Monday, May 4, 2009

Which green pastures are good?

     One of the difficulties of being a shepherd is the fact that the animals are not particularly hardy. For example, in most mammals, when the mother gives birth, her immune system is usually strengthened and antibodies are shared in her milk with her young, thereby increasing the likelihood of the offspring’s survival. Sheep are not that strong. In fact, the ewes and lambs need to be separated early so that contagions do not spread quickly. Another survival instinct which many animals share revolves around their food. Many animals can simply “tell” whether the food is really nourishing; others, who may lack that ability, are able to shrug off poisons before they build up through regurgitation (we humans do this with some poisons, and we take advantage of the fact that rodents cannot when we poison them). Sheep, for whatever reason, seem to lack some of these survival instincts. As a consequence, shepherds must always be on guard against all kinds of diseases, bugs, and other pitfalls which beset sheep.

     One of the most insidious problems facing shepherds, though, is a worm which attacks the digestive tract of the sheep. The reason that the worm is insidious is that the shepherd does not know there is an epidemic in his or her herd until a sizeable portion of the flock turns up dead one morning. What’s worse, the worm cannot be seen in the field – the grass does not look infected. Place yourself in the position of a shepherd for a second. You are always looking for verdant pastures. Perhaps, you even have worked out an accommodation with cattle farmers. Cows do not eat the closer to the ground bits of grass, and sheep actually prefer that part rather than the tall part. You might rightly think that since the cows had no problems in a particular pasture, your sheep will be just fine there, too. And, lest we forget, you have helped the ewes birth a number of your sheep. Maybe in the beginning, you lacked that emotional attachment (they were just bought sheep at that point), but after a couple of seasons of midwiving, the flock has become truly yours. And, one morning, as you cross the hill to check on the sheep, you see up to a third of them dead in the lush field. As you rush to herd the live ones away and get them to a safe area where you can summon a veterinarian and get them their meds, you start going over your work in your head. How can I have let this happen? The field looked lush. The cattle that ate here showed no ill effects? Two months ago, nothing happened when I pastured them here. Why now? Over and over you replay your decision-making process in your head. And now, because of you, a number of the flock is dead. Your livelihood, as a shepherd, is threatened.

     Many of us find ourselves in the role of shepherd in everyday life. Those of us who are parents soon discover that parenting is much like shepherding. Children can be willful and stubborn. They often rail against parents’ seeming attempts to eliminate all fun, even though the parents are trying so hard to preserve their life. Those of us who manage people at work can find ourselves like shepherds. Yes, managers can threaten some with job loss, but do we really want it to get to that point? Few enjoy firing another person, unless the one being fired is a real jerk or simply terrible for morale. Let’s face it, as managers, our jobs are sometimes to teach the subordinates, and when we fire them we are admitting our own failures. Those among us who teach face many of the same challenges as parents. And even corporately, we face similar challenges. Our recent financial expo attempted to feed those most in need among us, and look what happened. Very few came to take advantage of the offering. Social workers perhaps understand this imagery as well as they deal with the weak, the forgotten, and the marginalized. Our doctors may view us in similar light. "Eat less; exercise more."  But we never listen.  Yes, many of us have ministries akin to shepherding in our lives.

     Psalm 23 ought to provide us with amazing comfort. Our Lord is The Good Shepherd. Where we as shepherds sometimes make mistakes, He provides and does so abundantly! As the Creator of everything, He knows precisely what is required. And He knows those things which can be hazardous to us. We might not see the brambles, the ravines, or the wolves until it is too late. Better still, God can and does provide all that we need in the presence of our (His) enemies. He is so in control, so powerful, and so loving of us, that He shepherds us through our enemies. True, many enemies can be imaginary or worse, of our own making, but there are enemies of God who like nothing better than to see His people fall so that the world questions His love and His commitment to His people. Still, the Good Shepherd is faithful. He provides for His sheep, and He calls them by name. He is among us, and He is always shepherding us through life.

     Brothers and sisters, He has called you and me and each person we know and meet into that kind of relationship. He is the Good Shepherd. And wondrously, mysteriously, He has asked each of us to become His nation of shepherds in the world. But, we must always be reminded that He is not just the Good Shepherd, but the source of life. When we trust in ourselves and our efforts alone, so often our mistakes can leave us like that shepherd who arises one morning to find that he or she has failed his sheep. But when we trust in Him, in His saving Word, in His streams of life, then we can lead others confident that He will beat down the brambles and feed us amidst our enemies.

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