I was reflecting the other day on the individuals who have had the most lasting, and most positive influence on my life. You will yourselves have people who were similarly significant for you, too – whether they were family members or football coaches. And in my own case, I can readily identify three particular individuals to whom I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude for that reason.
The first was a schoolteacher. In the days when I was a surly, indolent, non-compliant, school-hating teenage Comprehensive school pupil, she brought her subject alive for me. She was the first person I had ever met who had a real intellectual life. And despite my dreadful attitude and my appalling behaviour, she didn’t write me off. On the contrary – it is entirely down to her influence, her help, and her support that I ever got to university.
The second was a University lecturer, who was an absolute inspiration to me, and also an unfailing source of encouragement and support. And the third was a clergyman, who introduced me to the Christian faith in a way that blew apart all the prejudices and negative assumptions that I had previously harboured about Christianity, and as a result utterly transformed my life – and who also ended up discerning my vocation to the ordained ministry even before I did.
And I found myself reflecting on what these three very different individuals, all from very different parts of my life, had in common. Interestingly, at the time I first knew them they were all relatively young – aged in their late twenties – and they were all fairly junior in the posts that they then held. For that reason, they felt accessible, rather than remote. (And incidentally, one of the things that one discovers over time, is that you do not have to be old to be wise.)
In addition, they were also all people who knew their stuff and cared passionately about the importance of what they did – two of them as teachers, one as a priest. And their quiet but confident enthusiasm touched my soul and drew me in. And somewhere along the line, each one of them earned my trust as well as my respect.
They were all people who saw things in me that, at the time, I was completely unable to see for myself: variously my intellectual ability, my academic potential and my vocation to ministry. And in doing so, they also brought out the best in me. Because I ended up wanting to do well for them – not in an ingratiating way, but rather as a token of the love and respect I had, and still have, for each one of them.
Now the reason why I was thinking about all of this came out of my reflection on today’s Gospel reading, and in particular the metaphor that Jesus frequently uses of sheep and shepherding.
I can remember it coming as a total revelation to me to discover that in the Middle East, shepherds do not drive their sheep from behind, as tends to happen in this part of the world, but rather they lead them from the front. They lead, and the sheep follow. And, of course, you cannot force sheep to do that. If they follow the shepherd it is because they have chosen to do so. And the only reason they will do so is because that shepherd has earned their trust. They feel safe with him – a sense of safety and trust that is born of relationship; that is earned through lived experience.
And underlying that trust is a conviction that the shepherd has their best interests at heart. Hence the references in the 23rd Psalm, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me…’
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus distinguishes between those who are, and are not members of his own flock, saying ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life.’ People follow Jesus because they know him and recognise him, but always and only because they choose to do so.
A faith that worships the true and living and loving God, can never be a faith that is in any way coercive, or judgmental, or hard-hearted, or cruel. Because scripture tells us that God is simply not like that. Ours is a God who leads us, rather than drives us; and who can lead his people because he has shown himself to be trustworthy and true. And he is also a God who knows us and calls us by name; a God who knows us better than we know ourselves; and who can see in each one of us the person that we could become, if only we could leave behind the fears that hold us back, and keep us in chains – and instead learn to trust.
All of which sounds wonderful and liberating and life-transforming – yet sometimes that reality can be hard to grasp, particularly when life is more full of shadows than light, and when God feels more marked by his absence than his presence.
But it is important here to look at the shepherding metaphor the other way round, too. Because if God is to us as a shepherd; that means we have to look at ourselves as sheep. And one of the characteristics of sheep is that their world view is extremely limited. Like little children, they major on having their immediate needs met. They can see the patch of grass that is immediately before them, but often with no recognition at all of the danger they might put themselves in when they reach for the next crag – the crag that is just beyond their reach. Sheep have a habit of getting into scrapes and needing to be rescued; but so limited is their understanding, and so restricted their horizons, that the prospect and process of rescue can feel far more grievous to them than the danger they may or may not realise they are already in.
And it can feel like that to us, too, sometimes. We can only ever see the world and our place within it from our limited human perspective – so we can also fail to recognise the dangers we may be in. And sometimes we can also mistake the difficult but necessary process of rescue for another kind of threat – which is why, paradoxically, we can end up resisting God’s love and grace when actually it is there to help us.
A wonderful poem by the Welsh poet, Ruth Bidgood, describes this perfectly. As we shall hear, the poet’s noble attempts to rescue a sheep caught in brambles, does her no favours at all – the sheep is so terrified of her that it panics and gets even more caught and entangled. It can be instructive sometimes to think of ourselves as the frightened sheep, and God as the hapless rescuer. If only the sheep could calm down, and instead of panicking trust the one who is trying to free it – how much more straightforward it would be. So too with us.
Ruth Bidgood’s poem, ‘Sheep in the Hedge’:
This is no mild and never-never sheep,
but a heavy wild thing, mad with fright,
catapulting at you from a noose of brambles,
hurtling back into worse frenzy of tangles.
Don’t imagine you are welcome.
Don’t expect gratitude.
That woolly maniac would hate you
if she had any consciousness to spare
from panic. She can see sideways.
There is too much world forcing its way
through slit eyes into her dim brain –
a spiky overpowering pattern of thorns.
Now, worst of all, she suffers the sight of you
(no doubt malevolent), hideously near,
touching her! She wrenches, rips, breaks out,
knocks you into the hedge and is away,
her plump bedraggled body jogging down the road
full-pelt on stick of legs, pert hooves. You are left
to mop your dripping scratches and stitch up
the tatters of your good intentions.
At the times that they happen, it can be very easy to misinterpret God’s interventions in our lives as disorientating and frightening, particularly when they involve change, or difficulty of some kind, and so resist, trying to impose our own will, preferring to struggle on where we are.
Whereas in fact, God always operates out of love and compassion for us – it is just that we struggle to see the bigger picture. Which is why we need to learn to trust the Good Shepherd and allow ourselves to be led by him.