As a farm kid, I loved spring when our sheep would lamb. The energetic lambs would run, bounding into the air. It was a joy for my father and me to care for them.
But how did those lambs experience my father’s care?
Two weeks after their birth, each lamb’s tail was cut off. Why? Because long, wooly tails retain waste, which attracts flies, which results in larvae, which damage sheep, causing pain, disease – even death. But all that was unknown to those lambs which knew only pain attributable to my father and me.
In time, we weaned growing, adolescent lambs from their mothers – from their source of sustenance, protection, and life. Weaning from milk to grass helps lambs grow.
Still, I remember the plaintiff cries of the lambs, calling and calling for mother. Again, a painful but necessary part of their tending.
Grass has parasites which mature within sheep, siphoning energy and threatening life. So, Dad and I would regularly dispense a medical agent to disperse the parasites. We called it “worming” the sheep. We did it by inserting a huge bolus down their unwilling throats. All our sheep knew was that they were literally having something forced down their throats.
Then the mature ewes were segregated from the ram. Animal impulses were controlled to preserve life. Fragile lambs born in winter die easily. But most lambs born in warmer, spring weather survive. However, our sheep didn’t know that when their strongest desire was refused.
In the spring, each sheep was sheared to remove thick winter wool. That must’ve felt good when hot weather arrived to be free of heavy, smothering wool.
Except for shearing, our sheep probably only perceived our care as pain.
We love Psalm 23 because it describes a compassionate God who lovingly shepherds our lives. But how does that square with our lived experience of God, who doesn’t always answer prayers – at least in the way we think they should be answered? How do we reconcile this scripture’s description of Providence when we experience months – or years – of wandering in the wilderness through an illness or divorce or downsizing or a child’s wrong choices?
Maybe some – not all – but maybe some of what we experience as pain or perceive as abandonment by God or neglect from our Savior; maybe some of what is going on is blessing – blessing that we cannot yet recognize.
Looking back on my hardest times, I now see how richly God cared for me during those desolations. Then I thought that God abandoned me. Now I see how God shepherded me. Soren Kierkegaard said: “Life is lived forwards and learned backwards.” Only in retrospect do we truly see how God acts to move us from disaster to blessing; from despair to hope; from death to life.
The spiritual writer Margaret Guenther counsels, “When in doubt, I always assume God is at work.” That’s good wisdom. When you’re struggling or doubting, saying “Lord, I’m doing all I can here, where are you?” It’s a good bet to trust that God indeed is at work. In ways you may not yet perceive or understand. But in ways you can trust are gracious to save and love you.
How is God shepherding you in this pandemic? What present pains might be camouflaged conduits of God’s care? Most of us are consuming far less take-out. Maybe being weaned off the Golden Arches diet we crave is opening us to steer clear from excessively consuming junk food for good. Maybe being bored and having too much time on our hands is what we need to finally be quiet enough to hear the still, small voice of God who has been waiting and waiting for us to listen. Yes, this time is horrible and we all want it to end, but how might be God be shaping you during this time to not just help you survive, but be transformed into a new creation so that you can finally become who God created you to be?
Yes, there’s so much uncertainty now. But this we know: You are here – and God is here. And you can’t separate God’s activity from God’s presence anymore than you can separate heat from fire. God radiates love because God is love. God is here with you right now. So, how is God loving you? Not: Is God loving you? But: How is God loving you? Because that shepherding love is on the job and it’s here to stay.
What would your life look like if you more fully trusted that love? How would you change if you more fully lived into God’s love by sharing your love? By opening your heart and soul to fully receive and extend all that God seeks to give you and accomplish through you? How would your life change if you fully lived the truth of the 23rd Psalm?
Easter means that our Savior has conquered death. Surely he can conquer everything else. And that applies to all of us. No exceptions. That applies to you. So, live with faith into that truth. Hang tough while being tender. Trust God to see you through it all. Trust your Good Shepherd whose love shall prevail.