The Only Good Shepherd
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
Many recent life changes have forced me to take stock of my faith’s current state. Through a lot of reflection and conversations with my wife, I have only recently come to recognize that much of my faith, how I approach my relationship with God, and how I am discerning my call to ministry are still influenced by a long series of church and Christian school hurts. Most Christian leaders and communities have presented a faith that focuses on ascribing to the correct answer to various points of Christian belief. These points are not primary doctrines of the Church, but secondary topics that Christians have diverse opinions on throughout the world and history. As a result, I approach my Christian faith by thinking through theological questions to arrive at the correct answers. I also love study and theological reflection. I still do not believe they are wrong in and of themselves. Instead, I hide behind that study as something I can control. I retreat from communing with God and engaging in Church communities. A long series of pastors, Christian school teachers and administrators, family, and friends, have, in various ways and to varying degrees, taught me that I can only be accepted into their Christian community if I pass their many theological exams. The questions range from God’s sovereignty to theories of the atonement to how old the earth is to the exact timeline of the end times. So I retreat behind a stack of books, looking to earn my acceptance. I assume I cannot trust Christian leaders or Christian communities. And if I cannot trust Christ’s body, I worry I cannot trust Christ Himself.
There is much more to unpack that I cannot cover in one blog. Here, I want to reflect on one particular moment of insight and prayer I experienced this week. Tuesday, September 13th, was the feast of St. Cyprian of Carthage. On this day, we reflect on the example he set for following Jesus and thank God for the gift he was to the church. St. Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage in the middle of the 3rd century. During a season of persecution, he went into hiding and pastored his church through letters. Later, he advocated for other church leaders who denied the faith during persecution to enter a process of restoration. He also advocated for the importance of Church unity, a theme that resonates with me as someone who has felt torn by numerous competing sides in church debates. During another period of persecution, St. Cyprian did not flee but was arrested and beheaded for the faith. (For a fuller summary of Cyprian’s life which I have relied on for this paragraph, see here).
The Gospel reading assigned for the Feast of St. Cyprian was John 10:11-16, which I will quote in full:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (NRSV)
As I reflected on this passage, it was obvious to me that the lectionary compilers were directing us to think of St. Cyprian as an image of the Good Shepherd. Like Jesus, he was committed to caring for the church under his care, even facing death, just as Jesus did. Yet I could not help but think that St. Cyprian was criticized earlier in his career for fleeing and hiding. Sure, he did not deny the faith as other bishops had. St. Cyprian continued to pastor his congregation through letters, but he fled and left his church. At that point in his career, he seemed more like the hired hand Jesus described. Here was one of the great saints of the church, a theological writer whose works still influence church teaching, a pastor committed to caring for his church after the model of Jesus, and a martyr who died for his commitment to Jesus. Yet even he made the controversial choice to hide, an act that many clergy members under his leadership deemed a cowardly act. Even St. Cyprian let down Christians under his leadership.
As I thought about St. Cyprian's legacy, its highs and lows, I turned towards the icon of Christ that sits on my desk. I began to pray, listing particular leaders, teachers, pastors, and mentors I had over the years. I tried to begin by thanking God for the positive role they each played in my life. Then I moved to the easier task of listing how I felt hurt and let down by them. If even St. Cyprian disappointed those under his leadership, I could not expect the Christian leaders in my life not to disappoint me. All I could do was entrust these disappointments and failings to the only true Good Shepherd, Jesus. I could only ask Him to take these failings and forgive them. As I did, I noticed a sense of trust growing within me. It was not overwhelming but was a seed I have not experienced recently. While I looked at the icon, I could feel a truth that mainly resided in my mind: only Jesus could heal these hurts I carry. I cannot expect any other human shepherd to fix them. And if I could not trust Jesus with them, there was no one else I could trust. The only prayer I could pray in response was, “You, Jesus, are the only Shepherd who could truly be Good and not let me down.” That prayer felt like a door I only recently realized was closed open a crack.