The stained glass window of the Good Shepherd towered over the altar at the church of my youth. The shepherd reached down to untangle a shorn and forlorn lamb from a thicket of thorns and brambles.
Max, Fr.Max, had assigned me at age fourteen to schedule the acolytes. Few wanted to take the 8 AM service, so I’d show up without breakfast to serve on the altar. Kneeling on the hard steps, my back and knees would send me back on my heels. One morning, I nearly passed out, a cold sweat poured off me. I looked up at that poor lamb with the Good Shepherd reaching down to her and felt as if that little bedraggled lamb was me. After that, Max told me to eat breakfast.
Fr Max was my good shepherd. He always had time for me when I’d show up at the rectory door. We could talk about anything.
It was 1955 and I asked him, “What do you think about homosexuality?” He answered, “I know a couple who live together as husband and wife. They care about each other. I don’t see what good there is to deny anyone someone to love.”
When I was fourteen, I told Max that I wanted to be a priest but I didn’t feel I was worthy. Max said, “None of us are worthy, we are made worthy by the grace of God.”
Amazing, crazy, holy grace: is what came to John Newton when he turned from his profession as a slave trader into an abolitionist. “Amazing grace …I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.” Even with blood on his hands, grace may come, unmerited, certainly, Even a grace that his captives were unable to give to him, the Good Shepherd kept searching for him, found him, reached out to him while he was tangled in the web of the sin of slavery, and lifted him up so he could become a singer for justice.
The Good Shepherd was and is for many of us the perfect icon of Jesus: the Christ. In his extravagant compassion and grace, he reaches out to us with arms of love.
I’ve always been a slow and late learner and I suspect that that’s why I’ve been given such a long life. So I could learn what Max and Jesus and John Newton were talking about when they talked about grace.
The most amazing grace happened to me when my son Chris was born with Down Syndrome. It was fully twenty years after my conversation with Fr. Max. I still had such old ideas about God. I called a priest friend and his wife. They had adopted a son who had severe developmental needs. I figured Mark and Elizabeth might be able to help my wife and me sort through some of the confusion I faced.
Mark, I said “Why would God cause a child to be born with such a disability? Mark answered, “I don’t believe in a God like that. I don’t believe in a God who causes children to be born with disabilities; I believe in a God who stands above us and reaches out to us with arms of love.”
When Mark said that it was if the heavens opened. It’s absolutely crazy and holy grace that can switch your mind and heart with so few words. To see God as the good shepherd who is standing above us reaching out to us with arms of love transformed what was seen as a punishment into a blessing. And I have been learning all kinds of amazing graceful things from this boy and now young man ever since.
It would have been a mistake to see the life of this child as only a challenge and not as an opportunity to grow in love. My son’s birth “could have closed doors in me once and for all against the possibility of ever giving entrance to such love and thereby to such pain again. Instead it opened up some door in me to the pain of others. It opened hands to help and eyes to see that there is pain in every life, even the luckiest, that buried griefs and hurtful memories are part of us all.
And there is so much else to begin to see.” (Frederick Buechner) The child who becomes a blessing, the priest who becomes a shepherd, and a stained glass window that can be a constant memory of the love of God reaching out when you get lost and in trouble.
The day after our son was born the social worker came to visit. She seemed stressed. She said to my wife and me, “You know you don’t have to keep this child. There are places for children like him.”
My wife said, “He is our son and we will love him no matter what.”
Such fierce love is the very love and heart of God, don’t you think?
Each life is created and loved, no matter what, by the fierce and protective love of God.
We had to find a way for that love to open and flow into our lives, to let the river flow and not block the love of God from showing up in our lives.
As the theologian Ramon Pannikar beautifully expresses it, “ am one with the source insofar as I act as a source by making everything I have received flow again–`just like Jesus.”
Throwing our love away, just like Jesus, we become the self-emptying vessels for the love of God that perpetually overflow, watering the desert of the world.
In such a way the Good Shepherd becomes the perfect model for the life of the disciple and the church. We are the only institution said a revered Archbishop, “That does not exist for itself.”
And with bills to pay and buildings to keep up, and children’s mouths to feed and to protect, we are still caught in the thicket like that forlorn lamb in the window of my childhood church.
And yet we have a Shepherd who in His fierce love for us reaches out and extends his hand. And as always and as always will be, we can turn away or we can take the hand and be lifted up and learn to be like him.