Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lay Down

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? (1 John 3.16-17)

Hard-Edged Realism

Sunday’s texts feature two beloved passages: Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”), along with John 10.11-18 (“I am the Good Shepherd”). And it fascinates me that the shepherd metaphor continues to resonate all these centuries later, even though very few of us have any real experience with sheep. The closest I’ve ever got to one is at a petting zoo and, frankly, I don’t recall much of what that was like, as sheep are by nature rather dull. They’re docile and, from what I’ve read of them, dim-witted. They rely entirely on their keepers for survival. They exhibit no knack for finding pasture on their own—no sense of direction—and the herd mentality that holds other grazing animals together isn’t evident in them. Without a shepherd to guide and corral them, sheep are as good as dead. So it mystifies me that we romanticize poems and parables that cast us as clueless, vulnerable livestock wholly dependent on our Keeper.

Even for those of us with first-hand experience tending sheep, what we know bears little resemblance to what David and Jesus speak of. In ancient times, shepherding is a nomadic trade. Flocks travel wherever the shepherd goes. There are no farms, barns, and fenced pastures. After settling in a meadowland, the shepherd fashions a makeshift pen to ward off predators and prevent the lambs from wandering off in the night. In place of a gate, the shepherd lays down in the enclosure’s opening, as the first line of defense to shield the flock from harm. By filling the gap, the shepherd not only denies easy access for predatory attacks and keeps the sheep from going astray; he safeguards the fold from marauding bandits. Willingness to sacrifice personal comfort and safety for the sheep’s sake is the mark of a good shepherd, as Jesus explains in John 10.11: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In turn, the sheep’s trust in him is what David describes in Psalm 23.4: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for You are with me.” Laying down his life is the key to the good shepherd metaphor. It introduces an element of danger that gives the poetry hard-edged realism. Harsh truth slices through the pastoral mist.

The Loving Thing

The good shepherd risks his life for his sheep because they are his livelihood. The keeper-flock relationship is symbiotic, driven as much, if not more, by pragmatism as by mutual affection. Sheep can’t live without their shepherd; a shepherd can’t live without his sheep. There’s a primal bond between them that defines their roles and secures their wellbeing. And this serves as the foundation when 1 John 3 invokes the shepherd metaphor, saying, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us.” What John does next is very interesting. He places us in the shepherd’s position. “And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (v16-17)

Let’s try to unpack this. John begins by highlighting our Shepherd’s love. Christ’s sacrificial death becomes the paradigm of compassion, echoing Jesus’s definition of supreme love in John 15.13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Because we’ve been blessed to know the greatest of all loves, John says we ought to lay down our lives for others. It’s the loving thing to do—to provide for and protect those who travel beside us, to do everything we can, risking our very lives if need be to safeguard them from predators, thieves, and going astray. What’s more, John ups the ante, calling us to go all in. As recipients of God’s great, unconditional love, we can only witness it by loving extravagantly and selflessly. And here is where John flips the switch, turning our attention from the metaphor’s romance to recognize its pragmatic principle. Willingness to lay down our lives guarantees that those in need won’t go without. God’s love in us opens the way; God’s goodness to us provides the means. John constrains us to emulate our Good Shepherd and then ingeniously simplifies laying down one’s life into a two-question sequence. What do they need, and what have we to give? If only it were as simple as he makes it sound.

How Can We?

In John’s era, material poverty was a major concern. For a large portion of society, depending on kindness was the best hope of survival. Tragically, millions today are in no better stead. Yet for the vast majority of us, the poverty crisis plays out on emotional, moral, and spiritual planes. In obtaining more worldly goods than any generation before, many surrender more of themselves than their ancestors could possibly imagine. While people and things they value engulf them, they’re hollow inside. They feel miserably alone and undervalued. Though pride blinds them from seeing it, they’re in dire need of help. Their lives are riddled with gaps. They’re vulnerable to predators who prey on their emotions, thieves who rob them of moral integrity, and dim-wittedness that causes them to wander into the night. They need someone to lay down their lives for them, and we have it in us to do that.

We’ve been drawn into a symbiotic relationship—not only as sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd, but also as good shepherds given responsibility for other sheep. The conviction in John’s question—“Can we see people in need and refuse to help?”—should ring in the depths of our beings. Can we see lives at risk and not risk our all for them? Can we ignore huge gaps that need to be filled? Can we pull away and rest easy while others remain easy prey for predators, thieves, and misguided impulses? The unequaled love abiding in us would say, “No, you can’t. You must lay down your life.”

