This past weekend I had the pleasure of listening to author Mary DeMuth speak to a small crowd of conference attendees in Chicago. While I was only able to hear the last of her three nights of ministry, I’m certain that it must have been her best, because I can’t stop thinking about the theme: Drink from the Well: Jesus.
After beginning her talk with the questions Who is Jesus? and Who are we as a body of Christ followers?, Mary shared an illustration that I am still digesting four days later. She told us that a shepherd in Australia once told her there are just two ways to keep sheep near: build a fence or dig a well.
Hmm. Intriguing, I thought as I sat in my auditorium fold-down seat. How does a well help a shepherd tend–and keep–his sheep? I mean, besides the obvious benefit of their not dying of thirst.
In the well vs. fence theory, a shepherd choosing to build a fence keeps his sheep close to him by preventing their departure and by keeping others out. The sheep he cares for are well-defined; any passer-by knows to whom they belong, but likewise, the passer-by does not have access to the shepherd. The shepherd is inside the fence with his flock, not outside with the passer-by.
On the other hand, digging a well means that any sheep can come and draw water. Any sheep has access to the shepherd. And instead of marking each sheep as “in” or “out,” this perspective invites us to consider that some are close–perhaps intimately close–to the shepherd, while others remain far off. Even lost. I’m adding Mary’s graphic below to help your thinking:
As Mary continued with her talk, she qualified these theories by saying that “of course this well theory doesn’t mean that ‘anybody’ can get into heaven,” and she affirmed Christ as the only way to salvation. But even without these footnotes, I was already thinking about how drawing closer to the well and viewing our faith in this new way was going to require a new way of thinking. Because in the “centered set,” as Mary terms it, there is no “us” and “them.” No fences. No rejection. Just the admission that some are near and some are not.
So why is way of thinking hard to get our minds around? Even though most of us generally don’t want to espouse an us/them worldview, some might be brave enough to admit to thinking it even if we never verbalize those thoughts. Look at the “Bound Set.” If you had to list the in and out’s, could you come up with a few names or groups?
The tricky thing about the fence theory, though, is that it is quite easy, and perhaps almost an inborn tendency, to count others’ sins against them as being worse than your own. Yes, I may be greedy, but at least I don’t _________. Or, Well, OK, I might be a glutton when it comes to Costco’s Gourmet Chocolate Chunk Cookies, but who isn’t?! I mean, it’s not like I’m polishing off a fifth of whiskey after dinner or ___________! You get the idea. We shrink our own sins in comparison to others’. We take ourselves out of the equation.
We Christians like to say that we believe that all sins are equal; that we’re all stained and imperfect and unworthy when compared to a Holy God. That except for the atoning blood and sacrifice of Christ, we’d all be lost, forever separated from the Father. We all believe that on paper. We stand up and say it and we believe that.
But then why is it so hard for us to tear down our fences? Why is it so hard to act on the fact that Christ wishes for no one to perish? Is it because we believe that an unrepentant person belongs on the outside? Is it because we know that not everyone’s going to heaven, so why not start drawing teams right now? Get the jerseys ready and hit the courts? Start keeping score? Doling out penalties and fouls?
Mary then asked us to describe the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Hands shot up: They prayed [albeit vying for attention], they fasted, they tithed, they knew their Scriptures, they wanted to obey the Law… She stopped calling for contributions and let us sit in the silence. I could feel what was coming.
“Doesn’t that sound like a lot of the good Christian people you know?…Think about it…AND YET, they *missed* Jesus. They missed Him! For all their prayers and Scripture reading and tithing and fasting, they missed Him.”
Could this describe me? Could it describe you? Your church community? With which theory do you most identify? The idea that some are in, and some are out–with no chance of redemption? Or the idea that redemption is possible–for anyone–if they only draw close to the Well?
Sit with this for a few minutes. Or four days. I’m not asking those questions rhetorically; I’d love to hear your thoughts, one philosopher to another.