Posts Tagged ‘Homelessness’

Shepherds and Sheep

May 30, 2017

Growing up in a Christian household I knew well the language and imagery of Shepherds and Sheep. Jesus was our Shepherd and we were his sheep. The same imagery was applied, to a lesser degree, to the Pastor of the Church. We, the members of his congregation, were the flock that he tended, cared for and protected.

The Shepherd symbol was so pervasive and normative in my youth that I never gave it a second thought. In fact, I don’t even think that I was aware that it was a metaphor.

That changed when a young Christian Pastor pointed out that, “Shepherds smell like sheep.” He made this statement in a discussion about the difficulties that churches inevitably encounter when they welcome the homeless into their facilities. Understandably, no church wants to have to deal with difficult people and situations.

Unfortunately, life and people are complicated. If we want to help house the homeless, then we cannot separate ourselves from the messiness of life. People are homeless for a variety of reasons. Housing can be expensive and hard to find. A period of bad luck and unexpected expenses can land individuals and families on the street.

There are certainly homeless individuals who suffer from mental illness and/or disability. There can also be substance abuse issues. A handful have been homeless so long they can’t imagine being housed. Homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, is complicated.

“The homeless” are people just like us. Their lives are filled with both joys and sorrows. Like us, they are driven by hurts, emotions, and motivations that are buried deep in the mind. They may react, as we also often do, to people and situations in ways that are contrary to their best intentions and beliefs.

christ of the bread linesHousing the homeless means getting to know the people who are are homeless as people. Unique. Human. Challenging. It may involve sharing meals, entering into conversation, or just listening.

It is important, however, to remember that shepherds, no matter how they smell, are not sheep. No one seeing a herd of sheep would mistake the shepherd for the sheep. Nevertheless, to be effective, the shepherd has to live among his/her sheep. The shepherd cannot delegate shepherding. He/She cannot create a non-profit whose mission is ensuring that no sheep “goes astray.”  No. Being a shepherd means tending and nurturing sheep with our own hands. It involves getting dirty and stinky, as well as sharing in the fullness of the life of sheep: birthing, nursing, protecting, and burying.

If we, as religious leaders and people of faith, are akin to shepherds — and I think there is value in the metaphor — then the question is do we, “stink of sheep?”  How protected from adversity and unpleasantness have we made our spiritual lives and churches? Who are the “lepers” in our life and our community? What uncomfortable work have we have delegated to others?

All us will answer this question differently. We each have different callings. The work and mission of each church will differ. We are, however, capable of doing more than we think we can. The first step is a willingness to get our hands dirty or, in the words of my Christian friend, “smell like sheep.”

Peace, Paul