The Good Shepherd, Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1914
John 10: 1-10
“Do you despise the fact that you’re a creature?”
Many of us when faced with this question might quickly answer, “no, of course not. I know I’m a creature.” Hold on for a moment and let the question sink in. Let’s dig a little deeper. I had to face this question a few years ago at a retreat and I ended up spending the entire retreat wrestling with it. When I confronted the question and was in place to be brutally honest with myself, I had to answer “yes.” I despise my own creatureliness.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and many of us might be tempted to stay on the surface as we consider what this means for us. We might be tempted to remain on the pastoral imagery…the grass, the water, or the rolling hills. If this is where the Lord has you in your prayer, then stay there. However, I want to challenge us to go a little bit deeper. When the Lord compares us, his followers, to sheep, I think he was being more literal than we sometimes give him credit for.
You and I are creatures…we are literally made to follow another. In our hyper-individualistic society that prides itself on being self-made and independent men and women, this is a hard pill to swallow. We actually sometimes believe that we can live by the mantra of “you do you, and I’ll do me.” The irony is this is pretty much impossible for us. We may claim to be free of the tyranny of others’ ideas and influences, but we will ultimately end up following something or someone: a new philosophy, self-help guru, political or social ideology, religion…you name it. Just look at social media, which many see as the “great medium” through which we can be whoever we want to be, the space of self-expression. Yes, even here, we “follow” one another: the profiles and posts of friends, pages, groups, politicians, religious figures, and yes, maybe even Dumb Ox Ministries. I’m not passing judgement on the fact that we are followers, my point is that we follow because it’s built into the very fabric of our being. We can’t escape it, and if we dig deeply, we’ll realize that sometimes we don’t like it. Just like our first parents in the Garden of Eden, we have a tendency to rebel against it. We want to grasp at power that isn’t ours to possess, and power that we cannot handle.
What does it mean to be a creature? It means that you and I have been created a certain way, with a certain purpose, for a particular end…and you and I don’t have the power to define these things for ourselves. We can definitely try, but when we rebel against our own creatureliness, we end up at odds with our very nature…at odds with ourselves. Coming to terms with this is a difficult process for all of us, regardless of where we find ourselves on the spectrum of faith. Here’s the GREAT NEWS: in light of the Gospel, embracing our creatureliness in no way inhibits our freedom. Our God is not a tyrant who lords his power over us and forces us into servitude. Our God is good, who promises that if we follow the way marked out for us, it will lead us to the fullness of human flourishing. In other words, we will be full to our capacity and happy beyond our wildest imaginations. Embracing our creatureliness makes us free. Perhaps we're in need of a paradigm shift, and some images can help.
Following Christ is less like this:
...and more like this:
I don’t know about you, but I find tremendous freedom in knowing that there is already a path marked out for me. I don’t have to wander around on an endless search for what will lead to happiness. I’m not left to figure out the meaning of life on my own. I don’t have to feel the pressure to figure out who I am because that was determined long ago when God chose me from all eternity to exist. I find tremendous freedom even in the boundaries set for me because my good God knows what is best for me and what will lead me to authentic happiness…and when I do fall and step out of the boundaries marked out for me, I find tremendous freedom in knowing that I am not powerful enough to mess things up that much. Neither I, nor my sin, have that much power and I thank God for that.
“You do you, and I’ll do me”… that’s way too much pressure. If we try to live by that mantra, we'll end up getting crushed by the weight of it. We run the risk of being unhappy, bitter, and incapable of joy. We’ll end up chained within the prison of our own ideas and the ideas of whomever we end up following that day. Let’s drop the yoke of self-reliance and self-determination, friends, and let’s put on a new one: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11: 29-30). Let’s surrender to the fact that we are creatures, followers by nature, and let’s not just accept it, but embrace it. Let’s embrace our Creator and the path already marked out for us by Christ. Let’s be sheep, and all will be well.
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