Why do I even care?
I always thought I would find a way out of this. I never wanted this job, and I always thought that sooner or later something else would come up, another door would open, and I’d take it. I’d get out of this, if I could, leave the flock behind, let someone else do it.
And I have come close, I tell you; more than a few times, oft as not through tears. The church can be a rough country. I have pled Jesus like Peter to go away and leave me alone, get out of my boat. There are a lot of Jonahs, Elijahs, and Simon Peters among the clergy. Even Jesus prayed the Father to let this cup pass from me.
But now I have found something within me deep as marrow, my very being, some sharp hook in my soul, that will not let me go; something tenacious, that bids me stand where I am, something begging instead, “Stay with me!” even as I choose to stay.
I am a pastor. I just am. I am a shepherd.
Reluctant shepherd, whiskey priest, saint and sinner though I may be, or wish I were—I am a shepherd, a pastor. If ever I have muttered, “damn this calling!”—it is nonetheless mine, it is me, and I accept it, I treasure it and claim it. Because I have always known it claims me; and God does not let go.
In the past couple of months, I have wondered much why that is. Why do I care, and why now, especially? Why in pandemic, when the wisest course might seem to cut and run, why this passionate determination welling up to stay and be a shepherd? Why has my primary concern become to “tend the flock of God that is my charge” (1 Peter 5:2) and assure its safety?
I have never found “shepherd” a very meaningful metaphor for pastoral ministry before, although of course that’s what it is—pastor, pastoral, pasture, herd keeper, shepherd: all of it in the very word.
You probably can recall the first line of Psalm 23 by heart, but the Bible repeatedly uses shepherd as a metaphor for leadership from Genesis to Revelation. In Genesis (48:15-16), Jacob refers to “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” In Numbers (27:16-17) Moses asks God to appoint “someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” The prophets promise that God will give the people good shepherds once again, and they sternly warn leaders who have not been good shepherds (Is. 40:11; Jer. 50:6; Ez. 34:23; Zech. 10:3).
In Revelation, Christ is both Lamb of God and Shepherd of God’s people (7:17). And of course Jesus in the Gospel of John refers to himself as the Good Shepherd “who lays down his life for the sheep” (10:1-18).
And in his last words before the cross, Jesus prays the Father to protect us, saying, “While I was with them I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost…”—as if that alone would be enough to sum up his earthly ministry: Not one of them was lost.
Not one of them was lost—that has become a visceral prayer for me. Safety of the flock—that has become more than a responsibility; it is a calling. I chafe at claims to personal liberty that do not put the safety of others first and foremost. I am appalled when worship is considered a right, something I am owed, rather than a gift and a duty I owe to my Creator. I feel manipulated, a pawn in a political game; but I am a shepherd, and that stirs the mama bear in me. My people will not be the canary in your coal mine.
And yet. And yet. Though I feel compelled to safeguard my flock.
I also realize that if I make this choice for you, or for me, I am making a choice others do not have the luxury to make. They feel compelled—by social pressure, by threat of law in some cases, by anxiety and frustration, or by simple need and necessity—to go back to public life or to their workplace, whether they feel safe or not, whether it is safe or not. Because they must put food on the table, and a roof over their children’s heads. The poor who have always been with us; or the suddenly, shockingly, newly unemployed; or those who feel their livelihoods or life’s work slipping out of their grasp (which is some of us, surely, and all of us to some degree, sooner or later); or the communities of color who have borne the worst of this pandemic, now dealt yet another calloused blow, who have nowhere to take their frustration but the streets—they have few choices.
The economy does matter. And as always, the poor and the vulnerable bear the sharpest burden of a society’s choice.
That is what we mean by “privilege,” and I have it, and you probably do too, but others do not. And that makes me tremble, even when I think I am only doing what I am called to do, before a God who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry, and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-55)—whose judgment is always to level the playing field (which is what makes God’s judgment not only righteous, but gracious).
For all the comfort in Jesus’ promise to protect and safeguard and care for us like a Good Shepherd, it is not always our safety that is foremost in his mind. The Shepherd who warmly calls us by name also leads us out, and it is not always safe out there (the church is not closed, someone said, it is deployed). “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (John 10:16). And if he prays for us, he also prays for them; and not only prays for them, but prays that we will share his passionate determination to safeguard and care for and share with them every lifegiving thing he has given us.
And so, fearful, faithful, or reluctant though we may be, we have a calling—me, and you. Free as we may be, we still have choices to make. But our decisions will be opportunities to serve, and our demand will be to remember the poor, and our concern will be first for the most vulnerable. Whatever we do, we will do it trusting our Good Shepherd. And we will do it always, not for ourselves, but for the love of neighbor. Whenever and wherever we pray, our prayer will be for others.
I am a shepherd. Safety is my job. So is comfort, and so is challenge, and they are often inseparable, for me and for you.
So I will stay with the sheep, wherever that leads me, for however long. Because there is no greater joy than discovering you are right where you are supposed to be, even if it is new country and nowhere you’ve ever been before; doing what you are supposed to be doing, even when you don’t know what to do; stumbling, but led by something bigger, greater than you are to something even now still being created. It does not yet appear what that shall be, except that it shall be a new heavens and a new earth.
And why on earth would you want to walk away from that?
June 4, 2020 — written to my congregation, as political pressure mounted on churches to reopen, and we weighed, as we still do, the wisdom of meeting in person with many high-risk individuals while cases continue to increase rather than decrease.
© Paul R. Olsen