My 1 year-old daughter, Evelyn, almost fell off the couch the other day. Thankfully, I was sitting right by her, so I was able to catch her and prevent her from hitting her head on the hardwood floor in our living room. As soon as I caught her, she climbed right back on the couch to look out the window and make it her personal trampoline, clearly not appreciating the fact that I stopped her from getting hurt. But preventing Evelyn’s fall got me thinking: how often did I not fully appreciate what my parents did for me as I was growing up?
While Evelyn is 1 and does not even know how to say “thank you,” I know that as a teenager I did not fully appreciate all my parents did for me. All teenagers seem to take their parents for granted in one way or another, but my mom (Tracey) and dad (Al) have been faithful and loving parents because they were shepherds, reflecting the way God, in his grace and mercy, shepherds his people.
The Bible presents a beautiful picture of God’s grace, mercy, and care for us in and through shepherd imagery (1 Samuel 16:11; 17:34, Psalm 23, John 10, and 1 Peter 5:2). Because Christ, the Good Shepherd, sacrificed himself on the cross, parents can model shepherding to their kids. Ultimately, parents are also called to care for, watch over, and serve their children in the way a biblical shepherd should.
There are 3 distinct marks of a shepherding parent that I understand better now as I see the ways my parents loved, supported, and encouraged me.
1. Shepherding parents establish clear boundaries and set clear expectations. Because I was confident that my parents loved me, both in what they said, did, and modeled for me, I understood their expectations of me and acknowledged the appropriate boundaries they set for me. Acknowledgement of my parent’s authority and obedience to them (while very far from perfect), stemmed from the way they protected and provided for me.
While shepherds have the privilege and responsibility of protecting and providing for their sheep, they are also called to “give their sheep pasture.” As I look back on my teenage years, my parents were excellent in this regard. My parents desired to foster certain freedoms as I grew and matured. They were not content to confine me to a 2X4 space, seeking to fight every battle or overprotect me, as can so easily be the case for parents. They gave me a lot of room to operate and grow in wisdom and in faith.
And yet, I always knew exactly what my parents expected of me. While I never had to have a big sit-down talk about underage drinking with them (as far as I remember), I knew drinking and drunkenness were not tolerated. I never had a curfew in high school, but if I rolled into the house at 12:30 three Friday nights in a row, I wasn’t going to be able to go and hang out with friends that next Friday night.
As shepherds, parents are called to provide and oversee the pasture that they give their children. Some teenagers will need shorter leashes and less pasture than others, but giving pasture remains the goal. Ultimately, neither parents or teenagers are completely trustworthy in their relationships with one another, so each will fail to hold up their end of the deal. Teenagers will cross the boundaries and abuse the freedom they have been given. Parents will be too strict in their expectations and overly protective in the way they set and maintain their boundaries. Sin so easily entangles all people (Hebrews 12:1)- even those with the best intentions, including loving and concerned parents AND relatively responsible and obedient children.
Yet we can be confident that, in and through Christ, the good shepherd, our salvation has been forged with what he suffered (Hebrews 2:10). With well-defined boundaries and expectations within an adequate amount of pasture, parents and teenagers can nurture their relationship with one another because of the grace, mercy, and forgiveness Jesus Christ provides.
2. Shepherding parents enter into the depths of their teenager’s lived experiences. Effective shepherds generally smell and look like the sheep they tend. Shepherds have a consistent presence with their sheep, no matter where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing. Because of the deep, unconditional love they have for their children, parents take on the “where” and the “what” of shepherding in the form of their child’s burdens, problems, and successes.
Some parents tend to live out of their child’s experiences. In doing so, parents unknowingly idolize their kids. Think of the dad who seeks to live vicariously through his son’s athletic successes and failures. Athletic success becomes more about himself than it does about his son.
On the other hand, shepherding parents live into their child’s experiences, seeking to counsel, encourage, and love them all along the way. Shepherding parents go after the one sheep because everything about that child is beautiful and valuable to them, no matter the amount of brokenness or beauty manifest in him or her (Luke 17:1-7). Put simply, shepherding parents enter into the depths of what is going on with their child, not because of what they can get out of it, but out of pure love.
My parents were adept in shepherding me in this way. I have a vivid memory of getting into my mom’s car after finding out I didn’t make the JV baseball team. I burst into tears. I was blessed to have athletic success growing up, and I had never not made a team. As soon as 15-year-old Mark began to cry, so did mom. She hugged and embraced me. She undoubtedly felt the immense pain and confusion I was experiencing because she cared for me in a way a shepherd only could.
The Lord is the one who meets us in all the green pastures, quiet waters, darkest valleys, and everywhere in between. In him we lack nothing (Psalm 23). I so appreciate the ways both of my parents entered into all of those spaces and experiences and embraced me with a love only they could.
3. Shepherding parents humble themselves in order to lift up and strengthen their children. No teenager can truly appreciate just how much a shepherding parent sacrifices for them on a daily basis. This comes in both small and large ways. But one of the greatest sacrifices my parents made for me as a teenager was in my education.
I went to a very expensive, small liberal arts college for undergrad, and I followed that up with 3 ½ years of seminary directly after. While I was fortunate to receive some scholarships, my parents shouldered the load financially for both. Not once did my parents complain or show evidence of the strain paying for my education was for them. But given what I know about how much my education cost, it was difficult for them financially. Ultimately, my parents chose to pay for my education because they were willing to invest in me as their son.
In perhaps one of the most tangible ways possible, my parents lifted me up by bringing themselves low. This is the definition of humility, and this is the posture shepherds take as they humble themselves to care for their sheep, even when the sheep do not realize or appreciate it. In sacrificing for their children, oftentimes at the expense of their own comfort, parents count their children “more significant” than themselves (Philippians 2:3-4).
I was (and am) far from deserving for the gift of my education, which largely came from my parents. As their son, I simply received my parent’s grace and favor and strove to honor them in the way I worked in school while I pursued God’s calling for me. I am grateful for how my parents shepherded me, even when I did not fully realize it, and I hope and pray that by the Lord’s grace I might embody that same shepherding spirit for my children in the days ahead.