Saturday, August 18, 2012

He Leads

Psalm 23:1-6

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

John 10:1-11

1 "I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.
2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep.
3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.
5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice."
6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep.
8 All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.
9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

I admit that I don’t know a lot about sheep, but one thing we probably all know is that sheep can be led.

I enjoy watching David Letterman on TV late at night sometimes, and he has had on more than one occasion a taxi cab pull up to the front of the Ed Sullivan Theater where Letterman’s show is taped. The door of the cab is opened and out come half a dozen sheep and two sheep dogs. These two dogs can lead these sheep out of a New York taxi cab, into the Ed Sullivan Theater, through the lobby (where a special red carpet has been laid in advance for their welcome), down the aisles, and onto the stage where David Letterman is waiting. Then the dogs lead the sheep back up the aisle, through the lobby, out the door and back into the cab, which then drives off.

God leads us, but we don’t follow as obediently as those sheep follow their shepherd dogs.

Following God’s leadership is tough.  It’s hard.

Years ago, my wife and I felt that God was leading us into a new path.  I was the pastor of a church in Miami and she worked in a private school.

My wife loved being at that school and I loved serving that particular church, but we felt this stirring that God was leading us to a new place.  When pastors in the Presbyterian Church decide to look for a new call, we fill out a form called a PIF, Pastor Information Form, and we submit it to the offices of the presbytery and the national level church.

I’m not sure, but I think this system was designed by someone who had also designed a computer dating service.  Pastors fill out a form, churches fill out a form, and they are matched according to the skills of the pastor and the needs of the church. 

So this was back in the 1990s and I was filling out a Pastor Information Form, and I came to the part that asked me where I would like to serve.  I could check off individual states, or check “anywhere.”  That keeps churches in Alabama from spending time talking to someone in Kansas who has no desire to move out of Kansas.

I asked my wife, “where would you like to live?”

She said, “I’ll go wherever the Lord leads us.”

“So I checked the box that said, ‘anywhere.’”

After I filled out the rest of my Pastor Information Form, I submitted it, and the first church to interview me over the telephone was a delightful church – and it was in Anchorage Alaska.  Remember, at the time, we were living in Miami Florida.

A few days after the initial interview, they contacted me and invited us for a face to face interview.  They would fly us to Alaska where we would spend a long weekend.  

I didn’t want to spend that church’s money if we weren’t serious about it, so I asked my wife again.  “Would you be willing to move from Miami, Florida, to Anchorage, Alaska?”

She said, “I’ll go wherever the Lord leads……    But I happen to know that  God is NOT leading us to Anchorage Alaska!”

So we declined that invitation – God was not leading us there.

A few weeks later, I began interviewing with a church in Washington, DC.  Now living in Alaska would be exciting, for a few weeks, but I thought about how neat it would be to live in Washington, DC, the soul of this nation.  The church was just a few blocks from the White House.  Former pastors included some of the great preachers of the 20th Century, including Peter Marshall, about whom they had made a movie several years ago.  Abraham Lincoln and many other Presidents had worshipped there.  I thought about how I could walk to the Mall and have lunch, and it wouldn’t be a shopping mall, but the National Mall – you know, the one with the Washington Monument.

But discerning where God is leading is not easy.  And as much as I thought how cool it would be to serve that church, I didn’t feel it was God’s call.  I’ll never forget how hard it was to turn them down, and when I did, it was over the telephone.  There was a long silence, and then the chair of the Pastor Nominating Committee asked me, “Do you know who we are?  We’re Abraham Lincoln’s Church.” 

I didn’t say it, but I really was tempted to ask, “Does he still fill out a pledge card?”

This sort of thing went on for a few weeks and the more churches I talked with, the more I felt like I really liked my church in Miami, and I wasn’t sure if I was really being called to leave after all. 

My wife and I finally decided that we would stay in Miami --- unless the Lord gave us a clear, undeniable sign, that it was time for us to move.

Two days later my wife came home with the news that the private school she worked at was closing! 

We joked about how we’d wished the Lord had sent a sign that was not so clear as sending all the other teachers and workers into unemployment, but within a week we had an invitation to visit another church, and with that church, which was in Atlanta.

When I sat down to talk privately with their Interim Pastor, I asked what she thought of that congregation.  The Interim Pastor is a temporary person - someone who fills in while the church looks for a new pastor.  Now this Interim Pastor was Joan Gray, who is one of the most respected leaders in the entire denomination.  She is known for being a spiritual person, with a calm and soothing presence.  She never says a bad word about anyone.

She looked at me and said, “This church is awful.  Only an idiot would come to this church.  Please, please, come to this church so I can go somewhere else.”

I ended up going to that church.  It was tough.  It was hard.  But what a great church to serve.  We knew we were there because that is where God led us.

It sounds so easy in the Psalm.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his names sake…”

It sure looks easy when you watch sheep being herded about.

It is hard to know where God is leading.

Is God leading you to get married?  Or not?

Is God leading you to take this job, or that job?

Should you move to Shell Point or Cypress Cove or stay in your present home?

What should you do with your investment funds?  It’s not just money, it’s your security, your ability to take care of yourself in the future.  Important decisions!

You have cancer.  Sometimes the doctor comes in and says “this is what we are going to do.”  Simple.  Other times, it is not so simple.  The doctor comes in with choices.  You have to decide.  Plan A, Plan B, Plan C.  And even a plan in which you just do nothing but let nature take its course.

Where is God leading you?  How do you make decisions?

Part of me would say that it would be a lot easier to know what decision we should make if we knew how it was all going to turn out.

But then I think about Abraham.  Back in his younger days when he was a whisper snapper of 75 years of age, when he was still going by the name “Abram,” he was called by God. 

The story is found in Genesis, chapter 12. The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country.  Leave your homeland.  Leave your people, your friends and your family.  Leave your business.  Leave everything familiar to you.  Go to the land – the land that I will show you later on. 

 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him. 

What is in store for Abram in making this decision to follow God’s leadership?

At the time, God simply said, “You are going to be blessed, and you are going to be a blessing to others.”  That’s about it.

So what really happens to this man when he decides to follow God’s leadership?

Abram becomes known as Abraham.  He goes to Canaan.  What does he find there?  Famine!  That’s no good, so he then goes to Egypt. 

Now Abraham is 75 years old and he is married to a hot chick who is so good looking that the king of Egypt falls in love with her.  That’s no good.  Abraham thinks this is going to be trouble, so he tells his wife to tell the Pharaoh that she and Abraham are brother and sister.  Apparently  Abraham’s conflict leadership style was what we today call “avoidance.”  To make a long story short, Abraham gets kicked out of Egypt.

He goes back home and there he and his nephew Lot are both successful in business, which is good, but they can’t get along, so that’s bad.  To avoid conflict, Abraham decides to offer Lot a peace settlement.  Lot can go to the right or to the left and pick out whatever land he wants.  So Lot picks the land that has the best water supply.  Abraham probably felt like he’d been had, but he lived with the decision.  Abraham and Lot went their separate ways.

Unfortunately Lot, since he had settled in the well-watered plain, became a target and in a battle he and his whole tribe were taken prisoner.  Abraham has to save the day and with an army of over 300 men, rescues his nephew. 

And so it goes.  Abraham lives his life.  There are battles.  There is political intrigue.  There is the sadness of not having children for years and years, even when Abraham and Sarah both hear the promises of God, “You will be the father of many nations.”  Abraham and Sarah figure God needs help in keeping his promise, so Sarah tells Abraham to have sex with her servant Hagar, and even though she has a child, Ishmael, that doesn’t work out well at all.  Sarah finally has a child, Isaac, and in one strange event he almost kills his son in a sacrificial act. 

Abraham lives a life under the leadership of God, but it is still a hard life.  Because life is hard.  Life is hard.  As Kathryn Hepburn said, “Life IS hard.  After all, in the end it kills you.”

But Abraham followed God.  And the end, looking back, it has to be said, Abraham was blessed, and he was a blessing to others.

 But it wasn’t easy.

