A couple of years ago, when we first moved back to Richmond, Eliza was invited to a swimming birthday party. Only a few of the children could even swim, so all of the parents stayed at the party and stared at their precious offspring as they paddled around the shallow end of the pool. Being a relative newcomer, I didn’t know any of the parents.
Eliza was cautious with the water. She would find a spot on the edge of the pool, look back at me for confirmation that it wasn’t too deep, and then she would ponder for at least a minute as to whether or not she might jump in. During one of her “thinking spells,” a boy of about 8, ran up behind her and made the decision for her by pushing her in the pool. She flew across the water and into an area well over her head. As Eliza went down, I went over and pulled her out. She was scared and crying uncontrollably. I tried my best to console her and tell her she was going to be fine.
Meanwhile, the parents at the party asked me politely if Eliza was o.k. and they asked me if I needed anything. I was hardly listening to them though because I was busily scanning the crowd for the culprit, who I found happily playing in the pool on a raft.
I can’t explain exactly what kicked in when I realized Eliza was going to be fine and that this young boy seemed indifferent to what had happened, but I can tell you it wasn’t pretty. I yelled to him-not even knowing his name- to come over to me. He looked surprised, but dutifully climbed out of the water. All of the parents on the other hand had a look of fear in their eyes- a look that said “you aren’t going to correct someone else’s child, are you?” The parents parted like the Red Sea and let the boy walk through to where I was standing.
The boy just stood there and stared at me, as I held Eliza, whose wails had turned into whimpers by this point. He didn’t open his mouth to apologize or say one word. Finally, I said, “Son, what were you thinking? Why did you just do that? Don’t you know any better? Are you just mean-spirited?” Still he said nothing. He just shrugged his shoulders. Then a father in the crowd spoke up and said, “Oh, you know boys. He was just playing around.” That wasn’t the right thing to say to me.
In response I said, “Oh yeah. I know boys. In fact, I’ve got one myself. In fact, I’ve taught a whole slew of them over the past ten years. But that doesn’t excuse what he just did.” From there I went on a diatribe about how I had been a life guard for 8 years and nearly every accident I ever witnessed was from rough housing, …and you can imagine the rest of the conversation, it went downhill from there.”
At this juncture, the boy was fairly anxious to move away from my presence. He softly said he was sorry and then promptly jumped in the pool. I was left holding Eliza and the parents slowly moved away from us.
Just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, the hostess, who had been inside for the entire episode, came outside with the birthday cake and introduced me to her son. Guess which boy was her son? Right, the culprit; AND THEN she proceeds to introduce me to all the other parents, knowing of course that I am new and don’t know any of them. She tells the parents that I am a priest and that my husband is the new Rector at St. James’s Episcopal Church. Now, if I thought there was fear in the parent’s eyes the first time I looked out on them, this time there was shock written in exclamation points all across their faces. You could just read their minds, “She’s a priest, a priest who is supposed to be loving and forgiving!” Or “Where did you say her husband works? I want to make sure we don’t visit there!”
Mortification and embarrassment had set in by this point and I excused Eliza and myself as quickly as I could and we went home. I told Randy the story and I apologized for chasing away potential parishioners. As husbands often try to do, Randy tried to comfort me by saying some thing like, “I am sure it wasn’t as bad as all that.” But of course since I had been there, I knew the truth. It had been that ugly.
After months of thinking about this, I have come to the following conclusion. I would love to say that the lifeguard in me just took over or that the teacher in me came out because that’s who I am, but neither one of those would be the truth. The truth is the mama bear came out. Someone was messing with my cub and I wasn’t happy about it.
When I read today’s gospel, which is one of my favorite images of Christ, I am reminded of this event in my life.
Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What parent can’t relate to this image? The image of a love so great that we would be willing to lay down our lives for our children. The image that we try to “shepherd” our children along the journey of life and on our best days, we try to be “good shepherds” (with a little g). It is an image that comes to mind easily for me. I can make the analogy quite quickly. The love of Christ for us is analogous to the love of a parent for a child. That is how I felt at the pool party – a love so deep that I would take on any “wolf” to save my sheep.
I have to ask myself though, was I wrong to discipline someone else’s child? Did he not need to be “shepherded?” Did he not need to hear someone tell him that his behavior was not acceptable? I am not sure. I know I didn’t handle my emotions very well. I was overcome with anger and fear. And yet, when I look beyond this single incident to all of the events in my life don’t I have a responsibility as a Christian to “shepherd” others along the journey, to reflect Christ in my life and in my actions? As a spouse, as a friend, as a parent, as a teacher, as a priest, as a daughter, as a sister, aren’t I called to reflect Christ, to model Christ, to “shepherd” others to THE Good Shepherd? I believe I am. I believe you are. It is a part of our baptismal covenant.
If we are going to live in Christian community with one another, then we have a responsibility to help each other, we have a responsibility to help each other become all that God would want us to be.
We spend so much of our time as parents making certain that our children are receiving good educations where they learn physics and math and attend excellent colleges. But what I fear is that we don’t spend an equal amount of time making certain that they learn the values of Christ, the Christian values so central to a life of faith. I can tell you that as parents, Randy and I worry about a lot of things, but at the top of the list is the quality of our children’s characters. What kind of lives will they lead? Will they live lives of virtue, of integrity? Will they be an example to others? Will they be givers instead of takers? Will they seek Christ in all persons, and not just the ones they like? Will they have hearts that are open and not hardened? Further, we hope and pray that the people who touch our children’s lives will call them to task when their behavior is not as it should be, and that they will call us too if need be, as difficult as that call may be.
I am reminded of another mother on this mother’s day who did her best to “shepherd” her family along the road to Christ. About 331 A.D. in North Africa, a baby girl was born who would become the mother of one of the most influential Christians of all times. Monica was born into a moderately wealthy family. An old Christian maidservant, who had also cared for Monica’s father as a baby, brought Monica up in the Christian faith.
Monica was given in marriage to Patricius, who was not a Christian. For many years Monica sought to win Patricius to the Lord. By persevering in example and prayer, Monica won her mother-in-law to Christ and Patricius too became a Christian, though not until the end of his life.
Monica attempted to bring her children up in the ways of the Lord, and it pained her to see them stray from the truth she had taught them. Her most promising son, Augustine, was given an excellent education, and Monica hoped this might be a means of his more fully reaching God. Augustine ignored his mother’s warnings against youthful lusts and pursued a life of self-gratification and immorality while continuing his classical education. He even fathered a child with a woman who was not his wife. But that did not deter Monica, she was determined that she would continue to “shepherd” her lost son.
When Augustine went to Italy to teach, Monica, a widow by then, followed him there. In Milan she attended the church pastored by Ambrose and rejoiced when Augustine befriended Ambrose and eventually became a Christian.
Monica died in 387 at the age of 56. She died at peace, for she had been successful in “shepherding” her family to Christ. In his “Confessions” Augustine spoke of his grief and weeping for his mother, writing “now gone from my sight, who for years had wept over me, that I might live in God’s sight.” After years of service to Christ and his church, Augustine looked back on his life and recognized the importance of his mother’s perseverance in prayer and example and word. (Christian History Institute)
We are all sheep in need of shepherding now and then; and because not everyone has a mother like Monica in his or her life, as Christians living in community with one another at this church, it is our responsibility to reflect Christ to others in our words and deeds. For we all need guidance, we all need directing, we all need correcting, we all need role models. I am not fond of quoting Hillary Clinton, but I do believe that it takes a village to raise a child and in a similar vain, I think it takes a church community to “shepherd” each other to the Model Shepherd.
I pray that we may all hear the voice of the Model Shepherd in prayer, in community, in self-examination, and even when we fall down and struggle to get back up, for He is the one who knows us the best and loves us the most. And when we can’t hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, may He send in outside help to mother us and lead us back to the rest of the flock.