Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Return of the Bell Sheep

seek Your servant,
for I do not forget Your commands.
Psalm 119:176, HCSB

Needless to say, I am the bell sheep of the story.  Two decades ago, long before the current season of illness that is its own sort of breaking, the Lord brought me through a period of brokenness greater than any other I have yet known.  A mentor presented the bell sheep story to me in the midst of that pain, and the parable gave me hope that brokenness was not the end of the story.  By placing my brokenness in the midst of a larger narrative, the bell sheep comforted me:  this uncomfortable place of shattered dreams was part of God’s good plan and meant to prepare me for a hopeful future. The Biblical persons of Joseph, Moses, Job, and Peter also encouraged me as examples of those whose wills and strength needed breaking in preparation for the fulfillment of God’s call.
For part of that difficult season, He removed opportunities for formal ministry involvement. I fought this until the mentor who introduced me to the bell sheep also introduced me to the idea that even the generally “good” thing of Christian service can become an idol. Much of my “ministry” had been driven by the pride of accomplishing “great things for God,” whereas He designed me to be satisfied only in Himself.  In mercy, He pried my fingers off the lesser good so He could take my hand and lead me to the greater. While He did not delight in my pain, He delighted in me too much to allow me to continue unchecked in patterns which would do harm to myself and other.
In that dark valley, I learned the preciousness of the simple truth that “I am my Beloved’s, and He is mine.”  My greatest delight had previously been being useful to Him, but through brokenness He showed me in His Word how He can and does use anyone and anything, from Moses’ rod to Balaam’s donkey to Jonah’s great fish to a pagan king’s sleepless night; from Daniel’s unswerving obedience to Mordecai’s semi-obedience to Judas’s outright betrayal. More than my usefulness, He simply wants me.
Brokenness slowed me to the pace relationship requires, that I might grow in knowing Him who knows me and yet loves me. The pain drove me to go deeper into His Word and prayer, not just to learn about God or as good religious things to do but as means of knowing the infinite-personal God.
When the brokenness began to heal, it left me with a new ministry paradigm, although I often and sometimes badly slip back into the old ways. The shift was complex and the principles not universal or absolute, but here is an attempt to capture some of the distinctions I experienced:
·         My unbroken service was driven by the agenda of self (or flesh or ego); “belled” service seeks to be Spirit-led.
·         Unbroken service ultimately seeks glory for me; belled service seeks to exalt Christ, “ringing the bell” to draw other wandering sheep to the Shepherd.
·         Unbroken service acts independently out of strength; belled service acts dependently (on God) and out of redeemed weakness and broken strength.
·         Unbroken service operates out of pride and what I can do for God; belled service operates out of humility and what He wants to do for and through me. The youngest piano student sounds good playing a Steinway (the piano, not the dog), but only the greatest artist can bring forth beauty from an out-of-tune nursery school piano.  His choice of me, with all my sins and frailties, as one of His instruments produces more glory to Himself as the Master Musician. 
·         Unbroken service is works-oriented, seeking performance-based acceptance; belled service arises from grace, producing acceptance-based performance.
·         Unbroken service enslaves to the opinions and approval of others and to the burden of saving the lost; belled service is free (freer) to rest in God’s smile and plan and to stick close to Jesus the only Savior as I lift Him up.
·         Unbroken service is ambitious, always seeking more, bigger, greater; belled service seeks faithfulness where God leads me, even if it seems no one sees but Him.
·         Unbroken servants get uppity, wanders from the Lord, and falls short of God’s will and standard; belled servants get uppity, wanders from the Lord, and falls short of God’s will and standard. Brokenness accomplishes many things in the Christian, but perfection is not one of them.
As I aim to follow Him, listen to His Word, and yield to His working in my life, He does not fail to bring opportunities – in formal ministry or otherwise – to bear witness of that, to ring the bell of testimony to point to the Shepherd who saved me.  He often brings people across my path whose needs uniquely fit the pattern of my experience of Him, and whose hearts He has already prepared to respond.  As one former trustee of Dallas Theological Seminary phrased it, “Ministry is what we leave in our tracks as we follow the Lord.”  Serve Him?  Yes, I do desire to serve Him, but not as my primary pursuit.  Rather, as I pursue Him, He leads me to the good works He has prepared beforehand. Sometimes, as with our invitation to co-lead and then lead a youth Bible study, that looks very different from what I thought I wanted, but what He gives instead is always more blessed. Sometimes there’s also an ease to belled service, like drafting in a cycling event. 
Also, let me go on record that this is just a parable, although based on an actual shepherding practice. Like all parables, the comparison breaks down if the details are overly pressed. The bell sheep story is not meant to advocate inactivity or passivity in the Christian life but a different quality of activity. Neither is it intended to present a theory of God's role in all suffering; it is a story from the agricultural world intended to offer hope that brokenness is an opportunity to know Christ more deeply and that it is not the end of ministry but the beginning of a different sort of ministry.
Furthermore, God’s pattern of brokenness is as individual as a fingerprint. For every soul who undergoes an excruciating, bell-sheep breaking, there are no doubt many more who experience a chronic but perhaps less intense breaking, others whose lives are punctuated by breaks, and even some graced with compliant spirits who only need the initial “breaking” of conversion and from that point are tender to God’s gentlest discipline. May we all be so tender and pliable in His hands!
Wherever you are on the journey, may the Lord meet you there. If someone reading this has never yet become part of God’s flock, may the Lord open your heart to believe the good news of salvation through Christ. For those who are in the midst of the agony of brokenness, may you find comfort in the Shepherd’s nearness and good purpose for this pain. For those who have never known deep brokenness and may find this story troubling or frightening, I pray that God would reassure you with peace and move this concept to the back burner of your memories until and unless you need its reassurance at some future date. For those on the belled side of brokenness, may you remember the lessons of the pain, stay close to your Shepherd’s side, heeding His voice, and find many abundant opportunities to testify of Him wherever He leads you each day.
“Now may the God of peace, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus—the great Shepherd of the sheep—with the blood of the everlasting covenant, equip you with all that is good to do His will, working in us what is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21, HCSB).

