John 10:1-10 and Psalm 23
A SIDE NOTE:
Not really sure why, but recently Rihanna’s song We Found Love has been in my head. I really don’t have any idea if her song has anything to do with what it makes me think about it. But I will just say that the phrase “We found love in a hopeless place” rings true for me. So listen, if you want, and then read the rest…
You know what it feels like.
Your heart races out of control, beating so fast you cannot believe it.
The palms of your hands start to sweat.
You’re short of breath and you’re having trouble taking air in.
Your stomach turns in circles.
Your shoulders tense up and other muscles spasm uncontrollably.
You are afraid.
Fear is an emotion that directly affects our bodies and not just our minds. We, like animals, have a reaction built in to our systems called a fight or flight response. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.
The fight or flight response is pretty helpful to animals and humans alike when real danger is present. Imagine a saber-toothed tiger or an angry, fire breathing dragon coming right at you.
An extra shot of adrenaline and quick thinking would be useful, right?
But honestly, most of us are not facing tigers and dragons. And unlike animals, who do face a lot of predators and other dangers quite often—our fight or flight response may not be helping us.
A little bit of fear might be helpful to keep us alert and motivated. But a lot of fear overcomes our common sense. Our judgment gets clouded and we get lost in that fear.
Neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz explains that
“in a time of crisis, you’re not thinking the way you normally do. You may find yourself acting before you even realize what you’re doing. When the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information, and starts to prioritize rapid responses.”
Sounds good if the tiger is bearing down on you, but most of us are not running from this kind of danger. So this fight or flight thing can lead to poor decisions. You can hear a loud noise and think that you’re in danger—even when that loud noise is a balloon popping. You can see a person who is approaching you on the street as a threat to you—even when he’s going to help you by letting you know that you dropped your wallet on the ground.
And even when your fight or flight response starts to calm down, the effects continue. Our coping mechanisms for fear are not the best. We often cope by wanting to sleep, taking drugs, binging on a variety of things, etc. And ironically, our fear can become chronic and more common, even in normal situations.
And we might as well call it anxiety now.
Most scientists talk about fear and anxiety interchangeably, even though they generally define the two terms like this:
Fear is a negative emotional state triggered by the presence of a stimulus (like a tiger) that has the potential to cause harm.
Anxiety is a negative emotional state in which the threat is not present but anticipated.
So, simply put:
The fight or flight response of fear can keep us alive.
Anxiety can keep us from living.
And this is where we separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom—and not in a good way. All animals can detect and respond to danger—just like us.
But when it comes to anxiety, we are the champions.
We can actually anticipate danger and project danger onto situations that haven’t even happened yet. We’ve developed the ability to fear things that do not even exist today!
Pretty much all of us can attest to the fact that we’ve felt anxiety of some sort in our lives. Some of us have suffered from anxiety disorders that drastically affect everyday life. Having known many people who have suffered from anxiety, it is not something you “get over” and telling people to “calm down” won’t help either.
So I think that it’s good to talk about fear and anxiety in an authentic way so that no matter where we are in life, we can discover ways to really live.
Psalm 23 and John’s “Good Shepherd” story are two examples of scripture establishing something:
Fear is real, but love can overcome fear.
I don’t know whether you buy that or not, but let’s give it a try.
First, though, we have to realize that both the Psalm and the Gospel talk about sheep.
Let’s be honest–sheep aren’t always the greatest of metaphors for us as humans—or so we think. But sheep are not the zombies or robots that blindly follow anyone off a cliff or who just say baaaaah and then roll over on their back with their legs in the air.
Although that last thing sounds like fun.
The idea of the sheep metaphor is that sheep discern good voices from bad voices. In other words, they recognize when the caring, compassionate love-leading voice speaks to them and knows them by name. They filter out the dangerous voices that may try to harm them or lead them by using fear or manipulation.
Thinking like a sheep is being aware of those who love and care for you, and those who don’t.
In John’s community in Palestine, everybody knew about shepherds and sheep. Taking care of or tending sheep was just as it sounds. Shepherds took great care of their sheep. They indeed called them by name. The sheep responded to the shepherd’s voice. At night, the shepherd led the sheep into a safe place.
So Jesus of Nazareth, in John’s Gospel portrayal, draws upon Hebrew stories and a cultural context of sheep to get his point across.
You see, John’s community knew all about fear.
Many were persecuted for their culture and religion in the new reality that was Roman rule. The 1st century was scary. So Jesus referred back to the book of Numbers to encourage his followers:
He would go out before them, come in before them, lead them, and bring them in.
This would have been encouraging, because the disciples were worried about the “bad” shepherds or the “thieves and robbers” who would lead them to dangerous, scary places. In their context, even the leaders of the temple were scattering the sheep, robbing them of their money and dignity, and refusing to feed them.
But there’s a twist.
Not only will Jesus lead his followers into the sheepfold at night, but he will also lead them…OUT.
The sheepfold, where the sheep sleep at night [a place of safety], is not where they stay. They emerge from the sheepfold and into the scary world, but with new life.
They were led out by resurrection.
Jesus, in John’s Gospel, is the way of comfort and sustenance, abundance and strength, even in the face of death.
And the good shepherd way is the way of love and not fear.
Jesus’ followers, after his death, were learning how to love even when they were scared. They were learning how to be compassionate, even when times were tough. They were discovering how to call others by name, treat them with great care, heal and show them mercy— even when things were terrifying in the world.
Maybe that’s why the image of the good shepherd was trending more on Twitter than the image of the cross. People responded much better to the image of the compassionate, leading, loving shepherd. This was carved on walls and catacombs.
The good shepherd was bigger than the cross.
The way of love was stronger than the way of fear.
I wish the image of the good shepherd were more prominent than the cross.
That’s right–I said it.
Frankly, religion has become so much about fear these days.
So certain voices can manipulate, oppress, harm, and scare.
Friends, the fear and anxiety can hinder us. We can become convinced that the world’s empty offer of quick relief from scary things is worth our time and energy. So we sell out to fear and anxiety that can lead to prejudice, isolation, and even violence.
But we shouldn’t listen to those voices, because they actually don’t care about our humanity.
Anytime we make decisions based on fear and anxiety it does not work out well.
Anytime we judge someone because we’re afraid we allow prejudice to creep in.
Anytime we close doors out of fear we miss opportunities to open them.
So let us walk the way of love instead. Don’t give your time, attention, or energy to fear. Instead, give your time, attention, and energy to loving action.
And don’t dwell on scarcity. Instead, learn to think and talk and act as someone who is grateful. And generous.
Following the lead of the good shepherd is not ignoring fear—it is facing fear, but with love. This is resurrection.
Think about compassion, practice empathy, live gratefully.
Help others find love in a hopeless place.
 Szalavitz, Time.
 “Searching the Brain for the Roots of Fear”, the NY Times, JOSEPH LEDOUX, January 22, 2012.
 Num 27: 16-18.