Called To Be Shepherds

I truly enjoy the scripture passages we share throughout the Easter Season. They celebrate Jesus’ life among us by echoing his most important lessons. While Jesus’ message regarding God’s love for us is best taught by his example, his parables and discourses run a very close second in illustrating God’s affection for you and me. This is especially true this Mother’s Day. Today’s passage from John’s gospel (John 10:27-30) is a mere sixty-two words in length. It’s among the shortest gospels we read throughout the church year. Still, in spite of its brevity, these few lines offer a powerful account of God’s love for us. This passage portrays Jesus in his preferred role, that of a shepherd. The shepherd-mom in me understands completely. When Jesus said, “I know you,” he confirmed that his love reaches to our very cores and that nothing will ever change this. His followers understood completely as well. Just as I understand the relationship between mother and child, they knew the significance of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep.

Still, some of Jesus’ contemporaries resented shepherds. These hired hands had little education and even less money than their needy neighbors. The temple authorities looked down upon shepherds because their work made it impossible for them to fulfill The Law’s demands. Shepherds often failed to keep the Sabbath and to eat within the dietary constraints of their faith because they remained with their sheep most of the time. At the same time, wealthy sheep owners found dedicated shepherds to be indispensable. In spite of their meager wages, shepherds dutifully and lovingly guarded the sheep in their care day in and day out. The sheep knew their keepers’ voices. There was never any confusion when it came time to be led in or out of the pasture. Sheep spent their days in the peace that came with their shepherd’s diligent protection. Whether a flock numbered in the hundreds or could be counted on the fingers of one hand, their shepherds persisted in protecting them. Sheep in the company of a good shepherd lived their entire lifetimes contentedly and completely unaware of the danger which lurked beyond their pasture.

I find this Mother’s Day reading of John’s gospel to be well-timed. It encourages us to acknowledge the relationship between Jesus’ work of caring for us and our own work of caring for one another. What a comfort it is to be nurtured with selfless love! As for me, I find great consolation in God’s presence. Jesus’ words and works have convinced me that God walks with me everywhere regardless of the danger which lies ahead. Being cared for so completely has empowered me to try to do the same for those I meet along the way. The same is true for us all. Whenever we recognize that we’re cared for, we can’t help moving beyond our roles as sheep to the challenge of shepherding one another. We can’t resist sharing what we’ve been given. Fortunately for you and me, we needn’t look far to see how Twenty-first Century shepherds care for those they’ve been given to love. Role models of every sort surround us.

For most of us, these lessons begin with our mothers. From the moment we make our homes in their wombs, we change our mothers’ lives forever. In spite of the physical symptoms of pregnancy, these courageous women reorganize their homes and their lives to make places for us. Their persistent fatigue is no match for the persistence of their love. They love us and nurture us for as long as it is necessary and for a long time thereafter. God’s incapacity to forget us is mirrored splendidly in the shepherd-mothers among us. And what of our shepherd-dads who stand with our moms to offer us their love? We’re also blessed with shepherd-friends who consistently respond with just what we need. Consider the friend whom we see far too infrequently, yet who always picks up the conversation as though it began just minutes earlier. Whether it’s a bad hair day or a bad weight phase makes no difference because our friends love us. They attend to the needs of our hearts. Shepherd-coworkers support us in kind. When the tedium or the insanity of our jobs threaten to drive us to the unemployment line, these even-tempered and dedicated colleagues urge us on. Their smiles in the midst of trauma, their steady hands upon our drooped shoulders and their willingness to try just one more thing before giving up make all of the difference to us. Their company on the road to Friday makes our work week tolerable and even enjoyable. We accomplish much more than we might have because they are with us. Yes, this life offers endless opportunities for us to share our shepherding skills.

