My car recently had a flat tire, and, as it was a nice day, I decided to change it myself. Or at least attempt to; I’m not exactly known for my practical skill set. I emptied out my car’s trunk and assembled what I thought I would need to change the tire. I struggled for a while (what is that thing supposed to do?) before deciding I didn’t really want to spend the entire day changing a tire, and I called AAA. The gentleman who responded had my tire changed in under five minutes. He had experience, and he had the right tools.
Having the right tools, it seems to me, is the answer to many of life’s problems and challenges.
In While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, a chapter is devoted to a tool I’d heard of but never thought much about: the staff. Everyone knows the Psalmist’s words, “your rod and your staff comfort me,” but perhaps, like me, you never wondered precisely what this rod and this staff are that provide such a comfort to a frightened soul.
The rod, it turns out, is defensive. For centuries, shepherds encouraged the flock with their rods; they threw the rods at predators approaching their flocks. Most importantly, perhaps, the sheep were made to “pass under the rod” when they were counted and inspected every night, as the shepherd checked each one for any wounds or the presence of parasites.
The other wooden implement used by the shepherd is the staff. Tall enough to lean on, frequently curved at the top, it’s a tool with many uses: it’s used to keep sheep apart from each other during lambing, for rescue operations, and to guide sheep through a pass. A very useful tool indeed.
For a more vivid description of the staff in action, we turn to the biography of Dr. Alexander Duff, a Christian missionary to India who lived in the 19th century:
In 1849 Dr. Duff was traveling near Simla under the shadow of the great Himalaya mountains. One day his way led to a narrow bridle path cut out on the face of a steep ridge; along this narrow path that ran so near the great precipice he saw a shepherd leading on his flock following him, but now and then the shepherd stopped and looked back. If he saw a sheep creeping up too far on the one hand, or going too near the edge of the dangerous precipice on the other, he would at once turn back and go to it, gently pulling it back.
He had a long rod as tall as himself, round the lower half of which was twisted a band of iron. The thick band was really a staff, and was ready for use whenever he saw a hyena or wolf or some other troublesome animal coming near the sheep, for especially at night these creatures prowled about the flock. With the iron part of the rod he would give a good blow when an attack was threatened.
I’m reading that passage and there’s part of me that’s saying, lucky sheep! What a feeling of security!
It’s a feeling not a lot of us are experiencing right now. The world around us, we have learned, is unsafe. In fact, we’re understanding that even the people around us have become, in these days of the coronavirus, a threat to our wellbeing. No one feels any sense of security: losing jobs and income, worrying about our families’ health, not knowing what might happen next. Lucky sheep, indeed!
Jesus is called the Great Shepherd. He defends his sheep with his rod, but he also brings back the wandering or straying sheep with his shepherd’s crook. The staff has a curved end that fits the neck of the sheep perfectly, taking care of little lambs as well as the grown sheep. He can defend the flock from the wolves by his rod, and correct us by his rod when we need it; he keeps his sheep close to him by his staff. This is how Micah referred to the staff, writing “Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your heritage that lives apart in a woodland, in the midst of an orchard.” (Micah 7:14).
God loves us so much not to leave us to ourselves. He is the shepherd whose life is closely intertwined with ours. If he didn’t love us, he’d let us wander off like sheep over a cliff. His rod protects us from the enemy and he uses his staff to keep us close to the Shepherd. Jesus is the Great Shepherd who uses both the rod when we need it—and the staff when we need it, too.
Let’s take a look at what the staff means to a shepherd out in the field with his sheep. Being a shepherd is a difficult job. It’s not the stained-glass window picture of someone standing there looking rather beatific. Not at all. Shepherds work hard, and they get dirty. If you’re a shepherd, there are three reasons you need the staff:
- First, you need it because you’re leading the sheep out in the country. You’re on rocky ground, so you need a staff to help keep you stable. In that sense, it’s like a hiking stick. It catches you when you fall.
- The second reason you as a shepherd need a staff is that it’s an offensive weapon. If somebody’s coming against the sheep, you use the staff to fight them, to keep them away. Your job, after all, is to protect the sheep.
- Then there’s a third reason: sometimes sheep have minds of their own. They aren’t always very smart, and they need correction. They might wander off. When that happens, you can use the staff to pull them back into the flock, to keep your sheep in line.
