Our Shepherd

When I go online to check the local weather, I habitually check conditions up north. A few weeks ago, the forecast promised a bit of warmth in both locations. As a result, my husband and I drove into Packer Country for an overnight stay. Mike enjoys navigating county roads that wind every which way. Since I enjoy gazing at the beautiful countryside, I didn’t mind his taking the “scenic route”. I admit that though we’ve traveled the same roads for twenty-five years, I’m continually fascinated by what I see. Every farm and hillside reveals something new to me each time we meander by.

On that particular day, I noticed a pasture of sheep. Though we’d passed that pasture often, it seemed to me that the sheep population had grown exponentially. I interrupted Mike as he sang along with the radio to confirm my assessment. Amazed, he agreed, “You’re right. I’ve never seen such a big herd.” With that, Mike returned to his singing and I returned my thoughts to that amazing gathering of sheep. Usually, I notice individual cows or horses or sheep when passing such green expanses. This time, the herd resembled a massive bumpy wool carpet because the sheep were huddled so closely together. The only exception was a single sheep who wandered on the periphery of the field far from the rest. I wondered if this location was that sheep’s choice or the herd’s. I pondered that question for the remainder of our drive.

I gave a good deal of thought to “community” and “friendship” and “family” and “belonging” that day. Each of these are of great importance to me. Like those Wisconsin sheep, I enjoy being in close proximity to the ones I’ve been given to love. I find acceptance and comfort, security and support in such gatherings. There are times, however, when circumstances or events or differences of perspective urge me to withdraw. Sometimes, I choose to take my leave. Sometimes, I’m shown the door. Either way, I retreat as quickly and painlessly as possible. Still, what then? I considered that lone sheep who stood so far from the herd which should have been home to him. Had a few of the others eventually wandered his way to coax him back into the fold? Had he decided to rejoin his pasture family on his own? Did this separation last all day? Did sunset force him to seek safety with the others at least for that night? Did he reconsider and regroup the next morning? Did the situation end well for him? I will never know how that poor isolated sheep fared…

There is a passage in John’s gospel (10:27-30) which is a mere sixty-two words in length. Brief as it is, this passage is among the most powerful accounts of Jesus’ love for us. Those sixty-two words also provide potent consolation to me when I find myself in the position of that poor solitary sheep. The passage portrays Jesus in his preferred role, that of a shepherd. Jesus respected the shepherds of his day. Jesus knew that a dedicated shepherd was a treasured commodity. Shepherds dutifully guarded their sheep day in and day out. Sheep knew their keepers’ voices and followed them closely when being led in or out of the pasture. Sheep spent their days in safety only as a result of their shepherds’ diligence. In truth, the shepherd’s presence was essential to each sheep’s survival. No worthy shepherd would have allowed a sheep to wander alone as my woolly Wisconsin friend had. Jesus made his thoughts on the matter quite clear when he described the fate of his sheep: “…they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”

It seems to me that we all find ourselves on the outskirts of one flock or another on occasion. Sometimes we choose to remove ourselves and sometimes we’re led to the door by circumstances or people over which we have no control. This may occur in spite of our best efforts or through our own fault. Either way, we depart feeling quite alone. These are the times when our shepherd’s promise resounds in our ears: You will never perish. No one can take you out of my hand! Regardless of the way the rest of the flock responds to us, our shepherd responds with love.

I will never know how that poor lonely sheep fared up north or how his fellow sheep responded to him. Still, I do know that, regardless of the way our flock-mates deal with us, our shepherd will see to it that we fare just fine.

©2016 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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