When Sheep Eventually Come Back to Bite

To be sure, pastoral ministry has some wonderful perks. After all, a pastor makes their living (or should) in much prayer; laboring over the word and its correct exposition; administering soul care to the flock; and doing their best to do the work of an evangelist in the culture they find themselves in. In addition, if that high calling is done well, the now occasional “Atta boys” can add to the benefit package while also being given the gracious privilege of earning a living from that calling. And to be sure, these are gracious gifts that no pastor can either deny or be truly worthy of. But perhaps what goes unnoticed by most is the reoccurring fact that the myriad of sheep one is called to care for and feed; after being done licking their chops, can also come back to bite the hand that fed them–and often with a “sheep-eating” grin to boot! This is a memory that I recall quite well, and one of whose scars for a long, long time were lined up and down my back and where the sun does not typically shine. The scars are now fully healed, but their lessons have come full circle with nightmarish flashbacks, yet now also with a newfound discernment as to how to both navigate through it while also coming out on the other side equally instructive to the flock in its aftermath.

Re-Education

At the time of this writing, it has been 20 plus years since I too had the “perks”. I never made the living some do in mega-church land, though the educational expectation was the same for the hire. But to be sure the daily sense of calling in the administration of the actual biblical tasks still have not lost both their nostalgia and equal longing in my heart. Yes, even through the multiple back and “back-side” surgeries, I have learned so very much. And yet even through the reeducation of Mark Prince, like a moth forever drawn to the flame, it still beckons me to its promises of fulfillment, holy service and a privilege that comes with gracious honor. And so once again, now having forgiven both myself and the sheep administering the fileting of my back side, that longing has again taken center stage as I contemplate the now informed prospect of again taking up this sacred mantle. As to how in these uncertain times I can even remotely hope to mix both the call and the ability to feed my family still remains a mystery. Even so, the prospect of what God has before me occasionally brightens my dreams often in the prayerful night watches.

Precious Haunting Memories, How They Linger

But perhaps I got a little ahead of myself. You see the fact is, that even after two decades have past, I once again find myself at least as someone who preaches and teaches on a semi-regular occasion, and even serves as an imperfect elder among a local congregation. Yet as you can imagine, and just like most families (which the church is supposed to also be), after the honeymoon is over and the lights are now on, we begin to truly see our beloved–warts and all. And this is of course the gift that keeps on giving the longer we continue to stay as the willing sucker for the inevitable punishment. And the truth is that part of the problem is “you and I”. That’s a given. The box is checked. Sin is not prejudice, and there’s plenty to go around; including that which resides in “yours truly”. Nonetheless, through lots of time and spiritual maturing in the ways of the Lord (much like families and long-term marriages), we learn to stay; admonish; encourage; love, and a lot of times by being willing to disagree agreeably. One can hope at least.

Sheep Stages

The majority of the problem in American churches is simply the fact that most who attend as they see fit are not on a narrow path to speak of at all.  In addition, most are never tired of attending the church buffet line to find out who has the best show in town, enough benefits for the kiddos, and the necessary extra contacts to grow their business, while adding to their resume a little “do-goodism” as some icing on the cake.  For this demographic, the teeth that come out and latch hold of us, and then the reason they exit boldly out the front door are due to the fact (and thus proven to be so), that they never were of us to begin with.  We get it.  The casualties of this war never fail to deliver on that spiritual front. 

Others however are not quite as overt.  They are those who love the grace of God and have come to rely on it, and yet due to equally taking part of the buffet line that is American Christianity they come as well with their baggage.  For after having survived a few “bad-church” experiences themselves, the lack of a daily diet of the good book in their own lives, as well as their fill of teachers having tickled their itching ears for as long as they can remember, they just aren’t so sure who’s actually “on first”.  As a result, they too shuffle in and out the multitude of feeding troughs, eternally never finding what they’re actually looking for. 

And of course, we mustn’t forget those of us who should and actually do know better, but still refuse to teach the class.  Those who are somewhat spiritually mature and who have also been sheep-bitten; yet as a result, they have become “sick and tired” of the feeding frenzy and thus begin to show their teeth as well.  And who can blame them.  For just like families, the novelty of the familial institution is still there, yet they resign to the fact that no one really enjoys living in an institution anyway, and so the local bar again has an equally attractive and often magnetic pull that often wins the day.

A Sheep With No Name or Teeth

And well, then hopefully there are a few of us left who have been through the stages, now teach the class, keep the bar in close sight just in case; and who finally figure out what we should have always known. We find out that just like real families again (especially our own toxic ones), so is the church. Families full of toxic people being weaned and patiently prodded slowly but surely out of their toxicity with the hope of eventually morphing into the promise of wholeness and healing–though always with a distinctive limp. Families who desire accountability to others and being told what they should probably do about as much as they like root canals! Those prone to wander and always feeling it. And yet also those who finally pull their old teeth, set them on the nightstand for safekeeping, but who finally refuse to graze with the rest of the sheep for too long. Finally deciding to let the grass grow healthy in its proper time, with the weeds inevitably growing right along with it. Once and for all resting in the fact that even when the sheep come back to bite the shepherd that feeds them (as they will inevitably do), he finally remembers he purposefully left his teeth on the nightstand.

