I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East, where in many places shepherds still live with their sheep, sleeping with them at night and following them around all day to keep them out of trouble.
It’s a common enough sight to see a weather-beaten man walking among a dozen or more sheep and goats as they range through wadis and small valleys, nibbling at the sparse vegetation and scampering from hilltop to hilltop. The whole scenario always strikes me as timeless and exotic; it’s something I never imagined in my American world of fences and orderly pastures. Often, the sheep block the road completely as they cross it, and one learns to simply wait until they are finished crossing, participating for a moment in the eternal patience of the shepherd.
It is hard for me to picture what it would be like to spend all day every day following sheep around. Exhausting, I think. And mind-numbing. How could you dedicate your whole life to that? Watching those shepherds has given me a new appreciation for the Biblical Good Shepherd. From the way I’ve seen those sheep behave, I figure that the real-life lost lamb story must be repeated on a fairly regular basis.
It’s a story that I never really related to well. I never went through a teenage rebellious stage. I didn’t stay out late, I didn’t try any illicit substances, and I certainly didn’t ever question the Church.
When you’re not causing any problems, I found, it’s easy to feel invisible. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the smooth, competent wheel just keeps rolling along, uncomplaining. Sometimes that’s how I felt as a kid when I sat in my MiaMaid class presidency meetings, talking about what we could do to activate the other girls. Or on my mission when my mission president paired me with several depressive companions in a row because I was “good at helping them.”
Then I got married and moved to a family ward, where I became one of the proverbial “Same Ten People” who could always be counted on to say yes when someone needed help. I enjoy serving. I deeply appreciated the opportunities to help. But somehow, I thought that I needed to be the person who always had it together–who never faltered, and never needed help. The one who never strayed.
I remember particularly vividly one Christmas five years ago. We were living in an affluent, picture-perfect ward in San Diego. Our Relief Society had prepared a ham dinner for a homeless shelter, and I was shuttling back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen with plate after plate of ham, potatoes and green beans. I smiled and wished a Merry Christmas to each person as I put down the plate. While serving dinner to a small family much like mine, I looked up and noticed the murals on the walls of the shelter. They were paintings of Jesus, teaching and healing. Each was accompanied by a short Bible verse: “Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” or “I am the light and the life of the world.”
The messages and the pictures transfixed me suddenly with a sense of longing. Among all these people without roofs over their heads or food to feed their families, I felt that those gentle messages of hope and healing could not be intended for me. I had a home and food, and Christmas presents for my children. Though I was an overwhelmed young mother with two toddlers and the financial worries common to young families, I had never been in “real” need. Those comforting words were for people who truly needed them, not for me. Wistfully, I pictured for a moment what it might be like to hear Jesus saying those things to me. Then I shook my head a little, and went back to serving dinners.
Since that time, I’ve been through my share of life’s vicissitudes. My family experienced a financial crisis shortly after that Christmas. I had ongoing health problems and surgery. We struggled with marital and mental health issues. My faith faltered and wavered. It was a difficult few years. Very difficult. My life is back under control now, and once again I have become the person who is no longer drowning in problems, and can be relied upon to help others in need. But I look back on those difficult times with a certain poignancy. Because by living them I learned what it meant to be sought after, to be helped and succored. To be loved with Christlike love. To be the lost lamb at the center of the rescue effort.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned, though, is that even back when I was the reliable one with the “perfect” life, those messages of succor and hope and salvation were for me. My shepherd never saw me as one of the ninety and nine, or an under-shepherd to wear out on innumerable errands. To him, I’ve always been the lost sheep, and he’s always been looking for me.
The Lost Sheep
Walking that old and storied road,
I find my way stopped up
by the crowded crossing
of a long-robed shepherd
and his many-minded flock.
No rest for him,
no social hours or wayside trivialities.
He spends today, like every day,
endlessly watching the steps and fallings
of a hundred identical sheep.
Is he like that other shepherd,
forever rushing after the errant lamb
and leaving the rest behind?
If it were I . . .
I picture myself again,
the solid, obedient one,
wondering if I shouldn’t wander away
to finally catch his eye.
Instead, safe in a corner
of my familiar field,
I lift my head and call.
He comes. He runs!
And I find that I
had strayed a little, after all.