Shepherds and Freedom

Jeff Witmer
26 June 2011

We Christians like to think of Jesus as a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who protects us, retrieves us when we go astray, and leads us. (Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.”) But how do shepherds lead? I’ve never been a shepherd and although I met a shepherd or two when I was in New Zealand, I have not watched one working.

My friend Don Bentley – a retired statistics professor, now ordained minister and some-time archeologist – told me of an experience he had about two years ago. Don was spending part of the summer in Israel, working on a tell (a mound, where an ancient city had been) with a team of archeologists when one morning he saw a shepherd and a herd of sheep moving forward near the tell on which Don’s group was working. Don watched as the sheep walked forward with the shepherd near the back. If the sheep started drifting too far to the right, the shepherd would throw a small stone at the sheep farthest to the right, hitting the outside, right, shoulder of that sheep, causing it to turn to the left. If the herd was going too far to the left, the shepherd threw a stone at the left side of the sheep farthest to the left, making it move to the right.

Thus, leading sheep means following behind them and watching and guiding, not being in front and having them follow. God and Jesus give us great latitude. We are sent in a general direction but can choose how to do things and where to go (within limits).

OK, some questions. Does God exist? Was Jesus the (literal) son of God? Should priests be allowed to marry? What about gays and lesbians; should they be allowed to marry? Who created the Earth, life, the universe? I remember my old friend Fred Gregory talking about the idea that “design” implies “a creator”: You look around, you see beauty, you see patterns, and you say “There must be a Creator – God – behind all of this.” Now, I could talk at length about problems with the idea that “Creation, particularly the human body, is the work of impeccable genius!” but instead I’ll just mention Fred’s response. Fred’s theory is that saying that ‘design implies that there is a Creator’ robs us of faith. Instead, we are able to believe, or to reject, the theory that creation happened as outlined in Genesis. God gave us the freedom to reject God. You are free to believe what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong.

More questions: Do you give money to the church? Do you help friends in need? Do you help strangers?
You are free to act as you wish.

But if we have near total freedom, then who is in control? We are, to a large extent. Everyone likes a strong leader. We feel comfortable when we think someone or something is in charge, making sure that all will turn out as it should.

But to my way of thinking, we should not be so comfortable! We should not think of God being in control of everything. Rather, we are co-creators of the future, working with God.

My grandfather, an Evangelical and Reformed Church minister, had many stories that he used in his preaching. Here is my favorite:
A country pastor was out visiting his ‘sheep’ on a weekday, going from house to house, which meant going from farm to farm. A farmer, seeing the pastor walking up the road, stopped working for a minute and leaned on a fencepost at the edge of his property. When the pastor arrived the two men started talking, with the pastor saying “The crops are coming in nicely this year” to which the farmer said “Yes, we are going to have a good harvest.” The pastor said, “We are blessed that the Lord provides for us” to which the farmer said “The Lord and I are good partners; if you want to see how the Lord does without my help, take a look at the weeds growing on the other side of the fence.”

We are co-creators of the future, but being co-creators means that we have an awesome responsibility, one that we generally shirk. Indeed, it is more than a little scary to think of yourself as being in charge and responsible for things. With freedom comes responsibility. What should we do? How about this advice: Do whatever needs to be done! Hoping someone else will take care of things does not cut it.

It might be comforting to think of God being in charge of everything, but even this can lead to real discomfort when bad things happen. My friend Murray Clayton was listening to the radio on the morning after a severe winter storm in Wisconsin had left a number of cars in the ditch, hearing callers praise God for their save travel, or the safety of family members and friends. He asked “And does this mean that the hand of God pushed those other cars off of the road?!?” Many people have turned away from religion because they cannot reconcile the idea of a just and loving God with the reality of injustice, pain, and suffering in the world.

William Sloane Coffin, when his son died, explained his understanding that God does not cause violent death (although God set into motion a world that very much includes death). He wrote “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Bad things do happen, no matter how hard we try to make everything be OK. But know that you are not alone in creating the future, and I don’t just mean that you have God as a partner, I mean that you have the rest of us as partners as well.

We have free will. Bad things happen to good people (and to bad people) because of the choices we make, plus some randomness. Maybe some people chose to live in Joplin, MO, and then a tornado came through, but I count that as bad luck, not as a bad choice. There are random elements of life, many of them. Life is not fair, but so what?
I remember a scene from the movie Contact, which I summarize here. Tom Skerritt’s character gives an insincere apology for a decision, saying that he wishes the world were a fair place, but unfortunately it isn’t. Jodie Foster’s character (Ellie Arroway) replies “I’ve always thought that the world is what we make it.”

That’s my thinking as well. Maybe the Rapture is coming, but so what? Do we sit around and wait? No, we live our lives, acting in faith and love toward others, helping them, now, whether or not there is a tomorrow.

I remember David Hartman as the host of Good Morning America during its first ten years on television. At the end of each show he said the same thing – something that I say to my students at the end of each class meeting when I am teaching. As the hour comes to an end I say to my students “Make it a good day!” I don’t wish that they “Have a good day” although that would be OK. Instead, I give them an assignment of sorts, as if the homework that I assign and the projects and the exams weren’t enough, I give them even more responsibility, and I do it every time I see them. “Make it a good day.”

This is sort of shorthand for a larger assignment: Remember the future as you want it to be; then get to work on making those memories true.

The Lord is my shepherd, who invites me to join in creating the future. A future of justice, of love, of beauty, of challenge, and of freedom.

Make it a good day!