Shepherd-spouses, shepherd-children, shepherd-siblings and shepherd-significant others, shepherd-neighbors, shepherd-priests, shepherd-deacons and shepherd-friends bless us. Shepherd-coworkers and shepherd-grandparents, shepherd-moms, shepherd-dads and shepherd-volunteers nurture us. With them, we muddle through the unhappiness of life and we bask in life’s joy. Again and again, we find ourselves hoisted upon the shoulders of the our Shepherd-God who is present in the good shepherds around us. Afterward, we climb down, fortified with peace and a joy which simply must be shared. We straighten our own shoulders and stand tall, ready to shepherd when we’re called. Today, let’s echo God’s message to us all: I love you! Happy Mother’s Day and Happy Shepherding!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Shepherd

When I go online to check the local weather, I habitually check conditions up north. A few weeks ago, the forecast promised a bit of warmth in both locations. As a result, my husband and I drove into Packer Country for an overnight stay. Mike enjoys navigating county roads that wind every which way. Since I enjoy gazing at the beautiful countryside, I didn’t mind his taking the “scenic route”. I admit that though we’ve traveled the same roads for twenty-five years, I’m continually fascinated by what I see. Every farm and hillside reveals something new to me each time we meander by.

On that particular day, I noticed a pasture of sheep. Though we’d passed that pasture often, it seemed to me that the sheep population had grown exponentially. I interrupted Mike as he sang along with the radio to confirm my assessment. Amazed, he agreed, “You’re right. I’ve never seen such a big herd.” With that, Mike returned to his singing and I returned my thoughts to that amazing gathering of sheep. Usually, I notice individual cows or horses or sheep when passing such green expanses. This time, the herd resembled a massive bumpy wool carpet because the sheep were huddled so closely together. The only exception was a single sheep who wandered on the periphery of the field far from the rest. I wondered if this location was that sheep’s choice or the herd’s. I pondered that question for the remainder of our drive.

I gave a good deal of thought to “community” and “friendship” and “family” and “belonging” that day. Each of these are of great importance to me. Like those Wisconsin sheep, I enjoy being in close proximity to the ones I’ve been given to love. I find acceptance and comfort, security and support in such gatherings. There are times, however, when circumstances or events or differences of perspective urge me to withdraw. Sometimes, I choose to take my leave. Sometimes, I’m shown the door. Either way, I retreat as quickly and painlessly as possible. Still, what then? I considered that lone sheep who stood so far from the herd which should have been home to him. Had a few of the others eventually wandered his way to coax him back into the fold? Had he decided to rejoin his pasture family on his own? Did this separation last all day? Did sunset force him to seek safety with the others at least for that night? Did he reconsider and regroup the next morning? Did the situation end well for him? I will never know how that poor isolated sheep fared…

There is a passage in John’s gospel (10:27-30) which is a mere sixty-two words in length. Brief as it is, this passage is among the most powerful accounts of Jesus’ love for us. Those sixty-two words also provide potent consolation to me when I find myself in the position of that poor solitary sheep. The passage portrays Jesus in his preferred role, that of a shepherd. Jesus respected the shepherds of his day. Jesus knew that a dedicated shepherd was a treasured commodity. Shepherds dutifully guarded their sheep day in and day out. Sheep knew their keepers’ voices and followed them closely when being led in or out of the pasture. Sheep spent their days in safety only as a result of their shepherds’ diligence. In truth, the shepherd’s presence was essential to each sheep’s survival. No worthy shepherd would have allowed a sheep to wander alone as my woolly Wisconsin friend had. Jesus made his thoughts on the matter quite clear when he described the fate of his sheep: “…they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”

It seems to me that we all find ourselves on the outskirts of one flock or another on occasion. Sometimes we choose to remove ourselves and sometimes we’re led to the door by circumstances or people over which we have no control. This may occur in spite of our best efforts or through our own fault. Either way, we depart feeling quite alone. These are the times when our shepherd’s promise resounds in our ears: You will never perish. No one can take you out of my hand! Regardless of the way the rest of the flock responds to us, our shepherd responds with love.

I will never know how that poor lonely sheep fared up north or how his fellow sheep responded to him. Still, I do know that, regardless of the way our flock-mates deal with us, our shepherd will see to it that we fare just fine.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved