Our Good Shepherd

In spite of the unseasonably cold weather and the snow which had fallen north of the Illinois border, my dear husband and I made a trek in that direction for a few days. Though our transition into Spring 2018 has been an extremely slow process and patches of green were few and far between, the scenery along the way is always a welcome diversion from our daily routines. We sometimes take what Mike calls “the scenic route” in spite of the additional twenty or thirty minutes it adds to our drive. Mike enjoys navigating the county and small-town roads with their leisurely pace and quaint structures all along the way. When we make it to the winding byways nearest the cabin, Mike is in heaven. As for me, I enjoy gazing out the window for the duration. Oddly, though we’ve alternated between our two routes for a quarter century, I’m always fascinated by the things I see along the way. Regardless of numerous previous sightings, every farm and hillside reveals something new to me as we meander by. This time, it was a large herd of sheep which surprised me. The snowfall hadn’t yet melted away and this woolly mass stood firm on what should have been grassy green ground by then.

As I considered the determined band before me, I was certain that I’d never seen this particular pasture before. I refrained from pointing it out to my dear husband because I knew he’d tell me that we’d passed that particular pasture hundreds of times. Rather, I tended to my own musing regarding the amazing gathering which had caught my eye. From my vantage point in the car, each sheep seemed to be a perfectly coiffed specimen. Their woolen coats boasted every shade of beige. Though usually a nondescript color, the beige hues of these sheep accentuated their fluffy appearances. Their color also made them clearly visible against the backdrop of white snow beneath them. I wondered why anyone would send sheep out in the midst of this year’s stubbornly lingering winter. I quickly reminded myself that Wisconsin farmers know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to their animals and their crops. So it was that I dismissed my worry and returned to admiring these wooly wonders. “You have to love sheep!” I said to myself. “They’re just so adorable!”

As we drove on, I recalled the sheep with whom I’ve come into close contact over the years. When we visited Mike’s cousins in Croatia, they housed a few sheep on their property. When we visited Brookfield Zoo with our granddaughters, the petting area which includes sheep was a mandatory stop. Last summer, we walked among the sheep at Lambs Farm with our grandson. As I considered these close encounters with my woolly friends, I couldn’t deny the realities of their habitats. In Croatia, at the zoo and at Lambs Farm, certain “aromas” and other “realities” accompanied these seemingly cute and fluffy mammals. We had to watch where we stepped whenever we were near them. When we were close enough to check, we found that these critters’ “fluff” is actually wiry and rough at best. As I reconsidered the sheep we’d past a few miles back, I admitted that if we’d stopped the car long enough to take a walk among them, I might not have found them to be so lovable after all. Still, in spite of this honest observation, I quickly told myself, “But someone I know would do anything for a sheep!” Your and my greatest blessing is the love of our Good Shepherd.

In today’s gospel (John 10:11-18), John shares Jesus’ description of a good shepherd. Jesus respected the shepherds of his day because he knew that a dedicated shepherd was a treasured commodity. Shepherds dutifully guarded their sheep day-in and day-out. As for the sheep, they knew their keepers’ voices and they followed them closely when being led in and out of their pastures. A good shepherd’s diligence allowed his sheep to spend their days in safety. In truth, the shepherd’s uninterrupted presence was essential to each sheep’s survival. In Jesus’ day, no caring shepherd ever allowed his sheep to wander beyond his watchful eyes. Like the shepherds he respected so, Jesus also promised never to allow one of God’s sheep to wander our of his sight or out of his heart.

