Category : Scripture

sheep panorama
Leadership, Liturgy, Sacraments, Scripture
1

That’s No Ordinary Shepherd

Think about the best teacher, leader, or boss you’ve ever worked with.  Who was it?  What was it that made them such a good leader?  On the flip-side, think about that experience with someone who was a rather poor leader, teacher, or boss?  What were the characteristics or behaviors that made it so?

A few months ago, I was preparing to teach two separate groups of people two distinct lessons:  during the day, a Godly Play session on “The Good Shepherd” for 3-6 year olds at my kids’ Montessori school and later that night, a Catechism class for adults on the Sacraments.   What I thought were two different lessons turned out to be an opportunity to gain a deeper insight by looking at them together.

Jesus-Good-Shepherd-guides-me

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd story from Godly Play weaves several Scripture passages into one story, primarily from Psalm 23, John 10:1-16, and the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:1-7).

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.  (Psalm 23:1-4)
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:4-7)
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. (John 10:11-13)

The words and materials used to tell the story of the Good Shepherd are very intentional, but not identical to the translation we may be used to hearing at Mass or reading in the Bible.  Therein, they communicate the underlying truth to children in a remarkable way.  The Good Shepherd loves, cares for, and leads his sheep.  He protects them and looks for them when they are lost.

The storyteller explains the Good Shepherd’s relationship with his sheep, and then introduces “the ordinary shepherd” who neither knows their names nor leads them.  Instead, the sheep wander and scatter.  The story concludes by driving home the distinction between the Good Shepherd and the ordinary shepherd:

When the wolf comes, the ordinary shepherd runs away. But the Good Shepherd stands between the wolf and his sheep–and even gives his life for his sheep–so the sheep can go safely home.

When the children–ages 3-6–first began discussing the story, I noticed that they kept talking about the Good Shepherd and the bad shepherd.  Had I been listening alongside, I may have made the same mistake.

But that’s the thing: the “wolf” is the bad guy in the story.  It is the ordinary shepherd that Jesus distinguishes himself from.

Sacraments

Later that night I taught my Catechism for Adults class, covering the chapter on Liturgy which sets the stage for talking about Sacraments; after all, every Sacrament occurs within a liturgy.  It is not just the gestures and substance which make for the Sacrament; it is also the prayers we say and the Word of God we read in Scripture that makes it a real gift of God’s grace.

The word liturgy comes from a Greek term meaning “public work or work done on behalf of the people.” Liturgy always referred to an organized community. A work, then, done by an individual or a group was a liturgy on behalf of the larger community. All the worshipers are expected to participate actively in each liturgy, for this is holy “work,” not entertainment or a spectator event. Every liturgical celebration is an action of Christ the High Priest and of his Mystical Body, which is the Church. It therefore requires the participation of the People of God in the work of God.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) (2012-04-02). United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Kindle Locations 2570-2574). United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Kindle Edition.

When it comes to celebrating the Sacraments, one of the most basic questions that we need to answer is Who celebrates the liturgy.  Unfortunately, we usually get the answer wrong by saying “the priest.”  Who celebrates the liturgy?  We all do.  The entire Body of Christ.

Liturgy is not private prayer, but public, requiring “full, conscious and active participation” of all faithful (CCC 1141, SC 14).

The idea that all of us are expected to participate actively in each liturgy, and that this is holy “work,” not entertainment or a spectator event is a vital understanding to bring to any study of both the Liturgy and the Sacraments.

Too often, we approach Mass as a spectator sport.  And it’s not.

We judge the value of the liturgy by the quality of the homily and/or the music.  And we miss the point.

Moreover, when we translate that “spectator sport” mentality into the Sacraments, we set ourselves up to treat Sacramental grace like some sort of magic to befall instead of the gift of God’s grace that they are.

A lot of these attitudes have to do with our expectations of leadership.

Leadership

Recall the questions above: think about the experiences you have had throughout your life with leaders: teachers, bosses, managers, and the like.  Think about the characteristics and qualities of good leaders.  Good leaders…

  • Take the time, effort, and energy to teach and empower people
  • Encourage creativity
  • Appreciate individual strengths
  • Facilitate growth
  • Allow people to make mistakes and learn from them
  • Practice good communication skills, both in expressing themselves and in understanding others
  • Care about their people
  • Value responsibility, honesty, integrity, and hard work
  • Offer assistance when needed
  • Create atmospheres of mutual respect
  • Approaches leadership as form of service [servant-leader]
  • Has a big-picture sense of mission and vision
  • Can you add to this list?

