The Wool We Wear (Part 2)
Shepherds clutch dying sheep in a pasture. The rescuers have cuts on their faces where branches sliced them. Dislocated knees leave them Army crawling with gasping sheep under their arms. They wear battle fatigues and have Duct tape and 550 cord bursting out of their pockets. You never know what you’ll need to haul a drowning sheep out of the rapids. This field is riddled with them—heaps of nearly dead gung-ho shepherds clutching once-lost sheep. “I’ve got ‘em!” they shout triumphantly, and sheep and shepherd exhale their last breath together, 50 feet shy of the Good Shepherd’s sandals.
Last month’s episode in this series reminded us that good shepherds acknowledge that they are both sheep and shepherd simultaneously. The key to shepherding well lies in this tension of brave humility. We are called to be brave shepherds who go into all the world, yes; but we are also humble followers of the Good Shepherd. The solution to a lack of bravery is fairly uncomplicated: lead. Don’t be lazy. Get to work with the confidence that you have been made competent.
But the solution to a lack of humility is more complex, often because we don’t think we’re doing anything wrong. Charging up rocky cliffs, braving the rapids, and scouring dark caves are the moves of shepherds on a mission—God’s mission. “Find the lost sheep!” we cry in our pre-rescue briefing, night-vision goggles on and machetes raised.
Narcissistic shepherds have golden hearts. They bleed for the lost—especially for those sheep who mean the most to them, like prodigal adult children, wayward spouses, and spiraling mentees. Yet they’re susceptible to forget they’re sheep too.
They’re susceptible to the lie that a found sheep is a saved sheep.
John 10 teaches us that there are three types of people who interact with the sheep: The Good Shepherd, the hired hand, and the thief. The hired hand bolts when danger comes, so the sheep end up dead. The thief’s mission is to harm. Only the Good Shepherd offers life, and life abundantly at that. Yet we are mistaken if we conclude that shepherding well as disciples of Christ make us the Good Shepherd. We could be the Delta Force of good shepherding, but our woolly tails still stick out of the back of our camouflage. The fact of the matter is that sheep who land in anyone’s arms other than Jesus’s end up dead.
That final 50 feet is the difference between the safe zone and the dead zone.
What does it look like to rescue sheep who aren’t saved?
Ask the rescued to tell his rescue story. Who is the hero of his story: you or Jesus? You may have saved him from a drug overdose, but you cannot be his Savior.
Observe the rescued you mentor and note their first phone call when trouble comes. Do they embark on an S.O.S. text-a-thon with you, or fall on their knees to talk to the Good Shepherd? Who is the object of their devotion? Sheep cannot hear the voice of Jesus if we are always talking.
Good shepherds pay electric bills, donate organs, take counseling classes, answer 2:00 a.m. phone calls, and deliver sermons that shake pulpits with admirable compassion. Heartfelt efforts like these rescue sheep from the cliff and give them another day, but they can never provide life.
Jesus says of his life: “No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). That’s power. And that is no authority, no skill, no tool in the depths of the secret pockets of our cargo pants that we have.
He says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Abundant life.
Bus tickets are not the same as empowerment to co-reign in the kingdom of God. An informative class on John’s “I Am” statements does not deliver mercy that is new every morning. The newest psychological insights in a pastoral counseling session do not inject peace that passes understanding into the sheep’s veins. Mentoring programs and food pantries are means of grace, but they aren’t grace.
No matter how good we are at shepherding, we can never offer that: abundant life. Our mission is not to rescue the sheep from the rocks and the rills of the enemy’s world, then lie down and die with them in the pasture.
Our mission is to get the sheep to Jesus.
Guide them, carry them, pass them, Army crawl them … whatever it takes. But don’t think for a minute, even as the waters recede to green pastures and the wolves creep back into the dense forest, that the sheep are saved in our arms. Get them those last 50 feet to the arms of Jesus because it is only there where abundant life is freely given for all of us, sheep and well-intended, narcissistic shepherds alike.
Next time: suggestions on how to shift from narcissistic shepherding to good shepherding.