Growing up as I did largely outside the church, I have only three distinct memories of church from my childhood: a sunrise Easter service at the high school track field where my feet froze inside my thin dress shoes, the beauty of a candlelight Christmas Eve service from the balcony of the Methodist church near my home, and being transfixed by the stained glass window of Jesus carrying a lamb across His shoulders while attending church with my grandfather one clear spring morning, a morning my grandfather solemnly but joyfully identified as Good Shepherd Sunday. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd was of supreme importance to my grandfather, and judging by the frequency of its appearance in the windows, iconography, and Sunday school classrooms of other churches I have visited, it is clear he was not alone.
How strange then that while planning worship for my congregation, which uses a mix of traditional and contemporary worship music, that there are very few musical selections that focus on this imagery. Calvin College’s Hymnary.org notes very few hymns that are shared widely across enough hymnals to be reasonably deemed “ecumenical,” and almost no contemporary worship music focuses on this image of Scripture, so central to the piety of former generations. Oh, there are tune that make passing reference to it, but in contrast to the visual imagery present in the church, there are few that focus and meditate upon it. What gives?
Perhaps it is because the image of Jesus as shepherd is distant from our contemporary experience. Fewer than 10% of Americans are engaged in agrarian vocations anymore. But that would not explain the lack in traditional hymnody. I suspect that the reason for the lack of Good Shepherd imagery in the church’s life is a little more spiritual in its origin. That is to say, once we move beyond a few comforting thoughts about Jesus bringing back those who stray (like that window in my childhood), binding up the injured, and the like, if we are going to fill in several stanzas of metered singing with theologically edifying lyrics, we are left reflecting on the fact that if Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we are the sheep in need of such care.
It’s not fun to focus on the fact that we are such spiritually impoverished creatures. It doesn’t feel like living the victorious Christian life to spend significant time singing into our resistant hearts and minds the reality that we are hopelessly stupid and needy. It’s not flattering to reflect that left to our own devices, we end up in lousy pastures beside turbulent waters, scattered and futile in our efforts, and in the worst case, cornered and devoured by the wolves of our own cunning. It is important that we never forget that the concentration camps and gulags that consumed the lives of millions—not to mention that eugenics that is becoming intellectually respectable once again—were birthed in the lecture halls and salons of humanity’s best and brightest and championed by politicians and progressive clergy of the day as the surest avenue toward a brighter future for humanity, the way to be on “the right side of history.”
A shepherd doesn’t ask the sheep’s opinions on which pasture they would like to graze, for he knows their opinion is of no consequence compared to his own. So it is with Jesus. His self-designation as our Good Shepherd means not just that He seeks us out, binds up our wounds, and leads us to green pastures beside still waters, restoring our souls, it also means that He is the Authority in our lives, handing out commands, directing our lives, and when necessary chastening harshly with His rod and staff.
These are not convenient or comforting truths, but they are necessary for us to remember—often. We can and must sing to ourselves about the Good Shepherd and remember ourselves as sheep, taking comfort in the harshness of that reality, for that is the way reality tends to be; harsh, not conforming to our wishes or the fond imaginings of our hearts. The Good Shepherd commands us, corrects us, and leads us… all so that He may in the end restore our souls.