In my Bible reading at the moment, I am up to Amos, Hosea, Joel and Ezekiel. I must admit I have been asking God why these books are in the Bible, they all sound so much like “doom and gloom” and then I look to my own blogs and realise they can often have the same feel. I haven’t posted anything for a while, because everything I seem to write, seems to sound like I am complaining and I don't want to be that kind of person. I asked “google’ why the book of Amos is in the Bible and it guided me to “Chuck Swindoll” (knowing he was known for such positive things, I was excited to read what he had to say).
“Injustice permeates our world, yet as Christians we often turn a blind eye to the suffering of others for “more important” work like praying, preaching, and teaching. But the book of Amos reminds us that those works, while unquestionably central to a believer’s life, ring hollow when we don’t love and serve others in our own lives. Do you find yourself falling into that trap at times—prioritizing prayer, teaching and preaching over service?”
Amos as a simple farmer, that God used to speak out….so maybe I will post my latest blog that I have been holding onto for weeks now…….and trust it is received in the heart I which I intend, to challenge us all to not simply live comfortable lives.
Driving out in the beautiful Australian countryside I was reminded of the vast expanses of land, all fenced, with sheep standing around eating, surrounded by grass everywhere they turn. Granted, it was very dry and brown, so I’m not sure how tasty it was, but as long as they keep their heads down and eat what is supplied and stay in their fences, they are generally safe and will have what they need. There are no shepherds to be seen. They are busy yes, but not busy staying with the sheep, for if the boundaries are securely in place, the sheep just keep to themselves and generally stay safe and looked after.
For an Australian farm it seems that having secure fences/boundaries is an important key. I wouldn’t know this except that I have watched "McLeods’ Daughters" three times completely through the whole 8 seasons. So, then the focus is about trouble shooting and, of course, there is always a new drama on the land. It is never dull. But it is more about the financial investment and gains from the flock growing and being healthy enough to make sure the shepherd’s family is provided for. The bigger the flock, the less and less it is about the individual sheep, and it is certainly not about knowing their names, unless one is sick or causing trouble for the whole flock.
I contrast this with being in Israel, only a few years ago and watching a small flock of sheep that were always with a shepherd close by. There were no fences or boundaries. At night the shepherd would have a makeshift fence to keep the flock safe and then continue on the next day to somewhere new for fresh food for his sheep. The sheep knew his voice and they followed it.
Ezekiel 34: 2-4 is about shepherds - bad shepherds. It was written about the Leaders of Israel at the time and is a warning to spiritual shepherds still today.
“Woe to the Shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not 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. You have ruled them harshly and brutally”
When I consider the vast difference in the way we run sheep farms, it makes sense as to why we in Western Culture simply don't understand what it a means to be a shepherd in the way Jesus spoke of in the Bible. In the countryside of Israel you still see shepherding happening today as I imagine it was in Bible times. It seems like a very different approach to shepherding compared to Australia.
Jesus was known for taking the things of the culture and using them as living examples of how God sees His Kingdom. He took the practice of caring for sheep and used it to challenge the people about being "the good shepherd." I am not sure He would use that same example in Australia for being a “good shepherd" although it would seem that the way sheep farms are run here today has some similarities to the way some churches function.
If our Denominational fences/boundaries are secure and functioning well, then our congregations will all stay in the right place and keep to themselves. It seems that good boundaries and fences also keep the wrong type of people out, the ones who don't fit or look or act the same as the sheep inside the barriers. As long as we stay in the fences and keep our heads down and eat what is being supplied, everyone is fine. There is even harsh treatment at times if sheep don't submit to the feeding of the leader. I have personally experienced the type of abuse that Ezekiel 34 speaks of from Shepherds and known many who have experienced the “slaughter of choice animals”.
When a new farm starts up down the road, the shepherd feels very disappointed, even angry, if a sheep might move to another paddock. I think they call that "sheep stealing”. If sheep try to cross the boundaries or speak out for change, they might be considered trouble makers, and might be asked to leave or get kicked out. Sadly, the Shepherd is not often seen in the paddocks with the sheep, except when trouble hits or sickness comes. It is not often about the individual but rather the flock as a whole and making sure they are safely in the right paddock and eating the right food. I don't want to go into the financial investment or gain for the shepherd and their family, but simply put, I don't see many pastors/leaders in Churches who would shepherd unless they were paid to do so. Jesus did challenge the shepherds about the fact that the hired hand quickly runs away when trouble hits, but the true shepherd stands and protects.
Now, as pastor/leader myself, I find this picture very confronting. To be honest, as I drive past farm after farm in the countryside I find the lifestyle very comfortable and attractive. (Again, Maybe too much McLeod's Daughters). But it was on the hills of Israel that I found it confronting to watch a shepherds sit for hours in the heat, always with his sheep. I watched them walk slowly with the sheep, searching for sustainable food for the day. I watched them run home with them each night to the shelter. I imagine that they knew each sheep and their uniqueness, as there was often 30-40 maximum together with one shepherd.
I just wonder if building the fences and boundaries, which seems a natural thing to do to in Australia, has simply changed our focus of what it means to be a shepherd in Western Culture? On a sheep farm there is nothing wrong with it. It is the right thing to do, but when Jesus talked of being a shepherd, he was talking about something completely different to what we see all around our country side. A colleague said to me the other day, “I wonder if God looks down and says every now and then, ‘What are you shepherds doing? That was not what I meant?’”
Simply put, as shepherds we are called to care for the sheep, keep them safe, be together, help them to grow healthy, to love and value each one. In Israel the focus is more on the sheep and doing life with them. In Australia I wonder if we focus too much on the fences/boundaries, what we feed our flock to keep them in the paddock and making sure our paddock looks just right so they don't have to go anywhere else.