(For an introduction to this series, click here. Also, please note that to avoid possible negative consequences, names of preachers and parishes will not be disclosed in this series.)
When we hear this gospel reading [John 10:27-30] we wonder if we, as humans, are really like sheep – and if so – what are sheep like? What does it mean to be loved by a shepherd? I grew up on a farm where we raised cattle, pigs, horses and sheep. The rolling hills of northeastern Iowa, between Waukon and Decorah were perfectly suited for grazing animals. I think my Irish ancestors choose the place because it reminded them of the lush green hills of their homeland. I have heard and read pastors or priests discuss sheep as helpless, hapless, difficult or even stupid animals. Those of us who know sheep would disagree. Sheep CAN be stubborn and seem to believe the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” – so they frequently get out of fenced- in places. They are hard to herd without a border collie or sheep dog, as they play follow the leader with other sheep who don’t know where they are going. I could also tell you stories about winning grand champion lamb at the county fair and shampooing my lamb with baby shampoo to make its fleece as “white as snow” before the competition. Or stories about my big sister, Mary’s pet lamb – everywhere that Mary went . . . well, you know the rest.
The experience of watching my dad raise sheep helped me understand what is meant by the “good shepherd.” One difficulty for a sheep farmer is that sometimes a mother sheep will reject her newborn lamb. I remember when my dad would bring a newborn lamb inside and we would try to feed it with a pop bottle fitted with a special nipple. When I asked, “What happened to its mom?” Dad would answer, “Its mom doesn’t want it. She won’t let it eat.” WHAT? I was shocked that a mom wouldn’t want the cute little baby lamb. “She was just too tired from having it,” my dad sighed and shook his head.
Sometimes when it’s cold, rainy, crowded, or just because of a difficult, exhausting delivery, the mother sheep is too tired to take the lengthy time needed to lick and clean and bond with her newborn lamb. Without this special bonding, the mother does not allow the lamb to nurse and it is at risk of starvation. Sometimes the farmer or shepherd can adopt the lamb out to another sheep, and sometimes he or she can keep it alive with a bottle, (that was how my sister got her pet) but this bottle-feeding often is not easy or enough and often the lamb will die.
To reduce this possibility of lamb rejection, my dad would try to get pregnant sheep inside to a warm quiet place when they were close to their delivery time. That way he could check on them on an hourly basis and help ease a delivery. He could help move the extremely exhausted mother near to her newborn and encourage the bonding process. Thus a VERY important role of a good shepherd is that of a good midwife.
“Jesus as midwife,” what does that image mean to us? It means we have someone with us to help us through difficult and scary times. Just as Jesus was with Paul and Barnabas during their travels, teachings and arguments, we have someone with us to help us believe that we can make it through our struggles and that there will be a better future. This has been true in my life as our family struggled with life-threatening depression, chemical dependency, severe marital stress, extended unemployment and financial problems. Thomas Merton said that, “Pure love and prayer are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.”
Jesus helped me see that I need not fear pain, because he is there with me. I also believe Jesus is with us throughout history, as we have struggled for civil rights or women's rights, gay rights or workers’ rights, and equality for immigrants. Jesus the midwife is giving us words of encouragement to help us give birth to a more peaceful, more just and more ecologically sound society. The gospel says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, No one shall snatch them out of my hand.” The Good Shepherd midwife is holding our hands through these struggles and encourages us to work for a greater future. Jesus, as midwife, helps us bring this future into the present.
In Jesus’ time, the shepherds spent their life with their sheep and the sheep bonded emotionally with the shepherd. Like the nursery rhyme, “everywhere the ‘shepherd’ went, the lamb was sure to go.” The shepherds did not have to herd the sheep, instead the sheep would follow them. The shepherds developed their own unique calls and two flocks of sheep that were both grazing on the same hill could be separated out by two different calls from the two shepherds.
“My sheep know my voice, I know them and they follow me,” says Jesus. What is Jesus’ voice calling us to? What dreams do we have that Jesus the midwife can help us bring to life? These inspirations may be a very quiet, small seed – like a dream or embryo within us at first. I had a dream of quilting for nearly 10 years before I finally took my first quilting class and began on a journey of creativity that brought me deep joy. This quilting passion helped me make it through the difficult times and helped me experience God in a different way. I feel one with my Higher Power when I am quilting. As I am creating, I am one with my creator.
Jesus is calling us to experience God within us. Jesus says in the Gospel, “God and I are one.” What experiences are we called to where we can know this deep closeness to God? We may be called to meditation, journaling, taking walks in the woods, gardening or some other God experience. What are we called to that will enable us to know we are “one with God?” What experiences help us know that God is, indeed, holding us in her hand? If we listen closely, Jesus will lead us to these experiences. Because I have a helper personality, I often resist these self-renewal experiences. But I know that I get very irritated, anxious and burned-out without them. Jesus, the midwife, is concerned about my welfare and wants me to have these healing activities. We are all called to be both Marthas and Marys, both givers of love and receivers of love. We need to allow God to hold us in her hand and really feel the embrace.
Hearing and following the midwife shepherd’s call is not always easy. I have had some difficulty, as the disciples did, in following Jesus. I became a staff member at a Catholic worker house in my 20s and two of my 4 sons were born there. I returned to teaching in my 30s and began a 12-step program in my 40s. All were decisions that I made with difficulty. Those experiences brought me great joy, but also great challenges. I grew from the challenges and I believe the decisions were the right ones for me. However, many times I am not sure that I am truly discerning Jesus’ call and sometimes I still have fear or resistance. I remember one prayer that I prayed before I fell in love with my husband, “God, if you want me to fall in love with Brent, please help me to at least be open to it.” I needed my Higher Power to remove the resistance. The midwife’s call can help us know what to do next, what steps to take and when to take them. This shepherd is the same one who tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the persecuted.” What does it mean to listen to his call?
Just as the apostles went from city to city, taking life one city at a time, one day at a time, one discussion at a time, and not always knowing the future – our calls from Jesus the Shepherd midwife can help give us courage during times of difficulty or confusion. Some of the calls from our higher power midwife might be just a “check up, “How are you doing? Relax. Be not afraid. I am with you. I love you. I am holding you always. You shall never perish. No one shall snatch you out of my hand.” Or our calls from Jesus the midwife may be more persistent. “The time is now. You can do it. Take the job, make the move, fall in love, it’s the right college for you. It’s my will for you. Work for social change.” Or we may find we are called to change our mind, to leave a job or city or a church or a relationship. We might be called to “shake the dust from our sandals and move on.”
Lastly, just as a shepherd midwife helps ease the relationship between newborn and mother, Jesus the midwife can help us build new relationships or rebuild and heal older ones. “God and I are one,” says Jesus. “You are in my hands.” We can put our relationships in God’s hands and let the healer do his thing.