Because of the Good Shepherd’s love for us, we too become good shepherds willing to lay down our lives for endangered sheep around us.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Regression Lesson

When Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mark 10.14)

Alive and Aware

Alison Gopnik is an Oxford-trained psychologist, philosopher, and self-avowed materialist—meaning she subscribes to “the theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena” (American Heritage Dictionary). Although we risk over-simplifying both her psychological research and philosophy of life, it’s not inaccurate to say Dr. Gopnik views the more ephemeral aspects of faith—its transcendence, the sense of God’s presence in our lives, the need to reconcile one’s being with divine will, and so on—with a healthy dose of skepticism. Yet her findings nonetheless open to us a profoundly moving window that can illuminate how we approach faith.

Dr. Gopnik’s primary field of study focuses on child learning and development. And what she’s discovered is riveting. Immediately upon entering the world, infants and youngsters exist in a perpetual state of newness and wonder. Every moment is like “first love in Paris,” she says. “Every step is sky-diving; every game of peek-a-boo is like discovering Einstein’s theory.” Brain scans of babies and toddlers reveal constant incandescence, as their neurons blaze with curiosity and eagerness to apprehend the world around them. In contrast, adult scans evidence long stretches during which thought and perception register nothing new. As we age, it appears we increasingly lapse into autopilot, leading Dr. Gopnik to suggest grown-ups spend large portions of their waking lives in a state of relative unconsciousness. It turns out our assumption that little ones are oblivious to life’s joys and challenges couldn’t be more wrong. Our children are supremely alive and aware.

Such as These

In Mark 10, people bring their children to Jesus, asking Him to bless them. The disciples reproach them, just as we would expect, since youngsters in ancient times are discounted as society’s least. They have nothing to contribute—no wisdom or experience, no means of productivity, and no way to help ensure a family’s stability. Indeed, they’re seen as liabilities. They may be loved. They may not. Either way, they're not worth much to anyone until they reach adolescence. And in the hardscrabble daily existence of first-century Palestine, survival is hardly a given. So while we bristle at the disciples’ dismissal, they neither mean no harm nor are they out of line. If anything, they’re showing Jesus respect as an eminent Rabbi. Which is why He surprises them by welcoming the very young.

And we should be highly cognizant of what’s going here; because there’s more to it than the “Jesus-loves-the-little-children-of-the-world” photo op that many paint it to be. This is not a campaign stop, with Jesus kissing babies and patting tykes on the head. It’s not a polite gesture meant to flatter their parents. Jesus turns the situation into a teaching moment to say something vital about us. Read His response carefully: “Let the little children come to Me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (v14) The kingdom of God belongs to childlike believers. Jesus is so emphatic about the required state of mind of “such as these” that He spells it out in the next verse: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Now we can settle for the broad strokes of His message to us, saying, “Yeah, yeah, we get it: we should be humble, innocent, trusting, etc.” But Dr. Gopnik might encourage us to reconsider. In light of her research, when Jesus instructs us to approach faith in a childlike fashion, He’s telling us to become alive to everything around us—to remove the scales from our eyes, unstop our ears, unblock our emotions, and enter God’s kingdom as if we’re discovering the world God has given us for the first time. In essence, Jesus turns a socially unpleasant situation into a regression lesson.

Natives of God’s Kingdom

The power of newness is not news. It resounds throughout Scripture, starting with the Creation and continuing throughout Jesus and the Apostles’ linkage of faith with re-Creation. Numerous times we hear God speak through psalmists and prophets, saying, “I’m doing something new!” Jesus defines a faith-led life as new birth. In 2 Corinthians 5.17 we find Paul’s famous proclamation, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And since these words are spoken to us, we’re apt to apply them only to us. But I think we miss a huge part of the message by not expanding its principle to the world at large. Re-Creation invites us to respond anew to the world and people around us—to allow the film of old ideas and perceptions to dissolve so that we may reenter our lives with fresh insights and curiosities. Foregone conclusions are gone. Prejudices and presumptions are preempted. Jaded attitudes and reactions lose their luster.

We are, first and foremost, natives of God’s kingdom, born with a glorious aptitude for grace that enables us to wonder at all we encounter, never pausing to get hung up about where it comes from. For children, beauty is beautiful. Joy is joyous. Meanness is mean. Sadness is sad. They don’t linger to attribute their wonder to others’ largesse or cruelty. They don’t shape their world to meet expectations. And they most certainly don’t take the burden of its hardships upon themselves. That’s why children are so extraordinarily resilient. Their incandescence happens within, as they light up by viewing every experience as something altogether new. Dr. Gopnik says while we work our way through life, children create their lives with play and openness to what they’re given. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these, Jesus says. Regressing is an act of faith that releases new, re-creative faith.
As children of God’s kingdom, we view the world through wide-eyed wonder.

Podcast link: