Posted in Faith

Where are the Shepherds?

I’ve been struggling hard with my church life for a long time and trying to put my finger on what the problem is. It’s complicated, and there are many factors at play – but one in particular has captured my attention so distinctly that I feel the need to share.

It began with a heaviness, a sadness. Every time I would watch a service from my church on TV, or go there in person. A feeling of being invisible and on the outside. Despite attending a cell group the entire time I’ve gone there, and serving as I’ve been able.

And a repeated thought, playing again and again in my mind: Sheep without a shepherd. Sheep without a shepherd.

The word “pastor” comes from the Latin for “shepherd.” Now we all know that the Lord is our perfect shepherd. We’ve heard Psalm 23, again and again: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” (verse 1).

But have we forgotten the many verses, in both the old and new testament, in which God seeks to admonish and/or stir up the human pastors/shepherds that He has anointed over His flock? He has given them a most pivotal role.

Consider the story found in Luke 9. Jesus is attempting to withdraw from the crowds, but they follow Him. What does He do? Welcomes them. Speaks to them. Heals them.

And then: “Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here'” (verse 12).

The disciples want to send them away. These people have too many needs! They can’t fill them all.

But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat” (verse 13). And of course, what follows is that Jesus takes their meager supply of five loaves and two fish, and feeds the entire crowd of five thousand.

He could have rained down bread from Heaven, but He didn’t. He wanted them to offer whatever they had to the people, and then He multiplied it.

So yes, Jesus is our perfect shepherd. He’s the one who’s actually taking care of us. But sometimes, I think, He’s waiting for His human pastors to make the first move.

And often, they don’t.

Where are my pastors? Where are my shepherds?

They are on the screen of my TV. They’re on the stage. They’re behind an impenetrable barrier of polished, picture-perfect social media accounts.

Their pictures and names are on the church website, but not their email addresses, so I could contact one of them if I were in need. (There are staff and volunteers to field those requests. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I could make an appointment to see a pastor. In a month.)

If I see them at the grocery store, they probably won’t know who I am.

What kind of a shepherd knows nothing about his sheep?

Sitting in the church pews

In the midst of this loneliness, God led me to Ezekiel 34. I felt like it was written just for me, in this moment. It was like a balm for my soul. I was finally seen – if not by my human shepherds, then by my heavenly One. (You’ll have to forgive me for the long quote below. It was difficult for me not to type out the entire chapter, because it resonated with me so strongly!)

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?…You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost…So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them…I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land.”

Ezekiel 34:2-13

“I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”

Ezekiel 34:16

If you are feeling unseen, unknown, and excluded at church, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like. I try to remind myself, though, that being a pastor is a tough job. Pastors are fallible; pastors are human.

Nonetheless, God is noticing. He is holding them to account. And where they fail you, God is ready to scoop you up, and save you.

And finally, although this message is focused on the people set apart to be pastors, we sheep – the members of the flock – have something to take from it as well. What do we have, that God is asking us to give, so that He can multiply it? Just like the loaves and fish – whatever we have, it’s not too little, it’s not too unimportant. He wants us to give it away to His people, so that He can do something larger with it.

How are you feeling about church? Do you feel at home there, or do you feel like you’re on the outside?

And is there anything that you think God is asking you to give away to His people?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.

Warm wishes,

Lisa

Posted in Faith

On Coming Home

Recently, my family and I attended church. At church. For the first time in a year. As we entered the building, there was a sign with a picture of a house on it. On the bottom it read: “Welcome Home.”

There’s nothing like a world-wide pandemic to make you miss what you’ve never really had before. Amidst all the cries of faith-filled people that I have heard, wishing to gather with their church families, my voice has been, for the most part, silent. I am not quiet out of dissension, but from a place of what I would attempt to describe as perplexed shame.

Home. Has the church ever been home to me, in all these years? To some degree, yes. But in order for a place to be truly home, one needs to move in. And in order to move in, one must unpack. All of the boxes, bags, and containers. The new, exciting things. The old, worn-out things. The mementos. The things you love. The special items, and the mundane. Some things you should have gotten rid of years ago. And yes, even the dirty laundry you wish you had washed before you got there.

By unpacking, you bring your entire self into the environment. The things that you unpack reveal who you are. The good, the bad, the ugly. A true home must be home to your fullest self.

And once you have moved in, the work begins. You clean, maintain, and fix. You organize, arrange, plan, and make the place fit and welcoming for habitation and use. This work never stops, and many hands are needed. If you want to live there, you contribute. You don’t complain about menial or lowly tasks. And you learn to work together with the people who share the space.

You get hungry, and thirsty. You all do. So you share a meal. You pray over the bread, and break it. You eat together. You digest. You have a drink to wash it down. You’re thankful. It’s too good to keep to yourselves, so you invite guests in to share. The food and drink have a never-ending supply. Often, the guests decide to move in permanently. And you welcome them.

