Of all Scripture, the passage I most often speak from is Psalm 23. Most recently I spoke from it as I baptised a mother and two of her daughters, a young girl and a baby. There had been another daughter: last year, following her cot death, I had taken her funeral. We lit a candle in her memory, and as testimony to God’s faithfulness in dark times. After the baptism, the mother said to me, “Twelve months ago you told us that life would be good again; I couldn’t see then how that could be possible, but I can now.”
The Psalm draws on the experience of sheep. It begins in the low winter pasture; but the spring has arrived: the grass here is wearing thin, while the grass on the flat mountain top is lush and full of flowers, like a table-top spread with a banquet. The shepherd, sensitive to these things, leads the sheep up the ravine. The ravine is a hostile environment – a flash torrent could sweep the sheep away; predators hide in the rocks – but the sheep do not need to fear, because the shepherd carries two sticks: a crook, to guide – and, if need be, to rescue – the sheep;* and a club, with which to drive back predators.** At the end of the journey, the shepherd checks over his sheep, rubbing healing oil into any cuts.
But the mountain top is not the final destination: the shepherd will lead his sheep up and down the ravine many times as one pasture is depleted and another has regrown.
Psalm 23 is such a good funeral psalm not because it speaks of my life after my death, but because it holds out the hope of life (as opposed to mere ongoing existence), in time, after the death of one I have loved.
Life is change. Births, deaths, marriages. Children leaving home. Parents getting old. Jobs lost; jobs begun. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. At a personal level; at a community level; at a regional, national, international, or global level. We can no more hold back change than we can step outside of time and space.
Life is change, experienced as rhythms of change. Advent is my favourite Season of the year; but if it were always Advent, where would Christmas, Epiphany, Lent be? There is much that I love – and much that I find a real challenge – about having young children; without wishing it away, I wouldn’t want it to last forever!
Life is change, as we are simultaneously and paradoxically passing away and being transformed from one degree of glory to another.
The good shepherd –
by shepherd I mean someone with a primarily pastoral impulse;
someone whose gifts relate to humanising our organisational structures and working systems;
whether within the church or anywhere within wider society –
the good shepherd:
recognises tipping- or turning- points;
leads a community (not just the most adventurous individuals) into the new season of life, via our dying to our common (communal) and personal self;
encourages, guides and protects in the inevitable and unavoidable stage of moving through the valley of the shadow of death;
and attends to the wounds that are picked up along the way.
Life is change, and change is always disturbing – even for those who enjoy change; and even for those who are moving from sadness to joy. It involves a leaving behind and a setting out on a journey. We might have made the journey before, but the journey – in particular, the out-workings of the dangers of the journey – is different each time. We need shepherds to guide us. And yet, at least within the church, shepherds have become the most change-averse of all. Too often, a shepherd:
accepts that the grass is not as green as it was, but tries desperately to find ways of extending the season in the pasture, believing that it will grow back if we stick things out;
ironically endangers the survival of the flock out of concern not to enter the ravine;
and, ironically, frightens the sheep by taking up the voice of a predator.
That is why shepherds, just as much as anyone else, need to be reminded that they are also sheep – and that they follow the Good Shepherd.
That there is a wolf hiding within them, too, needing to be confronted by the Good Shepherd.
That the ravine may be the place of death, but that the place of death is the very place where God is at work in and through the Good Shepherd to bring about new life.
*the crook also symbolises commitment to Covenant relationship between the Father and his children, between Jesus and his Bride...
**the club also symbolises commitment to Kingdom responsibility, to drive back the accuser...