We are the sheep, right?
The idea of wolves and sheep as the dichotomy of good and evil is deeply ingrained in Western thought. The metaphor of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” has origins as old as time and is referenced in the Bible and countless times in classical and modern literature, music, and Saturday morning cartoons.
First of all, this idea of wolves vs. sheep just makes logical sense. We all know that sheep are vulnerable and weak. They have little defense against predators. They tend to wander off when unattended. That’s why sheep need a shepherd. The shepherd feeds them, keeps them from wandering off the edge of a cliff, and protects them from predators.
Sheep are much easier to take down than cattle and make a much bigger meal than a chicken. They are the perfect size and weight to make them an ideal target for a pack of wolves or coyotes or a big cat. Even a lone wolf can easily take a sheep.
The second reason for the popularity of the wolves vs. sheep narrative in the church is a warning given during the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:15, Jesus tells us to, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
I think we’ve all seen a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” situation unfold. It always looks different, but the end results are the same. I can think of stories ranging from fraud to sexual misconduct to murder.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the name, Jim Jones. He founded The People’s Temple in Indianapolis, where my step-grandfather actually attended services for a time, before Jones moved the congregation to California. Eventually he uprooted the church again and founded “Jonestown” in Guyana, South America. This was to be their paradise. Heaven on earth.
It turned out to be hell for everyone but Jones. Eventually, he would order the murder of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and four others at a nearby airstrip. Congressman Ryan had been investigating concerns of abuse and coercion by the cult. This event was followed by a mass-scale murder/suicide at the Jonestown compound. A total of 918 people (304 of which were children) lost their lives, thanks to the misguided passion of a charismatic revival preacher turned nefarious doomsday cult leader.
The wolf in sheep’s clothing ordeal isn’t always so cut and dried, however. It’s easy to look at someone else, especially after their spectacular fall from grace, and say, “I saw that one coming! He always looked like a wolf in sheep’s clothing to me…”
We always assume we are the sheep, which is why it’s a little more difficult to spot the wolf when he flashes his bloody fangs in the mirror…
It’s just like Splatoon...
There is a false dilemma fallacy at work here. Wolves vs. sheep. Us vs. them. The “good guys” vs. the “bad guys”. Which brings me to my next point. You are always the “good guy” in Splatoon.
For those who don’t have an inkling of what I’m talking about (See what I did there?), Splatoon is a third person shooter style video game on the Nintendo Switch (and the ill-fated Wii U), in which the objective is to cover as much of the play area as possible in your team’s color of ink or paint (or whatever it is) and to attack the other team in order to prevent them from doing the same. This is accomplished through the use of a wide array of “weapons” that range from sprayers and rollers to paint bazookas and ink-powered jetpacks.
My son plays this game quite a bit and I usually just watch. I’ve played a few times and I’m just terrible. At the end of each round, the percentages are displayed on the screen, indicating which team marked the most territory. Here’s the funny thing, no matter whether you’re on the pink team or the green team, you are labeled as the “good guys” and the other team is designated the “bad guys”.
This is how we approach everything in life. We want to shoehorn politics, religion, business, sports, and anything else we can think of, into this model of “good guys” vs. “bad guys”. The 2016 election cycle was the most toxic that I can recall and it revolved around this faulty logic. Each side tried their best to paint the other as the “bad guys”. There was very little talk of what anyone believed in. Hilary Clinton’s entire platform was “I’m not Trump”. Donald Trump’s entire platform consisted of variations of “at least I’m not crooked Hilary”. Not a lot to work with there.
The crazy thing about Splatoon (and many political contests) is that no one knows what they’re fighting for. The only reason you are going head to head with the “bad guys” is that you are the “good guys” and that’s what you are supposed to do. You fight the other team because they are the other team.
It’s completely arbitrary, which is fine when the point is just a few hours of mindless fun. There’s one problem, though. This isn’t a video game. When people’s souls are at stake, the “we’re good, so they’re bad” logic can’t be good enough.
We know this, yet I have seen more Christians bash people of other faiths (by far) than I have seen reach out and actually try to build a connection on common ground. We’ve been programmed to view everything as a dichotomy, which is just not how the world works.
For many, the convenience of this false dicotomy is bettter than the difficult truth of the all-encompassing love of Christ.
Three Sheep and a Lion
The truth about the wolves and sheep is that it isn’t the truth at all. The real story is a story of a lion, a shepherd, and three different sheep.
We are the sheep (even though we sometimes act like wolves) and Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We have concluded that this fact doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone else is a wolf, but let’s go a little deeper.
The Bible tells the story of three types of sheep that are all in need of a shepherd.
The sheep. The other sheep. The lost sheep.
If we are the sheep, who are the “other sheep”? In John 10:16, Jesus speaks of “other sheep” that are “not of this fold”. I believe these to be those who believe in God, maybe going so far as to be actively religious, but lacking a personal experience or relationship with Jesus. I will go so far as to suggest that the adherents of the other Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Islam) would be classified as such. They want to know the God of Abraham. I believe that if they are sincerely seeking God and remain open to his leading, they will be drawn into the beautiful truth of a relationship with Jesus Christ. These are the other sheep.
The “lost sheep” are simply unbelievers. Atheists, agnostics, and the “unchurched” may fall into this category, but I would also include Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahá'ís, Occultists, Wiccans, other Pagans, Satanists, etc.
Another thought on “lost sheep”... Jesus said he would leave the 99 to find the one lost sheep. From that statement, it would seem that we should do the same. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go after the lost sheep, but the problem is we don’t know which lost sheep to go after.
Only the shepherd knows.
Many times I’ve been pretty sure I knew who the lost sheep wasn’t. Many times I’ve been wrong. I would assume that the person in question wasn’t “lost” per se, they knew right where they were, but were perfectly happy there. Oftentimes, it turned out that was the person who was desperately searching for God.
There are certain sheep who are longing to hear the Shepherd's voice, but don't know where to look. (They're just sheep after all...) We must pray that God will lead us to these sheep. A connection with a lost sheep who is looking for the Shepherd is going to be 1,000x more effective than simply yelling the message to 1,000 lost sheep who couldn't care less.
Not only must we pray for guidance; we must pray for sensitivity to the Spirit. God can put that one person right in front of your face and not recognize them. Trust me I know. (More on that next week.)
This brings us to the lion.
The lion is Satan. I Peter 5:8 says that Satan is a “roaring lion” who roams the earth “seeking whom he may devour”. Forget about the wolves. The wolves aren’t wolves, anyway. They’re just other sheep.
Be vigilant regarding the lion, but not fearful. If the sheep are under the protection of the shepherd, they need not be afraid.
This is the importance of evangelism. It is our duty to connect with the other sheep. Sheep of a different fold. Lost sheep. As we connect with them, they will be exposed to the love of Christ and drawn under the protection of the Shepherd.
It all starts with common ground. We can’t connect with people any other way. It may be a daunting task, but we must rise to the occasion. Time is short. We have to close our mouths and open our hearts.
Common ground is there to be found, but actually taking the time to find it has become extremely uncommon.
1. Which sheep do I tend to treat like wolves?
2. How can we change the attitudes in our church culture that cause us to act like wolves ourselves?
3. When discussing religion and politics, where is the line, that if crossed, will damage or destroy my witness?
Check out the first installment of the (Un)Common Ground series here.
Exploring Your Discomfort Zone
There are many reasons that we give for our reluctance in evangelism, but in the end, they are all excuses for us to bunker down in our comfort zone. The “comfort zone” is the silent killer of evangelism. The average “evangelical” Christian does practically nothing that would be considered “evangelism”. Regardless of whether this is due to introversion, fear of rejection, or pure complacency, the culprit is the something we call the “comfort zone”.
Before we go any further, let me define “evangelism”. I’m not particularly concerned with the dictionary definition, but rather a practical definition of the term in the context of this series. In this context, “evangelism” can be defined as: any activity that is undertaken with the intent of connecting with a person of a different faith or a different variation of the same faith. Connecting is the key and developing a deep connection (not conversion) is the end goal.
