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How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire . . . with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” –James 3:5-6,9

One of the most rampant urban legends that pops up in every rural community is the certainty that a large mega-retailer wanted to build a store in town but “they” kept them out. (I’m aware of the campaigns against Walmart and Home Depot in some larger communities. I’m talking about spot-in-the-road towns that barely have populations to support grocery stores, let alone mega-retailers.)

angry-face-715449At one public meeting I attended where that statement was made, I looked at the gentleman and said, “Who is `they’?”  He stammered a bit and said, “You know . . .  `them’.”  “Well, who is them?”  I asked.  He blustered a bit more and then said, “Well, the city council, I suppose.”  Although I assured him that I attended nearly every council meeting and never heard a discussion or saw a vote taken to deny a building permit to any retailer, I’m afraid I never convinced that gentleman to question the source and reliability of fodder tossed around the local coffee shop each morning.

Although Christians try not to take the Lord’s name in vain, (Commandment #3), what are the limits on not bearing false witness against your neighbor (Commandment #9)?  Aren’t we taking the Lord’s name in vain if we pass along negative stories about other people–who are God’s creation, just as we are?

The most troublesome aspect of our tendency to criticize a vague “they” for the problems of a business, community, school, church, or country lies in the way those attitudes discourage and demoralize large groups of people.  Even people who are healthy, financially stable, happy with their jobs and activities, and have good personal relationships with their family, co-workers and neighbors can get caught up in mass hysteria when exposed to negative comments and attitudes.

Our best example of that fact?  Backbiting statements and innuendoes circulated about Jesus stirred up the crowd—and was ultimately responsible for his arrest and death.

We should take a stand against wrong.  That, however, involves getting our facts straight, examining our motives, and becoming involved in finding solutions that bring about positive change.

Psalm 139:44 is a sobering thought: “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” We should approach every conversation as if God is listening in—because we know God is listening in on our every conversation.

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“We know love by this–that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”–1John 3:16

I have always wanted to be asked to give a commencement address, because I have a piece of vital information to pass along to freshly-minted graduates.

Since I haven’t been asked AGAIN this year, I’m going to write it here instead.

Ready?  Here it is:

No matter where you work (and yes, the purpose of all of these years of education is so that some day you will have a job) there will always be someone who makes twice as much money as you for doing half the work.

(If you don’t think this statement is funny, you might be who I’m talking about.)

It might be a bit of an exaggeration.  At the least, you will have a coworker who makes approximately the same amount of money you do and manages to do only about a fourth of the work.

So why is it so important to me that the kiddos know this?  Because how you respond in that situation defines your character and attitude for life.  And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a workplace.  I know plenty of relationships suffer because one person works harder at it than the other.  I’ve served on numerous volunteer boards with people who worked as hard at their responsibilities for the greater good as they did at their “real” jobs.  And others who signed up just to be able to list the organization on their resumes.

So, when faced with those kind of people, we can respond in two ways.  We can get really ticked off and decide we’re not going to put out any more effort than they do.  Or, we can do our jobs and throw ourselves into our relationships to the very best of our abilities.

In John 10, Jesus says he is the “good” shepherd–not “good” as in “nice”, but “good” as in, this is the kind of dedicated shepherd you want taking care of your sheep.  A shepherd tough enough and courageous enough to go to battle against predators. A shepherd responsible enough to brave the elements 24 hours a day to keep watch on the sheep.  A shepherd gentle enough and sympathetic enough to lead sheep to safe pastures and call them by  name.sheep

A “good” shepherd–“good” as in “model” shepherd.  A kind of shepherd sheep like us should listen to and trust and follow.  A shepherd who puts the welfare of the sheep ahead of his own. One who loves his flock enough to lay down his own life.

Sheep, like people, do some stupid things when they ignore the shepherd and go off on their own.  I read a story several years ago about an entire flock of sheep that committed mass suicide when one jumped off a cliff and the rest followed.  (There you go–your mother had reason for saying, “And I suppose if all your friends jumped off a cliff, you’d want to do that too?”)

Moral to the story: If you decide you want to choose a fellow sheep for your leader, you’d better take a long, hard look at where he’s heading.

At any given moment in our lives, we are being led by who (or what) we believe in, and we are in a position to lead other people by our actions.

So here’s your challenge, Class of 2009: Show us what a world of sheepish leaders led by the Good Shepherd might look like.