These opening words of the 23rd metrical psalm - sung
to the Scottish tune Crimond – are the commencing words of the most
popular hymn within the whole of western Christendom. Though of
Presbyterian origin where the only ‘hymnal’ then allowed was that of the
biblical Psalter - unaccompanied by any musical instrument! – it is now,
undoubtedly, number one in the Christian chart.
Within this psalm the analogy concerning God and His
dealings with us is reflected through the way a far off shepherd cared
for four legged creatures entrusted to his/her care. (Yes, there were
occasional shepherdesses in those days as well!). These far off
guardians of animals bred sheep for their wool. They are not to be
confused with those who feasted on their flock following their ritual
slaughter! The latter being the end product of so-called ‘faithless
shepherds’ or ‘hirelings’ quoted in other sections of Holy Scripture.
The whole psalm – attributed to King David who’d once
rescued a lamb from a lion’s mouth – assures us that one has no need to
ever doubt the magnanimous compassion and care of God for us, as it was
comparable to a good shepherd’s care for the flock of animals entrusted
to him. But of even more relevance to the Christian, Jesus the Son of
God – born amongst animals! - enlarged upon the analogy further: “The
good shepherd” He said, “is willing to lay down his life for the sheep!”
Yes, and should one happen to go astray, then the good shepherd will not
rest day or night until he finds it! And should it be wounded, then such
an animal carer will bind up its wounds. Indeed, a delightful old gospel
hymn sums it up well:
‘There were ninety and nine that safely lay in the
shelter of the fold;
But one was lost on the hills away, Far off from the gates of gold;-
Away on the mountains wild and bare, Away from the tender shepherd’s
Yet none of those ransomed will ever know just how deep were those
Nor how dark was the night the Lord endured, until He found that sheep
which was lost’
Well, I don’t know about you, but – as I see it - two
things stand out in marked contrast to this top analogy of Christianity.
It is the impersonal and insensitive way that cattle are so frequently
transported, unlovingly handled and blasted off country roads today.
Indeed, we may well have progressed in our heads, but how dangerous when
we have regressed in our hearts. And is not this the result of a
pitiable system which gives top priority in education to those who soar
in the secular curriculum, but far less, comparative incentive to evolve
in the moral and spiritual spheres?
Such a, largely, one-sided educational system is of
course, what so many parents actually want! Turning up for a parents
evening at a girls Grammar school in Huddersfield, the headmaster said:
“Don’t be disheartened Mr Thompson. You’re expected to be here, but very
few parents will ask how their daughter is doing in RE!” How right he
was! Parents queued up to see the maths teacher; but only three wanted
to see me. Yes, and from curiosity as I’d been nicknamed ‘super rev’ by
their children. Well, used to one or two crab faced
parishioners who criticized me, can you wonder why I simply loved those
youngsters at Greenhead Girls Grammar School?
We have everything to fear from those who are
‘educated’ to acquire heads as large as footballs while their hearts are
as atrophied as peanuts. But we have nothing whatever to fear – and
everything to gain - from those prepared to lay down their lives for
more vulnerable life than one’s own. Indeed, we are called of God to be
the guardian species; faithful stewards over the rest of God’s creation.
The strong must be taught to protect the weak; and
such virtue should never be confined to those of our own species. There
are far more animals – yes, insects too! – than there are humans. What a
privilege then that, this time, God has so graciously granted us a human
life! Yes, but what a tremendous responsibility! “To those that have
been given most; from them the most will be required!” Such are not my
words but those of Christ: the One whose announcement of His birth was
singled out by His Father to animal carers. Yes, faithful shepherds
watching over their flocks by night.
Just one more point! Please note, the fourth word of
the title of this article is a personal pronoun: ‘My’! The good shepherd
of old knew each sheep by its name; and when he called them, they
individually responded. Well, we are very much like wayward sheep, and
He calls us by name. But in the midst of this world’s secular and
business pursuits – within such a hectic life style – we don’t always
hear Him. Consequently, sometimes, unpleasant experiences are allowed to
take us aside so that we might begin to ask: ‘what is life all about?’
To quote but one example, I would occasionally say to
those in the hospitals, over which I was Chaplain,: “God sometimes
allows us to get on our backs so that we might look upwards to Him!”.
What is more, a victim of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster had been
rescued from blazing oil covered waters within the North Sea. He needed
my ministrations speedily; so getting attired in ‘operating theatre’
gear, I prayed earnestly for guidance as to what one should say. But the
patient beat me to it!
“Padre, the Man upstairs has brought me through this
for a purpose!” he cried. ”I know the Lord’s Prayer. Will you say it
with me?” The top surgeons - who were fighting for his life -
momentarily stood back as we repeated the prayer together. Tears of
gratitude began to stream down the dear fellow’s crusted face. I tell
you, that dear man spiritually passed from death to life that very hour.
He knew, in his heart, for the first time that God had been,
metaphorically, calling him by name for a long time - had long been
searching him out. Yes, this particular patient had been ‘painfully
upset’ for a time so as to be ‘powerfully set up’ forever!
Dear Reader, realise that personal relationship with
the Good Shepherd! You’re one of the ‘wayward sheep’ for whom He gave
His life. He is calling you by name today. So respond now with a thank
you that wells up from your heart. You’ll never regret it! .