There are scriptures I memorized when I was a Christian toddler that have played on a loop in my mind at various times throughout my life. And though they have served to comfort as intended, I am now discovering that there is so much more beneath the surface. This insatiable desire to get to know my Jesus has me diving deeper and finding so much more than comfort in the red letters. Psalm 23 is one such passage. I’ve read and recited this passage so many times and yet, it’s only now begun to take root. What if I was actually a ewe? Isn’t that basically what this is about? I’ve always envisioned myself following the shepherd who leads me here and there, but never actually pictured myself as a sheep. After all, doesn’t the world we currently live in dictate that it is not a good thing to be a sheep? To be a sheep in this day and age carries with it negative connotations, to say the least. The memes are a plenty! Aren’t we to lead and not follow? Blaze our own trail? Go off the beaten path? Let’s explore, shall we?
What does it mean to be a sheep - to live the life of a follower, part of a whole, one in many? Sheep are quite sensitive. I’ll begin there. The tiniest thing can cause an onset of fear and panic or at the very least, discomfort and unrest. If a sheep is afflicted with pests, she will torment herself until relief comes. If she is hungry, she cannot rest until she is fed. If something spooks her, she will find herself unable to eat or sleep. If there is any sort of conflict within the herd, again, she will not feed or rest. Her physical well-being and livelihood are directly tied to her mental health. And therein the shepherd finds his purpose. He is charged with maintaining the health and wellness of the entire group by meeting every need of the individual members. If one is lost, all will suffer. If one is fearful, sick or hungry, all will feel the disease. The parts are never greater than the whole. If a piece is missing, the whole tower crumbles. Enter the great shepherd…Jesus. He seeks out the hungry and feeds her from His hand. He restores her health, removes her afflictions and soothes her worried soul so that she might rest easy. He makes her to lie down in green pastures and leads her beside the still waters. He resolves the conflict within the group and unites them again so that they might thrive together. His rod and His staff comforts.
A cast sheep is one that has fallen over and cannot right herself. She can lose blood circulation quickly and die as a result. She is susceptible to attack in this position and is helpless and powerless to save herself. The shepherd must find her, right her and restore her to health. Enter the great shepherd. When her legs are simply too short and her mental resolve does not match the physical, swiftly He comes to save the day. Even though she walks through the valley of the shadow of death, she shall fear no evil, for He is with her. He gently lifts her and sets her back on her feet, firmly planted and joined again with her flock.
There is one thing about the shepherd that sings sweetly to my soul. Every good shepherd is relentless and tireless in his pursuit of his sheep, every last one. He will not rest until he is certain all are within his grasp. As a wandering, lost sheep myself, it is not lost on me how determined He is to find me and bring me back to the flock. His watchful eye sees every step I take down paths that lead to destruction and every fleeting glance toward treasures that will one day rust. It is green pastures He desires for me, not withering, dry fields. It is still waters to which He leads me, not rushing rivers that cannot quench my thirst. And how He rejoices when He finds the one and carries her home on His shoulders! Ninety-nine will never be enough for Him and this prodigal’s daughter could not be more grateful.
So I ask myself, “Why then, is it such a bad thing to be a sheep?” In recognizing that I am merely a part of the whole, a member of a family that does not flourish unless we are all on the same page, a united front, a river flowing in one direction, I am acknowledging that I am ineffective and finite on my own. My ability to thrive is tied directly to the unity of my flock. It is considered laughable to be a sheep today. It is thought to be a sign of weakness, an inability to think for oneself, or worse, challenge authority. There might be a bit of truth to that reality, but I guess the question then becomes, “Which authority am I challenging?” If it be my shepherd, that’s a hard pass for me. A sheep I will forever be! Because if being a sheep means I get to follow a shepherd to greener pastures and still waters, want for nothing, and have my soul restored each time I wander, throw me in a field and call me Dolly! It is actually a well-developed skill sheep have mastered to ensure their survival. They have come to an enlightened understanding that they are stronger together and more likely to thrive when they remain united rather than seeking independence. Fancy that! Oh, that we could learn from the herd. Let the record show that though there be hundreds of thousands of wolves intent on devouring sheep daily and nightly, still they greatly outnumber the wolves. The shepherd is so faithful to tend to His flock. Make no mistake, they are His and He will uplift them for all eternity.
**Sidenote: I would argue that the goal of the greater good should be to affirm and appease the souls of all members, which may mean NOT reaching a collective agreement on a course of action, but rather, addressing the need for compassion and taming the anxiety within each of us. We need to be heard, not right. We need to be affirmed, not shamed. We need to be validated in our concerns, not dismissed. And we need to be cared for, not discarded. And when it comes to the course of action, we need only to defer to the shepherd for direction.