Shepherds, work, and the interruption of burning bushes.

I have it on good authority that farmers work hard and I’m sure shepherds are no different, which is what makes Moses’ story all the more interesting. Some say bushes that spontaneously burn aren’t all that rare in the Sinai area, although that appears to be debunked here. Regardless, the fact that another bush was burning was perhaps more of a distraction than an attraction for Moses.

I have limited experience with sheep. The farm where Eva and I are currently living has three sheep and last week, while the family was away on vacation, we had to take care of said sheep. It isn’t all that hard — we had to take them out to the pasture in the morning, move them around during the day, and return them to their pen at night. It sounds simple but it was a little more involved than that. We had to make sure the sheep made it to their mobile pen in the pasture, a process that involves dragging them past much more appealing foliage to the foliage that we had chosen for them. It also sometimes involves chasing and catching said sheep to make sure they go where we wanted them to go. We also had to carry a 5 gallon bucket of water out to them and make sure that they stayed watered. When the grass in their moveable pen was consumed we needed to move them to a new location, sometimes ensuring that they had some shade. Daniel usually brought them in at night and his technique was running as fast as possible beside them so that they remained focussed on the destination rather than all the sweet grasses along the way.

I also recently watched Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime. In the show, Jeremy Clarkson takes over his farm when his previous manager retired. The show follows him along as he learns the ropes on what it takes to run a farm in Britain. One aspect to Clarkson’s farm is sheep and there are several episodes devoted to what it means to farm sheep, including being up at all hours to birth them, making sure that the mothers and lambs are all caring for each other while in the pasture, and moving them to a new pasture without them getting into the neighbour’s fields.

It is a lot of work for those of us caring for just a few sheep. How much more a traditional shepherd with a full-size herd that she needs to keep track of? [Just as an aside, did you know that Rachel is one of the few named shepherds in the Bible? Check out her story in Genesis 29]

Which leads us to the question, “Why would a busy guy like Moses take the time to go see the burning bush?” What made him realise that it wasn’t merely a distraction and was something work making him take time out of his busy schedule? The Bible doesn’t say a lot about Moses’ thought process other than to say, “I must go over there and see this strange sight.” There was something strange that attracted his attention.

Moses’ situation reminds me to ask myself if I pay attention to “strange sights” in my day-to-day life that may be God’s attempts to get my attention. [Note that God will always eventually get my attention, as I have written about here.] In what ways does my busyness keep me from opportunities to encounter God? How do I distinguish distraction from a God-encounter? Are distractions in fact invitations from God?

I guess one type of distraction is internet use. But while some of the things that we encounter on the internet may be strange, this type of distraction can’t be labelled a “strange sight” in the way Moses labelled the burning bush. The burning bush got Moses’ attention while he was doing other things that he normally did. It pulled him away from the usual into the unusual. So sorry, we can’t use Moses as an excuse for always being on the internet.

Another type of distraction is escapist fiction. Who doesn’t love a great story that takes you away from your present life and allows you to live in a virtual world of adventure, excitement, and love? I am currently enjoying Burrough’s John Carter series. But yet again, this is a type of distraction that we bring upon ourselves and is not the type of distraction that God introduces into our loves for his purposes.

I suspect the kinds of distractions that God tries are things that distract us from our distractions. Some distractions are actually a call back to the real world. They interrupt our escapes and bring us back to reality. That’s what the burning bush did for Moses after all.

Once, many years ago, while I was talking to a friend, my daughter came up to me because she wanted to show me her new dress. Did I look at her new dress? No. I saw what she was doing as a distraction from what I was doing. If I had it to do over again I would say, Excuse me, to my friend and take a look at Emily’s new dress. Perhaps God was saying, “Pay attention to your family.”

What I my response when someone talks to me while I am watching a TV show? Do I see it as an interruption or a call to engage with someone in real life? What is my response when I and deeply thinking about the solution to a problem and my wife approaches me with a solution? Am I reminded that we are a team and can work things out together, or do I feel interrupted? What about when someone offers me constructive criticism? Do I see it as a change to improve or as a challenge to my abilities? I must confess that I often get these kinds of things wrong.

So what types of distractions have turned into God encounters for you?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image Sandeep Kr Yadev on Unsplash.

Blending “real” with “virtual:” What significant virtual interactions are already real and what does that mean for the church?

The telephone is an embedded virtual interaction in society.

