The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
As this is Good Shepherd Sunday, I found myself thinking a bit more deeply about sheep than I normally do. Actually, normally I don’t think about sheep at all. Sheep are often described as being stupid, but that description really only applies to domestic sheep. Wild sheep are quite tough and able to take care of themselves and each other. But domesticated sheep, which have been bred over the years to be what they are today, are very different from wild sheep, though I’m not sure I would describe them as stupid. As I reflected on them the word that came to my mind instead was vulnerable.
They have been bred to have lots of wool, so they need humans to shear them. They no longer bound about on mountain tops, so they need humans to trim their hooves. They live in pastures, so cannot hide from predators in caves or behind rocks, so they need humans to protect them. They aren’t stupid, they are vulnerable. Humans need sheep and sheep need humans. A relationship born from vulnerability has developed between the two species.
And I think it is this vulnerability that made them an attractive metaphor for our ancestors writing about God and our relationship with God. When trying to understand God, we humans have always looked around us and used what was most familiar to us to put our understanding into words. For our ancestors in the faith, both Jewish and Christian, sheep were a well-known part of their world and therefore a very useful metaphor for the relationship between God and people.
We humans are also vulnerable, though this is difficult for us to acknowledge. We understand and accept that babies, infants, and children are vulnerable. But we don’t really like to accept that this vulnerability never really leaves us. Once we reach adulthood, we try to do everything we can to deny this vulnerability, but this denial really only brings us suffering and anxiety, for our vulnerability never goes away. We cover it over with lots of stuff, bigger houses, more clothes, more expensive cars, more educational degrees, promotions at work, more friends, more money, more insurance, more investments, more hobbies, more substances, or whatever, but the reality is that to be alive is to be vulnerable.
And what do I mean by this? Well, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that none of those things I named—money, material possessions, relationships, status, power—none of it will keep us from suffering, pain, and death. To be human is to experience all of these things. Every one of us will lose something of great importance to us. Someone we love will die. Something we dreamed about won’t happen or will be lost. Sickness happens. Accidents happen. Relationships break. Relationships end. Aging happens. Death happens. Even if we could get through our entire lives achieving every dream we ever dreamed, with the most perfect relationships ever imagined, never suffering from any sickness or accident, losing no one we love to death, we will get old. We will get frail. We will die. And the reality is that no one has the life I just described. Everyone experiences some sort of suffering and pain long before we reach old age and death.
Think for a moment about how hard aging is for us. As we leave our young adult years and enter middle age, our bodies don’t work quite the same as they used to. We ache just a little bit more and we become aware that these bodies of ours won’t last forever. As we progress through middle age and enter our senior years, these physical changes accelerate, and we begin to lose friends and loved ones to death. As we progress in years, we find that we can’t do the things we once did. Our memories aren’t so good. Our eyes aren’t so strong. Getting up a flight of stairs is more challenging and sometimes not possible at all. And we don’t like these changes. We can’t so easily deny our vulnerability anymore. Sometimes we fight anyone around us who wants to help us in our vulnerability, because we just can’t acknowledge that the vulnerability is there. Or our younger family members and friends might get angry with us for our vulnerability. Sometimes this comes from selfishness, but more often than not it comes from fear. We don’t want our loved ones to age and be vulnerable either. We are scared and our fear makes us feel angry.
I understand that fear. I understand that anger. I don’t like feeling vulnerable anymore than the next person, but I think our fear of vulnerability and our fight to deny it actually leads to more suffering and not less. Our denial of our vulnerability simply takes us further away from each other and from God.
So, what are we to do then? Well, first we need to embrace our vulnerability. We are vulnerable!! Woohoo!!! Yippee!!! Who decided that needing other people and needing God was a bad thing? Who decided that being dependent upon one another was a sign of weakness? Who decided that being dependent upon God was something less than to be desired? Who decided that freedom meant needing no one and no one needing us? When we embrace our vulnerability and recognize it as being part and parcel of being human, we can let go of all the things that we use to try to deny our vulnerability. We can focus on what is really important and when we focus on what is really important, we find that we are able to leave behind the life in which we are constantly in want. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want.”
And what is really important? Our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Nothing else matters. When are in right relationship with God and with each other, we can get through any valley, any darkness, any death, and any vulnerability. Maybe we are individually vulnerable, but together and with God we will be ok. We won’t be without suffering. We won’t be without need of others. We won’t be invulnerable. But we will be ok.
And how do we get into this right relationship with God and one another? We accept our vulnerabilities. Everything is circular right? We accept our need for one another and for God. We spend time with one another and with God. There was a man in one of my previous parishes whose son had died several years before I knew him. It surprised me when I learned of the loss he had suffered, because he was one of the happiest and most peaceful people I had ever met. So, one day I decided to ask him about this. And this is what he said to me,
I wasn’t always happy and peaceful. For most of my life all I could think about was my career and making money. I wasn’t a very good father. I wasn’t present for him when he needed me. Then he died and all I could think about was that he was dead and that I hadn’t been the father he needed. I was angry with myself. I was angry with God. I was angry with my son. I was angry with the whole world. I thought I would lose my mind. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t enjoy anything. My wife and my other children needed me. I had to find a way out of the abyss I was in.
So, among other things I picked up the Bible. I began reading a little bit every night and praying. For a long time, nothing changed in me. I still thought about my dead son every day. But one day I noticed something different. My prayers weren’t about my anger or sadness. My prayers were gratitude for being alive. My prayers were for my wife and children who were still alive. I realized that I had a choice. I could continue to live in darkness and want or I could embrace what I did have and focus on what was important—my life and my relationships. All my anger and sadness didn’t go away. That took a much longer period of time and sometimes when I think of my son, I still feel terribly sad. But I realized in that moment that God was with me. My wife was with me. My children were with me. And that was the beginning of the journey to a new life. A life of happiness and peace.
He had discovered a life of abundance rather than want. A life that was always there for him, but in his denial of his vulnerability and true needs he could not see.
We are vulnerable but we are not alone. We have each other and we have God. Let us care for each other in our vulnerability and rejoice in God’s care for us. Amen.