Sunday, May 20, 2012

A good shepherd (Easter 4 Year B)

Lectionary Musings Easter 4

Acts 4: 5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

This week I have been following a story from Farm Sanctuary.

Farm Sanctuary is now at three locations, two in California the other in New York. It is about an hour drive away from Ithaca. Andy and I sponsor a sheep named Donna and a pig named Terrin who we like to go and see. We love to visit Farm Sanctuary. We especially like to take new foster children to visit . . . it helps to show them why we do not allow meat in our home. (or to coin Linda McCartney’s phrase “we don’t eat anything that has a face!”) The love and care of the animals at Farm Sanctuary is obvious to all visitors. Of course, Farm Sanctuary is more than just a place that cares for abused animals. Tireless advocates work to change legislation on the treatment of farm animals, ending cruel practices and seeking to get factory farming banned.

However, the story I have been following isn’t about factory farming but about a small farm in upstate New York. The local SPCA called in Farm Sanctuary after they investigated the report they received about animal cruelty. (I posted the link with a short video clip on my face-book page this morning). The worst abuse was with the sheep (although probably only because they were the most numerous). There was a dead and decaying sheep, and 30 sheep and lambs still alive all in extreme condition of starvation . . . there was no food or water. The sheep with baby lambs were the worst as the mothers had sacrificed themselves in order to feed the babies.

So, after following this story about a cruel and neglectful shepherd. I read the gospel for today and found the story of the good shepherd. Christ was portrayed in this metaphor as the good shepherd. The one who cares for the sheep.

We talk in the community prayer about finding Christ in those we meet. In the Farm Sanctuary story it is easy to find Christ in those people . . . the one who made the abuse report, the ones who tenderly cared for the sheep in a filthy barn, the ones who gently carried the lambs to the transport van, etc, etc.

It started a train of thought about what qualities a good shepherd needs. If we are to be as Christ to those we meet we need to be good shepherds . . . all of us, not as is so often suggested only those called to formal ministry. We all need to be good shepherds to those we meet.

When I looked at those Farm Sanctuary workers I saw compassion. There was compassion for the hurting and the helpless. If we are going to be good shepherds in imitation of Christ we need to have compassion. We need to look around us and see where there is hurting and need. In Acts we read about Peter being questioned because he had looked with compassion on the sick and done what was within his power to bring healing. Not always the easy way having compassion on those in need.

Another quality a good shepherd needs is constancy. It is hard work to care for sheep. It isn’t glamorous, mucking out barns, making sure water troughs are full, etc, etc. I think the pictures we see of Jesus with a lamb around his neck and the caption “I am the good shepherd” do not do justice to the meaning of this passage. Actually I think they detract from it. Shepherding wasn’t easy in those times. Think about it, walking over rough terrain to find fresh grass, sleeping rough in the open air, drinking from streams (no supermarkets to buy bottled water!), eating what can be cooked over an open fire, keeping animals safe, protecting them from predators. The shepherd needed to keep constant watch, to be constantly alert.

Care, Compassion, Constancy . . . these are all needed if we are to be as Christ to those we meet. And, of course, this fulfills the commandment we read in today’s epistle “love one another” and more than that, “let us not love in word or speech but in truth and action”.

Apart from those thoughts, which were inspired by the Farm Sanctuary story, I must admit that I wrestled somewhat with the passages today. I found them disturbing. They made me uncomfortable.

This was also influenced by the events of the week. In this case because of some work I had been doing. I was writing the last two essays of my college course. The course was on world religions, looking at the rise of the pluralistic society since the 1965 Immigration Act. We live in a society where we work and have neighbours and friends who practice other religions than ourselves. How do we relate to them? What do we think about them?

In one of the required college reading books it was obvious that the author really struggled with what he thought about this. It left a somewhat confused message. On one hand he was very clear he wanted to see acceptance and tolerance and understanding between religions. He was of the opinion we could learn from each other. There should be no sense of considering the religion of others inferior. Yet, on the other hand, he was saying that he believed that Christianity was the “one true religion” and should be preached to all our work colleagues and friends. It was clearly a dilemma for him.

The verses used to support his latter position are reminiscent of the ones we read today, “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold” (John) and “There is salvation in no one else”  (Acts) The latter is very interesting, all through the story it talks about healing, then for this phrase the word is translated as saved. Almost feels like a bit of Christian triumphalism or exclusivism.