Of course, these are the very things that Jesus the Shepherd is doing in your life. He wants to help keep you steady, particularly when you’re walking in a difficult season, as we all are now. He wants to fight on your behalf against the enemies that come against you. And if you’ve made a commitment to say, “I will follow you,” he takes you very seriously.
So if he says, “Go this way,” and you’re going another way, he’ll use his staff to correct you, to bring you back in line. Not because he’s mean, but because he loves you, and because if you go that way, you could encounter a pack of wolves. Your Shepherd wants to keep you safe.
All three of these are ways Jesus demonstrates his love:
- By steadying us when life is hard.
- By fighting on our behalf when we need somebody to do so (and we all do from time to time).
- By correcting us when we’re going the wrong way.
But this staff represents not just Jesus’ ministry, it also represents the Church. God has given the Church a community responsibility: we are called to be the shepherd’s staff in the community where God has placed them.
Who in the community needs people to come and stand beside them and steady them because life is hard? That’s the Church’s ministry to the community. There’s a reason Jesus emphasizes the same things over and over again: Care for the weak. Care for the sick. Care for the poor. A Church that claims to be under the authority of the Good Shepherd has to demonstrate that kind of care to those in need.
We’ve all been the recipients. We’ve received forgiveness when we didn’t deserve it. We’ve received mercy when we didn’t deserve it. He gave his life for us, he saved us, even though we didn’t deserve it. He has steadied us in our walk. And if Jesus is steadying us in our walk, being part of a community means we need to take up this staff and care for others. Because that’s what Jesus is doing for us. We are here to steady those in need. This coronavirus crisis is a particularly good time to show we all belong together… even when we cannot actually come together.
Who are the people in your community who need someone to come and fight on their behalf? The system isn’t helping them; their neighbors aren’t helping them; even often their own family members aren’t helping them. Who are the people who need somebody to come and stand beside them and say, “What can we do to help?” It could be legal assistance. It could be education. It could be someone helping them find counseling and care. It could be prayer, because more often than not, fighting the battle in prayer is often the thing that breaks loose what needs to happen in somebody’s life. There isn’t one of us here who doesn’t need that. I hope none of us feels they can get through this crisis without saying, “I need somebody to pray for me right now.” Because we all do. And God has built that kind of interdependence between us.
We used to rely on families or bosses to help raise people up into positions of responsibility, to love them enough to correct them when they needed correcting. But part of what we’re wrestling with is that people in responsible leadership positions no longer take time or care to mentor, to correct, and to reach out. And so there are many people who haven’t learned important lessons, who don’t understand the need they might have for correction, because they think they should be free to do whatever they want. But that’s not true freedom. Our freedom is the freedom to serve the common good, to reach out to others, to care for people, to give sacrificially. All of us need this staff of correction in our lives.
That’s what it means for the Church to take on the ministry of the shepherd in the communities it serves. That’s what it means for the Church to be God’s steadying, protecting, and correcting staff.
And remember that if the shepherd starts off with one hundred sheep, he will surely bring home one hundred sheep, so we can say, with the psalmist, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
So now let’s imagine again. Imagine yourself to be one of the woolly sheep in a large flock. You don’t think much. You pretty much follow whatever the sheep in front of you is doing. You make a lot of noise when you’re hungry, or unhappy about something. You might not think; but what you do is sense. You can sense danger. You can sense fear. And right now you’re feeling both of those things.
You don’t know why you’re afraid, but you know in your heart there’s something to be afraid of. You huddle even closer to your neighbors. Maybe they can keep the Bad Thing away from you. Maybe you can hide in the midst of them. But you realize that they, too, are shivering; they, too have picked up on the danger. Everyone is at risk. Oh, no! What are you all to do?
And then you hear his voice, the man who takes care of you. He is shouting, but not at the sheep, not at you. He is shouting and running after something, his rod in the air. When he comes back, you feel it right away: the fear has lifted. The danger is gone. You didn’t even know how close you came to disaster—but he did, and he kept it away from you.
There’s no reason to belabor this point. Carry the image with you as we move through this terrible time of a global pandemic. Carry it as we get closer to the end of our Lenten journey, to the final cruel week. Jesus is our shepherd, but he is also the Lamb of God, ready to die so his flock might live on.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir