Tangled in Barbed Wire

There is a scene in the 1994 film Legends of the Fall, in which Tristan Ludlow, a Montana rancher, rides out into big sky country to check the perimeter of his ranch.  As with every scene in the movie, which won the Academy Award for cinematography in 1994, the viewer is drawn into the magnificent and sublime visual imagery.  It seems as though from outside this world.  Vistas are broad, colors are stunning, and (my wife would add) the fact that Tristan Ludlow is played by Brad Pitt only adds to the sweeping canvas.  The mythos of Montana is captured, and the viewer is very nearly drawn out of the everyday world.

But in this scene, the viewer is dragged back to earth so quickly that the experience is wrenching.  Tristan Ludlow, checking on the perimeter of his ranch, comes upon a bleating, young calf, completely tangled and bloodied in a mess of barbed wire.  The calf struggles to get free, but with each movement it draws the razor wire in on itself, increasing its entanglement and pain.  We don’t know how the calf became tangled.  Most likely it wandered from the herd, only to be chased by a wolf or some other predator.  The how doesn’t really matter.  The calf is lost.  It is trapped.  And with each attempt to pull itself free, it causes itself greater injury.

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I thought of this scene as I studied the Gospel text for today.  In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus locks horns with the scribes and Pharisees, two groups who live out their religious lives by drawing away from the everyday world.  The Pharisees draw away from the world for fear it will make them impure.  The scribes draw away from the world because they are establishment insiders who prefer to keep company only with their own social elite.

Both of these groups grumble at Jesus today, because the faith Jesus preaches is unlike that practiced by either Pharisee or scribe.  Jesus does not draw away from the world.  Rather, he is drawn to those who are in trouble, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.  He spends time being present to and offering grace to those who are in pain, and he doesn’t care how impure or on the outside the world may claim them to be.  One might say that Jesus, like rancher Tristan Ludlow, frequents the perimeters of life, seeking out the lost, those who find themselves tangled in barbed wire.

The scribes and the Pharisees don’t understand this.  So they grumble.  And in response, Jesus asks them a question this morning:

“Wouldn’t any of you,” Jesus asks, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you found it?”

I think we usually read this passage assuming the scribes and the Pharisees would have nodded in agreement to Jesus’ proposition.  But that’s not so!  In an impoverished place like first century Palestine, a landowner with one hundred sheep was a rare, rare thing.  And there’s no way that such a landowner would endanger 99% of his wealth in order to save the remaining 1%.  Translated into religious terms, the Pharisees would not risk their purity to help a so-called impure person in need.  The scribes would not risk their place of privilege in society to save a single hurting soul.  And so when Jesus asks his question, the response of the scribes and Pharisees is undoubtedly, “Are you crazy?  Leave 99 sheep to save one lamb?  What kind of sense is that?  What kind of religion is that?”

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Faith, for the scribes and Pharisees, is all about drawing away from the hardscrabble world, keeping their lives neatly ordered and preserving what they have.

What Jesus knows, though, and what even the scribes and Pharisees undoubtedly know in the deepest recesses of their hearts, is that there is no such thing as the neatly ordered life.  Those—then and now—whose lives appear to be neatly put together are often those who, just beneath the surface, feel hurt and tangled up spiritually and emotionally, like that hundredth lost sheep, or that calf caught in barbed wire.

Jesus knows this because he, like all the rest of us, experienced it.  As a youth, he struggled with parents with whose expectations for him he disagreed.  As an adult after his baptism, he was tormented and tempted in the wilderness by the Devil himself.  And later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was so pained at the thought of the coming cross that he sweat drops like blood.

Jesus has been, in his own way, that hundredth sheep.  He may not have sinned, but he surely knows what it feels like to be starkly, desperately alone.  He knows what it feels like for the cords of life to wrap ever more tightly around him.  He knows what it feels like to hang on the cross and pray to God for deliverance.  And because of this, he knows that there is nothing more important in the life of faith than to seek out the lost sheep and bring it home.  This is what he does for us, and this is what he calls us to do for one another.

In Legends of the Fall, Tristan Ludlow rides upon the calf caught in the barbed wire.  It is, for a rancher, an insignificant thing: one small calf among hundreds of head of cattle.  It would be easy to draw away and pass the calf by.  But Tristan leaps from his horse without hesitation and struggles with all his strength to loosen the cords that cut and strangle this frightened and hurting creature.  What makes the difference?  Those who have seen Legends of the Fall know that, though Brad Pitt may be beautiful and the cinematography grand, Tristan has suffered incredible pain and loss in his life.  In other words, he knows what it is to be pursued by wolves, to be constricted with razor wire that draws in upon him at every movement.  He knows what it is and so in a moment of his strength he responds, seeking to be a blessing to one in desperate need.


At some times in our lives we, like Tristan Ludlow, experience confidence and strength.  At other moments, we experience circumstances in life that affect us like emotional or spiritual barbed wire, and every attempt to struggle free only brings more pain.  We cannot be delivered by our own strength, and we must receive help from outside of ourselves.

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Remember, we are in good company!  Jesus himself experienced both extremes, and he meets us in both extremes.  When we are lost, Jesus seeks us to bring us home.  When we are strong, he empowers us to become the bearers of his grace to the lost sheep.  What an awesome responsibility!  It is this of which the scribes and Pharisees wanted no part.  It is this that they could not understand.

Jesus’ faith, and the faith to which he calls us, is the faith that is drawn to the lost sheep and the tangled calf.  This is the faith into which I pray we will all live.  It’s my prayer that we will share the grace of God in Jesus Christ with one another in these walls, especially when those among us feel lost and alone and experience the barbed wire of life entangling us.  It is also my prayer that we will ride out to the perimeter of our neighborhoods and this great city and seek those who are lost there, too, just as Tristan Ludlow rode to the very edge of his ranch.  Some may over time have wandered from the flock.  Others we meet may have never known the grace of a loving God at all.  To everyone we meet, I pray we will offer a way home.

We don’t go alone!  Jesus himself goes with us, because he knows what it is to be lost and alone, just as he knows what it is to be strong.  He goes with us.  His love can snap any cord.  It can heal all wounds.  And it seeks us out when we are lost, even to the end of the earth.  And for that, thanks be to God.

Does Jesus really tell us to hate?

“Jesus turned to the crowd and said, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’” (Luke 14:26)

This passage is what biblical scholars refer to as one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus.  It’s a party-stopper.  One can almost hear the D.J.’s needle scratch across the record.

I still remember the very first time I read this passage.  I was in my childhood bedroom in Paragould, Arkansas, reading the denim-covered Good News Bible I’d been given at third-grade Sunday school graduation.  That Jesus, meek and mild, would say such things confused me and brought me to tears.  I got out of bed, found my mom, and told her I wouldn’t hate her, no matter what Jesus said.  My incredulity isn’t much less today than it was circa 1980.  In a world in which hating one another seems ever more acceptable, in which disagreement becomes tantamount to a declaration of war, do we really need Jesus pushing us in that direction?  What does Jesus mean here?

If ever a word study in New Testament Greek mattered, it does here.  When, in twenty-first century English, we say “hate,” we mean something like “mean-spirited disdain and hostility,” a loathing that ultimately writes off the other as unworthy of our consideration or care.  That is not what the word in Luke today means.  Let me say that again: That is not what the word in Luke today means.  It would be out of Jesus’ character and out of sync with the entire rest of the Gospel for Jesus to commend us to hate in that sense.  So, what does Jesus mean, and is it important to us today?

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For fourteen chapters in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been proclaiming—and, more importantly, living—a Way.  He has shown grace, love, and mercy when no one else would do so.    He has denied custom; he has denied his family when they sought to silence him and bring him home; he has even denied the law whenever these things sought to stifle his words or actions of love and grace.  Ten chapters ago, the people of Nazareth among whom he was raised even attempted to throw Jesus off a cliff and shut him up permanently.  And yet Jesus has continued to proclaim and live the Way he knows is God’s hope for the world.  At each turn, he must leave behind someone or something he has loved—and still loves—in order to be faithful.

Now consider this (and feel free to use it as a conversation starter with your more Evangelical friends): By my count, in the entire Gospels Jesus says to those around him, “Believe in me” twice.  Two times.  By comparison, Jesus says “Follow me” twenty-two times.  Discipleship—following Jesus—is exponentially more important to Jesus than belief.  That’s not my opinion; that’s the repeated stress of Jesus’ own preaching.  And for my fellow grammar nerds, this is the imperative case, the command of Jesus, “not an ask, but a tell,” as my mother would say.  The Way Jesus proclaims and walks is not a way for him only.  It is the Way of God’s hope for the entire world.  It is the Way anyone who claims Jesus is called to walk with him.

Often when I study the Gospels, I sometimes try to imagine myself as various characters in the story, to picture in my mind’s eye what the action would have been like from the participants’ point of view.  (Try it sometime.)  As I engage in this exercise, I seem to return repeatedly to that buddy threesome from Capernaum who are constantly at Jesus’ heels: Peter, James, and John.  They are, in Luke’s Gospel, the first three people who tether themselves to Jesus.  Until Jesus meets them on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, he is a solitary preacher.  Forever after, Jesus is rabbi with disciples.  Peter, James, and John leave behind everything they’ve known to walk in his Way.  What would it have been like to be Peter, James, or John?  More specifically, how would Jesus’ hard saying today have struck them?  In order to know that, we need to look at a mountain and a garden.

First, we need to go back five chapters in Luke’s Gospel, to Mount Tabor, rising up from the Jezreel Valley.  On a different, earlier day, Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up that mountain, and on its summit they have a collective epiphany.  Jesus is transfigured before them.  The veil drops, and for just a moment Peter, James, and John see the world as it truly is, as God intends it to be, without shadow and without illusion.  It is the spiritual high of all spiritual highs.  The three friends are awash in joy and an eager desire to do something, to respond to this gift in some big and profound way.

We may never have seen Jesus transfigured, but very many of us get it on some level.  We, too, have had some mountaintop experience, somewhere along the way.  Maybe it was in church; maybe it was at a spiritual renewal weekend like Cursillo or the Emmaus Walk; maybe it was in the grandeur of nature; maybe it was at a vulnerable low point of health; maybe it was sitting in quiet solitude over morning coffee.  Regardless of the setting, we have felt so close to God, even if for just a moment, that the encounter worked its way into the very marrow of us.  It made us feel so good, so loved, so accepted that the background radiation of our epiphany has lingered ever since, so much so that it has perhaps come to define for us what our relationship with God is all about.  It’s what we want faith to be all about: a recurrence of that experience and that feeling.

Fast forward thirteen chapters in Luke’s Gospel, leapfrogging over today’s hard sayings at the halfway point, and Peter, James, and John again find themselves alone with Jesus in a garden called Gethsemane on the down slope of the Mount of Olives.  Their encounter in the garden has none of the hallmarks of the earlier experience on Mount Tabor.  Jesus is not transfigured.  Rather, now Jesus is starkly, abjectly alone.  Jesus has reached the destination to which walking in God’s Way has taken him, where his willingness to walk away from all the things in his world that push against God’s hope has taken him.  In the garden, Jesus doubles over in anguish so intense that Luke tells us, “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.”  Jesus seems horribly, pitifully human, and the scene is worsened when the mob shows up and drags Jesus away from his friends.  This is not the big and profound way Peter, James, and John had hoped—had believed—things would go.  And suddenly discipleship isn’t academic.  These three must decide if they can and will continue to walk the Way of Jesus, the way of grace, in the face of everyone—the mob, Pilate, the Jewish leaders, their families—who pressure them otherwise.  They will hesitate.  They will falter.  They will temporarily forget the joy and power of the Mount of Transfiguration as they are overwhelmed by the anguish and sorrow of the Garden of Gethsemane.  Now realizing that the way of grace requires sacrifice, and discomfort, and loss in addition to feelings of warmth and joy, Peter, James, and John must decide whether they will still walk the Way of Jesus.  Imagine yourself as Peter, James, or John, and imagine the jarring disconnect between the high on the Mount of Transfiguration and the low in the Garden of Gethsemane, from rapturous joy to stunned and hollow sorrow.  And only then return to a consideration of the hard saying in today’s Gospel passage.

The Greek word for “hate” that appears in this saying of Jesus–miseo–does not, it turns out, mean mean-spirited hostility.[i]  It means, rather, that in the case of conflict between Jesus’ call of discipleship and anything else, including our most cherished relationships in the world, followers of Jesus must choose the Way of the Gospel, which is always the way of love and grace.

The hard lesson learned by Peter, James, and John is that the gift of the heady and sublime experience on the mountaintop, which does indeed change us, is not given to us by God simply to uplift our spirits and buoy us through the world.  The mountaintop experience is given to us so that we have the strength still to follow, still to remain faithful, when the pressure, and sorrow, and anguish around us and in us becomes so intense that we sweat like drops of blood.

The mountaintop experience reveals to us that we are created in love and showered in grace.  And it compels us to live through love and shower the world in grace always, and especially when the political, social, familial grain would have us do otherwise.  The Garden of Gethsemane always eventually follows the Mount of Transfiguration.  They are forever tethered in this broken world.  We should rejoice in the mount and thank God for it, but we must always remember that the mountaintop experience energizes and sustains us so that we have the strength to follow Jesus through the garden.  These days, the Garden of Gethsemane seems to have extended from the down slope of the Mount of Olives out across the landscape of the whole world.  These days, it is so easy to despair of so much hatred, and selfishness, and vitriol that we sweat in sorrow like drops of blood.  But the world as God hopes it to be is also right here, just on the other side of the veil.  We have seen it in glimpses; we have been empowered by the gift of that vision; and we are called to follow the Way until the love and grace of God transfigure the whole world.


[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, pg. 292.

Maggie the Pseudo-Beagle

“Look at those spots.  I think she may have blue tick hound in her!” I said to my friend Bill H’Doubler, a fellow bird hunter and dog lover, as we sipped bourbon on my back deck.  If Bill was skeptical, I didn’t notice.  My family are beagle people, and since our beagle, Wrigley, was entering her twilight years, I’d decided it was time to add a puppy to our brood.  Strangely, there were no beagles available anywhere near our home in Roanoke, Virginia, so I began casting a wider net.  I purchased this puppy–advertised as a “beagle mix”–off of Craigslist.  (And thus was born one of Jill Thompson’s maxims of life: “Never buy a dog off of Craigslist.”)  I drove more than two hours from Roanoke to Bristol, Tennessee to retrieve her up from the back of a pick-up truck of a nice, vaguely methed-up fellow in camouflage.  He was late, so he knocked ten dollars off the purchase price, and I had the pup for $60.

We named her Mary Magdalene, because she seemed possessed of at least seven demons (Mark 16:9).  We called her Maggie.  As Maggie grew, it quickly became  apparent that the “mix” in her was not blue tick hound.  Her frame was thin, compact, and wiry.  Her disposition was fidgety and high strung.  There is, of course, another breed distinguished by its blue-gray spots, and there was no denying that Maggie’s non-beagle half was rat terrier.  And in Maggie’s case, the delicate nuances of her breeder (the methed-up Bristolite) seemed to ensure that she inherited the worst traits of both breeds.


When Maggie was six months old, I accepted the call to serve as dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston.  I made the move in February, and Jill and the kids wouldn’t join me until school was out in May.  I loaded up my Honda Element with a camp cot, Book of Common Prayer, shotgun, and Maggie.  For four months, she was my only and constant home companion.  I would come home after long days, she would greet me, and we would sit together on the kitchen floor as I ate microwaved chicken pot pies for supper.

As an adult dog, Maggie was alternately fearful and fearless.  Thunderstorms terrified her, but at our place in the country she would harass and chase cows–and a bull–with reckless abandon.  Over the years, we learned that there were three constants related to Maggie: She had occasional seizures, she considered other dogs’ poop to be a delicacy, and she loved me unconditionally.  And I loved her.  She was so odd and seemed so out of place in the world that she endeared herself to me.  Her nickname became “L.D.,” which stood for both “Little Dog” and “Lovey Dovey.”


Maggie and Mira


For the past several days, Maggie had been acting a bit off.  She ate her food more slowly, and she seemed, at times, almost depressed.  But she still loved walks; she still instigated wrestling matches with our other dog, a rescue named Mira; she still wanted my constant attention.  Then, around noon yesterday, Maggie began losing strength.  By 3 p.m. she couldn’t go up and down stairs.  By 3:30 she couldn’t stand.  By 4 p.m. we were in the car to the emergency vet.  With one look at Maggie’s gums, the veterinary staff rushed her to an exam table.  A quick syringe to her abdomen revealed that her gut had filled with blood.  Something inside her had ruptured, most likely an undetected tumor.  There was nothing the vet could do.  By 5 p.m, Maggie had died.

The apocryphal Book of Tobit was written around 200 B.C.  So far as I can tell, Tobit is the only biblical account–and surely one of the earliest written accounts anywhere–of a dog as a faithful human companion.  In the book, Tobias must make a long and treacherous journey.  Thankfully, God sends Tobias the Archangel Raphael as a protector and traveling companion.  But apparently even an archangel isn’t enough.  To make it in the world, Tobias needs a good dog.  The author tells us, “The young man [Tobias] went out and the angel went with him; and the dog came out with him and went along with them.” (6:1-2; 5:16 in the RSV)  Five chapters later, Tobias’ faithful, four-footed friend is still at his side.

From that ancient day to this, we love our dogs so.  I have read that dogs are the only truly domesticated animals, which means when given the free choice, dogs choose to remain in the company of humans rather than be on their own in the wild.  They are part of our families.  They are our friends.


The last photo I took of Maggie, a few days ago.

In the Thompson household, we’re very sad.  My daughter, who loved Maggie as much as I did and who Maggie also loved, is especially so.  Last night, Mira laid down on Maggie’s blanket, confused about where her friend had gone.

When I was in seminary, my classmate Bonnie Malone and I debated one another whether dogs go to heaven.

“Heaven is where we go to achieve our perfection,” I argued, “and since dogs are already the perfect embodiment of ‘dog,’ they don’t need heaven.”

“But Barkley,” Bonnie retorted, “It’s not heaven if my dog isn’t there.”

Bonnie wins.  Take wing, Maggie.  Chase haloed cows.  I miss you.