Reflections of a Shepherd
There are moments in every person’s life when the truth comes fresh without the usual noise. Received in a new way, as if for the first time. This is how things went down for me. Thank you for listening.
Another night working, another week far from home. I lost count how many days I had been away this time on the job. Bone tired, joints ached, that nagging cough, boredom setting in. If I am troubled, how about my wife? She, keeping everything going at home while the growing kids’ lives are more at a distance. Not sure my challenges compare to hers. Such appraisals are to be avoided; comparisons unintentionally foster distance between us. Oh well another night, the sheep corralled, canvassing the landscape for intruders, trying not to be annoyed by my fellow shepherds. Expecting not much, except the next moment’s disappointment. It is a life, it is my life.
On nights like these I get around to thinking about God, at least a little. How else to explain the delicacy of one blade of grass upon the occasional patches of meadow in this dusty region? Glimpses of His invisible attributes and divine nature, clearly seen being understood through what has been made, so I guess I am without excuse. But I have questions, I have issues. What would He have to do with me? I am just a shepherd trying to put a day together. Never have amounted to much, never have really done anything bad. Not religious, just a regular Joe. Never made much of those who call themselves orthodox. Who seem to have it all together and gaze at me with disdain as if I needed help. How did they get so disappointed in me, is God upset too? Those people are probably right, but I find them confusing and arrogant. And they have a lot explaining to do. Such as why do we suffer so, why all the heartache; why do we work so hard, and for what? The harvest being scarcely justified of the effort made in sowing the seed, I earn wages but it is as if there is a hole in my pocket. I shiver in the promises of better times that never come. Any “spiritual” input is swallowed up in lifestyle where the demands on me outmatch spiritual output. No inspiration. Dull, bored, and tired. And so I keep doing things my way. Yet deep inside I think I know that there is an order of God, and those who practice independently from Him are worthy of death, but I just go on doing the same and approve of my shepherd buddies who practice likewise..
But everything changed that night,…
The angel of the Lord suddenly stood before us. And the glory of the Lord shone around us. In an instant, I was paralyzed. Time halted.
This was the most dramatic light show that ever took place. Heaven breaking loose. The glory of God, the radiant, unveiled magnificence of God filled the sky. The otherness, the purity, the beauty of God. The One Who can’t be studied empirically. He is so other that we can never pretend to predict what He will do, or get Him under our control in any way. Magical. Mesmerizing. Wooing me, right? No. Not really.
You probably wish you were there don’t you. Then you would believe, wouldn’t you? Well this is how messed up I am. Even then, at that instant I became sad and scared. Two reasons come to mind.
First it wouldn’t stick. Here we go again, a flash God’s brilliance that just flickers away soon to be forgotten. I have been terrified by God plenty, and to be painfully honest, it never did much good. I have been undone by the magnificence of the birth of my children. Above my pay grade when I stop and consider what it takes to hold the seasons together, to bring forth a new day, to allow my brain to crackle along. Terrified by my own mortality seeing the pain, suffering, and death all around me. You’d think this would be a good night, that I’d finally “get it,” right? Nope. Sadly that state of being terrified can give way to a state of dullness. His transcendence, His otherness only proves that He doesn’t relate to me. Too impersonal and unknowable, and too distant to care and to comfort. Just the “man upstairs” who I called on as a kid to help me win a game. A blaze of glory,… lasts for a moment, then I usually get back to work. After all, I have seen the latest fads; they don’t last, days come and go, seasons pass, and I travel from being impressed and terrified to being forgetful and occupied. I do the synagogue thing more out of religious ritual than spiritual reality. Any hint of His “glory” only magnifies how off limits He is and feeds my doubt. And I am facile at this; it only takes an instant for me to go from terrified, to uncertain, to dull and smug.
I tell you a second reason I was sad and scared that night: too much Light. Over-exposure. Could you imagine how pathetic I looked? If you really want to know the truth about me, I love the darkness rather than the Light; we who do evil things hate the Light for fear that our deeds will be exposed. I can be irritating and ornery but never considered myself that bad, not until that Light. Before that moment, I thought that God had nothing on me. Even if He cared, it would be His excessive presumption to hint that I deserve His wrath. What kind of God would be upset with me? Yes, these are not well-mannered sheep, and I am no showered shepherd. But come on, this is over the top, this “Light on the situation.”
So I had two problems while the glory of the Lord shone around us: He was too far (inexplicable, not knowable), and He was too close (exposing me for who I am). So I was scared; the Creator who I couldn’t know because He would have nothing to do with me, the Creator I didn’t want to know because of what He would do to me. Not good.
I tell you, the only thing that made sense at that moment was,… silence.
There my buddies and I stood. In awe, in shame, in terror every mouth silenced, as if we, and the whole world, were held accountable to God. I had underestimated perfection. Nor did I take into account that His deserved holiness was preparing me for something unimaginably better. All I realized right then was that my most recent sin, and the next, and the next, each sin on its own is sufficient damn the entire human race and send all to hell. The stakes are beyond high. My problem was worsening by the second. This must be dying. Like I was looking outside in, seeing myself not in polite unreality, but in bold truth, quiet, utterly dependent on His verdict, the next move was His. The thought hit me that whatever comes of this episode in my life, whatever He decides to do with me, however this turns out, let God be found true, though I may be found a liar, He will be justified and will prevail. I was beginning to agree with God and disagree with myself.
And the angel said to us “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people.” Do not be afraid. How did You know? How did You do that? I was just suffocating, dying really. Had did we get to security so fast? This is weird. Am I about to get out of another quandary just like that? Where’s the punishment? Aren’t there rules, God? Standards? Don’t You know who You are, God? But I held those thoughts; this was no time to speak.
