The first book of religious instruction I ever read was given to me in first grade. My teacher gave it to me; it was clothbound, not too large for my small hands, and not too heavy. I had grown up with stories, pictures, and songs about God and the world, but this first book about our faith marked a significant transition. The teacher and all the grown-ups who had read stories to me ever since I was a baby, now put the book in my own hands, and they began to teach me to read and explore and write on my own.
In those first days of school I wasn’t a reader yet, and so I looked at the pictures. On the front cover was a drawing of a friendly looking man in a long white robe. He was surrounded by sheep and he carried a lamb on his shoulders. On the back cover was another picture of the same man. There was a corral in the background, with lots of sheep in it, and in the foreground was the man in the long white robe. He looked very focussed and determined. In his hands he held a long stick with its pointed end raised against a snarling wolf. The wolf looked very dangerous, but the man stood between it and the sheep, and it was apparent that he would do anything to keep the wolf away from them. The title of the book was “The Good Shepherd.”
In my first year of school, I also learned a song that stayed with me through the years.
Weil ich Jesu Schäflein bin,
freu’ ich mich nur immerhin
über meinen guten Hirten,
der mich wohl weiß zu bewirten,
der mich liebet, der mich kennt
und bei meinem Namen nennt.
A simple tune and simple words, Because I am Jesus’ little lamb I am glad about my good shepherd who is my host at the table, who loves me and knows me and calls me by name. “Jesus’ little lamb” sounds just a little too sweet to my grown-up ears, but it didn’t bother me at all then. I had seen the back cover of the book. I knew this shepherd was a fighter. I learned that being Jesus’ little lamb wasn’t all woolly and cute, but a promise I could rely on.
In the first week of first grade, with a picture and a song, the church taught me perhaps not everything I needed to know about my own vulnerability and God’s power to save, but I learned what is at the heart of our faith: I am known, I am loved, and there’s nothing I need to be afraid of for I belong to Jesus. You are my shepherd and that is all that matters. I will never lack anything, and I will live being pursued by your goodness and mercy. You know me, you love me, you call me by name, and I am yours.
These words have shaped my experience for many years. They speak of a relationship that has defined who I am and who God is for me. Anytime I speak about life in a way that includes notions of purpose and meaning and fulfillment, I speak of Christ who has made me his own. Jesus has indeed been my shepherd, as well as the gate through which I pass again and again as I seek to live more fully and love more fully and know more fully.
Speaking of living more fully, one thing that has long troubled me is the decline of social ties in our society. A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles – and according to a study published in 2006 that’s more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people we have in our closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two. The study paints a sobering picture of increasing fragmentation and shrinking social ties. One of the authors of the study said, “We’re not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on Facebook … and e-mail 25 people a day, but they are not discussing matters that are personally important.” It’s like we are surfing very fast and far on the surface, but we rarely go deep anymore. And the crazy thing is, none of us want a life of fragmentation and isolation, yet that’s exactly what we are creating in our pursuit of the life abundant. Lots and lots of daily choices, seemingly insignificant in the big picture, create a world nobody actually wants.
The wolves, of course, are very pleased. They look friendly in their sheep’s clothing as they tell the lambs not to be part of the herd – who wants to be part of the herd? Make your own path, your own life. Who says you need a shepherd? You know sweet grass when you see it, when you taste it, don’t you? Have you tried this?
My friend Lary grew up on a sheep farm in North Carolina. He says sheep don’t run away, they nibble their way lost. They graze happily from leaf to leaf, some clover here, a little buttercup there – and moments later they lift their heads and look around wondering where everybody is and what happened to the community.
Ironically, the biggest herd of all are the masses of disconnected consumers with our eyes glued to high resolution screens on our walls, on our desks, and in our hands. Have you met Marcel? He sits with you on the couch when you watch tv. You don’t know who I’m talking about? It’s this commercial where the singer in an all girl band says, “Hey, Marcel, watch this!” and then she starts dancing across the stage. Next scene, there’s a basketball player dribbling with his back to the basket, just outside the 3-point line, shouting, “Hey, Marcel, watch this!” And then he makes his move and scores. Next scene, there’s the triple doppler radar woman who wants to talk about the weather tomorrow, but Marcel isn’t paying attention. “Marcel! Marcel?! Hey, Marcel!” She even has his name written across some low pressure system, but Marcel is flipping channels. Attention is a rare commodity, and hundreds of channels are working tirelessly to get a piece of it. Hey, Marcel, watch this!
The commercial suggests that you and Marcel purchase a service that lets you watch four channels at once on the same screen. That is fantastic! Now you can watch the game, the weather, CSI and some reality flick all at the same time, interrupted only by four times as many commercials to sell you sleep aids, anti-depressants, laxatives and more beer.
What does it have to do with Jesus? Nothing. Jesus isn’t just another channel. Jesus doesn’t shout “Marcel!” Jesus is the gate to life, and not just the door to yet another store.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
We know there are other voices that call us by name. Computers generate personalized letters for the mail, targeted ads that match our shopping preferences, and phone calls that sound like some long lost friend has finally found our number. It’s just a matter of time, and your tv or touchscreen will literally know and say your name in order to get your attention.
We don’t live in a world of shepherds and sheep anymore, but the metaphor still makes us wonder and helps us to think and talk about the life we have and the life Jesus wants us to have. We want to be safe, we want to belong and be known and remembered, but we have a hard time discerning the voices that call our names. More often than we care to admit, we settle for less than abundant life by making great sacrifices for just more of the same.
We don’t live in a world of shepherds and sheep, but we know the world judged in these words of Ezekiel and the world promised here:
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep; I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. They shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God.
I hear the voice of Jesus in these words, Jesus who has has come to seek the lost and bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. He doesn’t send out the dogs to round up the herd and take it to market. His sole desire is to gather us into a community of deep friendship with God and with each other. This is where life abundant is to be found, and he faithfully calls our name amid the clamor of our days. I hope and pray we will continue to hear his voice.
 Shankar Vedantam, “Social Isolation Growing in U.S., Study Says” Washington Post, June 23, 2006; A03 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/22/AR2006062201763_pf.html
 John 10:3
 From Ezekiel 34