In the same way one shepherd seeks after, cares for, and watches over his scattered flock, so will I be the guardian of My sheep. I will be their Rescuer! No matter where they have scattered, I will go to find them. I will bring them back from the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day (Ezekiel 34:12, The Voice).
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10, NASB).
I remember the service clearly, though it happened nearly 35 years ago. I was home in Ohio from college and, as was my custom, was in church on that Wednesday night. I knew there was a lot of turmoil in the church; the dreaded words “church split” were being whispered loudly by those in the know. The pastor, a spiritual dictator if there ever was one, had made edicts that were to be followed if you wanted to avoid being called a heretic. It was really getting ugly, but never more than on that Wednesday night.
The pastor stood in the pulpit and said, “I want everyone who is with me, who recognizes that God has given me spiritual authority over this church, to come forward now.” I hesitated but a minute; in that church, even to hesitate was to question authority and be a candidate for shunning. Seriously. So I walked forward with others from the youth group I had grown up in. We stood, youth and adults, at the front of the church.
“Now, turn around and look at those still in their pews,” said the preacher. We did. There sat but a handful of men and women, but they were men and women I had always looked up to. Two were elders. One was the manager of the Christian bookstore where I worked. “These are now to be avoided. Don’t talk to them. Don’t associate with them. They are Ichabod, meaning ‘the glory has departed.’ If you associate with them, you, too, will be Ichabod.”
Yes, this was an extreme picture of spiritual abuse, but it scarred me for a long time. Not just as it applied to church leadership, but to how I pictured God. This cemented for me the idea that God sat on a throne, and those who were on God’s side stood around the throne. Then God would point at those who did not stand with him and proclaim, “Ichabod! Do not associate with those who are not on my side!” We hear Jesus tell his disciples, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” And thus, I assigned all who did not believe as I believed, who didn’t adhere to all I had learned, to being against Jesus. Of course, the key here was all who did not believe as I believed. There could only be one correct set of beliefs, and those who stepped outside of those were against God. That included secular humanists, liberal theologians, those stuck in dead denominations, and, of course, all Catholics. If they wanted to get with the system, God might make room for them on the outer edges of his throne room, but if not, they were to be avoided in all things.
This led me to be extremely shallow in my theology, how I thought of God. If he was a mean and grumpy despot, I wasn’t going to ask questions that might make him angrier. I stayed away from thinking things through. I accepted what I was taught by those I was pretty sure were on God’s side. Democrats were trying to turn our country away from God? I’ll vote Republican. Those who spoke of feeding the poor were only interested in a social gospel? Let the poor fend for themselves. Someone wants to be saved? They had better get with the system quickly. Any backsliding would be attributed to the fact that the backslider had “never actually been saved.”
For many years my picture of God was one of a stern man who was not to be questioned. Don’t get on his bad side if you want to get by. If you didn’t believe the right way, you would be out on your ear. My Christian life was one of sin-avoidance and sin-management. I was taught to focus my attention on what I was probably doing wrong, and give all my effort to make it right. God was patient, but only up to a point. His patience would soon run out, and then where would I be?
So I weaved a really good Christian mask that I wore day and night. I couldn’t let anyone know I had questions, or that I felt inadequate, or that I still had desires to do the “wrong” things. I wouldn’t even let myself see the real me. The masked man in the mirror had them all fooled. Except in the dark, where I could hear weeping. And it was coming from me.
Is it possible to be both a Christian and at the same time to be lost? I only thought of the lost as those who had yet to believe what it took to stand on God’s side. You were either lost or you were a Christian. But now I have been a Christian for almost 40 years, yet because of the mask I wore for most of those years, I feel lost. I am in need of a shepherd, The Shepherd, to seek and to save me. The picture of a demanding God just sitting there, waiting for me to get my soul on his good side, will no longer do for me. I need the Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep who don’t need finding to seek and to save me, the one who does.
(Have you ever thought about this statement of Jesus? Are there really any sheep who don’t need finding? Of course not. Those 99 sheep are non-existent. We all need to be sought and rescued.)
For so long I saw God as finding ways to keep people out of heaven with demands and rules and his wrath. Now I see him as one who will do anything—anything—to rescue us. He is extremely creative in how he finds us in the midst of our mess. Our masks don’t impress him, or frighten him. I think they may make him laugh before he goes to work in his own timing to strip the mask away. Once the mask is gone, he holds us up to a mirror. Instead of seeing our own scarred face, however, we see the face of the Shepherd. The one who also said, “He who is not against me is with me.”
It has been a very long wilderness journey for me—40 very real years—but I am now hearing the voice of God as that of a loving Father rather than an vengeful king. I no longer (for the most part) picture God as the preacher who tells us to come forward if we are for him and against his critics. I am beginning to know him as the loving Shepherd who finds me when I am lost and guides me to green pastures.
Let us pray.