“For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” When in a fog, signage is good, helps me find my bearings. How intriguing, the Sign is not a great warrior or document, but a Baby. Now you are talking. Could this be a deliberate shrinking of omnipotence? Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing? A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices? A tenacious personalism at the heart of this night? Born for you? Born for me?
No way, He is born for the world, to bring goodness to the world. His agenda concerns the nations, not the everydayness of me. There are many “me’s” out there for whom He cares. I don’t register on the importance scale. Mine is a life that just fades in the background, others don’t notice. I move along anonymously with my kids and acquaintances, I pay the pills, remember the birthdays, and just carry on in this “average” life, noticed mostly in those myriad of instances when I let others down and just don’t measure up. I am a dirty shepherd, disenfranchised; despised as a class and culturally unclean. Mine is not an ideal life but an actual life. There I stood uncovered, average, worse than average, a disappointment to myself, to God; loathing me, dreading God.
And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is well-pleased.” (On whom His favor rests)
Yes peace on earth, no bad storms, no more wars, right? No, it really isn’t that is it? What on earth is happening? Check that, what in me is happening? You mean peace with You, don’t You? No more dreading You, somehow enjoying You? Did you say favored, pleased? With me? Not rejected, but welcomed? Not avoiding You, but longing for You?
But, but, …just look at me, what a mess.
This stunning illumination only proves my ineptitude, and leaves me to my own resources. The heavenly host had said what they had to say, then vanished. It was as if the celestial celebrators were making their rounds, stopping by to taunt me as part of my punishment; that before I die of my sins, I got to see what I was missing. Getting in one last jab before lights out for me. The heavenly hosts praising God and saying, “press release: we told you so, eat our dust, have fun down there reaping what you have sown, check ya later.”
Or did they say peace with men with whom He is well pleased? Interesting. Complicated. If that is the case, the solution must come from Somewhere Else. I got nothing; I don’t have what it takes. There must be Another, a Sign, a Baby. I have peace with God through this Sign? Favor rests on me through this Sign? A Baby wrapped in cloths?
I looked at my buddies, they looked at me. I don’t know who said it first, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem and see the thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us. And we came in haste and found our way to Mary and Joseph and the baby as He lay in the manger.”
You know, when my absurdity meets His greatness, I am silent; when He points me to His Son, I get moving. Finally faithful obedience. Wind in my sails. I was made for this. Me being me, but being His at the same time. Fog lifting, purpose driven life, Something from without solving all the “somethings” within.
We didn’t just drop our staffs and run. We planned as we left. We got word to our families, we devised contingencies for the sheep. All those details, you know, the nuisances trying to leave town. But meaningful. Since then many ordinary days have been like that.
We found our way to Mary and Joseph and the baby as He lay in the manger. When I met the babe, I knew, God is right, I am wrong, His righteousness revealed. His rightness for me. Kneeling that night I realized I would get out of my quandary and yet He would not lower His standards. There would be my complete punishment, but it passed over me and fell squarely on this perfect, cooing, royal Infant. This Child who would live the life that qualified Him for the death that He died at the cross where God’s wrath and mercy met and settled the only score that matters, all to my advantage. “Just as if I never sinned,” yes, but with a cost. Beyond benevolent. His kindness leads me to repentance. He cast out my sin and entered in; He was born in me that night.
God appeased, hallelujah. But the heavenly host was explicit: He is pleased. Not an impersonal pardon or just a judicious act, but a fatherly embrace. I had the thought that if I was ever pardoned, I still expected to feel ongoing rejection somehow by the Father. A kind of reluctant forgiveness on His part, based on His passing mood or inattention to my deep screw-ups. But no, God says I forgive you, I am permanently appeased; and I love you, I am permanently pleased.
You’d think we became priests that day. But no, just beloved shepherds. We went back glorifying and praising God for all that we had heard and seen, just as had been told us. We went from paralyzed, silenced shepherds, to lively, loquacious sons.
Where’d we go? To our families, to our routines, to our suffering, to our sin, to our work. After all, we had to connect with the buddy we left back with the sheep. We did not resign our positions and go into the ministry, but we had become King’s kids in shepherd form. We remained in the position that we were called. Not motionless from dullness and fear. But with a yip in our step, steady, engaged.
Becoming innocent changes your life. Wonderfully you are not put back to neutral as if your next sin will blow it all. I have permanent innocence: what’s more, Presence, power, hope, eternal life to name a few. What Adam brought, Christ brought so much more. Where sin increases, grace abounds all the more. What sin depletes, God nourishes with reams of baskets left over.
And so I live. God more real and present. Experiencing Him with deeper and quicker facing of my sin, my need, and my gifts. Anderson more Anderson than ever. But all that conflict, suffering, and sin, all those blessings and wonders, all that hate and love converge into life robust in God. I see the extraordinary in the ordinary, the potential in a derisive person or situation, and my role in kingdom building but learning not to take myself too seriously. I can even embrace my suffering knowing it produces endurance and proven character, which leads to hope as one day I will experience fully who I fully am now, a child of the living God. And this hope does not disappoint, it has an active role presently as God keeps pouring His love in my heart through the Holy Spirit who has been given to me.
God, not a remote abstraction from the conditions of life, but an intimate Presence. He concurrently shines His light on my absurdity and points me to His Son. Let’s go see, let’s get our eyes elsewhere. For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
This is a guest post from Vanderbilt Physician and Christ Presbyterian Church elder, Dr. Anderson Spickard.