The analogies for God are many. God is creator, painting every empty canvas with brushstrokes of beauty, the heavenly potter fashioning all that’s out of sort back into shape. God is parent, pacing by the window with the porch light on until we drag our prodigal selves home expecting eternal punishment and receiving nothing less than a mother’s embrace. God is gardener, sowing seeds in every indiscriminate direction, believing that new life can grow in between the cracks of concrete just like in the fertile fields.
But of all the ways to understand God, it is the shepherd that’s most enduring. Why do we choose this analogy for God?
Psalm 23 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 right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I 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 shalldwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
The shepherd will lead us to our final pasture.
We need reminding that we’re as helpless as sheep.
Shepherds know their sheep by name.
Years ago, I was the new chaplain on the Infectious Disease floor of a hospital in Atlanta. It was a quarantined unit, requiring gowns and gloves and masks for all who entered. Nearly every room was filled with a gay man slowly dying of A.I.D.S, his body gaunt and frail, covered in sores and bedridden for the final days. I remember entering one patient’s room eager to be helpful. “May I adjust your pillow,” I offered, “bring you a glass of water, change the channels of your T.V.?” After trying to busy my anxiety, the man said, “Please, just sit down beside me. I don’t need a nurse, only a pastor. I don’t need you to distract me or to take the pain away, only to hold my hand through it.”
While Israel is a barren landscape of sand dunes and drought, we are led beside still waters to drink our fill. While the planes are filled with thorn and thistle, we are ushered into green pastures where the grazing is easy. While every sheep loses the trail and gets bewildered, His rod and staff lead us down rights paths.
But even with all the goodness that follows, I believe we cling to God as the shepherd most because when life hurts, when we are stuck in the thickets and scratched up by the brambles, when we are bleeding and broken, what we need even more than provision is presence.
A God that keeps vigil with the most vulnerable. It is the expectant ewes, the newborn lambs and the hurt animals that receive the special attention.
A God who knows that although we all must traverse the valleys of darkness, our footsteps are not taken alone. That no matter what wolves lies in wait, what lions stalk in the shadows, we fearlessly follow.
A God who has revealed the Good News in the most profound words of the most profound Psalm saying, “for you are with me.” And I am always with you.
The artist has to periodically vacate the studio because he’s uninspired, and the parents still have to leave for work Monday through Friday, and the gardener hangs up her spade for the winter, but the shepherd never leaves, remaining forever, for all the days of our lives.
So if you’re feeling wooly under the chin, like your feet have been split into hooves, that bleating is the only thing left to say, then be reminded that because of our Good Shepherd, the 23rd Psalm begins in the wilderness and always ends in the house of the LORD.