Spirituality

It’s not always pleasant, following a shepherd

He ruins our plans and leads us through barren wildernesses, but he promises us a kingdom.

I myself will pasture my sheep. I myself will give them rest, says the Lord God. -Ezekiel 34:15

Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. -Luke 12:32

If there’s one thing the Lord has been trying to teach me in this hobo life of mine, it’s that he is God and I am not. That’s the reason he cancels my headline gigs, cracks my radiator, and gives me stomach bugs: because his plan is better than mine and he loves me too much to let me lead.

Again and again my Providence-led life has shown me just how much I wander away from the Lord. I prefer to make my own choices and more often than not the pierced hands of my Good Shepherd seem too demanding. So I follow after security or pleasure or vanity, ignoring the warning calls of the one who’s trying to lead me to green pastures. I don’t notice the ravine between me and the field I’ve chosen. I can’t tell that this luscious clover is actually indigestible. I don’t care that I might get stuck in that patch of brambles if I continue, in my stubbornness, to insist on pushing through to the valley on the other side. It turns out, it helps to follow a shepherd who knows the lay of the land.

But sheep aren’t as snuggly as we city girls might think and shepherds aren’t as gentle. We’ve all seen that image of Jesus cuddling a lamb and I expect that many of us think this is what Jesus means when he tells us he’s the good shepherd. “You’re cute and I will hug you!”

If you’ve ever spent time with sheep, though, you know that being identified with the willful, smelly creatures isn’t necessarily a compliment. And when you learn that the shepherd’s crook is used for knocking sheep over the head and grabbing them by the necks, the image of Christ as shepherd is rather less comforting.

When God says that he will pasture you, when the psalmist cries out that the Lord is his shepherd, when Jesus promises that the good shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep, there’s an element to the relationship that we often miss. “I will lead you,” says the Lord, “but you have to trust me. You have to accept my discipline. You have to go where you don’t want to go and do what you don’t want to do because you know that I am for you.”

So he leads us up impossibly steep mountainsides and through barren deserts, grabbing us by the throat when we’re about to plunge off a cliff and knocking us upside the head when we’re about to wander to our destruction. It’s not always pleasant, following a shepherd. But Jesus tells us there’s more than pasture at the other end of this journey.

“Your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom,” he says. This is no mixed metaphor; this is an explanation of just how baffling God’s generosity to us is. We’re worse than livestock, but he’s promised to make us heirs of his kingdom. In a world so used to the idea of the incarnation, it might help us to understand the shocking condescension of God if we remember that we’re sheep that he’s made crown princes. It’s ridiculous and bizarre and entirely too extravagant and yet it’s proof of his love: he has made us, his sheep, worthy to be called sons and heirs.

If all this is true—that our troubles are often the result of the shepherd trying to protect us, that his concern is a mark of scandalous love—it has to change the way we respond to the daily inconveniences of life. Maybe a red light isn’t a disaster but an invitation. Maybe a breakup is a crisis averted. Maybe the flu is an opportunity to follow.

Each time we respond that way, accepting the frustration of ruined plans for love of the God who shepherds us, it trains our heart to trust. And the more we’re conditioned to trust, the better able we are to throw ourselves on his mercy in impossibly painful situations. If God can work through a flat tire and a spotty wifi signal, he can certainly work through heartbreak and cancer and loss. Those are the times, I think that the shepherd does lean down to his poor, broken sheep and pick us up, murmuring words of consolation as he carries us past the disaster into the green pastures with still waters where one day our hearts will find rest eternal.

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Meg Hunter-Kilmer

Meg Hunter-Kilmer writes for her blog, Held by His Pierced Hands, and travels around the country speaking to youth and adults and leading retreats and parish missions.