Growing up, I was convinced that God lived behind a thick, red curtain that hung in front of the baptistery arch in a gothic sanctuary. The depths in the apse behind the pulpit were, of course, where the devil lived—their gas furnaces and aged Easter props even smelled like hell. I felt criminally disloyal sitting in any pew other than the holy one my family occupied on Sunday mornings. I would sit between my mother and grandmother, testing harmonies from a shared hymnal against their soprano melodies. There was so much sacred to look at in that old sanctuary, and my Sunday experience was never complete without offering my prayers to our Stained Glass Shepherd Jesus.
That window was an icon of my church home, and the face of Shepherd Jesus was often the very real image of my Savior. I would learn all about that window’s colorful history in Whit Birdsong’s Fourth Grade Sunday School class—where he would take us on historical tours of our church. Some of it was factual. A lot of it was a collection of myths built on oral traditions passed down through four generations of our churchmen. I learned the origins of the mysterious rocket ship frame formation above Jesus’ face in the window’s center—the result of a repair when Watson Bell had thrown his football through it. I remember sitting and counting the orbs and loops in the intricate surrounding designs and observing the special ways that outside light was interacting with the glass—always careful to reign in my focus on Shepherd Jesus before I left the room—altar left behind Mrs. Malva’s organ. He never looked back, but my gaze was usually locked in on him when I would stand with the congregation to close our worship time, singing hymns like “Just as I Am,” “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” or “Softly and Tenderly.” It’s safe to say that all through my childhood, my mental image of Jesus was him—that tender, crimson-robed, barefoot Shepherd with his tall staff, surrounded by his flock of sheep.
When I was an older teen, I would sometimes sneak into the sanctuary to pray or to play the piano. I don’t remember the details of my crisis on this particular intercession, but I distinctly remember the moment of prayer when I saw Stained Glass Shepherd Jesus in a different way. For possibly the first time in my life, I began truly pouring my heart out to God, genuinely casting my cares upon him. In my desperation, I lifted my head from the pew and dared to once again look upon his face. It was an honest visio divina—something had changed. The fourth wall crashed to the ground and I suddenly found myself in the pastoral scene. I was no longer observing Shepherd Jesus, I was experiencing him. I finally started to pay attention to where he was looking: the one little lamb he held up in his arms, safe near his heart—the one that evaded the ninety-nine, now rescued. Jesus was looking into its eyes, and I knew that day that I was that sheep. I knew in that moment that what I needed more than anything was to be comforted in the arms of the Good Shepherd. I remembered his words from John 10: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” All those years, he had been looking back—not to the pew, but into the face of the lamb he held. He had been there—rescuing, redeeming, listening, comforting, healing, carrying, whispering the depths of his affection. He knew my name. And I knew his voice.
I’ve found myself lately recalling the face of Jesus in that window. Remembering the peace I felt in that moment, desperately needing that now. May we all, in our grief and even our wandering, hear his voice and experience anew what it means to be held in his arms. May he restore our souls and lead us in paths of righteousness.