Growing up I raised sheep, horses, goats and chickens. My dad thought it would be good for me to learn the value of "hard work." I became a reluctant farmhand who hurried through his chores to return to video games.
One of the things my dad had me regularly do was move the fences around our property so the horses and sheep had fresh pasture to eat. The fences were huge inter-locking metal livestock panels ― 12-foot wide and as tall as I was.
As a 13-year-old boy, I remember on moonless nights crossing the fields to grab flakes of hay in the barn for the horses. I would be spooked by sounds and shadows (nothing is as creepy as a barn at night mixed with a vivid imagination).
I wasn't brave like the young shepherd David, son of Jesse, who tended his family's flock and fought lions and bears with his slingshot.
I was more of an absent-minded shepherd, who at times forgot to close the gate ― which allowed the horses and sheep to escape!
I felt helpless and frightened.
How was I going to get the animals back in their pens? It was my fault. What would my father say? I hated letting him down.
I recall offering several fervent prayers for divine intervention as I ran through the streets waving my arms and shouting at the horses and sheep like a madman, trying to steer them back home.
Luckily, being from a small town, the neighbors and even the police were happy to help.
I'll never forget my sense of relief when we managed to finally get the animals back in their pens before they got hit by a car or something.
Why am I sharing this? Because it was only later that I realized that Christ came not to lock the gate, but to open it.
Instead of herding us back into the pen, He came to lead us out of it.
Yes, really. The Good Shepherd calls us out of our fouled pens ― away from the fences we have erected around our faith ― to fresh green pastures.
When Fences Fail
At the time Jesus taught the parable of the Good Shepherd in John 10, the people "understood not what things he spake unto them" (John 10:6).
I really can't blame them; I mean, here we are, two thousand years later, and we still have trouble understanding the Savior's message.
Look at what Jesus said:
He that entereth in by the door [of the sheepfold] is the shepherd of the sheep.
As we all know, wolves-in-sheep's-clothing don't use the door; they crawl under the fences or through holes in the wall (this is how we know they are "thiefs and robbers" (John 10:1).
Practice Pointer: Now, a smart predator is going to ― very first thing, after they've illicitly entered in ― shut the gate behind them. Why?
They will secure the exit so the sheep can't escape. That makes it easier for them control and devour the flock once things get underway.
Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with wool, ye kill them that are fed.
But Christ (who is the keeper of the Gate) knocks and enters through the door. What does the gate do? Does it close behind Him? Does it remain open?
And the sheep hear his voice and he calleth his own sheep by name . . .
This is the part we usually quote. But what, exactly,is the Good Shepherd saying to His sheep? What's He calling for them to do?
Are we curious? Look:
. . . and leaeth them out.
Whoa! This seems like a big deal. The Lord is calling His sheep to leave. He comes to "lead them out" of the sheepfold.
"I'm Free! What Are You Talking About, Captivity?"
In the old days, the "law and the prophets" built fences (hedges) around the sheepfold; they were old school. I'm talking about beautiful, manicured English gardens.
And, like our grandparents who learned to do long division a certain way in 2nd Grade, there's really no use trying to get them to change how to do things, once their training becomes so in-grained they can't imagine another way (which is, perhaps, one of the best arguments against a gerontocracy).
As a general rule, the older we become, the more stuck in our ways we become, resistant to change. (As a side-note, President Nelson was in his prime (30s and 40s) in the 1950s and 1960s, which might explain his mindset. For reference, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington both served as President in their 50s.)
For this reason, I wish we had term limits for Church leaders and emeritus-status for apostles. It would be a big help to move the Church forward to where the Lord needs us to go. For while we may become wise in our dotage, we may also become senile and unteachable.
Well, anyway, some of those religious hedges grew tall and have very strong roots. Many of those hedges became dear to our forefathers. They no longer wanted to leave the pen.
But Christ came and fulfilled the law; He has set us free. Christ opened the gate!
And yet, having swung wide open the Gate for us, many of us remain in the cozy confines of our pen, chewing the cud of carnal security.
You see, we often picture ourselves as missionaries and parents who are going out and rounding up the wayward souls who've escaped the safety of the pen (i.e., the Church) ― who have strayed from the covenant path and need to "return" home.
After all, isn't the Church (and its fences) a place of safety? Didn't the Lord call Zion a "refuge" (D&C 115:6)? Outside, beyond the warm straw of our covenant-corral, lurk the wolves; we see dark shapes and scary sounds beyond the fence.
But consider: The wolves are not only "outside." Who told us they were? The wolves are also here, among us!
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
See, those same fences that keep bad things out, can also trap us inside with the wolves.
If Christ is calling to us to lead us out, what do we think the wolves are saying? "Stay. Stay here. This is the good place; the safe place. Trust us."
Fences fail; wolves get in. And when they do, we find ourselves at their mercy, unable to escape, thanks to the fences of unbelief we've constructed over the years.
Where is Christ Leading Us?
I want to look at the following verse in the sense that Christ has come to help us "escape" our prisons of priestcraft and self-righteousness.
And the saints also shall hardly escape; nevertheless, I, the Lord, am with them.
This verse implies two things to me:
First, escaping is hard ("hardly escape"); and
Second, escape is possible only because "I, the Lord, am with them."
This tells us we can't escape on our own. This is not a prison-break of our own devising.
Because, where will we go once we've left the pen? Who knows the way? Leaving the pen without the Shepherd to guide us is more than foolhardy; it is perilous.
The Lord is my shepherd [shall we have another?] I shall not want [shall we want another?].
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Notice the two things Christ is leading us toward:
-Food to nourish us ("green pastures"); and
-Drink to refresh us ("still waters")
Having these two things, we may at last "enter into the rest of the Lord."
The Lord shall give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from bondage.
Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, we have to ask ourselves, what are God's food and drink?
Milk and Meat
What does God mean when He speaks of milk (drink) and meat (food)? What does the Good Shepherd feed His sheep? Jelly beans and chocolate milk? Tenets and precepts? Policies and pragmatism? Tithing? Rules to live by?
No. The answer is:
The Word of God.
As Peter taught:
As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.
(1 Peter 2:2)
The Point: Fences make for good neighbors but poor religion.
But leaving the pen DOESN'T mean leaving the Church (or staying, for that matter).
It means, wherever we are, in whatever pen we find ourselves, we heed the Word of God leading us into all truth and love.
So when our leaders speak the word of God, rejoice! Hold fast the truth spoken by those who hold high office.
And when our leaders speak something other than the word of God, we may safely disregard it (for even Joseph Smith admitted that prophets speak at times as only "a man").
Pure Religion Defiled
For example, when we hear the Brethren talk about tithing ― seeking to fundraise off of the faith of the widow and poor ― "from such, turn away" (2 Tim. 3:5).
If you're wondering why I bring this up again and again, and why I care so much about this topic, it is because, well, I've read what the scriptures say about priestly abuse, extortion, and oppression.
And so in the spirit of Ezekiel, I will boldly proclaim that the Church's modern practice of tithing "perverts the gospel of Christ" (Galatians 1:7).
In my opinion, discontinuing the practice of tithing and replacing it with free-will offerings would solve many, many problems for the Church.
If anyone can't imagine such a radical shift, remember that the Church renounced polygamy after having taught it to be an essential and everlasting law (see D&C 131-132). So I don't think it would be a leap to do the same with the law of tithing.
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy:
I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
Jesus, to give us life, died in spiritual childbirth; now this poem will take on new meaning.
faded corduroy trousers worn a week between washing favorite long-sleeved flannel shirt shedding alfalfa flake from last night’s feeding three a.m. turns the better side of night dark dressing for morning incandescent bulb casting yellow-gray spokes across back porch boots stiff with hardened mud waiting to be laced silhouetted horseflesh sleep as salt lick clear sky visible through orchard trees sprouting spring’s uneven puberty trough water a charcoal mirror scrivening wrinkled stars Big Dipper stretching toward Polaris unbridgeable distances apart red extension cord raveling from barn door to hanging heat lamp warming straw ewe's breath wet and weak as its crowning creation silence a life sign \\// flowing fetal membranes // now death \\ glass bottle capped in rubber nipple working lamb’s mouth with milk-coated finger