension would dissolve and I would see that all the tough lessons he taught me was because he loved me.  That was the moment where dad and I truly loved each other and I began to see what a wonderful teacher he had been in shaping my life.

As I think about my own life as a father and all the conflicts I had with my children in doing their chores and finishing their lessons for school and doing their paper routes there was often whining and resistance and I often knew I was not loved and appreciated by my children.  They didn’t jump up and down and plead for me to teach them the hard lessons of discipline and determination.  But when I woke up from my near death experience this last January and I saw my children standing around my bed I could see the love they had for me and like my father I saw that conflict with children is inevitable but if we can stick it out it will turn into love and appreciation.

This makes me think how important it is at this time in our society to see the importance of family.  It has never been more important for fathers and mothers to be strong parents who withstand the resistance of their children to learn the lessons of life so that when our children finally grow up and see what we were trying to do we can pass from the conflict to a place of peace and love.  I am in support of racial equality and equal justice before the law but I also want to join with all my brothers and sisters of every race in answering the call to arms that is required of every parent who want their children to become all that God wants them to be.