“Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? Thou art called by His name.”
That’s the opening line of the opening poem of William Blake’s book, Songs of Innocence and Experience. The lamb represents childlike innocence; perhaps it’s a child talking to a lamb, as children do so often talk to animals. And the child is telling the lamb what she’s learned in Sunday school: that we Christians also call Jesus “the lamb.” She thinks that’s pretty neat, and that the lamb ought to think it’s neat, too, so she tells him: “thou art called by His name”—the name of the one who made you.
But the simplicity of the poem belies Blake’s intent: the book is called Songs of Innocence AND Experience. The Lamb is paralleled and challenged by the opening poem of “Songs of Experience,” called “the Tyger:”
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
If the lamb is gentle and simple, the tiger by contrast is darkly, terribly beautiful. The God who made the lamb is kind and warm and gentle and unthreatening, but the God who made the tiger is very different:
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
The contrast is between the innocent, sweet, trusting faith of childhood, and the disturbing, often terrible realities of adulthood. On the one hand, the God we all learned about in Sunday school, and at some level still want to believe in: God who is protective, unthreatening, simple, loving, easy to understand—the kind of parent we all hope we are in some way to our very young children.
On the other hand, there is the God we know from grown-up theology and experience—God who is sovereign Lord over what is both good and bad, a God of mystery and sometimes even of terror. The God who made the Lamb most certainly made the tiger.
How do we, as those commissioned by God to raise Emory in the faith, help her negotiate the terrible and inevitable transition from the God of the Lamb to the God of the Tiger? How do we help her negotiate the transition from innocence to experience in such a way that her faith grows and sustains her, rather than failing her when she needs it most?
The place to start is how well we’ve done at that ourselves.
The problem most of us have is that we think of ourselves as the little lamb. We think of ourselves as innocents and as potential victims of the tiger, and so what we want is the God of the lamb—the God who protects us, who keeps us innocent of the darkness in the world around us. And for many of us, that’s kind of where our faith freezes—the faith of the lamb, where we expect God to cocoon us from the painful realities of the world around us—the dangerous tigers of death, suffering, poverty, oppression, so on.
As long as we are not personally affected by these things, we can view them as unrealities, or things that other people somehow bring on themselves. And often, even when we are personally affected by them, we refuse to look honestly at the deep implications of the tiger. At some level, we imagine that the faith of the Lamb is the only kind of faith.
A friend of mine—I’ll call him Tim–tells the story of the death of his father in a farming accident when he was fifteen or sixteen. They lived in farm country in Wisconsin, and the funeral service was at a little reformed church where the preacher assured everyone that Tim’s father’s death was God’s will and told them that they should rejoice instead of grieving. After the service, Tim, who at that time was a wrestler and football player, had to be restrained from hitting the pastor. “If that’s the kind of God you believe in, I don’t want to have anything to do with Him!” he yelled at the pastor in language not normally used at church. And he never returned, to any church.
Both the pastor and Tim had confronted the tiger, but it was the pastor’s responsibility to help my friend negotiate the transition from innocence to experience, and he failed, miserably. The pastor did what too many people of faith do when confronted with the tiger. Basically he said, the tiger isn’t real. No matter how many tigers growl out there, just close your eyes and cover your ears and stay here in the sheepfold, where it’s safe, and they won’t get in. God keeps you safe, and if you don’t believe that, you don’t have faith.
The problem was that Tim believed him. He believed that if you don’t believe God keeps you safe, then you don’t have faith. And since he didn’t believe that God keeps you safe anymore, therefore he couldn’t have faith.
The God of the lamb was not sufficient in the world of the tiger.
Jesus knew that well. He knew that we view ourselves as innocent lambs in a land of tigers, or as he describes them in our scripture, sheep versus thieves and wolves. On the one hand, he assures us that in God’s eyes we are lambs—we are innocents in a dangerous and uncertain world.
This is a somewhat surprising assertion from someone who takes the problems of sin and personal responsibility as seriously as Jesus obviously does. But in part what He’s saying is that our faith, our view of God, is too innocent, too simple, too naïve to contend with the world as it is. When confronted with the tiger, we either deny reality or deny God.
In the parables we read from John, Jesus describes himself two ways—first as the gate to the sheepfold, then as the good shepherd. Both are very different, and both describe different ways we need God, ways that Emory will need God as she matures in faith.
The gate protects us in the safety of the sheepfold. It keeps the wild things out. And there’s a point in most of our lives where we need that of God, and God provides it for us. It’s the time our faith is nurtured, in a protective environment, where questions can be asked and risks taken with the assurance that we have loving friends, teachers, family, and the warmth of love of a church to fall back on. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of being raised in the faith, or taken in to a safe, warm, secure, household of faith, so we should be especially grateful that we do.
In the parable, Jesus is also telling us what’s expected of those of us who raise Emory in the faith. We aren’t supposed to be thieves, and we aren’t supposed to let thieves in. To the extent that it’s possible, that it’s in our control, we’re supposed to protect her, love her, and nurture her. Of course, that’s not always in our control; and when terrible things happen to innocent folks, we may be forced to introduce them to more complex faith issues long before they’d normally be ready. But regardless, we even then have a responsibility to be as loving and protective as we can.
But the Good Shepherd’s job is different. His job is to lead the sheep OUT of the sheepfold, and into the world of wolves. The Good Shepherd challenges us to take risks, to face the terrible reality of the world as it is, tigers, wolves, thieves, and all—but with the confidence that Jesus is with us. It’s time for what Bonhoeffer called Adult Faith—facing the world as it is, taking responsibility for healing its wounds and providing for its needs, knowing that we are going where Jesus went in His ministry, and knowing what it cost Him to do it.
When we’re young in faith, we need Jesus to be the gate, which keeps the wild things out and keeps us safe from harm. James Fowler developed a growth chart for faith, and he calls this the “Synthetic/conventional stage of faith” where “a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system. However, at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box” (their sheepfold!) “and don’t recognize that they are ‘inside’ a belief system. At this stage, authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one’s beliefs.” This is the stage, Fowler said, in which many people remain—a simplistic, “sheepfold” faith.
But as people mature and are faced with the tigers of life, they move to what he calls the “Individual/Reflective” stage. This looks like backsliding to a lot of people, but is in reality growth. It’s the point where they see their simple faith has failed them. What do they do then?
This is the point where either Jesus leads them out of the sheepfold, or they wander out on their own and get consumed by wolves. And hopefully we in the church haven’t let them down. Hopefully we’ve already laid groundwork for their ability to trust in God’s love for them even in difficult and uncertain times. Hopefully we don’t say to them, “You have to believe just so, no matter what, without questioning.” Hopefully we are with them as they ask hard questions, as they demand answers, as they cry and struggle, as they traverse the valley of the shadow of death. Because if we’re with them, staying with them as they leave the sheepfold and walk the valley, we’re doing what Jesus does—he goes with us as we leave the sheepfold.
And if we do that, Fowler says, we reach a new point in faith where we can live with the paradoxes of life—we can trust in the God who made both the Lamb and the Tyger. We can somehow keep the faith of the lamb even in the land of the tiger—the faith that trusts in God’s love even in the most dire of circumstances, that takes the risk of loving even those who are unlovable, even those who are dangerous to us, because that’s what God does; the faith that knows that the God of love is also the God of paradoxes and mystery—and that’s okay.
In fact, in its own amazing way, it is beautiful.