Good Shepherding

Reflection for 4th Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

The news of Kayla Mueller’s death in February 2015, while being held captive by the Islamic State, was devastating.  All who knew Kayla loved her and admired her. She was a young woman of extraordinary generosity and courage. Her family and friends remember her constant drive to make things better for others. After she graduated from University, Kayla worked with humanitarian aid groups in Northern India, Israel and Palestine.

The refugee crisis in Syria compelled her to travel to the Syrian/Turkish border three years before her death to work with the group Support to Life. A newspaper chronicled her work with children in the camps. Recounting how she was able to reunite a father and his six-year-old son after a bombing, Kayla told the reporter: “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal, something we just accept. It’s important to stop and realize what we have, why we have it, and how privileged we are.”

Two months after the article was published, Kayla disappeared.

But, as her family members have said repeatedly, Kayla did more in her 26 years than many do in a lifetime. But Kayla clearly had a deeper understanding of God than most people come to realize in their lifetimes. She wrote to her father in 2011:

“I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.

“I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

But Kayla did not believe that God wills suffering or that suffering is, of itself, somehow “noble.” In a letter to her parents while imprisoned in Syria, she wrote: “I have been shown in darkness, light, and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”

Kayla Mueller’s compassion and courage, her vision of a world in which all men, women and children belong to one another, her understanding of God as loving Father of all, mirror Jesus’s image of the Good Shepherd. The work of such “good shepherding” is entrusted by the Risen Christ to every one of us.

In the work of “shepherding,” sometimes we are the shepherd who reaches out to the one lost or in trouble while, at other times, we are the one in distress in need of a shepherd’s hand. In Christ, we belong to one another; in imitating Christ, our lives are at the service of one another. “Good shepherding” is neither dominating or patronizing; “good shepherding” is selfless and generous work that realizes with gratitude that we are sometimes the shepherd able to serve and lead and sometimes we are the struggling and lost in need of “good shepherding” ourselves. Christ calls each one of us to imitate his loving servanthood in the image of the “Good Shepherd”: to bring compassion and healing to the sick, the troubled and abused; to bring back the lost, the scattered and the forgotten; to enable our brothers and sisters to move beyond their fears and doubts to embrace the mercy and love of God.

To be a disciple of Jesus is not simply to be a “hired hand” who acts only to be compensated, who is concerned only with his/her own welfare. Real followers of Jesus realize that every person possesses the sacred dignity of being a child of God and rejoices in knowing that in serving others he/she serves God. In embracing the Gospel attitude of humility and compassion for the sake of others, in “laying down” our own lives for our brother and sister “sheep,” we will one day “take up” our lives again in the Father’s Easter promise.