COVID-19 has introduced a whole new level of virtual interaction into our society. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t virtual interactions already embedded in our society.

I read a great article the other day by John Paul J. Arceno. While it focusses on the issue of virtual baptism, it also provides a good analysis of how the term “virtual” can be connected with church and church-related activities.

Arceno says, “It should be noted that there is a misconception that ‘virtual reality’ is not ‘real’. This terminology is misleading. For example, we can have “real meetings” with “real people” in ‘real-time’ — and just because the medium is Google Meet in cyberspace — does not make the meeting, people, or experience any less ‘real’ than one conducted in a physical room. It is a real meeting. This analogy can be applied to ‘Virtual Church’, ‘Virtual Baptism’, and ‘Virtual Communion’.”

This blending of the virtual and the real can be confusing at times and I do wonder if we resist virtual methods that are new. After all, it does seem to me that there are certain virtual activities that are considered real. I wonder if there was resistance to these activities when they first came on the scene.

Here is a list of normal activities that are also virtual activities (Some of these examples may show my vintage):

When you call on the telephone a girl to ask her on a date, that’s virtual. I remember talking for hours on our technologically-advanced phone — it had an extremely long curly cord that allowed me to find someplace private to talk. Likewise, when you talk for hours on the phone with your significant other, that’s virtual — but it’s also real.

When you read a book and get drawn into the story or into a conversation with the author, that’s virtual. When we read good books we experience the whole realm of emotions and we get drawn into the story. The story may be fictional but the emotions we experience as we read them are very real.

Love letters are virtual and have gone through changes over the years. Where it used to be a physical letter, written on paper, using special inks and scents, it can now be electronic — emails, FB messages, chat boxes, or texts. I spent many hours both writing and reading love letters while treeplanting in Northwestern Ontario and it was those letters that helped me maintain my relationship with my (future) wife. Of course I made some mistakes: Can you believe that I actually corrected her grammar using red ink? Good thing that she saw past that and agreed to marry me anyway.

Virtual has taken on new significance during the pandemic. Which brings me to a question asked by Arnold Cubos, one of my students at SEATS. He asked, “Is there a qualitative difference between the gospel presented online vs face-to-face?” I posted the question on Facebook and was intrigued by Mike’s and Robert’s responses

Robert Brown answered: “Only if you limit the work of the Holy Spirit or you limit the efficacy of God’s Word.”

Mike Swalm answered: “The qualitative difference in my mind is the relative inability to inhabit and embody the gospel online (truly embody). While i recognize and understand the hybridization of life (and rebel against it, truthfully), there is an embodied aspect to the gospel (think “bearing witness”) that I think cannot truly obtain online. I recognize various arguments insisting on the burgeoning online “space” as a place of true vulnerability, but without true embodiment, I see a lack. Can the gospel be “presented” online? Certainly. Can it truly be embodied? To a lesser degree, in my view.”

I think the answer lies in a combination of the two. Mike’s “embodiment” reminds me of the incarnation, which is the embodiment of the Word of God. John writes that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But it’s the word “Word” that connected with me in this context. Is there a connection between the living Word and the written word and is that embodiment? Jesus was only physically present on earth for just over 30 years so today we don’t have any physical connection with him. We may have a spiritual connection with him. We may have an emotional connection with him. We may trust him as our saviour. We read his words and recorded by the Gospel writers but we only hear his words as read and expounded through others. I guess that’s what we mean when we say the church is Christ’s body.

But how is that embodiment governed today? Here is where Robert’s answer comes into play: The Holy Spirit is our guide today. The gospel is embodied in us through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I guess I should admit here that for me as a Baptist, this dependence upon the Holy Spirit rather than a clearly thought out statement of faith or theological system is scary. But it appears to be what the Bible teaches.

So what does all this mean in today’s world of virtual church activities? Is embodiment possible through the binary code that runs the internet? Is there something to be learned about Jesus and the Holy Spirit through the networked nature of online? Can social media truly provide the social connections that we as humans crave? More importantly, how can Jesus be experienced through what we are doing today? How is Jesus present?

I guess a harder question to answer is was what we were doing before an effective way of embodying Jesus? Was Jesus present or did we merely present him then? How? In what ways? Or were we merely interested in informing people about Jesus? Does virtual + church help us or hinder us in this task?

What is your favourite real activity that just happens to be virtual?

Feedback is always welcome!

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Photo by @quinoal on Unsplash.