It occurs to me that in spite of the snow and cold, the Wisconsin farmer who allowed his flock to graze that day wasn’t far from his herd. Perhaps he sensed that they were as stir-crazy as we because of the lingering winter weather and he allowed them the fresh air they craved. Happily for us, Jesus the Good Shepherd senses our every need as well. While we enjoy or endure the moment at hand, Jesus remains to shepherd us with his comforting and healing presence. Though Jesus doesn’t remove the obstacles which are part of our human landscape, Jesus remains. It seems to me that our best response is to welcome Jesus’ company with a word or a “baa” of gratitude.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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Just Like Our Shepherd

While at the grocery store the other day, I met some friends who’d spent the winter months away. After I welcomed them back to beautiful Gurnee, they asked about our trip to Israel. They’ve traveled to Europe, but have never ventured to the Holy Land and were anxious to hear my impressions. This is the reason they patiently endured my fifteen-minute summary of the trip’s highlights. When I realized how long I’d kept them from their shopping, I apologized, thanked them for listening and sent them on their way. As for me, I breezed through the rest of my grocery list with a smile. After loading the car, I nestled into my seat, inserted the key and switched the radio to CD mode. Suddenly, I returned to our tour boat on the Sea of Galilee. While I imagined the hillsides which Jesus frequented so long ago, our boat captain Daniel sang of his newfound love for Jesus. These images remained with me for the rest of the day.

The house was quiet when I returned home, so I stowed the groceries quickly and headed to the study to begin this writing. Because we’re in the midst of the Easter Season, my mental return to Israel was perfectly timed. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the first two scripture passages focus upon the enthusiastic disciples. Peter and the rest couldn’t contain their good news regarding Jesus’ resurrection. They encouraged all who would listen to open themselves to the Good Shepherd who had paved the way to God for us all. It is John’s gospel (10:1-10) which addresses the nitty-gritty of shepherding and Jesus’ willingness to embrace this role on behalf of each one of us.

In Israel, I discovered that shepherds continue to work on the hillsides where Jesus once walked. Though some must secure other employment to supplement their incomes, modern-day shepherds take this work as seriously as their long-ago contemporaries did. They teach their flocks to follow their voices and their scents. Though a shepherd smells much like his flock by the end of a long day, sheep instinctively sort through the aromas in the air to find him. Christmas card images of shepherds carrying lambs around their necks suggest the shepherds’ affection for these little ones. In reality, shepherds carry wandering lambs over their shoulders until they learn their scent. This gesture indicates far more than fondness for a wayward lamb. It’s a life-saving effort.

John’s gospel tells us that for Jesus every effort on behalf of his sheep was life-giving and life-saving. This is the reason Jesus spoke so harshly regarding those who attempted to steal sheep. These thieves had no intention of caring for their captives. They stole sheep to use them for their own benefit, for food or for sale. They engaged in covert efforts to draw unsuspecting sheep into their grasps because no sheep would approach these interlopers on their own. On that particular day, Jesus referenced the Pharisees in the temple as similar robbers. Rather than getting close to the people, they set themselves apart. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, the gospel told of the Pharisees’ repeated questioning of a blind man whom Jesus had cured. When the man attributed this healing to Jesus, the Pharisees labeled him a blasphemer and banished him from the temple. Rather than rejoicing in the man’s newfound sight and the amazing future which lay before him, the Pharisees ostracized him in an effort to avoid giving any credence to Jesus. Jesus responded by making it very clear that there is no room for exclusion in God’s family. Jesus expected everyone who found himself or herself in a position of leadership to remain close enough to the flock to smell like them. This Good Shepherd of ours went on to ask both the leaders and the followers among us to remain close enough to him to recognize him with certainty. If we do as Jesus did, we’ll remain close enough to each other to know one another equally well.

One of the most important lessons I learned while in Israel is that there is great holiness to be found amidst the hustle and hassles of our daily lives. Wherever we were, local people hurried about their business while our guide led us to the amazing sights which, out of necessity, they had learned to ignore. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is surrounded by bustling Jerusalem while Solomon’s Quarry rests beneath this city. In an effort not to miss any of Israel’s treasures, visitors make their way as best they can to enjoy them. It seems to me that we’re asked to make our way as best we can as well. We’re asked to venture through the crowds around us with the eagerness of tourists to find one another. Like our Shepherd, we’re asked to get up close and personal and to care for one another as only you and I can.

©2017 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved