The Lost Sheep

Luke 15:4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

This story begins with the pharisees and the scribes accusing Jesus of eating with undesirables and sinners. He responds with the parable of the lost sheep. If a shepherd loses just one of his sheep, he immediately leaves the ninety and nine and goes after that which is lost until the sheep is found.

This story is used often in religious settings in a boundary setting kind of way. Those who are found are those in the pews on Sunday, taking the sacrament, attending the meetings, doing home/visiting teaching, paying tithing. Those who are lost are not at church, or perhaps attending the wrong church. Especially so, if they were once attending church and have since stopped.  Are those who have never part of the flock really lost?

But I’m not sure this makes sense to me. It proves alienating to those close to me who have left Mormonism, some who appear far more found than I often feel. And that gets to the heart of it for me. Can someone be lost who actually attends church every Sunday? Can someone be perfectly found who never does? I offer that the answer can be yes to both questions.

Given that, let me put forth an alternative interpretation that perhaps interprets these verses a bit more literally: perhaps we are found, when we are found. Perhaps we are lost when we are lost. In this sense, the act of finding the lost sheep is perhaps both more difficult but also more straight forward. If someone is not truly lost, but we assume they are, the act of trying to rescue that person can cause conflict, confusion, misunderstanding and damaged relationships. If someone is truly lost, the act of rescue will be lifesaving.

Some examples. I have loved ones who have left Mormonism. But I don’t see them as lost at all. I talk to them frequently. We have a close relationship. We visit each other. They aren’t lost. I know exactly where they are. More importantly, they are well connected. They have friends, safety nets, careers, they serve in their community, they are striving in various ways, they are filled with love in their hearts, and they have a relationship with God and with others.

When I think of a category of people who are lost, I think of the lonely and forgotten elderly who are in the last years of their lives, often homebound, not visited enough. Now, there is a phase of life at then end, where this is not a lost state at all. You can be alone and perfectly found. I worry about those who are alone and lonely, sad, and scared. They are among the lost sheep and some of them sit in the pews next to me at church.

Network Theology

I have a soft spot in my heart for Adam Miller. He’s easy to like, a Mormon celebrity of sorts. In his book, Future Mormon, he has a chapter on network theology, where truth and essence is found in processes emergent in networks that exist in our global existence.  If we find God in our network, in our connections, than, it seems to be, we lose religion to the degree that we have become disconnected.

From Future Mormon

In network theology, an understanding of grace as an external, sovereign intervention is out of place. The model of a transcendent, sovereign power would be apt only if God were a king perched at the top of a cosmic hierarchy rather than a servant whose power resides in his solidarity with the poor and the outcast. What, then, might be an immanent notion of grace appropriate to a flat network cosmology?

Here grace can be understood as a systemic excess produced by the complexity of a network’s ongoing, local interactions. In other words, grace in an emergent property of a self-organizing system. Or, again: it is the unintended remainder of an unbalanced equation. This kind of ‘free,’ emergent excess – an excess that cannot be wholly accounted for by any individual relations or locally intended consequences – is essential to the success of any truth. Truths over-write banked knowledge by bringing into play the excess of a grace. By tracing novel pathways in light of a grace, truths open new network connections and new possibilities for productive interaction. It is the essentially productive aspect of any truth that ties truth to grace and grace to the promise of life (and renewed life) that is the heart of the Christian proclamation.

In this sense, then, what we should be striving for is not just individual development, but more importantly interdependent connections. Finding the lost sheep in this sense is to plug isolated individuals back into relationships and communities. Building up the gospel of Christ means connecting both religious (all religious) communities together in mutually beneficial relationships. It also means connecting secular communities into our networks as well. It means binding ourselves to each other both because of shared commitments but possibly more important because of our unique and individual differences and complementary gifts and perspectives.

Sin, in this sense is a move toward isolation. Think of any sin and consider that its effects are isolating. When I’ve been hurt I want to withdraw. Addictions usually happen in private or with strangers. A move to repentance is a move toward connection – we confess, forsake and seek restitution and where possible help others who similarly struggle.

But isolation just doesn’t happen individually. It can happen in our groups as well. Echo chambers happen within disconnected, closed networks of individuals in total agreement. Churches too happen worship in isolation, thankful that they have been separated from their brethren; believing that they have been elected God’s holy children.

For Christians, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Meaning, his life, his example is the way toward salvation. And Christ spent much of his ministry with the disconnected, the rejected. Christ’s mission was to build networks. I think this is the Christian mission as well.

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Sodom and Gomorrah

sodomgomorrah

Some Background First

First a few thoughts on Abraham as a historical person inspired exclusively from Introduction to the Hebrew Bible Second Edition.

