“We all, like sheep, have gone astray . . . ” -Isaiah 56:3
Nobody wants to be a sheep. Okay, I never wanted to be a sheep. I would say in private that I always felt more like a goat, but then goats have their own image problem thanks to Satan. Repeatedly though in the Bible, we are called sheep.
Neither am I a shepherd, though many people think I am because of my role as pastor and priest. I will explain that towards the end.
No, I grew up raising cattle. If you take up a shepherd’s crook and walk out into a herd of cattle to lead them, they won’t care. They won’t follow you.
Sheep, on the other hand, follow their shepherd, but when my family was staying on a sheep farm outside of Redditch, England, during my sabbatical a few years ago we learned they are easier to lead with a good lead sheep.
The local parish was having a fete, a local farm festival, where they had a traditional sheep race. Small children from the parish rode a large sheep around a track. It sounds hilarious, and our host family’s younger son prepared by hand raising two sheep.
When we stayed with them years later, one of those sheep was still around, and when they needed to move a large flock, they would put that experienced sheep into the flock for a couple of days and then have the son lead the sheep with his mother or father.
“There will be one flock with one shepherd.” – John 10:16
We don’t like to be called sheep, but we are in a particular way. Our flock instinct is biologically written in. I often point out a parallel version in dating that is easy to identify with.
When you are in love with someone, you suddenly find yourself syncing up with their emotions; you are happy when they are happy and sad when they are sad. But beyond that our synapses and brainwaves, our thought patterns align in interesting ways. Say you grew up in the South hating country music as a sign of the backwards people you left behind when you moved to the big city, but you come in one day to find your beloved listening to honky tonk, and you suddenly realize how you have always loved this music, the genius of it and its representation of common life, its poetry and power.
Then six months after the marriage you wonder why you now own the complete works of Hank Williams, Jr. when you never liked him. Eventually it wears off.
At a more subtle level, this flock or herd mentality puts a near constant pressure on us, our emotions, hormones, thoughts, even memories. The studies at the National Institutes of Health use terms like social conformity and neurobiological correlates (http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) but show consistently that we are wired to feel, think, and respond like the crowd around us.
This works especially strongly when people are in proximity, but we also have the reinforcing effects of message repetition on personalized news choices and social media, along with family and friends tribalism.
This is not about your political party or candidate but about a latent tendency in human beings that can lead us terribly astray.
The promise of Christ to be our shepherd is that we are called and that we will know his voice and will follow him. But we are susceptible to other influences, false shepherds and fake herds that are truly wolves in sheep’s clothing. They have values and goals that are not like Christ’s, that do not value human life, nor do they have love of neighbor as their defining ethic.
These wolves are tricky. Many of us have woken up among people that we like, whom we agree with, whom we have worked with, played with, gone along with, only to discover that where they are leading us is not the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23, but to death and destruction.
This all sounds rather heavy unless you have struggled with addiction, adultery, or watched the news. We are always being led astray.
Which brings me to false shepherds.
The Bible has lots of laments about false shepherds, kings and priests of Israel and Judah and the nations, that lead their people away from God, the law, and love or justice. You can probably name a few you have known in your life.
How do you know a false shepherd? Well, first you have to know the real one. If you wait for a false one to be obvious, you are waiting to be a lamb chop. We are so susceptible to social bias that we will keep waiting on evidence that will overcome our flock mind that we end up waiting until we, or someone we love, are on the plate.
Know Jesus. There is no substitute for reading him as he is revealed in the Bible itself. Anchor your understanding in the Gospels. We are in John right now and Luke for much of this year. They are great places to start to become familiar with his voice. To know the kinds of things he says and how he tends to say them, so that when someone on television or at a rally says, Jesus says . . . You can say, “Yes, that is what he says,” or, “Nope.”
I do want to throw in here that the Jesus I hear about on television almost never sounds like the one I know in the Bible. And the Jesus at political rallies never does. Ever. Not yet anyway. Maybe next year.
The other way to get familiar with Jesus is to pray and listen in prayer. You have to set aside time every day to just be with Christ. Sometimes that will just be waiting in silence, and other times it will be filled with deeply felt knowing and teaching. (Always measure that against your Bible and with mature fellow sheep. That may even be your pastor.)
A shepherd in the church is at best just a mature sheep. We can be led astray too. That is why I began with, “I am not a shepherd.” Being a pastor, priest, or deacon, even bishop does not make one immune to the flock mind. We all feel the pressure. We feel the pressure of politics and desire to fit in.
At our best we do what Jesus did around crowds. Read it in your Bibles. Throughout Jesus’s ministry whenever there was a crowd, he withdrew before and/or after. Healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and a crowd came; Jesus withdrew to the wilderness. Fed the five thousand, called the disciples, preached his largest sermons, in each and every case he pulled away before or after to be with his Father, to hear from his Shepherd and ours, because he was wired just like us, and I bet he was tempted to take the crowds’ thoughts and intentions as his own too.
Don’t be fooled by the clothing, know the Shepherd and follow him, and let the wolves alone.
You will find when you do that you are not alone. A flock follows you. Like that prize sheep with the shepherd’s son, you will lead myriads to right pathways for his name sake, even if you go through the valley of the shadow of death. You will find his rod and staff there to comfort, protect, and guide you.
And goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life.
May it be so.