“Good Shepherd, you have a wild and crazy sheep in love with thorns and brambles. But please don’t get tired of looking for me! I know you won’t. For you have found me. All I have to do is stay found.” – Thomas Merton
A diverse flock
The first parish I worked in was a suburban Evangelical church, with wide-ranging demographics. There was a very prim woman who expected me to measure the distance between hymnals in the pews to ensure that they were perfectly placed each week. There was a socially awkward teenager who came every day to play his guitar and sing worship choruses by himself in the sanctuary. And then there was the volatile board member who seemed to derive pleasure from getting the staff alone and then yelling abuse at them. But one of my most enduring memories is of a pillar-of-the-church type of man, who would sometimes come into my office and sit himself down comfortably and ask how things were going. He would sense when I was being reserved or evasive in my responses, and with a wily smile declare to me, “You know, the thing you’ve got to realize about sheep, is that they bite. Oh yes! They bite!”
I miss that man, but I think of his words from time to time and they never fail to make me smile. Yes, church-people can behave badly – there is no doubt about that. Now I “grew up in the church” as they say, and I have known this about church-people for a long time. As an adolescent I left the church that my family belonged to in a show of (self-) righteous indignation. I sincerely loved God, but found it much harder to love his church.
A commission for those who love Jesus
Some years later I sat in a dark, empty chapel (a recurring theme with me), seeking God for rest and answers. I found myself recalling scripture that my mind knew well but my heart did not. The passage flowing over my memory was the one in which Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” Peter affirms that he does. “Then feed my sheep.” Three times. And this is the message that I felt God wanted to impress upon me in that moment (and in many moments since): that if I love him, I am to demonstrate that by loving his people, by working with them, and by giving myself to them.
I still need to be reminded of that commissioning challenge all the time, because the sheep just keep biting, sometimes even leaving scars, and there are many days when I’d like to wash my hands of the whole sheep-infested establishment. So on those days when the sheep have been biting particularly hard, there are a couple of things I have got to remind myself of.
Bearing these things in mind
Firstly, I have to allow myself to remember some of the saintly sheep that I have been blessed to know. That boy with his guitar was one. And then there was the eccentric spinster who found meaning for herself in helping the frazzled young mothers of the parish with their children. And there was a wonderful retired gentleman who spent all of his time doing odd jobs around the church and when he ran out there, he proceeded to find odd jobs he could do for his neighbours. Although these folks are sometimes harder to recall to mind than the biters, I’ve got to remember that the church is heavily sprinkled with saints like these.
More to the point still, I have got to spend some time thinking about the Good Shepherd’s perspective on the matter; recalling that I too am a sheep and a beneficiary of God’s grace. Somehow I am able to accept that God’s grace and mercy are extended to me more easily than I am able to extend that same grace and mercy to others in the church. But since I have chosen to be a servant of the Good Shepherd, how can I say “No” when he asks me to love those that he loves so dearly?
“My God, do not delay any longer to make me a saint… And if it requires sacrifice, you will give me the courage to make all sacrifices. And you will consume me in your own immense love. So do not be afraid of my weakness, oh God, because you can do everything… And until you make me a saint, I am at least going to try and act as if I were one.” – Thomas Merton