Allow me to explain what I mean. We cannot convert anyone, nor should we try (I’m sure some of you will disagree), but we can connect with everyone, if we give it a little effort. Connection is an absolute necessity if you hope to have an impact on the world. If the light of Christ is shining through us, everyone we are connected with will be exposed to it. When we connect with others, we put ourselves in a position to share the love of Christ with them. We sow the seed. God gives the increase.
Unfortunately, the people we connect with naturally are just like us. Christian. Conservative. Liberal. White. Black. Hispanic. Rednecks. Metal-heads. Nerds. Jocks. It’s like high school all over again.
Connecting with people who are like us is easy. The more like us they are, the easier the connection. Connecting with people who are different is hard.
Can I let you in on a secret, though?
It’s worth it.
Connecting with people of different backgrounds and faiths is not only personally rewarding, it is a key function of any Christian who wants to contribute to the Kingdom.
Connecting isn’t a part of evangelism. Connecting is evangelism.
Nothing else related to evangelism can happen unless the person we are talking to has a connection with us. Sometimes this connection happens almost instantaneously. Sometimes it takes time. Whatever the case, a certain level of trust is necessary for the listener to let their guard down and really hear what we have to say.
Now that we’ve defined our goal, it’s time to wave goodbye to our comfort zone. On second thought, let’s just go ahead and demolish it. Be sure to “not leave one stone on another”, to quote the Book of Luke (albeit completely out of context).
It’s time to leave the proverbial nest and explore what I like to call our discomfort zone. This is where we stop putting our comfort first and start putting the mission of the cross first. The mission of the cross is about others. It’s about God. It’s about us. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is the story of God working and moving in ways that draw us closer and back to Him.
The cross is the epitome of this central mission of Christianity. When we are connecting with others, we are fulfilling the mission of the cross. We are taking the love of Christ into the world and we are channeling that love into the lives of others.
Who exactly do I find in my discomfort zone, you ask? Well, that depends on where your comfort zone is. For most people in my circles, growing up in a Pentecostal church in a small Midwestern town, the “discomfort zone people” were various shades of brown, they were politically or religiously liberal, they were Muslims and Buddhists and Wiccans and Baptists and sometimes they were other Pentecostals.
During much of my youth, there was an unspoken rule that if someone wasn’t just like you, they were off limits. They were heretics. They were the enemy. There was no fathomable reason why you would ever want to talk to them.
That attitude is counterproductive and undermines the mission of the cross. It's time for a new approach. Let's start with the mission of the cross and work from there.
Your discomfort zone may look different than mine, but you’ll know it when you see it.
For some of the more traditional types it may be people with tattoos or piercings. For the more modern (or post-modern) among us, the opposite may be true. At any rate, it's time to step out of our comfort zone and connect with a world that desperately needs to connect with Christ.
All this talk of exploring our discomfort zone reminds me of a couple of trips we took to California several years ago. Keep in mind that my wife and I were born and raised in southern Indiana. I was pretty open-minded, but I was also very sheltered. I didn’t realize just how sheltered I was until that first trip to Los Angeles.
One of the most impactful experiences of our time in California was helping with the weekly breakfast that the church provided for the homeless in the community. By “helping”, I mean that we broke bread with the homeless. And by “broke bread”, I mean that we ate breakfast burritos.
When we showed up, we were told there was plenty of help in preparing and serving the meal, but there was always room for someone to simply sit and eat with the people who had gathered there.
I had honestly looked forward to this experience. What I had envisioned, however, was standing in a line in the parking lot, dipping oatmeal into styrofoam bowls as the people filed through, the safety of the serving tables creating a comfortable buffer for my personal space.
I would do my part. I would feel good about myself. I would come away more grateful. But my personal bubble would remain intact. I would remain safely inside my carefully curated comfort zone.
That’s not what happened.
Once I realized that my comfort zone behind the imaginary oatmeal station was a no-go, I had to come to terms with this involuntary foray into my discomfort zone. I grabbed my breakfast burrito and sat down across from a homeless man who I would guess to be in his late 50s, although it was hard to tell, due to the ravages of hard living and years spent out in the elements.
As I sat down, I shook his hand and introduced myself. As I did, I glanced down at his hands. They were covered in sores, some of which were oozing. I hoped that if I flinched it hadn’t been noticeable.
