As many of you already know, my grandmother passed away last Tuesday. She was 95 years old, but without any illness or trouble, she just peacefully went back to God’s embrace. Thanks be to God and thank you for sending me your thoughts and prayers.
Last week, I took time and reflected on my grandmother’s life and legacy weaving the pieces of my memories of her and her stories I’ve heard. Like most Koreans in her generation, my grandmother lived a life inseparably intertwined with the turbulent modern history of Korea. I heard that during the Japanese occupation, my grandfather was forcibly taken to a coal mine. It was life-threatening. So many people like him died there in harsh conditions of forced-labor camps. Luckily, my grandfather returned to the family, but soon the Korean War separated them again. Although he survived again, he was not like before with traumas and inner wounds.
Meanwhile, with no special skills, my grandmother made a living by doing anything. I heard how much she struggled to live. She had to travel by foot village to village to sell some small goods carrying her baby on her back. She helplessly lost her two children during the war. And she had to feed her family by working day and night in a small farmland. In my memory, she always toils away in a field; her back is badly hunched for intensive labor, her rough hands and feet are deformed, and the tips of her fingernails are always black with the dirt stuck there. At a single glance, anyone can tell, life hasn’t been that nice to her.
True, people may see my grandmother’s life as an uneasy life with tragic events, with no special achievements. But no matter how they see it, I’m sure that her life was a great life, an abundant life, because she lived a life of genuine faith, lived as a faithful follower of Jesus. How am I sure about this? I’m so sure just for one simple reason, for she prayed every day. She’s a woman of prayer. In her room, there were a small prayer table and a sitting mat where she could kneel down. On the table, she kept her Bible, reading glasses, a cross, and some pictures. And there was a picture of me and Jee Hei taken in our church. I know, she prayed every day at that table. I know, she also prayed for me and Jee Hei, and for our church looking at the picture. And I know, it was in her prayers that she found a way to hear the voice of her good shepherd who comforted her even through the darkest valleys of life. It was in her prayers that she found a way to have contentment in poverty, to bare hope in trouble, and to cultivate joy in suffering.
Today is the so-called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples about this good shepherd and his sheep. We know how good this shepherd is. For example, Jesus tells us, this good shepherd is “the gate for the sheep” (John 10:9). What does it mean? In Jesus’ days, a shepherd used a temporary sheepfold in the wilderness to keep the sheep safe at night. But this shabby enclosure usually provided walls only. So, at its entrance, there’s no gate, no door as such. So the shepherd had to sit down in the doorway and made himself a gate—a human door.
But no matter how good this shepherd is, there’s one thing the sheep should do always to follow this good shepherd and stay guarded by him. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus repeatedly tells us this one thing. He says, when the shepherd calls his own sheep by name, the sheep “hear his voice” (John 10:3). The sheep knows his voice and listens to his call. Yes, the shepherd is good; he always calls the sheep by name in his merciful voice. But the sheep should carefully listen to him to travel with him. The sheep should recognize the shepherd’s voice and discern his voice from any other voices, like a voice of a thief or a bandit, not to be lost and killed but to “have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). Keep on listening to the voice of the shepherd…this is indeed the key to the shepherd-and-sheep relationship.
Then, here’s a question for you. How can we listen to the voice of Jesus, the good shepherd, in our life? I believe, there can be many other ways, but there’s one time-tested way that our ancestors of faith affirm in many parts of the Bible. Yes, that is, prayer. In our prayers, we listen to the call of our good shepherd. In our prayers, we hear the still small voice of the Spirit that heals and comforts us, empowers and uplifts us. In our prayers, we discern the voice of truth from a voice of a thief or a bandit who climbs in and sneak in our hearts. In times like this, a thief of fear evokes our sense of anxiety and a bandit of despair drags us into a pit of depression. But in our prayers, we realize again, it is our good shepherd whom we should listen to and follow.
Life is hard. Out beyond the village, there are roaming predators, wolves, and bandits. In this time of COVID-19 crisis, we feel like we are the sheep that trudge through the rocky hills searching for a patch of grass. We are the sheep that wander through the wilderness to find water. Yet, Jesus assures us: with the good shepherd who lays down his life for us, with this good shepherd who carefully watches over us at the closest distance, our life is always abundant, and our life is on the way of grace to green pastures and still waters. So, the only thing we should surely do here and now is keep on listening to his voice no matter what.
My father told me that last Tuesday, right before the moment of my grandmother’s passing, he prayed for her and she replied with amen even in a very small voice. And that was her last word. How wonderful one’s life is to depart from this world listening to family’s farewell prayer. And how blessed one’s life is to finish life with the word, “amen.” I thought this, “amen” encapsulates her whole life. Throughout her journey of life, she faithfully listened to the voice of her good shepherd. In any moment of hardships, with amen, she followed him wherever he led her. And with amen, she went after him to her everlasting home. “Amen, so be it, my shepherd. Your will be done,” I imagine her last amen might mean something like this.
Faithful friends in Christ, what is the most important thing in our lives? What does it really matter? Our achievements, honors, fames, financial portfolios, good salary? Not at all. When we stand before death, none of them really matters. And we know, the most well-lived life is the life of faith, the life guided by our good shepherd until the end. With him, life is abundant even in the darkest valleys, even in trials. To live this abundant life, I tell you again, there’s one thing, one simple thing, we should do. We should recognize and listen to the voice of our good shepherd in our prayers.
The good shepherd, who died and has risen for you, is waiting for you at the door today. He is calling you that you may hear his voice and travel with him in this Eastertide. So, now is the time for you to start praying, start listening to him. Block out a time in your schedule, designate a prayer spot in your house, and make prayer one of your most important daily routines. We need prayer in this time of crisis. It is never more needed than before. May the grace of our good shepherd be always with us and lead our ways. And may we also reply to him in our daily prayers and in our last prayer on earth, “Amen, so be it, my shepherd. Your will be done.”
Pastor Earl Kim