On the flip side, we find it easy to complain about “poor” leaders:

  • Micro-manage every aspect of people’s work
  • Overly strict
  • Diminish freedom and creativity
  • Make people feel small and insignificant – like a replaceable cog in the wheel
  • Control others through fear or manipulation
  • Non-communicative
  • Self-centered, arrogant, and egotistical
  • Narrow-Minded
  • Can you add to this list?

Notice this list describes the “poor” leader.  Not the “bad” leaders with malicious intent or “evil” dictators.

Take it to the next step.  Recall the description of the Good Shepherd; see how the list of characteristics of the Good Leader help flesh out the way in which Jesus as the Good Shepherd leads us.

Now look at the description of the poor leader and notice how it reflects the ordinary shepherd.

The Connection

When it comes to our understanding of Liturgy and Sacraments, it is very important that we check in with our expectations: Do we expect the priest to micromanage our experience of Liturgy and Sacraments, making it happen for us?  Or do we enter into the experience of Liturgy and Sacraments expecting the leadership of the Good Shepherd who empowers us to participate in receiving God’s grace?

The Sacraments are not magical things that happen to us.

One way to think about the empowering leadership of the Good Shepherd is to think of the Sacraments with what’s been called a bumper-sticker theology:

Without us, God won’t.
Without God, we can’t.
Without us, God won’t

Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He does not micromanage our experience of faith.  He invites us to participate with him in the transforming power of God’s grace.

Without God, we can’t.  We need God’s grace.  We cannot do it without God’s help.

The Good Shepherd wants to lead you.  But to really make it work, you’ve got to want it too.


sheep panorama by Arend licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Tent in Cayonlands
Scripture, Transformation
3

Pitching a Tent

My dear friend Amalour passed away last week.  And in my grief, I am still having a difficult time paying attention to almost everything.  So it  didn’t come as any surprise when I had a hard time following the homily today at mass.  The Gospel on the Second Sunday of Lent is the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28:-36)

Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.  And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.  Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.  As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.

Years ago (before kids), I facilitated a faith sharing group at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Maryland, and one of the women explained how the story of the Transfiguration was one of her favorites because it offered a glimpse of Jesus Christ glorified.  I heard her words and felt moved by her passion, but that’s not how the story struck me.

Personally, I find myself identifying with Peter, James, and John.  Like them, I would have been happy to follow Jesus up a mountain.  Like them, I would have probably been overcome by sleep.  Even before kids.  And like them, I would probably been so awestruck, I would have been happy to  to pitch a tent.

Actually, I would have been happy to have my husband pitch the tent while I set up camp.

IMG_1690

At the Vigil service for Amalour’s funeral, her husband Brian offered one of the most moving eulogies I have ever heard.  Brian talked about Amalour’s unending quest for improvement.  In their marriage–in their lives–they’d do the work and come to a plateau.  It was a nice plateau, on which Brian was ready to pitch a tent and enjoy the view.  And Amalour would say no; we’re not there yet.  We can do better than this.  There’s more to see; there’s more to do.  Again, and again, and again in their lives, Amalour was always striving for something more… for something better… in all the ways that mattered.

I am a do-er.  I’d like to think of myself as someone who walked alongside Amalour on the path of growth.  In many ways, I know I have.  But I also know one of my weaknesses is doing too much.  I have been guilty of distracting myself from the real, true, important things in life with busyness… filling my days with so much stuff that I don’t have time to think.  When I’m in this mindset, pitching a tent and enjoying the view sounds like a GREAT idea!  In fact, I’ll even busy myself with setting up camp.

Thing is, life is more of a journey than a sit-down and watch (or in my case, get everything ready to sit down and watch).  And sometimes that journey is hard.  Very hard.

I can imagine that witnessing the Transfiguration was to be a gift to inspire Peter, James, and John for the journey that lay before them.  It was not meant to be the end of the journey… or even a break from the journey.

So the challenge, I suppose, is to take those moments of grace, peace, hope, and light and allow them to inspire us along the path.  To avoid the temptation to pitch a tent as though that moment was the end-all-be-all.  To avoid the temptation to busy ourselves with setting up camp instead of doing the real work of journeying through life.