Resources for additional reflection:
  • The Biblical accounts of Joseph, Moses, Job, and Peter
  • A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, W. Phillip Keller - for a Christian perspective on shepherding
  • The Calvary Road, Roy and Revel Hession - for more details on living according to the Spirit vs. living according to the flesh. The Kindle edition of this one is free, as of July 12, 2011.
  • The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller - reflections on the gospel from the familiar parable of Luke 15
  • The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out,
    Brennan Manning - on walking humbly before God and receiving all as grace from His hand
  • He That Is Spiritual, Lewis Sperry Chafer - more on walking according to the Spirit instead of according to the flesh. (This one is also less than a dollar in the Kindle edition.)
  • No Little People, Francis Schaeffer - a collection of sermons by one of the twentieth century's great Christian thinkers. The title sermon looks at bell sheep ministry ideas in a sheepless framework.
With love and gratitude for you Crumbles,
Your fellow sheep tinuviel


  1. I love this post more than I can say.

  2. @Brandee Shafer Thank you, friend. Praying for your brother today.

  3. This was beautiful. Hard and just really beautiful. Thank you for this.

  4. "[the Shepherd] often brings people across my path whose needs uniquely fit the pattern of my experience of Him, and whose hearts He has already prepared to respond." for instance, me!

    the contrasts you draw between "unbroken" and "belled" service show me what my Christian service must and must not be--show me the ways in which it needs to be "de-idolized", and purified of ambition and approval-seeking. i also loved the symmetry in your idea that just as the Lord (primarily) wants and loves *us*, rather than our service to Him, we should (primarily) pursue *our Lord*, rather than service to Him.

    i do have a question about the underlying causes of the kind of service you call "works-oriented."
    if i understood you, you saw your own (ante-belling) works-oriented service, and perhaps works-oriented service in general, as driven by pride and a desire for glory. i'm sure pride and desire for glory are often involved (and are in my case). but i wonder whether sometimes there isn't also something different going on, which connects with your earlier post on when the honeycomb words won't stick.

    sometimes, people can have trouble believing that even God could find anything good or loveable in them. a person in this plight may not have the same difficulty in believing that something s/he could *do* might be good and admirable, and indeed be looked on with favor by God. someone in this frame of mind (as i at times have been) thinks of himself or herself as, so to speak, a silkworm: an un-beautiful creature whose redeeming feature is an ability to produce something beautiful (silk). if you are thinking about yourself this way, it's easy to think (whether consciously or not quite consciously) that producing the "silk" of good works is as it were, the only way of "justifying your existence", and the best thing you can do for God: if there's nothing good in you, then offering your *self* to God--as opposed to your good works--isn't offering Him anything of value.

    this suggests that the kind of works-oriented service the sheep went in for before she was belled may have causes very different from the hubris that (last week you said) led the sheep to stray. does this make sense?

    to paraphrase Brandee, these posts have blessed me more than i can say...

  5. @chris I'm grateful for your kind words and the thought you evidently give both to reading the post and to composing your comments.

    You have explained your question very well, and I think I understand what you're getting at. Actually, during my "broken leg" period, I was one of those souls of whom you speak who "have trouble believing that even God could find anything good or loveable in them." It is a desperate plight to feel so, and I do not in any way wish to minimize or make light of that emotional pain.

    My thoughts in reply tend in a pretty clear general direction, but I'm not sure how to articulate it yet and want to test the limb a bit before I crawl out on it. Lord willing, I'll get back to you soon.

  6. I like how you said, "Brokenness slowed me to the pace relationship requires" - The last 2 years were a period of isolation (in a move) where my reliance on and relationship with the Father was often the only thing I had to sustain me. I learned to "be" with God - and He took me down different paths to different tasks. We just moved back "home" - and my life is totally different now - my purpose and my walk - it is different:)

  7. @bluecottonmemory Thanks be to God for His faithfulness in all the different seasons. I'm glad He used the isolation and pray He blesses you with the love of community in this new season (yet without losing even a smidgen of the blessings of the aloneness with Him). Thanks for coming by!

  8. What a beautiful testimony. I especially love the contrasts of unbroken to belled service/servants. "God's pattern of brokenness is as individual as a fingerprint," is so good too. He's able to design and attend to each of us sheep in ways beyond our comprehension.
    A blessed weekend to you.

  9. @Amy I thank God this encouraged you. Yes, His attention is so very individual and personal. He loves us well, even when it hurts.

    A blessed weekend to you, too!


Thank you for sharing your day with me! Your presence here is a gift. *You* are a gift. Right now I am unable to reply to every comment, but please know I read and pray for each and every commenter. Grace and peace to you in Christ.