John 10:10-15 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
My aunt Kristen was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer on her 30th birthday. She and her husband, Deric, had 3 kids, who at the time were 4 years old, 2 years old, and less than a year old. Their life, their whole world, suddenly was turned upside down. You could say that a thief had come to steal, kill, and destroy.
As the passage from John states, though, the thief is not the only force at work. When we are like sheep attacked by a wolf, Jesus comforts us with an “I am” statement – “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus as The Good Shepherd does not flee when the wolf comes but gives his life so that the sheep may live… and not just live but live abundantly. Kristen, through years of medical challenges, emotional heartache, and spiritual questioning caused by the wolf of cancer, experienced Jesus as The Good Shepherd, the giver of abundant life.
In fact, when she was at her weakest, unable even to get out of bed, Kristen experienced God’s presence most powerfully, most uniquely. In those weak moments, God’s closeness to her was so… good that she actually said she missed being weak when she did have some physical recovery. Imagine that – missing being weak! God was still with her of course when she regained some strength, but there was a special intimacy in her weakness – there was a unique abundance of The Good Shepherd’s goodness when the wolf was most menacing. Kristen eventually even came to call her cancer a blessing because of how it drew her to know God more intimately.
Just as “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” as Jesus says, “that they may have life and have it abundantly,” Kristen used the laying down of her life by illness as an opportunity for others to live abundantly. Although she was dying, her life did not diminish but miraculously grew more abundant; she recognized what a gift life is and learned to be intentional with every moment. As her life was laying down, she helped others live abundantly – with beautiful personal notes, encouraging conversations, thoughtful gifts, co-founding a hope-filled charity, and a sense of peace in God’s care that radiated from her. She was a dying woman who overflowed with life. Her closeness to The Good Shepherd shaped her to be a good shepherd – to her husband and children, her extended family, her friends, her church, her neighbors, and families facing terminal illness across the country who benefit from the charity she helped launch.
My dad once commented that Kristen made you feel like you’re the only other person in the whole world; she was so attentive and caring to you. Perhaps you’ve known someone who gave you the gift of undivided, loving attention. Somehow, Kristen made many people feel loved in this one-of-a-kind way! I am blessed to be one of them. Kristen and Deric welcomed me into their home when I was shortly out of college and looking for useful things to do with my time. I house-sat while they did a big family adventure in Australia – and then I stayed even when they were back! They welcomed me into their family; I became part of their flock, so to speak, receiving the gift of abundant life from good shepherds laying down their lives.
At some point it dawned on me that Kristen made each person she encountered feel so one-of-a-kind loved because that is how she felt in God’s presence when she was especially weak. She joked that she was God’s favorite child – a good-natured joke, but that’s how she felt with the special love and sense of undivided attention God gave her! That favorite love that she experienced from God she then shared with her many “favorites” too. She gave the abundant life of favorite love all the way until she died, 6 years ago tomorrow. By reflecting Jesus, The Good Shepherd, Aunt Kristen’s example was life-changing – and death-changing.
When Jesus says for the second time in this passage, “I am the good shepherd,” he goes on to explain, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” These are simple and few words, but they express an amazing concept! The Good Shepherd is saying that he relates to his sheep – each of his many, many sheep – in the same way that God the Father relates to the only – or we could say, favorite – divine Son. Wow! The relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Good Shepherd that is so special, unique, intimate, intense, one-of-a-kind favorite – that is the relationship Jesus makes available to each of us. Just as the Father knows the Good Shepherd, so the Good Shepherd knows each of us – as the favorite, like we’re the only one.
This chain of self-sacrificing, abundant-life-giving love starts with God the Father and is shared with Jesus. Jesus, as The Good Shepherd, reflects the love that lays down its own life, and he multiplies it into abundant life for all the sheep, all his favorites. Because of Jesus, The Good Shepherd, Aunt Kristen was a good shepherd, laying down her life and multiplying God’s one-of-a-kind love to her many favorites.
May we all grow in the favorite love of The Good Shepherd and lay down our lives that others may have life and have it abundantly.
Aaron is Inheritance of Hope’s COO. Read more Inheritance of Hope blog posts >>