Sometimes, you play. You get to know your family better. There are young people, old people, and people from all kinds of backgrounds and lives. You learn to appreciate them all, because this family is formed by adoption. Dad wants lots of kids. And He likes variety.

When you get tired, home is a good place to rest. Dad says, that’s what He’s there for. And for recovery, when the outside gets to be too much. His arms are always open, and He says that ours should be too.

No home is perfect, and neither is the church. Even there, the rules meant to protect us get broken. Families fight, and people get hurt. The doors get busted in, and things are stolen. But when we pray: “Your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven” – I think that what we’re really asking for, is home. And the Church is the place that home begins.

So maybe it’s time to move in. To work, and eat, and play, and rest. Maybe it’s been too many years of ducking in and out of the family gatherings, sitting in the back, and taking all my stuff with me when I go. Maybe it’s time to unpack, and settle in for good. (I wonder what that would look like.)

Have you gone back to church yet? What was it like? I would love to hear about it in the comments section below.

Warm wishes,

Lisa

Posted in Faith, Mental health, Parenting

A Letter to my Local MLA

Hello Mr. Goertzen,

I have two small requests as a stay at home mom affected by the recent school, preschool, park, church, and recreational facility closures in my home community of Steinbach.

Although I find it unfair that we are the only school division to be closed, and suspect that government motives behind this closure may have something to do with the voices of protest in our community that have recently made themselves known, I have been supportive and followed all of the rules presented to me.  I am working with my son to keep him on top of his remote learning.  I do not take an extreme stance on one side or the other on issues such as mask wearing, closures, and lock downs.  I choose to believe that for the most part, the authorities in place are doing their best with the information that is given to them, so I have complied with all of the protective measures that have been taken.

Only recently have I begun to feel like my rights are being violated.  As one of many parents who are relegated to small city yards with young children, I am wondering why the safe, outdoor, recreational opportunities in our community are shut down tight.  Although a generous neighbour on our street has set up a skating rink in the park, it is closed and cannot be used.  We also have a wonderful play structure in the same park which cannot be used.  The toboggan hills have opened up, and we are thankful for that.  We have gone sledding 4-5 times already.

I am no expert but I am aware that virus transmission outside, in open, cold air, under UV light, is extremely unlikely.  Could we not simply limit the numbers of people using a facility (such as a play structure or skating rink) at one time?  Contrary to what the media may portray, it has been my experience from living in the community of Steinbach that the vast majority of people are extremely cooperative with every restriction.  I feel that I am being slapped on the wrist for something I have not done, under the assumption that I will be uncooperative.

Another rule that I feel is extreme is not allowing drive-in church services.  I have been content (for the most part) to make do with the online services offered by my church.  But I believe it should be acknowledged that churches play an enormous role in the mental health and well being of community members, and disallowing people from visiting their places of worship and supportive communities for such a length of time is bound to have severe consequences.  I wonder how many cases of addiction, abuse, mental illness, divorce, and even suicide have been averted thanks to the wonderful work of churches in our community.  It is time to acknowledge the vital role that they play and stop viewing churches as an adversary.  Restrictions on churches need to be reasonably loosened, as soon as possible.  If I can see a doctor, purchase medications, or even buy alcohol or cannabis to help medicate my psychological and emotional struggles, I should be permitted to attend my church for the same reasons. The disallowance of even orderly, drive-in church services feels to me like blatant disregard and disrespect for their precious role in many people’s lives, not to mention acts of service towards the community such as providing free food and clothing, cleaning up garbage, sharing facilities for school graduations, sharing parking lots for school pickups and drop offs (when bussing has not been provided), etc., etc., etc.

In summation, I am asking that outdoor recreational facilities be opened for limited use in a community affected by school closures, and for some evidence that the government values churches to the point of making them more accessible to the people who need them.

Thank you for your consideration.

Posted in Faith, Mental health

Those Prevailing Gates (Thoughts on the Pandemic and the Church)

Trigger warning: this post contains mention of suicide.

Recently, an old friend from high school contacted me.  We hadn’t been in touch for a number of years.  I’m still shuddering in disbelief and shock at the news she delivered: 3 suicides in the past 7 months – all people we went to school with.

I wasn’t particularly close to these people, but I have specific memories of two of them.  The first, I will refer to as T.

He was popular, and athletic; I was quiet, and book-smart.  We never spoke unless it was out of necessity.  Except that one time, at his graduation.  He was drunk.  (Which probably explains why he approached me.)  We were talking about his girlfriend.

“You’ve been together a long time,” I said.  “Do you think you’ll get married?”

“I hope so,” he replied.

I remembered this conversation, a day or two before I heard about his suicide.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  Except that, otherwise, I would have no reason to think of them.  A woman walked by me at a campground who reminded me of his girlfriend.

Wonder if they ever got married?  I thought to myself, smiling inwardly.  They were together for such a long time.  Popular in school; and confident and smart enough to probably land good jobs and have a few kids, by now.