I think many people do struggle in these days with the question of other religions. I think they share the same dilemma as the author of the book I was reading. They want to stay true and honest to the religion they are practicing, yet want to honestly recognize the validity of religions of others. I often think that the religion we practice is an “accident of birth”. If we had been born into a different family, in a different part of the world and culture we may have embraced another religion in our search for God.

I am grateful for the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and others like him. They showed that one can embrace both one’s own religion and those of others without inner conflict. (some within our community have shown this too). God is bigger than our own imaginings. As the author of the epistle says, “God is greater than our hearts”.

I want to let  Thich Nhat Hanh have the final word. He says,

“Sharing does not mean wanting others to abandon their own spiritual roots and embrace your faith”

“Different religious traditions can engage in dialogue with one another in a true spirit of ecumenism. Dialogue can be fruitful and enriching if both sides are truly open. If they believe that there are valuable elements in each other’s tradition and that they can learn from one another, they will rediscover many valuable aspects of their own tradition through such an encounter. Peace will be a beautiful flower blooming on this field of practice.”

(Living Buddha, Living Christ p.196)

Blessings +Jane

Bullying (Easter 7 Year B)

It has been an interesting week.

Our work on the New Monasticism is drawing to a close. The book just needs a few finishing touches. It feels like our lives have been overtaken by this book for the last few weeks.

But this week we moved on. We started our next project. Together we are writing two books on foster care and non violent (re)parenting we hope to have the first completed in about five weeks. In addition, I am researching corporal punishment in the public school system. I am shocked by what I am finding. So now our minds are becoming occupied with abuse and violence and the victims of it.

Last night, Andy and I went to the movies. We went to see the documentary film, Bully. It was not what we anticipated, yet nevertheless was thought provoking and profoundly disturbing. We had expected facts and figures, statistics and interviews. What we saw were five interwoven stories, with mainly the young victims and/or their families talking. There was no outside commentary on it. All were intensely grieving. Two of the five families had children who had killed themselves as a result of bullying, one was a teenager, the other only eleven. The third family had a son who clearly had some developmental difficulties. Actually a smart kid, who had been born at 25 weeks, but he looked a little different. All he wanted was to make friends. He was being bullied to the extent that there were concerns for his safety expressed by the filmmakers. The fourth family had a fourteen year-old daughter who had been bullied continually. She was in detention as she had finally retaliated, unfortunately by taking a gun on the school bus. The final family had a daughter who was gay, and dressed like a boy. The bullying she received was so bad that the family ultimately pulled her out of school.

Then I read the lectionary passage, the prayer of Jesus in John 17. As so often happens a couple of words, or a phrase, jumped out at me. It was as if they were highlighted. The words were “protect them”. Jesus is praying to the father-mother that the ones Jesus cared for would be protected. I am reading this in a very wide way. I am not interpreting it as Jesus referring to the immediate company of followers but to the whole world. Jesus’ heart was to see humanity protected with an ensuing unity.

It is a theme that has been picked up many times in popular fiction and songs. John Lennon’s Imagine is a classic example.

I think last night’s film showed as a society we fail. Those who are weak or different are not protected but are victimized. It is a sad reflection on society.

When we do not protect we do not act as Christ in the world.

Perhaps, even more disturbing in the film were the clips of school personnel talking to the children. They, also, were bullying the children, insinuating that it was the kid’s fault and doing little to protect them. It showed that the parents, too, were bullied by the school personnel when they tried to seek help for their children.

One of the many books I am reading is called Dangerous Schools: What We Can Do About the Physical and Emotional Abuse of Our Children by Irwin Hyman and Pamela Snook. I suspect I will be using several quotes from it in my thesis.

The authors talk about how 90% of the population, learn at an early age that it is okay for someone bigger and stronger to inflict pain. He talks about how people love to watch movies or play video games where heroes win by the use of violence. The authors comment, “We are a nation of violence junkies.”

The movie highlighted a huge problem, which is not limited to schools. It is not one we will be able to solve. However, hopefully, our eyes will continue to be opened. We will see victims of violence, we will see the weak, we will see those who are different, we will see those who have no voice and we will be the ones to try and protect . . . to be as Christ to them.

Blessings + Jane