In Ezekiel 34 the Lord’s crosshairs are trained on the shepherds of Israel who have selfishly consumed resources intended for the flock at large, scattering them, causing them to forage for their survival. The shepherds Ezekiel aims at are both civil and ecclesiastical leaders. These rascals were skimming, and they were in huge divine trouble.
However, shepherds, in a kingdom of God sense, are those who have been charged with caring for the inner, eternal lives of men. True shepherds see their mission in Proverbs 4:23: “Watch over the heart with all diligence, for from it flow the issues of life.”
Having been birthed in a church split, nurtured by a para-church, and planted in a community, I have always been the square peg that did not fit neatly into the round hole of organized Christianity. (The two decades between 1992 and 2012 were the rubbing experience which proved this out.) Even today, my heart strains in its attempts to maintain connection in the body of Christ. It is not much fun to be square when one’s greatest felt needs is to fit in.
The experience causes me to think of Jerry Fletcher. He is the paranoid taxi driver in the movie Conspiracy Theory, who is convinced that everything is manipulated by “them.” “Them” happens to be a covert government program gone rogue. Courtesy of them, Jerry is crazy but not completely. Perhaps Jerry comes to mind because his Conspiracy Theory newsletter has 6 prescribers—about the same as In the Middle with Mystery. I too feel the strain of trying to remain connected and not completely crazy.
My sanity and connection-mission has taken me to the scriptures. At face value, they only compound the problem. It is not easy to reconcile the New Testament with the practices and outcomes of our current traditions. However, I have discovered that asking questions about current practices and traditions will draw fire. And, it will not be conspiratorial paranoia you experience. The crosshairs will be trained on you if you raise questions about sanctified ideas like “pastor.”
Since MwM is a subscriber-based newsletter (with a modest readership), it is safer here than in, say, an elder’s meeting, to ask, “Where in the Holy Bible did this idea come from?” The word “Pastor” is not used even once in the New Testament and the plural form is used just once. Yet, “pastor” (or Pastor, in our case) wields the bulk of religious authority within Christendom.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-12
“Pastor” has become the undisputed head of all things Christian. These well meaning men and women do it all. They preach. They lead in prayer. Like CEO’s, they launch construction projects and programs. They collect the tithe to fund their operations. Want to know how many times the tithe is mentioned in the New Testament? Four, and each of them were references to the Old Covenant. I think I just saw a red dot on the wall.
I learned the hard way to not challenge, at least not at close range, the idea of pastor as CEO and the tithe. No, if you want to fit in, it is best to set aside the New Testament example and to continue following hybrid OT/NT theology and customs, which, through practice, have become sacred.
If our traditions were producing New Testament outcomes, perhaps questions would not be in order. Even if we recognized this as a problem, how would one correct it? The remedy would be the equivalent of handing Pastor the saw and asking him to cut off the limb on which he and his staff are perched. The truth is—I love pastors. They are typically bright and well-intentioned people. The sad thing is, as they accept the traditional yoke—which the institution has prepared for them—they must expend massive energy caring for organizations, outsourcing soul care to staff or outside professionals. The corruption can then become: “Watch over the organization with all your heart, for from it flow all the issues of life.”
Beyond administration, Pastor’s other major contribution is the sermon. Pastor is often a gifted orator, so by default, “the sermon” (also a rare NT idea) becomes the main course of most meetings. Sermons are how most pastors believe they are to feed their flock. Think how many sermons are preached each week. Multiply that by how many weeks have passed in your life—or better yet, since Christ’s life. Unless we are in a dispensation of decline, one would anticipate some kind of tipping point toward righteousness if sermons were, in themselves, our sufficient bread. Perhaps true pastors need to teach sheep how to feed themselves.
Questions about pastor, tithes, and sermons are absurd and innapropriate only if we measure ourselves by ourselves and by our traditions. I warned you we were wading into complex and controversial waters.
Here is a true and humbling confession. In raising these questions, I had an outside hope that a true shepherd, from some flock, would come and gather me in. I had dreamed they might see the biblical merit to my questions. I imagined we might provide each other some mutual cover, knowing that changing a culture is nothing short of jihad to traditionalists. This has not panned out. My face is still red with embarrassment at my naiveté.