“In fact, the stories of Genesis do not lend themselves easily to historical analysis. As Hermann Gunkel saw clearly, at the end of the nineteenth century, they belong not to the genre of historiography but to that of legend.”  pp. 89

Regardless of their historical value, the tales of the patriarchs remain powerful as stories. In large part this is because like all good folklore, they touch on perennial issues, such as jealousy between a woman and her rival (Sarah and Hagar) or rivalry between brothers (Jacob and Essau). Many of the stories are entertaining – Abraham’s ability to outwit the pharaoh or the gentle story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24. Others are tales of terror, in the phrase of Phyllis Trible – the command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, or Lot’s willingness to to sacrifice his daughter’s to the men of Sodom. When the stories read as Scripture, they become more problematic because of a common but ill-founded assumption that all Scripture should be edifying. The stories of Genesis are often challenging and stimulating, but they seldom if ever propose simple models to be imitated. pp. 93

The stories of Genesis are old. Legend has it that Moses was the author, but scholars now believe this isn’t the case. Rather there have been several sources producing multiple stories. These stories originated orally, passed down over a long period of time before they were eventually recorded, intertwining much of these stories into the one we have recorded today.  I’ll leave it at that.

I prefer to read these as folklore. I prefer to read them as stories about ancient views of God rather than about God directly.  I know there is real evil in the world, but I think we often miss context and I hold onto the view that we would view individual circumstances with a lot more compassion if we really knew the full story. For example, I’m not sure any city deserves genocidal destruction as is described in this story.

Abraham and Lot

In addition to the commentary mentioned above, I’m also using the Jewish Study Bible, which has some amazing commentary that really enriches the reading of this story. From that, I’ll quote extensively.

In Genesis 13, Abraham and Lot travel out of Egypt into Negeb. They were both rich, having a lot of “flocks and herds and tents” and so the land they occupied could not sustain them both. In their interaction, time and time again, Abraham shows himself to be the more generous, tolerant and forward looking of the pair. Abraham offers Lot the choice of the land, and Abraham would make do with second best.

From the commentary on page 30:

Abram is characteristically generous and conciliatory, offering Lot the first choice of land. Lot, by contrast, is self-interested and immediately selects what he mistakenly takes to be the best. The narrator’s comparison of his portion to the garden of the Lord, a place of disobedience and curse, and to Egypt, a place of exile and oppression, suggests the short-sightedness of Lot’s choice. His settling near the archetypal sinners of Sodom contrasts with Abram, who faithfully remained in the land of Canaan.

Immediately after selecting the land near Sodom, the land is engulfed in war and Lot is imprisoned. Abraham immediately rescues him.  Which immediately shows Lot’s choice to be the riskier, but Abraham rescues his nephew as an act of courage and compassion.

In Genesis 18 and 19, both Abraham and Lot are visited in succession by visitors from the Lord. In Abraham’s case, the experience ends up with Abraham being told that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed. Abraham, again with grace, compassion and an extreme amount of gumption, negotiates with God pleading for passion and mercy, eventually getting God to agree to save the cities if ten righteous people could be found there.

In Genesis 19, the messengers visit Lot. The commentary:

19.1-3, The contrast between Abraham and Lot (discussed above, on ch 13) continues. Whereas Abraham sees the Lord (18.1), Lot sees only His two angelic attendants (19.1). Whereas Abraham runs to greet his visitors (18.2), Lot only rises (19.1). Whereas Abraham offers a sumptuous feast (18.6-8), Lot offers unleavened bread (19.3)

and

10. Lot’s passivity is patent and contrasts with Abraham’s daring challenge to God’s justice in the previous chapter (18.22-33). Gen. 19.29 will make it explicit that Lot’s escape is owing not to his own deeply irresolute character, but to God’s reliable commitment to Abraham. 14. Wherease Abraham, taking the impending destruction with the utmost seriousness, functions prophetically in hopes of averting the catastrophe, Lot is taken for a buffoon even by his own sons-in-law and cannot save them.

Lot’s weakness and inconstancy would have done him in, had it not been for the Lord’s mercy on him (v.16). His weakness and self-interest, however result in the sparing of one town. (v18-22), whereas Abraham’s audacious and principled intervention (18.22-33) proved unable to save anyone.

Final Thoughts

So, as we all know, God eventually destroys the region, Lot’s wife is turned to salt, Lot’s daughters bear sons from his father (believing the world had ended with them as the lone survivors).

Lot’s heart I think is good, but he is weak and self-interested. Abraham acts with more depth, graciousness and compassion. When there is conflict over land, Abraham offers Lot the first choice. Lot chooses superficially, seeing the natural beauty and resources, but missing the risks of trying to live in a  hotly-contested, occupied land rich in natural resources. He is almost immediately captured in war. And then eventually loses everything when the entire region is destroyed because of the wickedness of the people there.

Abraham, by contrast, remains in the land promised him by God. He is quick to recognize God’s messengers. Quick in hospitality. Quick to think and act compassionately, trying to prevent destruction.

I’m not sure this story is really about obedience. Rather, it’s about kindness, compassion, wisdom, and understanding. Lessons that are learned over a lifetime of struggle, study, searching and growth.

I’m wondering if it would have been possible to save Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m wondering how the story would have been different if Lot had chosen to remain in Canaan forcing Abraham to find another place. Would Abraham have chosen Jordan? Would he have done better in finding ten righteous people?