Tent in Canyonlands by [Rob Lee]https://www.flickr.com/photos/roblee) licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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Harvesting grapes
Humility, Scripture, Suffering, Transformation
9

A Worker in the Vineyard

Think about a time in your own life when you were pretty much at your (emotional/spiritual) rock-bottom low.  What insight did you gain about life and faith from that difficult time?  How did that insight come about?  Who or what helped make that happen?

My own lowest-low time came when I was 24 years old.  Just three weeks short of what would have been my first wedding anniversary, my spouse never came home one evening, which in itself was significant, but it was a pressing concern because we had plans to drive to his sister’s for an overnight visit.  Upon returning close to midnight, he casually responded to an offhand remark I made by revealing that he didn’t want to be married, had never wanted to get married, and thought we should just “break-up.”

And just like that, life as I knew it changed forever.  Once I recovered from the shock and came to understand that there was no chance of reconciling, I picked up the shattered pieces of my life and vowed to learn, fix, heal, and ultimately become a better, stronger, and more whole person.

One of the most difficult pieces of this process was coming to terms with my own Crisis of Faith.  I was a theology teacher—teaching New Testament Scripture to high school sophomores—at the time.  I had a Bachelor’s degree in theology.  I was not only committed to my Catholic, Christian faith, but I had specific, poignant conversations with my estranged spouse during our 17 month engagement about the Sacrament of Marriage, about the Covenant which we would be entering into, and about how divorce was not an option.  Not for me, anyhow.

An excellent therapist helped me dissect the unhealthy dynamics and patterns which led to this whole situation, but I was still left with the God question:

I had responded to God’s call to be a teacher of faith.
I had given my life to God.
How could God have allowed this to happen to me?

broodingWhen I returned to my classroom after taking a week off to get my head together, I told my students that I was “going through a difficult time,” which was an understatement, but it was all that I could muster.  It was incredibly difficult to be teaching about the faith when I was so very angry, confused, hurt, and broken in my own relationship with God.

So it was in this context when I happened to assign a Critical Thinking Reflection on the “Workers in the Vineyard” parable (Matthew 20:1-16).

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.   Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’  So they went off.  And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise.  Going out about five o’clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’  They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’  He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ Grapes in a Vineyard When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’  When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.  So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.  And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you.  Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what is yours and go.  What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?  Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?   Are you envious because I am generous?’  Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

As I facilitated a class discussion with the 15 year olds, one kid raised his hand and earnestly asked:

I just don’t understand how this is fair.  How can it be ok to give the same amount to all-day workers and those that only worked an hour?

Still a novice teacher at the time, instead of prompting him to think it through or asking other classmates to respond, I sought to answer his question directly.  And when I did, I heard the truth that God was trying to speak to me come out of my own mouth:

The workers think they “deserve” something more because of their efforts, but that’s not how God works.  We don’t earn it.  God’s Kingdom is offered to us, and we either say yes or no.   God loves, gives, and forgives with generosity. 

Or are you envious because God is generous?

The kid paused for a moment and said “Hmm, I never thought about it like that”.  And there I am standing in front of a class of 36 students, apparently continuing to facilitate a discussion, thinking to myself, “Me neither, kid… me neither”.

How could God have allowed this to happen to me?

Yep.  I thought I “deserved something more” because of my efforts.  I couldn’t believe I actually had a sense of entitlement.  With God.

The last will be first and the first will be last.

It’s like when we were in elementary school and would race to be first in line (for almost everything).  There was actually a sense of superiority that being first had for those at the front.  As an adult, I see how juvenile the need to be first was; I mean we’d all be going to the same place.  I can imagine how frustrated God must get with us for fixating on this juvenile need, and then getting all irate at the perceived injustice of someone “cutting in line.”

With greater humility, I began to look at my situation, which was honestly the consequence of actions.  God’s care, concern, and presence enveloped me in the network of support from friends and family.

Just as my divorce and annulment were a turning point in my personal journey, this insight from the “Workers in the Vineyard” parable was a turning point in my faith.

This was my story.  This was my insight.  This was my process.  How about you?

And so I conclude as I began: 


  • Think about a difficult time in your own life. 
  • What insight did you gain about life and faith from that difficult time? 
  • How did that insight come about? 
  • Who or what helped make that happen?


“Harvesting Grapes © Depositphotos.com/Bunyos30″

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