As I know now, he never married her, but married another woman and had 3 boys.  Apparently, his father had committed suicide when he was young, also leaving 3 young boys – he and his brothers.  Man, the things you don’t know about a person.

The second guy – C – had left school for a while, and then came back to attend Grade 12 the same year I was.  He wore cowboy boots, and a stern expression, and you could always hear the steady beat of his feet as he walked staunchly up and down the halls.  I was afraid of him.  Until, he joined our class and I realized his temperament wasn’t as harsh as his appearance.  He chose our graduation motto – “Well Worth the Wait,” from the song “Long Time Running” by The Tragically Hip.  He was quoted in the local paper, talking about how great it felt to finish high school and how glad he was that he had come back.

 

However, a couple of months before grad, just as the winter was lifting, there had been a tragedy in our town.  Three local guys were involved in a car crash that took their lives.  Two of them were supposed to have graduated with us.

To my surprise, the principal of our school asked me to read a few verses of scripture at the funeral.  I accepted, feeling as though I had been handed something sacred.  As I stood behind the podium of that small Catholic church, overlooking two coffins, I read the weighty words of apostle Paul, and struggled to comprehend them:

“For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 15:53‭-‬57 NIV

bible-2110439_640

I wasn’t sure what those verses would mean to anyone until one day, after the funeral, C approached me outside the gymnasium at school.  He cried.  He thanked me for reading at the funeral, and hugged me, and talked about how the words had encouraged him.  He said something about death and how the reading had made him realize how little power it had.

Honestly, I didn’t quite get it yet, myself.  But I was glad that he did.

And all in all, I thought that, probably, he’d be ok.

I struggle to reconcile, in my mind, my recollection of C those years ago – hope-filled, and somewhat at peace – with the knowledge that he has now taken his life.  Or how T – who from outward appearances, checked the boxes we use to predict a successful life – would find himself in such a pit that he would leave his sons in the same way his father left him.  Though I barely knew these men, it brings tears to my eyes.  Was there something I could have done?  Something I could have said?  I feel an urge to go back to my hometown, and do something about this epidemic of despair.  But what could I do?

And I think about the church.  I think about how a pandemic has closed its doors.  I think about the congregation, the individual people.  Those of us whose faith has, perhaps, cooled off…being lulled away down a nonchalant path of apathy, self-service, and disconnect.

I see the normalization of substance use and abuse.  The churches must shut down.  But liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries remain open, because people rely on them to cope.  May I remind you: 3 suicides in 7 months, in a tiny, alcohol and drug-saturated town.  How well are we coping?

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Picture taken from https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2018/10/17/health/canada-legalizes-recreational-marijuana/index.html

A culture that also normalizes, or even glorifies, killing and dying, while diminishing the sacrilege of human life.  Where defenseless, unborn children, unhesitatingly and unblinkingly, have their lives taken away.  (And no, the pandemic hasn’t slowed that down, either.)  Where resources that could have gone to improving palliative care are diverted to legalize assisted dying, and the aged or ill can choose to end their lives rather than live out the remainder of their allotted days with friends and families.

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Picture taken from https://www.babycentre.co.uk/8-weeks-pregnant

Where children are regularly fed images of death and darkness: skulls, zombies, vampires, ghosts, demons, and themes of being possessed by evil.  (Just watch the cartoons.)

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I don’t want to point fingers, or shame anyone.  I write this to myself as much as anyone.  But please, let’s awake to the fact that evil has not slowed down.  Let’s not become so enclosed in our self-isolating bubbles that we forget the role of the church in offering hope to the people who may be grappling for it.  Could we, perhaps, seek them out?  Could we find them?

No, I don’t quite know how to, either.  But what is the church, besides a body of people who love the Lord and love other people?  Is the church a building, whose doors are nailed shut?  A system, vulnerable to breakdown and financial collapse?

Or is it individuals, banded together in hope and love?  If you love the Lord, He has undoubtedly saved, healed, or dragged you through something.  Was it despair, that He delivered you from?  Depression?  Illness?  Abuse?  Death?  Addiction?  Suicide?  Divorce?  Tell someone.  They may be scrambling to find the hope that you now have.

Who reached out to you?  Which member or members of the church body held out their hands, their Bibles, their homes, their hearts?  Remember them.  Do not despise or diminish the power of the church.

The church is an essential service.  Undoubtedly so, more than ever.  You can close the building.  But you can’t shut down the church.

Let us not forget, to be the church.

 

“…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Matthew 16:18‭-‬19 NIV

“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Revelation 1:18 NIV

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
Proverbs 18:21 NIV

How do you think the church’s role has changed because of the world wide pandemic?  What are our responsibilities, as Christians, in light of the present situation?  How may we reach out to others?  I would love to hear your ideas in the comments section below.

Warm wishes,

Lisa