Lambs, Mothers, Shepherds, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death
May 8, 2022
On Good Shepherd Sunday, a family in my congregation brings lambs to church. We’re six miles from downtown Pittsburgh and definitely on the urban side of the suburbs, but their land has long been its own patch of rural paradise amid contemporary suburban development. I love seeing our city kids tentatively pat the lambs’ heads and marvel at their soft wool. During the height of the pandemic, I got to visit the lambs at the farm since we weren’t meeting in person for church. I recorded a children’s sermon as they bleated over me, bucking out of my arms. The lambs were willing to play for a little while, but they knew: I did not belong.
Personally, I’ve never especially identified with the image of Jesus as a shepherd or the corresponding vision of myself as a sheep. Psalm 23 has a pretty fierce shepherd, though, and I am there for it. Reading such a familiar text, it’s easy to overlook this. We get all wrapped up in the soul-reviving still waters and forget that this shepherd is with us in the valley of the shadow of death.
We don’t get to the still waters without first finding ourselves in some deep muck. Continuing the psalm, not only are we in the valley of the shadow of death, but we are stopping right by the stream. As our enemies close in on you, we feast at an abundant banquet. There is so much in our cup it’s spilling over. It’s not your enemies pursuing us; it’s goodness and mercy. This is a different kind of shepherd.
Today, Good Shepherd Sunday falls on Mother’s Day. There are so many for whom the compulsory sunshine of the day feels cold. I will pray for mothers in the traditional sense and also those who mother in other ways. Also, always, I want to pray for those who have lost children, for those with stories of infertility or pregnancy loss, for those who have complicated relationships with their mothers or their children. For many, this day of lambs and flowers in a meadow just might feel like the valley of the shadow of death.
This shepherd—who is with us and for us—will stand with us even in the midst of pain. It’s not to paper over with a sweet smile and soldier on. This day, whether you find yourself as a lost lamb or a protective ewe, or even a rebellious goat running for the hills, may you find and be found, your cup running over.
Photo: The author, not a shepherd