On a recent plane trip from Los Angeles to Portland I sat beside a middle-aged Mexican-American woman wearing the blue uniform of what I thought was an operating room doctor or nurse. I asked her if she was a doctor, and she said she was a dental hygienist.
Once in the air I put my tray down and opened my journal and my Bible and began to write. She looked over curiously and asked: “Are you a….. are you a…?” “Christian?” I asked. “Yes, that’s what I mean,” she responded. I told her that yes, I was a believer in Jesus. “What about you?” I asked. “No, I’m Catholic,” she responded. I told her that Catholics and Christians believe in Jesus and use the same Scriptures, and that most of the people I’ve ministered to for the past 32 years are Catholics. “Are you actively involved in a Catholic Church?” I asked.
She told me that she went every Sunday morning to the 8:00am Mass. “But Catholics and Christians are not the same,” she insisted. “I go to Mass but afterwards I feel empty. The priest doesn’t have time for me as there are so many people. The Christians I have met pray for me. I can feel God’s love when they pray,” she said.
While I know from first-hand experience that in a church context it is difficult as a pastor to be fully present to each individual during Sunday worship. I also know many very sensitive Catholic ministers and lay people who could have been the ones praying for this woman, and dynamic Catholic churches that may have welcomed this woman more effectively, it didn’t seem appropriate to come to the defense of the Catholic church or to point out that not all Protestants offer to pray for people. I listened and sought to be the face of the church there, where she was.
She told me she was on her way to her son’s graduation from a university in Portland. “I am so proud of my son and so glad that I have been able to help him get all the way to this point,” she said. I asked if her husband was going too and she told me he was already there ahead of her. She went on to tell me that they had been divorced for two years after a difficult marriage marked by alcoholism and abuse. That evening she was going to see him for the first time since they separated and was feeling distraught.
Earlier before the flight Christian friend of hers had asked her to stop by as she wanted to give her chocolate chip cookies. “After she gave me the cookies she prayed for me. When she prayed I like God’s love and peace were so real,” she said, and began to tear up. Moved by her distress I offered to pray for her if she wanted. “Yes,” she said. “I really need it.” As I prayed for her she continued to cry, and then asked me what I was reading. I shared with her from Psalm 23 and John 10.
I showed her how God is presented in Psalm 23 as our shepherd, meeting our needs. When he is our shepherd he makes us lie down in green pastures, leading us beside quiet waters— which from a sheep’s perspective would be a paradise-like place of lush abundance, restoration and rest. God wants to restore our soul and to guide us, and promises to be with us through dark times and care for us in the face of hostilities. “Do you feel you need this?” I asked. “Definitely,” she said.
I then read her from John 10, where Jesus is associated with shepherd imagery. “I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture… The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly…. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” I asked her if she believed in Jesus, and she said she did. I asked her if she had received the Holy Spirit, and if not, whether she’d like to. She said she did, and I prayed for her again.
At this point I needed to use the restroom at the back of the plane. As I returned to my seat I thought to myself, “now I’d like to do some reading.” Though I had just been to two and a half days of stimulating lectures by N.T. Wright at a conference on the Apostle Paul, I was feeling a longing to read. I sat down and opened my Bible to that day’s Old Testament reading from the daily lectionary: Ezekiel 34:1-11, and was struck to the core by these verses.
“Thus says the Lord God, “woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock?… Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost… And they were scattered for lack of a shepherd… and there was no one to search or seek for them.”
While I did not feel guilt over wanting to read, I became keenly aware that I had been given the opportunity to care for someone in deep distress. I turned back to the woman, who began sharing more of her life. She told me that she was now with another man and that they have a daughter who is now six months old. Early in her pregnancy she was planning to have an abortion. Then right before her appointment she met a Spanish-speaking Christian who offered to pray for her. “Without me even telling her I was pregnant she prayed over my womb, directly speaking to my unborn baby about how much her mother loved her. I felt both convicted and inspired, and decided to keep the baby,” she recounted.
I was inspired to hear how people at key moments in this woman’s life, outside of church contexts, had responded to the Spirit’s recruitment, engaging in Jesus’ shepherding ministry. While we ourselves are in need of being continually nourished and refreshed, let’s not forget that there are opportunities all around us to seek and find scattered and distressed sheep, bringing them into Jesus’ fold.