O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Book of Common Prayer, p. 225
This past Sunday, commonly known as "Good Shepherd Sunday" in the church calendar, is always an interesting one. It's the time of the year that clergy are faced with dealing with "animal husbandry issues" to a congregation that, more often than not, are distinctly "non-agrarian" and probably, for the most part, are not all that thrilled to be thinking of themselves as "sheep." I think for the most part, "non-agrarian clergy" don't like preaching about sheep. One can tell which clergy were into having critters as youngsters, and which weren't. On the other hand, I totally dig the sheep stories. Then again, as a kid, I raised just about every kind of farm critter imaginable at least once, and temporarily boarded a variety of wild critters ranging from tadpoles to snakes to baby raccoons to squirrels.
I had to giggle just a little Sunday when our vicar referred to sheep as having "fur," and suppress telling her in good-natured fun, "Sheep don't have fur, they have coats! It's wool, ya know!" But I let it pass. I didn't want to drop into teasing over what was a very good homily and one designed to get a very important underlying pastoral message across about what people should come to expect from a "good shepherd" as a given, not an option.
But what always strikes me in a lot of the Gospel sheep parables and discourses is that there are often references to shepherds calling the sheep by name, and the sheep knowing their names.
Names are a really big deal in the Bible. We are first told the power of names in the Genesis story, when Adam gets to name all the creatures. We have multiple examples in the Hebrew Bible of people encountering God and getting name changes--Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel after his wrestling match, and there are many others. In the New Testament, the two most illustrious examples are Saul becoming Paul and Peter becoming Cephas. (Ever notice when Peter is "rising to the occasion," he's called Cephas, and when he's showing weakness, he's referred to as Peter?)
But the important concept, as best as I can tell, is time and time again, we are shown that God's way is to give us new names--I like to think of them as "pet names"--when we encounter and draw nearer to God.
Yet, what do we do? We give people "new names" at best, when we feel a need to categorize people, and, at worst, when we want to trivialize or diminish them!
The YouTube I posted above is a commercial from where I teach medical students. It got me to thinking about the power of "labels." In medicine, we have a legitimate reason to "label" people with a disease, because it helps us understand how to treat their illnesses. There's nothing wrong with that--to a point. The scientific half of my mind needs to do that, because it can conjure up important data--what drugs to use, what drugs NOT to use, what co-morbidities the person might also have, what lab tests or studies will be helpful to follow them.
The problem is, we take it far past that. We can also use labels to insulate ourselves from people. I am just as guilty of it as anyone else. I might use the phrase, "terminal" to describe a person or situation. Now, in the legit sense, I am referring to a very real and imminent mortality of an unknown duration. But I might use the phrase to describe someone who I have judged as "can't be helped." Saying someone is "Axis II" implies, in a legit sense, they have one of a certain set of psychiatric diagnoses in the DSM-IV manual. But I have referred to people as "Axis II" when what I am really saying, "You're sick and I think there's limited value as to how much you can be helped." Medical people send coded judgmental messages to other medical people with what, on the surface, appears to be "medical language."
This doesn't just happen in medicine. One of my dearest mentors, being Jewish, often used words in Yiddish to say things he would have never said in English. In fact, he used to have a T-shirt that said, "If you can't say anything nice, say it in Yiddish." He would have never called an African-American the "N bomb name," and would have never been disrespectful to them in any way--he was a person who was very kind and considerate of all ethnicities--yet he would refer to them as "schwartzes" at the drop of a hat and never even really consider it was offensive. Yiddish was his escape valve for frustrating people and things. Even someone as kind as my mentor needs an escape valve now and then.
One of my habits is when someone has hurt me or consistently annoys me, I tend to come up with a name for them that allows me to refer to them in "the third person" more or less. I once, for a period of time, consistently referred to one of my resident colleagues as "Rush" because of his absolutely annoying habit of listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio in the resident office and forcing us to listen to it, too. I was sick to death of him quoting Rush Limbaugh, I was worn out on his politics and his fundamentalist religious ways, and I was tired of his constant judgments on me. It was quite clear that none of the female residents could really be his "colleagues." After all, we thought our careers were important. We were not models of "good Christian womanhood."
Now, there was a part of me that kind of needed to put a label on him, because otherwise I would have blown a gasket at him. But I also came to realize that, over time, it also prevented me from seeing him as a real person--one with hopes, dreams, fears, and uncertainties that probably were not all that different than my own in many ways. I realized, some years later, that over time, I would bump into him or my old resident colleagues, and I finally thought of him and mentioned him in the presence of others by his real name. Enough years had gone by that I could at least think of him as a real person again, not a cartoon character with a label.
I know a couple of people who work with him these days, and I have come to learn that really, his life isn't all that much different than anyone else's. In some ways, he's gotten what he wanted, and like all of us, lives with the consequences of that. He wanted a subservient wife. He now has a wife who calls him at work all the time wanting instructions for all kinds of things and relating issues with the child-rearing. He wanted the responsibility of being the big man in the house--well, he's got it! I don't say that with any sense of glee or gloating. He's got problems I wouldn't want, and I have compassion for that! His diagnostic skills are probably no better or worse than the rest of us, and he's just kind of out there in the big realm of "he doesn't bother me any more." I don't want his life, and he probably would not want mine, and that's all fine.
One of the biggest healing things for me has been learning to "look beyond the labels I slap on people." Oh, I still have a need at times to privately refer to some folks with their "labels" because something still carries pain. But what I am learning is to temper those episodes with some time where I push myself to think of them as a real person. I really think that is what the Biblical instructions to "pray for our enemies" comes from. If we don't make the time for that, everyone from our co-workers to Osama bin Laden to those we intimately share our lives, can become less human--cartoon characters of themselves.
I am often reminded of some advice given to me by someone whose "other Bible" is the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was harboring a powerful resentment, and this resentment was clouding my life in the weirdest places. I would think of this resentment repeatedly. I would obsess on it to the degree I could not think straight, and all I wanted to do was hurt someone, anyone--just to feel "paid off" about this resentment. He told me a piece of advice from page 255 of the 3rd edition of the "Big Book" (unfortunately, it is not in the 4th edition):
"If you have a resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for the person or the thing that you resent, you will be free. If you will ask in prayer for everything you want for yourself to be given to them, you will be free. Ask for their health, their prosperity, their happiness, and you will be free. Even when you don't really want it for them, and your prayers are only words and you don't mean it, go ahead and do it anyway. Do it every day for two weeks and you will find you have come to mean it and to want it for them, and you will realize that where you used to feel bitterness and resentment and hatred, you now feel compassionate understanding and love."
It sounded too good to be true.
Now, I am going to be honest. It took more than two weeks. But that's because at first, I couldn't let two weeks pass before I thought of the resentment again, and I had to start over! (and over, and over, and over...and over some more. After all, I am a little obsessive-compulsive.) Sometimes I would give it a rest for a couple of days, or a week, before I would start again in earnest. I knew the resentment was still there, because my ears feel flushed when I feel resentment. Not only that, but it has only been recently I really have begun to understand when I felt resentment. I learned sometimes, what I had been calling "anger" was actually resentment. (Actually, I've come to discover that I was lumping many feelings under "anger"--fear, shame, hurt, resentment, and grief, just to name a few.)
I am embarrassed to tell this, but it took me nine months.
It was not lost on me, when I looked back at it, that it took me the length of time it takes to have a baby.
But something happened. It really did.
I realized that my ears no longer felt hot when I thought of this situation.
I realized I no longer wanted to lash back and hurt people who were involved.
I realized I actually wanted the people involved to have the same healing I was starting to feel, a happy life, and all the good things I'd wish for myself. I no longer cared about the details of it. It was over, and there were better places for me to go, and better things ahead for me to do. I began to feel compassion for what could torment other people, rather than simply pity for people and things I labeled and objectified, and I began to see love in the centers of people who, I discovered, were made of three dimensions, not two.
I never want to repeat any sad, hurtful, or messy situation I've ever been in, but I no longer want to excise those episodes from my life. Oh, sure, I can get irritated at times with things in my past, but I know the resentment is gone because my ears no longer get hot, and I no longer feel the dark curtain of the scowl that used to cross my face. Instead, I feel "softer" about it, more receptive of the pain of others, and more willing to be in the tensions that still exist with it. I no longer feel "rigid," but "malleable."
But it all starts when we begin to let go of "labels," and instead listen to God calling us by the name we can hear in love, the name we are called by the Good Shepherd.