Come in the front door of our church and one of the first things you’ll see is sheep. A lot of sheep. Of all different shapes and sizes. Cuddly ones, ones big enough to sit on, funny looking ones, cute ones, fluffy ones and shaggy ones, and one which even has a real identification tag on their ear. I should probably also mention that they’re stuffed.
You can’t miss them. They live above the coat rack in the lobby. If you’re an adult, they might not be the first thing you see - that might be the stained glass or the rainbows, but children, they like to grab a sheep as they go by or scope out which one they’ll grab later.
It all started a few Easters back with a couple of big fluffy ones used in a story. They were just the right size for the littlest people to hug and sit on (and occasionally ride around on). Then there were a couple more. And each year after that there were more, different shapes and sizes and styles, all brought by adults in the congregation.
Some children have their favourites and some like to pick a different one each time. They hold on to them in church, or lie on the bigger ones. They're great companions for a movie night and a friend to play with when there's not much going on.
Comforter, friend, companion, protector. They’re whatever a creative spirit needs them to be.
The 23rd Psalm is one of the most familiar and most loved passages of scripture. “The Lord is my shepherd,” it begins. God makes sure that I want for nothing that I need and God is with me wherever I find myself in life - green pastures, gentle streams, even the shadowy valley and at table with my enemies. God comforts, cares, accompanies and protects me all the days of my life, just like a shepherd. And when this life is done, I will be at home with God.
I love the 23rd psalm. Like so many others, it’s one of my favourites and a “go to” for comfort, strength and support. God is with me always: what more could I need. I’ll be honest, though, it’s not the shepherd image that does that, it’s everything else.
Since Sunday school as a kid, through many a bible study, sermons and seminary classes, I understand the point of the shepherd image in this context. I also understand that the author wrote from the perspective of a sheep to this shepherd. I also understand that, as intimately meaningful to the author as it might have been then, it isn’t to me now. With all due respect to shepherds, sheep farmers, keepers of sheep and sheep themselves (not to mention 10th century BCE authors of psalms), I don’t have the same personal relationship with shepherds that they did. And isn’t that the point: the intimate relationship of love and care, a presence that brings peace and grace to every step of our life's journey: a comforter, friend, companion and protector.
Perhaps the shepherd and sheep is a meaningful metaphor for you. Perhaps not. If it's not, how about imagining your own 23rd Psalm. What image of relationship brings that meaning to you? Maybe it's a child with a treasured stuffed animal. Or an elderly person in their last days holding a stuffed bear, the gift of a child. Perhaps it's a farmer and their land, a teacher, a mentor, a partner, a lover, a home. How do you imagine your relationship with God?