I am a city boy.
I was born in Saigon, Viet Nam. All of my life, I have lived in big(ger) cities. I am now still a city boy, but I have learned how life is lived in smaller towns and countrysides. Even though I helped my extended family members and parents prepared animals on big reunions and gatherings in the past, I do not know much about animals. Therefore, I did have an idealized image of animals (except snakes… I am scared of snakes). To be honest, I did not come to know much about farming, ranching, or agricultural matters until I became the parish priest of three smaller parishes in the Texoma region.
When I was young, and even in my early adult years, I always thought that sheep are docile and nice. I thought that they are just innocent, happy, and fluffy animals. Boy, was I wrong! I ignorantly mistakened the lamb (or baby goats) and thought that they would be like the real things. Sheep are very stubborn and hard-headed, and they are not nice at times, too. The first time I was introduced to a flock of sheep, I was so excited in thinking that I am going to be able to live out the imaginary scene of being a shepherd, having them be nice to one another and they would follow my every command or direction. As a matter of fact, after a short period of being intrigued by the sheep’s fluffy wools, there was one sheep that kept following and buttheading me. I did not know the reason why (and the owner must thought that it was so normal that he did not bother to explain its behaviors or stop it). It kept doing the same thing for a good while before I got out of the pen! As a city boy, it was a fun experience to hold the baby lambs but I also learned on that day of the reality of the sheep’s stubbornness.
We are similar to sheep. Many of us are stubborn and hard-headed, like to do things our way, and oftentimes ignore our shepherd. We do not like each other at times, tend to wander, or do whatever we want to do so that the shepherd and his dog(s) have to round us back up. I was surprised to learn that the only reason why the sheep is scared of the sheep dog and listen to the shepherd at times is because they have been disciplined before. At times, the sheep dog has to bite or assert its dominion in order to keep the sheep in place. At times, too, the shepherd would have to use his staff to hit the sheep and its crook to pull them back into order. Sheep are not easy animals to deal with, and to be a shepherd takes a lot of patience and hard works.
That is why our Good Shepherd is good, because He cares and knows each one of us by name. He knows us, His sheep, and He calls on us. At times, too, He has to reign us back and make sure that we stay in place and not get lost. Other times, especially if we are too stubborn and arrogant (wanting to escape and run from Him), that He just simply have to let us go. Therefore, it is important for us to remember that we need to embrace the relationship between our Shepherd and us. Yes, He knows each and every one of us by name, but do we know Him? Do we heed to His voice when He calls us back or do we want to do our own things and stray away into our own stratosphere? Are we proud and happy to be His sheep in His flock, and Him as our shepherd, or do we think we deserve better?
For the longest time ever, I struggled with trying to understand how God can love me personally, especially when there are billions of other people in this planet alone. I tried to simply “understand” His love in general terms, mostly intellectually according to what the Catechism of the Catholic Church and different theological treatises told me. God‘s love for me, for the longest time, was something head-based and “out there.” Nonetheless, when I began to truly pray and choose to enter into a personal relationship with Him, I finally understood in my heart of what it means to be loved by Him. One of my spiritual directors once told me that, “Saint Augustine said that God loves us as if we are the only one to love.” That one little phrase stuck with me until today, and it has brought me to tears many times in my own faith journey. Truly, He loves us with a personal love! Think about it… He loves you differently than He loves me. He knows our blessings and imperfections, desires and shortcomings, yet still loves us genuinely and wholeheartedly. He knows our names as well as know us personally. He speaks to us in so many different ways and desires that we listen and return back to His call of love.
It is wonderful to know what it means to be personally loved by God. However, it is also hard because it requires us to be transparent, honest, genuine, and opening ourselves up completely to Him. Much more than sheep though, He wants our hearts — our everything! In order to love and give ourselves to God wholly and completely, we have to learn how to listen, engage, open up, and speak to Him from the heart. When we are able to do it, we will know His voice that speaks to us in our prayer times, especially when we are able to be silent and immerse ourselves deep in contemplative conversation with Him.
God‘s voice is not simply a verbal voice nor a completely mental thing. It is a voice that is very unique and particular, yet once you and I have heard it, we will never forget it! Furthermore, when we allow ourselves to be opened and silent enough, God will speak, usually calling out using the personal “nickname” that He has for us and we share with Him. For a long period of prayer, He might speak very little, but to be in His presence is worth more than anything else. Even though He might not say anything or speak shortly, to receive and to bask ourselves in His love is more than any words can describe or any temporary, hedonistic, or quantitative thing that this world can ever promise or try to satisfy. He speaks and guides us each moment, we just have to learn to let go of our desire to be in control, silence ourselves from the noisiness of the world, and just simply listen!
At times, too, it is very hard to follow the Good Shepherd when we are being distracted by so many worldly things, or especially when we feel unsure if where He is leading us is where we want to be. We also get scared when the storms, obstacles, or hardships in front of us make us doubt if this is where we need to be going. It gets frustrating when we do not see Him speak or fix our problems immediately, particularly having had to simply trust to remain where we are or, at times, go into the unknown where we have no control. Nevertheless, in the midst of all of the ups and downs of life, we are reminded that we are called to trust the Good Shepherd who loves us, knows us by name, and offered His life for His sheep.
We are called to follow and be with Him even though there might seem to be better alternatives, appealing temptations, or overwhelming doubts at times. Love requires a lot of trust and self-giving commitment by having faith in the the One who loves us, especially in the midst of many uncertainties and trials. Therefore, our relationship with the One who loves us requires that we stay committed to Him even when things get hard and our life’s trials arise. That is not always easy, but it is worthwhile because those moments are moments when we grow the most personally, spiritually, and lovingly. I do not know about you, but there were numerous times when I kicked and screamed because I did not like what was going on; but for some reasons, His loving grace continues to nourish me and keeps me where I am today.
There were moments when I wanted to leave and let go, times when I thought I could not do it anymore, instances when I thought there were better options and alternatives than what God was telling me. There were choices that I thought would be better because they appear to allow me to be in control than what was offered in accordance to the truth, divine and church teachings; but for some reasons, I could never explained why I always chose Him. I made many mistakes when I wanted to do things my way; but when I chose to do what is right and to stand by His words and teachings, to abide in His love, things always ended up where they are supposed to be.
Looking back, even at times when life was trying, God kept and guided me where I needed to be. Where I am today is where I need to be, even though I was so tempted to choose other options or thought I knew better! For some reasons, my heart never let me reject or abandon Him… perhaps because it knows Him and wants to be in His love! Here I am, still kicking and screaming, questioning and doubting at times, but I am content with where He has led me. Deep within my heart, I am proud to be known and being a sheep in His flock… and in a way, too, to be an assisting shepherd to His flock. I hope you can personally understand, be content, and know what it means to be loved by Him, too. May we try our best to grow, follow, and be faithful to the Good Shepherd who knows, loves, and cares for each and every one of us personally by name.