I don’t relish my squareness, and I would prefer not being shot at it. It is simply not good for man to be alone—or to be full of holes. However, if the cost of achieving these luxuries is abandoning the New Testament or switching off my brain, I must remain here in the mystery with my fellow expatriates, asking questions, exploring the kingdom of God. I have continued to dream however about the Body of Christ in the earth. The following is a supplement for other dreamers with stamina.
Father, raise up shepherds with hearts like yours who will gather us up into safe places, redeeming the dark and gloomy days. May this world see that we are those whom you have gathered, healed, and called. Succeed wildly Lord in this hour with a transformation whereby both you and your bride will be honored in all places and at all times. Amen.
Isaiah is laboring to get a point across. In our six verses he uses two metaphors. In the balance of the chapter he uses at least five more. Why the prophetic multi-metephor campaign? What is he trying so hard to get across? It is that God is supremely great? And what would he like us to know about ourselves?
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever. (from Isaiah 40:6-8)
Get yourself up on a high mountain, O bearer of good news, lift up your voice mightily. (from Isaiah 40:9)
What would motivate us to announce good news from high places when our transience has just been likened to a withering plant? If Isaiah had not also proclaimed God’s compassion, the goodness of this so-called good news would certainly come into question.
“Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed.” (from Isaiah 40:1-2)
Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:11)
In God’s compassion, He makes provision of His own strength to those who are weary and stumbling …
The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary. (Isaiah 40:28-31)
Isaiah has clearly established that, like the grass, we will wither and, like the flower, we shall fade. Even collectively we are nothing more than a drop in a bucket or a speck of dust on the scales. As this earth’s inhabitants, we are like grasshoppers. It is true that when He blows on us we are carried away like stubble. God has made His point and asks;
To whom then will you liken Me? Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, not one of them is missing. (Isaiah 40:25-26)
Just as God can account for every star, how much more will He account for every son and daughter. It is true in one sense, that compared to God we are as nothing, and yet in another, we are the object of His compassion. When Jesus, our Shepherd, reveals the Father, it gets even better – we discover we are also the objects of His affection.
God’s greatness is not meant to crush. Within His glory and majesty, we find ourselves elevated to dizzying heights, as His beloved. This news does not cause us to cower, it cause us to look up into His kind face. That image will anchor our souls and fuel our awe and thanksgiving. Truly the sons and daughters of the kingdom shall be …
those who wait for the Lord and gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.
Father, thank you that you have not come to us in anger but as a gentle Shepherd escorting each of us to safety, in Christ. Thank You that, wrapped in Your strong arms, not one of us will be lost. Thank You that we can live our lives out of Your strength. As the One who has become our life, express your life through us. For Your name’s sake. Amen
Much has changed since these ancient words were written and yet nothing has changed; heart disease is still our leading cause of death. I’m not speaking of the heart that pumps blood through our bodies, rather the heart which is the well spring of spiritual life within us.
In our passage Moses is speaking of Israel’s heart condition as a qualifier to inherit their promised land and the blessings contained in it. When they get their hearts right, the Lord will then gather them and set them up in a place of abundance and prosperity. This sounds good until we see the word “all” – the most dominant word in this passage.
Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)
“All” is an impossibly high bar to clear, isn’t it? It would require a miraculously true heart to obey all the commands. The good news embedded in Moses sermon is the promise of new hearts. He calls them circumcised hearts and from them shall flow life.
Then the Lord your God will prosper you abundantly in all the work of your hand, in the offspring of your body and in the offspring of your cattle and in the produce of your ground. (from Deuteronomy 30:9)
God’s conditional pledge through Moses clearly includes material blessing. Oh how appealing this feature is to us western Christians living inside the American Dream! With this Old Testament promise and the American economic engine, truly all things seem possible. However, if we will see what God has promised in the New Covenant, American dreams of material prosperity should go strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.
Christ is now our life because the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in us. Christians are a new specie of being because the Holy Spirit lives in them. We are the offspring of God. This is a bit larger idea than just getting our souls saved and going to heaven. It means living life now as God’s children and processing everything through this new reality. This is the abundant life Jesus promised. Living out of this reality is the only way to have an all-in life.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.
For a variety of reasons, we still have heart problems. Blinded by the want of material prosperity, we can fail to see the abundance of what we already have, independent of a single dollar. If the Old Testament promise of material blessing is mingled with our dreams, we will not only fail to experience abundance in Christ, we will struggle to even know the adequacy of Jesus Christ. Our problem? We not only want God, we want His stuff.