None of the discharge had gotten on my hands, but my mind was doing somersaults. I was envisioning myself wasting away from one of the many terrible diseases to which I had undoubtedly just been exposed.
It didn’t seem to bother him in the least. A little ooze on the tortilla didn’t stop him from wolfing it down in the way that only a truly hungry man wolfs down his food. Everytime he took a bite, I caught a whiff of the alcohol on his breath. His body odor was offensive, but not overwhelming. It increased in intensity each time he shifted in his chair.
I was reminded of a story recounted by a missionary (I believe it was Bro. and Sis. Alvear of the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus Christ) that I heard at one church or another as a kid. (I always loved when missionaries would come to make their presentations. They were my childhood heroes.) This couple were somewhere in South America, where the wife visited a leper colony.
Now, you have to understand that leprosy is not just a terrifying disease; the effects of the disease are pretty disturbing. Open sores. Disfigurement. Loss of fingers, toes, and noses. Fortunately, this is very rare in most countries, but in some parts of the world, leprosy is one of the most demoralizing diagnoses one can receive.
While at the leper colony, this lady was invited by the people of the colony to join them in a meal. She was horrified as one of the ladies took a piece of the bread she had baked and handed it to her guest with a disfigured, leprous hand; open sores covering her flesh. This missionary was revolted by the sight, but knew that her chances of reaching these people would quickly diminish to zero with the disrespect of rejecting the bread that was offered. She whispered a prayer for protection and mental fortitude and took the bread with a smile.
If she could eat the bread prepared by those hands, surely I could endure the situation in which I found myself. He hadn’t even touched my burrito. That did nothing to stop the squirming in my brain, however...
I swallowed my pride and forced that first bite. We sat and talked as we ate our chorizo and egg burritos. Each bite was a little easier than the last. I don’t think I have ever seen someone so happy to eat a burrito. I know I’ve never seen someone so happy to have a conversation with another human being. He cherished that moment of connection. You could see it on his face and in his demeanor. The human connection was nearly as important as the food.
Neither one of us may have realized it in the moment, but the human connection was more important than the food.
Both the hunger and the loneliness were needs to be met and the people of the Lighthouse were meeting them both. Although both needs were met, the hunger would undoubtedly be back a short time later. The human connection had a more lasting impact.
The love of Christ that was communicated through the actions of the volunteers who prepared and served the food, engaged in conversation, and simply treated their homeless neighbors like human beings was deep and life changing.
That man didn’t experience any change in his social status on that Saturday morning. He would sleep another night on a concrete bed. He was still a slave to the bottle. He would be hungry again in a few hours. Nothing had perceptibly changed, but something not entirely imperceptible had shifted. There was something different about the way he walked as he pushed his grocery cart down Tyrone Avenue.
He walked a little quicker. More sure of himself. Shoulders back. Head up. Purpose in his step. I never forgot the impact that a little kindness had on that man or the impact that Saturday morning and the love of the group of volunteers (who gave every Saturday morning to the less fortunate) had on me.
If we are to truly make an impact on the world, these are the kinds of connections we are going to have to make. Uncomfortable connections with people who are not quite like us. People from different religious, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. People who we have been led to believe are the enemy. People who have been convinced they have no value.
Jesus loves them just as much as he loves you.
During that breakfast in Van Nuys and the outreach in Hollywood and the worship services on Sunday, I saw a love that transcended race, ethnicity, religion, and status.
Sometimes I dream of California. The nightmarish traffic. The weirdness of Hollywood. The beauty of the coastline. The posh life of Beverly Hills. Cruising down Sunset Boulevard. Horchata, churros, and bootleg DVDs in the fashion district. But mostly of the little perfectly imperfect community of believers in Van Nuys that showed me what it means to meet someone from uncommon circumstances on common ground and connect with them through the love of Christ.
1. What is my comfort zone?
2. When was the last time I willingly explored my discomfort zone?
3. Is the mission of the cross more important to me than my own comfort?
4. What uncomfortable thing is Jesus asking me to do to?
5. What can I do this week to try to explore my discomfort zone?
6. Do I know someone who is in need (spiritually or physically) that I can reach out to this week?
Who am I?
I'm a random guy.