The Quest for God’s Tabernacle

To say I’ve been in search of God’s true presence all of my life would be a gross understatement. It seems that ever since I was a child, whether it was watching my late father painstakingly read and underline the holy scriptures or being ushered into the meeting house where God supposedly dwelled, I have been enamored with what it all meant. More importantly what it was to mean to me. And though I got drastically side-railed from this a time or two in my life, there lingered within this desire to find God’s true tabernacle. It was as if I somehow knew innately that this was the very key to my being; my sustenance; and my survival in this world; albeit a world that I somehow never seemed to actually belong to. And even today that yearning is ever present, as I’m constantly reminded that without it, I won’t make it past the weekend. And so, as the years have passed, I too have painstakingly wrestled with those same scriptures with paper, pen and tears as my father did, seeking to intimately know the one who it is said once and for all “tabernacled with men”.

One-night Stands

And yet it seemed from the beginning it was always his offer to man since he put his foot on the ground.  Ever since the regularity of God’s desire to walk with Adam in the cool of the day, to an Ark of His covenant-presence going before his called-out people, and on to a permanent but incomplete structure representative of that desire for God also to be intimate with us.  And because of His longing, His tabernacle has not been far within our desired reach.  And yet equally so, like Adam; like the Israelites; and like you and I; we never seem to be too far from abandoning the quest altogether in search of a quick fix to usher in some Nirvana experience.  And like the first rush of cocaine through an aficionados nostrils, it’s never as good as the first time.  But even so, man’s historical record shows a persistence to satiate that which cannot ever satisfy us, while the offer of His tabernacle waits patiently by the phone like a patient lover longing to be invited to the Homecoming dance.  I see God that way.  And I believe the words He wrote down bear apt evidence that He has always desired to be betrothed to us regardless of our wayward heart.  Even as he full well knows we will run about forever willing to find contentment in the fool’s gold of perpetual one-night stands.

Learning from the Movies

That seems to be the shape we’re in as I see it.  For some of us, even as we age, we continue to buy in hook, line and sinker to the promise of some exotica somewhere over the rainbow.  Even while owning our own mirror, we buy the tighter jeans, cake on the make-up and pay the personal trainer, only to cover-up the bags under our eyes and our nakedness until the lights are finally on.  Many of us never waking up to the one that we left at the altar in our youth until all that’s left of us to offer Him is left-over promises and a body that bears the scars of what our frequent lovers stole from us.  And the story of the Old Testament is ripe with movie reels even YouTube can’t censor if we care to see and learn from it.  Yet at the stroke of my pen, even the sincerest of us are satisfied with brief one-minute devotional encounters with the divine, rather than falling headlong for the one who has built a house for us to dwell in with Him forever, and who offers it now for those willing to do the patient work a faithful marriage requires.

But to be sure the struggle is real, and the toil for our daily bread and survival of the fittest is always the order of the day.  Yet through this struggle, the offer for God to tabernacle with us is as sure as summer coming after winter and just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  It is constant.  It is ever available.  And it lies ever so conveniently always between two trees of which we may always choose from, and each with it’s accompanying result.  The continual choice in life between the flesh and the spirit wars within us as sure as a torrential rain, and the woeful tale is that most of us are caught in the downpour long before we ever saw it coming.  As sure as death and taxes, our choice of presence in our lives beckons to be the first order of the day, yet so often becomes the money left after the bills and the dues have been paid and has become just too tight to mention.

The Elephant in the Room

However, misery indeed loves company, and even I will in no way disappoint. For I too often teeter-totter between gods long proven are no gods at all, and the one who promises to be the way, the truth and the necessary life.  The one who promises water in the desert, the calm in the storm, and the resurrection beyond the life that we cling to with what seems like an eternal vice-grip.  Yet as I age, my mirror reminds me that sin really has led to death, including my own.  A realization that the world around us has redefined as mere syndrome and something that science will eventually cure with a session, a pill, or a now legislated hall-pass.  And as I reconcile my own depravity with the world’s just outside my door, the ray of light is still that tree of life’s offer of rest and peace, along with the abiding presence of His tabernacle that once experienced we will never want to leave.  The quest is still there for this lone beggar, and I’m still learning.  Learning to finally look askance at the glitter once disguised as gold, and instead lean head-long into the still small voice and arms of the one who has built his tabernacle for this grateful doorkeeper.

Selah