In the movie, Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone plays an aging boxer, long past his prime, and now retired.  In one scene he and his son are in an argument.  It is one of those painful conversations in which his son lets out a verbal assault against his Dad about how hard it is to live in the shadow of his famous Dad.

When he finally takes a breath and let’s father speak, the old boxer raises the palm of his hand and says, “You ain’t gonna believe this, but you used to fit right here.  Right in the palm of my hand…

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done. Now, if you know what you're worth, then go out and get what you're worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit.”

The 23rd Psalm says, “He leadeth me…” 

But don’t think for a minute it is going to be an easy path. 

In fact nowhere in the Bible do we read, “The Lord is my shepherd… He leads me in the easy paths.”  What it says is, “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

And the paths of righteousness are not easy paths.

Paul wrote a powerful letter to his coworker Timothy.  It is found in the Bible as II Timothy, and toward the end Paul, that great man of faith, the man who journeyed throughout the Roman Empire and made Christianity a world-wide religion, wrote with such heartache and despair. 

I am being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my death.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith… Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me…Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm.”

We all have an Alexander the metalworker in our lives, someone who betrays us and does us harm. 

Even Paul that great saint had such a man in his life.

Life is hard.

And in the midst of this, Paul’s darkest hour, he reflects on what is before him with sadness and despair.  But even in this dark hour, he is writing this letter to Timothy, to whom Paul has been a mentor, and Paul says, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people  and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of … you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the child of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

It is hard, but Paul tells his younger colleague, don’t give up!

Keep walking the path.  Keep following God.

So, how does that really happen?  How do you find God’s will?  You have an important decision to make about health issues, or you have to decide about a job, or you have to make a decision about the family.  How do you find God’s will?

Step One – Love God.  Be in a right relationship with God. 

You can’t discern God’s will for your life if you are not in a loving relationship with god.

Psalm 37:23 says when you love God’s ways, He orders your steps.

Step Two – Listen to God.  We do this by reading His Word, the Bible, the Scriptures.  Psalm 119:105 says “Your Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light for my path. 

Now granted, you won’t open the Bible and read a verse that says, “Take this job, not that job,” or “Take this choice the doctor gives, not that other choice.”

But the Bible does give examples for how to live life in difficult times when you are agonizing about decisions and their consequences.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Pray for your enemies.”
“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him…”
“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret —it leads only to evil.”
Step One – Love God.
Step Two – Listen to God’s Word.
Step Three – Listen to people you trust.  The people around you can help you balance out your own thoughts about decisions.  Proverbs 12:15 tells us, “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.”
We see that time and again in Scripture.
Proverbs 13:10 “Pride leads to conflict, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.”
Proverbs 11:14 says, “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers.”
Step Four – Pray.  And that’s not the fourth step that you do after you do the first three.  You do that constantly.  Paul said in his letter to the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing.”  (I Thes. 5:15).

In the New Testament letter of James, it says that “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God for it.”  (James 1:5)


Step One, Love God.
Step Two, Liston to God’s Word.
Step Three, Listen to the advice of others.
Step Four, Pray.

And finally, there is step five. 

Get moving.

I love that moment in Exodus when the Hebrews reach the Red Sea.  The Egyptian army comes riding over the horizon.  You know the Hebrews are thinking – they think the same thing that every one of you thought when you were six years old and Mom or Dad came into the room and caught you doing whatever it was they told you not to do.  They are thinking, “We are trouble now.” 

They turn to Moses and they lie to him.  They say, “Hey we didn’t want to do this.  Why didn’t you listen to us when we told you we wanted to stay in Egypt.”

Moses tells them, “Stand firm.  Pray.  God will save you.”

And then God tells them to stop praying and get moving.

“Get moving?”  Where?  Into the sea. 

And so they do. 

And the seas part.

And they walk on dry land.

And then the Egyptian army follows, but they are drowned and the people are safe.

I think that is sometimes the hard part – when you know what God wants you to do, and you have to do it. 

“He leads me in paths of righteousness…” 

It may be hard.

You may be led into green grass or you may be led into the valley of the shadow of death.

But God will lead, and God is faithful, and God will be there for you.

Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2012
All Rights Reserved