Making a Way in the Wilderness of Uncertainty
The way ahead looks grim. All options, exhausted. All choices, expended. Looking for clear direction but there is none to be found. If this sounds like you looking at today’s news or today’s climate predictions or today’s culture wars or any other of today’s intractable issues, I’d like us to go back in time. Back to a teetering moment when the Prophet Samuel shows us a way through such times. (If you’re not familiar with Samuel, have a look at the story told in 1 Samuel 16: 1-13.)
Surely things were at an impasse. The prophet Samuel, sent by God to choose Saul’s successor as King of Israel, had come ready to select from among Jesse’s sons. Seven capable, good-looking young men presented themselves: seven times God told Samuel “No,” cautioning him against judging according to their stature or outward appearance. But after seven sons came and went with nary a positive selection, their father Jesse must’ve been peeved.
I can just imagine him fuming. “Aren’t any of these good enough for you, Man of God?!”
I’ll tell you what I would have done, had I been in Samuel’s sandals. I would have taken a second look at those seven fine sons and, calling upon my snippets of Biblical education regarding “7” — 7 sons of Abraham (from the children’s song), 7 days of Creation (from Genesis), 7 is the complete number (from some authoritative Biblical concordance or commentary) — I would have convinced myself that perhaps I had missed God’s yes. Then, of my own accord, I would have told Jesse, “On second thought, I think … this one.” And right there and then I would have toppled from grace.
But Samuel, give him credit, trusted the word of the Lord he’d become accustomed to obeying and proffered a new way. “Jesse,” he asked, “Are these all the sons you have?”
And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? When the answer is not plain and, especially, when all the possible answers seem to have exhausted themselves, we tend to rely on our own experiences and resources. We fill the nervous silence with emotional angst and/or knee-jerk responses.
But how often do we do as Samuel did and wonder if we’re missing something? Such a simple question: “Are these all the sons you have?”
Turns out there was another son, the youngest, David who was tending the sheep. (Spoiler alert: He was the one!) David was summoned, and wouldn’t you know, “he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome?” (Apparently God does notice outward appearance.) But, we’re reminded, “the Lord does not see as mortals see, … the Lord looks on the heart.”
Perhaps in this moment, it wasn’t just the heart of David the Lord was looking on. Perhaps the heart the Lord was counting on belonged to Samuel. He was the kind who, even when it appeared all options had been exhausted, didn’t just dig deeper into his own capability. He trusted his instructions and the One who had given them and discerned another way. A new way, as the Prophet Isaiah phrases it, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
So many things feel to me like wilderness and wasteland right now I’m tempted to shout, Lord, show me this new thing! But I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that comes by shouting. I expect, it will more likely come by listening.
And, in the way of a perfect ending to a well-crafted story, the way will be clear in a “why-didn’t-we-see-that-in-the-first-place?” sort of way.
What is the question?
Prayer: Lord, we come to you today, confessing our inability to resolve many of the difficulties we face. Hold us fast, we pray. Help us to look, listen and trust. Even when we don’t see a way in our wilderness, you have already made one. Show us the way that’s waiting to declare itself to us; that’s waiting to welcome us; that’s waiting for us to choose it. Then, Father, grant us the courage to walk into it. Amen
Sheep and goats. Goats and sheep. That’s all we are. All we’ve ever been. All we’ll ever be. But here’s the rub, which are we?
Recently, I have been hearing a lot folks say they are tiring of the battle. Tired of the in-fighting. Tired of the online fighting. Tired of the rock-throwing, vitriol spewing free-for-all they are witnessing among their friends and family and in their community. They say with a sigh, “I just want to be part of Matthew 25 community.”
The Matthew 25 society they seek refers to the parable of the sheep and the goats — the one where Jesus does his sorting.
To the sheep on his right, he says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.“
To the goats on his left, he says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
What’s a bit unnerving is that both sheep and goats respond to Jesus’ proclamation the same way. “When?… When did we see you?” Apparently, we don’t get to keep our own score. We aren’t privy to our sheep or goat status. What separates sheep from goats is the did or did not.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus is in each of these interactions, and counting it for or against us.
We don’t get to record our own righteousness. Jesus does that. If we want a Matthew 25 community, we can build it, attending to one need at a time. Beginning with our own need of a Savior, who will help us with our deepest longings and strengthen us in our weakness. In our gratitude, we’ll begin feeling sheepish.
I have a sneaking suspicion that when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, and he sits on his throne, if he looked out upon all the nations gathered before him it would be to his utter delight to say, “Y’all come.”
Perhaps he knows though, that very likely there then would be a mad dash to the Kingdom door, with pushing and shoving and trampling. He would have to appear in the rear of His glory and remind us, The last shall be first… You goats in the back need not bother. Perhaps the separation of right and left is just his way of keeping things orderly so no one gets hurt.
The church is funny that way. Sometimes, it seems, that we think the ordering is up to us. Then in our trying to keep things orderly people end up getting hurt. I remember my hurt when I was a new Christian and, while I sat in the coffee shop reading my NIV version of the Bible, a total stranger approached in order to share that I was reading the wrong version of the Bible. The King James version was the only right one. What a goat, right?
Not necessarily; not my call. But certainly anyone witnessing this moment left with a sour taste in their mouth. Surely, at the very least, we should be living as good pasture grass so no ewe sheep will be driven to the goats.
What if, instead of aspiring to be sheep and not goats, we considered this sincere and honest admission from Abraham Lincoln. When asked why, with his obvious interest in religious matters and his familiarity with the Bible, he did not join a church, Lincoln replied:
When any church will inscribe over its altars, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement for the substance of both Law and gospel, “Though shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself,” that church I will join with all my heart and soul.”Henry C Deming, Congressman from Connecticut, as quoted by Carl Sandburg in the introduction to Lincoln’s Daily Devotional
I want to be part of THAT community. Don’t you?
Lions, Tigers and Bears, No Problem
There is a story about a boy, but not just a boy, a shepherd. He stood watch over his flocks day and night, protecting them from whatever might come to harm them. Lions and bears, he would fight off, with his bare hands, if necessary, for he had no weapons of war. No sword, no gun, no armor. But, what he had, that was enough.
The boy grew to be strong and courageous out there in the fields, watching and protecting what he loved against all that would harm it. You know this boy, for his story made him famous. His name was David and when all others trembled in the face of fear before a giant enemy, David did not.
The story goes this way:
David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”
Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”
But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”
Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.
“I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. He looked David over and saw that he was little more than a boy, glowing with health and handsome, and he despised him. He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!”
David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. ~ 1 Samuel 17:32-50
David did not fear lions or bears because he had defeated them with his bare hands.
But sometimes there is a tiger in our midst. And, with Dorothy of Oz, we are afraid — duly afraid of the three: lions, TIGERS, and bears, oh my! The lion and the bear maybe we can handle, but that tiger…
Didn’t stop David. That boy had been battling lions and bears for years. The tiger Goliath? He is just a striped lion. “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this (Tiger).”
David met Goliath and walloped him, with just a sling a few smooth stones. For “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s.”
No matter who or what is your tiger today, may your battle be the Lord’s.