This past weekend, I went to a young adult conference. I was admittedly very cynical and a little anxious about it, but I went anyways. I have to say I am glad I did.
The final session was supposed to be about authenticity in missions, but the speaker (Miles Fidell) felt led by the Holy Spirit to completely change the subject after the first session that had taken place the night before. He changed his talk to the topic of anxiety, using John 10: 1-18 (Jesus as the Good Shepherd) and Psalm 23 as the major scriptural references. He started the session with a lot of talk about sheep. He discussed how sheep are defenseless in the face of predators and not particularly smart when it comes to survival. Sheep need a good caretaker to ensure that they eat, drink, and don’t become paralyzed under the weight of unshorn wool. Like sheep, we, too, need a Good Shepherd to lead us. We need Jesus. When we admit that we are not in control and that we are like sheep who need a Shepherd, there is a peace unlike any that the world offers. The Good Shepherd takes care of all the things that make us anxious in the best ways like only he can.
At this point, I really couldn’t help but smile and laugh quietly from my seat. First, this speaker was talking about anxiety when he had not originally planned to. Anxiety is an enemy that has a stronghold in my life right now. Anxiety almost kept me from going to the conference. Anxiety about work-related stuff and the future led to two complete breakdowns in the week leading up to the conference. Anxiety impacts my work, my sleep, my relationships, my energy levels, my faith, and every other aspect of my life. Second, he was talking about sheep. I currently work at a museum with two flocks of sheep. I have more pictures of sheep on my phone and computer than any normal person should have. I have spent time in a sheep pen, trying to film them even though they kept trying to get away from me, the scary stranger who invaded their pen. I have seen the farmers shear the sheep and I have seen the wool cleaned, carded, dyed, and spun into yarn. I may not have grown up on a farm or in an agricultural society, but I am very familiar with sheep.
Reflecting on the message after the fact, I really couldn’t help but think of our sheep at work. Every afternoon at around 3:00, our main flock of sheep is let out of their fenced-in enclosure and they run across the Village common to their nighttime home in the barn. There, they are sheltered, fed, and kept safe from the predators that lurk about at night. The sheep are familiar with this routine. If someone approaches the gate around 2:30 or so, they all come up to the gate, expecting it to be opened. Those unfamiliar with this daily routine (mainly, young lambs in the spring) simply follow those who do know the routine. It’s a sight to see:
While the sheep are familiar with this daily routine and they are going to a good thing (that is, food and shelter), occasionally they get distracted. Once on a beautiful spring day, we had a great crowd of visitors in the museum, many more people than usual. When one of the farmers opened the gate, the sheep ran out but some of them (especially the younger ones) got distracted by all the people around them (many of whom were laughing and squealing in excitement at the sight). They dispersed all over the town common, not really seeming to know where they were going. The farmers had to run after the sheep and carry some of them all the way to the barn where they would be safe.
How often are we like these distracted sheep? We know that our Shepherd (that is, Jesus) leads us to good things (the bread of life, protection from the evil one, etc.) but we get distracted by the circumstances around us. We see the situations in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and world or we compare ourselves to others and we lose our focus. We flee. We run from the path that our Shepherd has for us. We run in the opposite direction of the truest food and the shelter that he wants us to be in. We run away from what is gold and chase after what is fool’s gold. We run after plans, individualistic paths, and glimmers of what the world calls freedom. We run away and we do not usually realize that we are running towards destruction.
If the farmers didn’t go after the sheep who had gone astray all over the common, those sheep would likely not survive for long. They certainly would not thrive. Though it is a major blow to our pride, the same can be said of us. Left alone and to our own devices, we can’t survive for long. The evil one will eventually overtake us. We are like prey to be devoured either now or later. If we do manage to survive for a little while, we certainly will not thrive. Jesus came so we could have life and life abundant. Apart from him, true life is not possible. Thankfully, our Savior is also a Shepherd who cares deeply for his sheep, so much he laid his life down for them, knows each one by name, and will not lose a single one. He goes after the one that is lost and brings it safely to the fold.
“So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
(John 10: 7-11, ESV)
Sheep can also be a bit stubborn in their running away and ignorance. This past spring, one of the sheep ran away from the farmer who was shearing it and managed to escape capture for some time. Shearing is a good (necessary) thing for the sheep but it still ran. The sheep would likely feel much freer and cool in the warmer weather but it tried to evade shearing. Multiple farmers had to work together to corner the sheep and eventually get it back to the skilled hands of the shearer. How often do we run away from what is good for us (that is, God and His promises for us) like a sheep runs away from a shearer? I know my answer: more times than I can count.
Thankfully, the Good Shepherd is one who does not abandon his wayward sheep. In the words of David, shepherd boy later turned king, the Lord is a shepherd who cares for all needs, leads in all good ways, and seeks more than contractual business meetings.
The speaker at the conference also helped bring the often cliche feeling words of Psalm 23 to life. If the Lord is our Good Shepherd, the often recited words of Psalm 23 carry great comfort, and not just for funerals. For if the Lord is our shepherd, He is provider and provision. There is no need to worry and fret about getting what we need. A shepherd makes sure his flock is fed. With Jesus, not only does he provide, but he provides himself. He leads us to places of rest in a world that never sleeps and restores our souls. He leads us along His path and not our own for the sake of His name. Sometimes the Shepherd does things that do not make sense to us. He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. We don’t want to go there but He leads us there. The key is that He leads us through the valley – not just to it. In the valley, He is with us. He prepares a table for a relational dinner where it is easy to lose track of time because we are enjoying one another’s company, not just a fast food working lunch that will result in a list of to-dos and plans to act on afterward. Our enemies (even anxiety) are around as He prepares this dinner, but they cannot stand long in His glorious presence. And with the Good Shepherd, all of his sheep shall dwell in God’s house forever.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
(Psalm 23, ESV)
We are easily distracted and often stubborn sheep who are not in control of our own stories no matter how much we plan or try to figure things out – but we belong to a faithful Shepherd who knows how to care for his sheep and help them when they are in trouble. That is a splendid relief for the burdened and anxious heart. We may be easily distracted sheep, but the Shepherd never takes his eyes or focus off of us, our needs, or our ultimate good.