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Good Shepherd – Jefferson Airplane
By Michael Dalton

At the pinnacle of their career in 1969, Jefferson Airplane recorded an obscure spiritual that became a standout track on Volunteers. It combines folk guitar strumming with Jorma Kaukonen’s razor-sharp lead guitar work. He also gives a tender vocal performance. At the time it may have had a hippie-communal vibe, but it’s done so reverently that it remains a spiritual song.

One can only wonder how it came to be recorded. It’s interesting to note that Kaukonen has long-explored American roots music, which includes gospel influences. In 2007 he released Stars in My Crown, a collection containing many old gospel songs. This followed the Grammy-nominated Blue Country Heart that came out five years earlier. This journey may have started in earnest when Kaukonen and Airplane bass player Jack Casady became the nucleus of Hot Tuna. Songs like “True Religion” show their interest in roots and gospel music.

It’s no accident that Kaukonen and Casady ended up together. They were the two most accomplished musicians from Jefferson Airplane. You can see the chemistry that they still have together on a “Good Shepherd” performance posted on YouTube. Their ability to improvise with each other takes the song to another level. 

What initially drew me to the song is a combination of plaintive melody, understated vocals, blistering lead guitar solos and beautiful background vocals by Grace Slick and Paul Kantner.

I see such longing and beauty in the first two lines:

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Arriving in heaven has sometimes been pictured as washing up on another shore. It reminds me of the sweaters that Irish wives would knit for their husbands to wear on treacherous fishing expeditions. Each sweater contained knots distinctive to a particular family that were woven into the fabric. When men were swept overboard and drowned, the decomposed bodies that later washed up could be identified by the family sweater. When this life has finally taken the ultimate toll, those who have believed will wash up on that other shore, where immediately they will be recognized by their relationship to Christ. For those who trust in Him, have put on Christ. 

The third line completes a basic simple structure that is repeated throughout the song. The first two lines are always the same with a slight variation occurring at the end of the third line. We are warned successively to stay out of the way of the bloodstained bandit, the long-tongue liar and the gun shot devil. 

Stay out of the way of the …
The words “stay out of the way” call to mind the words of Psalm 1, which speaks of the joy of the one that avoids the way of sinners. 
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stands in the way of sinners,
Nor seats in the seat of scoffers
We would be wise to heed the words of the song and stay out of the way epitomized by the shady characters mentioned. 

Each stanza is followed by the chorus, which is an appeal for God to feed the sheep.

Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep
Mention is made of Paul and Silas—two of the first missionaries of the early Church. 
One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
The writer also asks “one for to make my heart rejoice.” Later, the line changes at the end to “one for to make my life complete.”

There’s nothing quite like the joy of leading someone into a relationship with Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, you probably have discovered that just talking with someone about how they can come to know God brings a unique satisfaction. 

The Scriptures teach that heaven rejoices when one person turns to God. If we lead someone to Christ, we have participated in a process that results in all of that person’s sins being forgiven. We feel a little of the joy of heaven because we have aligned ourselves with God’s purposes. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and He bids us to join Him in that work.

God equips some of his followers to be shepherds of His sheep. He gifts them for this task, but we all can play a part by using the gifts we’ve been given to help each other grow spiritually.

As humans, we can only do so much for other people. Leaders are in position where they recognize how inadequate they are to meet the needs of others. They realize how much they need God’s help. Their desire may be reflected in the lines of the chorus.

Can’t you hear my lambs a callin’?
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep
One man who hungered more than most for the Good Shepherd to feed his flock was Robert Murray McCheyne. As a young minister in Scotland, he was oppressed by the fact that despite his best efforts, his work was not flourishing. Sadly, frail health led to an early death. His ministry lasted only seven years, but it’s impact throughout the world lasts to this day.

A man who served under McCheyne revealed his secret to a young minister who visited McCheyne’s old church. 

“Sit down here,” said the sexton, motioning his visitor to the chair in which McCheyne had so often sat. 

“Now, put your elbows on the table! That was the way Mr. McCheyne used to do!” 

The visitor obeyed.

“Now, put your face in your hands!” The visitor did so.

“Now let the tears flow! That was the way Mr. McCheyne used to do!”

The sexton led his guest to the pulpit; and gave him a fresh series of instructions.

“Put your elbows down into the pulpit!” He put his elbows down.

“Now put your face in your hands!” He did so.

“Now let the tears flow! That was the way Mr. McCheyne used to do!”

McCheyne had not only a passion for God, but also a passion for people. His tears were the outpouring of his heart. God responded to his prayers by reviving the people of Scotland.

McCheyne’s heart is but a dim reflection of the heart of the great Shepherd of the sheep. How much greater is God’s compassion? How much deeper than any human love is God’s love? How much more eager God is to fulfill, than we are to carry out, the command, “Feed my sheep.”

Before I came to know Christ, I never realized the spiritual implications of this song. I was drawn by the music. I can see now that the lyrics point to the reality of God’s goodness. He draws lost sheep like me to Himself and then cares for them. He provides shepherds to teach me His ways. They help me to learn how to appropriate God’s bountiful resources for myself. Regardless of my progress, my attitude towards them and other Christians should always be one of humility. 

I’m thankful that God helps me to avoid the way that would make my journey more perilous. If I travel the way of the Godless, I will stumble and suffer for it. No, I want to walk in God’s ways.

When I do fail, He uses my mistakes and the hardships in life to break me down so that I become more like Him. It makes me look forward even more to heaven. When I wash up on the other shore, I may be so badly disfigured that the angels may wonder who I am. At that point, I can see the Father rising to say, “He is one of mine. I recognize the clothing of my Son.” 


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