Even a new heart is not immune from deception and Western culture has it own potent version. With our can-do, American spirit, which has produced more material wealth than any previous nation, we are prone to miss the central point of life – which is Jesus Christ. This Man, this second Adam is our elder brother and the first born of a new race of men. This Man is our life, independent of any of our doing or having. This makes being an all-in follower of Jesus tough when the cultural air you breathe is pregnant with doing and being. However, once our eyes are liberated, we will see these lies embedded everywhere, driving nearly everything … except the kingdom of God.
When doing precedes being, and getting precedes giving, all dreams, both American and Kingdom are dying. Unless the true prophets and apostles rise up and define the Kingdom of God, clearly delineating it from America and any political party, air is rapidly escaping our balloon. I believe the heights to which America has risen as a nation have been courtesy of the Kingdom of God and its eternal values, a reality our nation is now systematically denying.
Is there any hope that we might remain aloft? I believe so but it will not result from a revival of Reagan Republicans or Roosevelt Democrats. If it comes, it will once again be courtesy of God’s grace in Christ, finding expression through God’s children who have been revived to live out of their new hearts. They will be those whose surrender to Christ’s rule, validating it by their self denial, their open handed generosity and their creativity in sharing the abundance entrusted to them. Listen to the second half of verse two, from the song “America” …
America! America! / God mend thine ev’ry flaw, / Confirm thy soul in self-control, / Thy liberty in law.
We have much to pray and think about.
Father, only you know how to raise up children in the Truth. Help us to abandon ourselves to your fatherhood. Thank you for our new hearts. Teach us to live out of them. May Your children be set free, revealing your fullest transformational intentions. Let the world see Jesus reigning in individual hearts, transforming us into His image. Expose our entanglement and detach us from this world. Draw us back to simplicity of devotion to Christ – our only true abundance. For your name’s sake. Amen.
He who scattered…will gather. (form verse 10)
Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33)
It is beyond our natural understanding, and perhaps even our willingness to understand, that He who gathers also scatters and that He who tears also mends. Oh God, how many times have you befuddled us, so that all we can say is, “Your ways are too high; we cannot comprehend them!”
I have faced off with the unsearchable in both bitterness and peace. Bitterness, one of the most wasteful attitudes I have ever chosen, came, in part, out my demand for understanding from God. It was a straightforward line of reasoning to me: God is ever-present, all-powerful and all-knowing. This places Him at the scene of every catastrophe! If God knows about something and could have prevented it, is He not either the agent of cause or an accessory with unsearchable motives?
My stumbling heart asked, “Why is tragedy and suffering permitted?” There may have even been a little why-was-I-not-consulted going on as well. Did the unwelcome situation happen because God the Judge was exacting payment for someone’s sin? Is God incompetent? Indifferent? Did the devil just overpower Him and steal something right out from under His, or the angel’s noses? Perhaps there are so many lives God is overloaded, making personal involvement impossible. Even though I was stumbling beneath the burden of the imponderable, in Christ I was fortunately stumbling forward. In God’s economy, even futile speculations do not go to waste.
I’m not proud of this—it seems foolish now—but there was something like a demand in me: “Why do bad things happen to undeserving, unwitting, and good people!” If you have shopped in the theological marketplace, you have discovered there are many vendors, hawking their dogmas as to why-God-this and why-God-that. Dogma stays in great demand because it contributes to the myth that we can manage our lives with knowledge—control things with what we understand. Not knowing, on the other hand, forces us to have faith, which feels out of control.
When you encounter these vendors, without a tear or a question, marketing their confident assertions regarding the unsearchable, may I suggest that you politely, yet quickly, say, “No thank you.” Knowledge and understanding are not without value but they will never replace simple childlike faith. Faith connects us to eternity. Knowledge is helpful, but faith is essential.
A question. Could God gather us if we were not scattered? Could he mend us if we were not torn? Could we appreciate His drawing if we had not been driven? Would we appreciate His presence if we had not felt His absence?
