Good Sheep, Good Shepherding

W.F. Bellais II

Back in 1983, when I first started making hospital visits, to my surprise almost everyone I encountered in a sickroom knew the Lord’s Prayer, even those who claimed not to have been in church for more than twenty years. Another one of those never forgotten religious quotations is Psalm Twenty-three. Of course, it is the King James or Authorized Bible Version everyone knows.

In the nearly thirty years I have been ordained in the Episcopal Church my presence at funerals in one capacity or another—officiant, preacher, assisting, attendee—I think Psalm Twenty-three has been a part of just about every one of them. No matter where the funeral was held, whether in a church, in funeral home, or at a graveside, Psalm Twenty-three has been recited. Just as the Lord’s Prayer is known by memory by so many, so is this famous psalm.

When a boy of about seven, I attended a vacation bible school in an old stone church building in Annapolis, Maryland where I had a memorable experience. I recall the teacher taking us to the balcony of the church so we could look at a giant stained glass window that overlooked the choir and the pulpit (it was a Baptist church). The window depicted Jesus standing in the midst of a flock of sheep. He had a shepherd’s staff in his right hand and held a lamb in the crook of his left arm. On the sides of the depiction were the words of the Psalm Twenty-three. Our teacher told the class we were going to memorize the words on that window; I think this is the first Scripture I ever committed to memory.

The shepherd image of Jesus is vital to our understanding of who Jesus is. The image is not a sentimental one of a gentle shepherd caring for a flock but instead one of a fearless leader going out in front of the flock leading it to forage, water, and safety. This imagery is so ingrained in me I do not know how often I have spoken or written of it in the past. Nevertheless, it is an image that needs constant deciphering.

So many people look to this image as a comfort rather than as a model of behavior. When Psalm Twenty-three is recited at funerals, the people present often feel warm and fuzzy. They are so familiar with the words they fail to understand what is actually being said. In my understanding of the reason for including Psalm Twenty-three is to instruct us that Jesus leads us into eternity
and that the deceased has already been led to that safe place by the eternal
shepherd or the Good Shepherd as Jesus has described himself. The words are a reminder of that leading quality demonstrated by Jesus in his willingness to face the worst of humanity and lead the world to a higher level of faith and love. In fact, we can think of Jesus as the pioneer of faith. He goes before us to prepare a place for us in that house or mansion of many rooms, as he says in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John.

Earlier in the story of the Good Shepherd Jesus talks about false leadership that gets into the sheep fold. The only way the false prophet can get the sheep out of the sheep fold is to chase them. Jesus says his sheep know his voice and he calls them out of the fold; he even calls them by name. That is the difference between a sheep herder and a shepherd.

When we speak of clergy being the shepherd of the flock we are thinking of the Good Shepherd metaphor, but again this is a sentimentality not based in reality. Often there is so much conflict between the so-called shepherd and the so-called flock that the metaphor breaks downs. Usually, in this context the clergy is pushing the flock to do something and the flock is resisting. Sometimes a sheepdog has to be called in to round-up the flock and get it in order.

True leadership, in the church or anywhere else for that matter, is what the word implies; leading. However, if the flock is not listening the shepherd may be out front leading and the sheep are not following. A shepherd and flock working together to reach the goal requires mutual trust that the leader knows the way and that the flock is not distracted. Too often the flock has its own agendas and regardless of leadership nothing moves, the flock languishes in the desert, and the shepherd is helpless. Thus, failure in any organization rests both with those leading and those following.

Sheep, however, are animals that respond to conditioning and behave instinctually. They can be trained to respond to a shepherd and the shepherd does not even have to be a good one. The shepherd, in this case, only needs to train his flock to respond to his voice and to listen for the bell on the lead sheep called a bellwether. Human beings are not sheep. Human beings can be trained to respond to stimulus as animals can, but human beings can also think and make judgments.

Leadership and followership need to acknowledge the humanity in leading and following. The false prophet cares only for what he or she wants and cares little for the value of the flock as an entity or as individuals. That accounts for the false prophet’s need to push rather than lead. The flock, and its individual members, that acknowledges the human value in its leadership and itself will do whatever it takes to follow the good leader and support that leader while being helped to meet both communal and individual goals.

No matter what flock you belong to, family, school, community, state or country, and even your church, participating in a constructive way helps the leader be more effective and assures that the flock, the community, is successful. The best way to assuring communal and individual success, regardless of the task, is to be positive members of communities, groups, parish, and citizens of our city, state, and nation. Holding back positive support, not providing positive input, and avoiding positive participation, only makes the flock weak.

Jesus calls on us to look to the good shepherds of our lives and encourage them to lead not push. Jesus reminds us that being pushovers is allowing the false prophet to take charge. Following a good shepherd, and I emphasize the word good, leads to a wholesome life where the waters are still and the pastures are green.

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