52Then he led out his people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. 53He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid; but the sea overwhelmed their enemies. 54And he brought them to his holy hill, to the mountain that his right hand had won.
We tend to think of the wilderness as a place where we are sort of thrown out into virtually alone. We imagine wandering, looking for solace, looking for companionship, looking for someone to help us out of where we are. We search for God as if God is somehow parked at the exit of the wilderness holding a sign with our name on it as we disembark. And, yet, this psalm reminds us that even in the wilderness we are not alone, that God leads us and guides us through the treacherous terrain. Actually, there are times, when God, as it says, guides us IN, wandering, living the wilderness. It says that we are led to safety and brought to a place that is holy, that is of God. So, why then, here in the wilderness, do we feel so alone?
We are accustomed to pastoral images in the Bible, beautiful images of the flock being led or shepherds on the hillside. We know what it is supposed to connote. The shepherd guides the sheep to the place where they will be well-fed and cared for, the place where they will grow and flourish into maturity. There is soft, green grass, blue skies, and other sheep in the fold to keep them company as they grow together. But this is not what it looks like right now. Where is the green grass? Where are the blue skies? Where are my trusty companions? And so, searching for our image of where a shepherd is supposed to lead, we leave to look for greener pastures or easier pathways. But the grass isn’t really greener, the skies really aren’t any clearer, and in our confusion, we fall, tumbling down the gulley, bruised and tired.
As we said before, the wilderness is not just something to rush through. And God does not always lead us out of the desolation that surrounds us. As the passage says, God leads us through or in the wilderness, helping us navigate the rough paths and the difficult sightlines and, when the time is right, bringing us home. Our problem is that we don’t envision ourselves like sheep because we are trying so hard to be the shepherd of our own lives, to be in control, to be the guide. And so we often wander away and get lost. We may end up in a place that is not ours to be. But think about sheep. Sheep are seldom characterized as one of the smartest beings on the farm and yet, sheep know to whom they belong. Sheep know how to follow. Sheep know how to be part of a flock, holding each other up, helping each other see the shepherd. And when, as happens every now and then, a sheep gets lost, the sheep trusts that the shepherd will come and bring the sheep home.
Lent is a season that teaches us to be more like sheep, to follow God through the wilderness, learning the things that it teaches, accepting the things that it offers, and knowing, that, when it is time, God will guide us out of this lostness, out of despair, out of the loneliness. You don’t have to fix it; you don’t have to hurry; you don’t have to make it something it is not. Just follow. Just live. But by following God’s lead, we will see beauty we have never seen and companionship we have never known. That’s what you get when you’re part of a flock.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually without noticing it, live your life some distant day into the answers. (Rainer Maria Rilke)
FOR TODAY: Be sheep. Follow. Listen. Be patient.