Our hearts can become paralyzed in their capacity to believe by the mountain of apparent evidence that calls God’s motivations into question. We are left by our inquiries into evil with the notion that there is something incompatible here with God’s love, care, and power. Even though we rarely make a formal indictment against Him, our hearts can nurse questions about His love and/or His competence. I suspect many a busy, noisy life has been crafted, both consciously and sub-consciously, to squelch this line of thinking. This is why slowing down, retreating, and opening up to God is so essential to our spiritual formation. Warning: weeping and supplication may follow. Do not fear—they are better allies than certainty.
With weeping they shall come,
And by supplication I will lead them;
I will make them walk by streams of water,
On a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
For I am a Father to Israel… (Jeremiah 31:9)
As to the why we have been scattered, torn, or driven, we are typically uncertain. For our sake, He spares us from explanations. When I finally stand before God, I don’t want an angelic document-search to reveal I have open files, in which God is still a person of interest in some bitter outcome. If open files are to be found, I want one of them to be my “Mystery” file where I store my unanswered questions. The other file can be my large and getting-larger file called “God’s Goodness,” where I have been recording my observations of His goodness. While God’s ways and judgments may be unsearchable, His nature and personality are discoverable. God is knowable.
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:3)
We come to know Him experientially, situation-by-situation, face-to-face. We can gain experiential heart-assurance that all His dealings with us are motivated by an incomprehensibly strong love. He desires that we learn to rest progressively in His love. Here is a hard thing though: it may require some tearing. It may involve a sense of separation. But, if we acknowledge His nearness, we will discover we have somehow been drawn into His heart and even mended in the midst of our pain and disorientation. We will discover that a Father-filter has been installed, which will aid us in our filing habits. We will stumble far less when we are resting in His love. This is where we will discover the songs, the shouts, and the praises that are so becoming and native to His sons and daughters.
Father, we do not understand pain. It is disorienting and incomprehensible. Grant us hearts that hold You harmless. Grant that we would not stumble over Jesus as a rock of offense. May we not be offended at Your eternally focused, love-driven dealings with our hearts. Amen.
Suggestion for those who are extra hungry: Read the passage again. Acknowledge God’s presence and ask yourself about your files and filing system. Pray along with David (from Psalm 139:23-24) and the others who have ultimately become satisfied with God’s goodness:
Search me Oh God and know my heart,
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139:23-24)
So be it.
Zephaniah is announcing imminent destruction and ultimate glory, judgment on the masses and mercy on a remnant. Our portion of his message is focused more on the future glory. The Lord says:
At that time I will bring you in,
Even at the time when I gather you together;
Indeed, I will give you renown and praise
Among all the people of the earth,
When I restore your fortunes before your eyes.
As the gatherer, I envision the Lord as a master weaver drawing many threads together, creating a grand tapestry. To us there seems to be so many dissimilar threads; we struggle to imagine an end product ever coming from God’s loom. And even if we could, what would we do with it? What does that tapestry have to do with us?
So many threads. There are nations and individuals. Evil and good, rich and poor, weeping and rejoicing. Threads of divine and human sovereignty. Threads of judgment, restoration, attacks and testings, time and eternity, flesh and spirit, religion and philosophy. This is overwhelming. Yet Zephaniah declares God is weaving all of these and more into something that will ultimately cause unprecedented celebration.
Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
Two major threads of the tapestry are the nation of Israel and the Church. God began by claiming a people out of the desert and introducing himself to them through the Law of Moses. The weaving of these people of the Law into the tapestry, though not forgotten, has been delayed until He gathers all His choice gentile threads into the fabric. By faith, the gentiles have also become sons of Abraham and will be a part of the rejoicing Zephaniah foretells.
I believe “those who grieve” (vs. 18) currently are major threads in the tapestry. These people aren’t grieving that ancient ritualistic feasts are being ignored. They grieve because the church is not partaking of the feast which has already been prepared (Psalm 23:5). This group knows a tapestry is supposedly being woven. They grieve because it seems someone is pulling on the threads, instead of gathering them. The presence of evil and the delay of righteousness is a burden to them.
The petitions and prayers of this caring remnant look beyond the immediate affairs of man to the ultimate intentions of God. Their willingness to carry some of God’s longings, qualifies them as leading threads. God will use their story to attract the original tribes. Those who have realized that God has “taken away His judgments against them and cleared away their enemies,” are going to stir things up. I believe God will use the advance celebration and joy among Gentiles to provoke jealousy and ultimately produce faith among Jews.
Father, even if it appears crude or nonsensical to us, permit us to see your intention and artistry. May we be living thread in the work of Your hands. May your original tribe see your work and ask to be included. Amen.
Only two and one half months into the exodus, the approval rating of the new administration was zero: “And the whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” The source of the grumbling, on this occasion, was their hunger. With a common voice they let their leaders know they would prefer slavery on a full stomach to freedom on an empty one.
The greater part of our passage is devoted to the manna God provided for His chosen grumblings. Very specific procedures were given as to how to gather the substance. If they were ignored, the manna would become a nasty mess. Wasting manna was a concern to God.
Our passage also addresses another form of waste. This waste took place when the children of Israel blamed their unpleasant circumstances on their leaders. Moses and Aaron picked up on it immediately. They said, “And what are we, that you grumble against us?”
Moses attempted to redirect their complaints: “The Lord hears your grumbling which you grumble against Him. And what are we (Aaron and I)? Your grumblings are not against us but against the Lord.” Looking to man for recourse is a huge temptation and a tragic waste. What Moses and Aaron were saying was the same thing the writer of Hebrews said: Don’t direct your complaints (or your praise, for that matter) to men because, ultimately, “It is God with whom you have to do.” (Hebrews 4:13)
In God’s economy, He endeavors to give us abundant life through Jesus—the Manna of Life. This vital nourishment will be wasted if we are not looking to Him as the One with whom we have to do. A personal relationship with God requires that we process all of our life through Jesus. Jesus is our life—the only one we have.
It is in our abandonment to this living encounter where we become acquainted with Jesus. Our opportunity is squandered when we blame our unhappiness on people or circumstances. God does not want to see us make a nasty, bitter mess of our lives. Wasting Manna is still a concern to God.
The divine economics of “all things working together for good” implies God’s intentions are to use everything, to waste nothing that touches our lives. By continually entrusting ourselves into this divine reality, we come to know Him. We come to know what it means to live and move and have our being in Him. Here is how God has oriented Himself to us: “He has enclosed us behind and before, and laid His hand upon us. Such knowledge is too wonderful for us; it is too high, we cannot attain to it.” (Psalm 139:5-6)
How God can make tough circumstances, which range in intensity from irritations to nightmares, beneficial is beyond our ability to understand. Nevertheless, for those who work through the pain and resist the temptation of bitterness, a deeper, more refined faith awaits, which has great value now and forevermore.
With whom do you have to do? Have you issued your approval ratings against your perceived sources of misery?
Here is a prayer written by Charlie Finck, an author and counselor who combats waste, one heart, one book at a time. His prayer is guaranteed to conserve Manna when it is build into a heart’s landscape …
Lord, I forgive (fill in the appropriate name). I give you permission to take the judgment and bitterness out of my heart. I don’t want this in my life. I surrender it to You and ask You to remove it—to heal me where I have been wounded, to forgive me where I have sinned. I choose not to blame or hold the actions of others against them. I herby surrender my right to be paid back for my loss by the one who has sinned against me, and in so doing I declare my trust in You alone as my Righteous Judge. Father God, bless them in every way. In Jesus Name. Amen.
Charlie’s counsel and his book, As We Forgive Those: How to Forgive Others, Ourselves, and God, have set many a prisoner free. I can testify to this. He is a kingdom agent and hero.
In our travels some will come to an intersection: they will look out the window and see a landscape that looks something like this:
Where our neat theological synthesis collapse; where we are experiencing the raw paradoxes and mysteries of our faith—God’s love and wrath, our freedom of will and His sovereignty and the mystery of good and evil. Here we simply stand in awe and silence with no explanations; here we are standing face to face with God. This is not empty dogma but a description of the very core reality, and the only adequate interpretation of our deepest experience. (Courtesy Brad Long)
My point in sharing from Brad Long’s Passage Through The Wilderness is that the wilderness is not an accident—it’s a set up. If you are at or near this intersection, by all means get this roadmap. If you are panicky, I suggest going straight to Chapter 14, “Anger With God.” It might save your life and sanity, as I suspect it may have mine.
Father, enlarge our hearts that we may lay hold of the mystery. Help us to not stumble over you. Give us grace to rest when we encounter mystery and paradox. May we learn to honor the economy of your kingdom. May many see, hear, and believe. Amen.