The one thing that people invariably ask me when they see my sheep for the first time is, “Can you really tell them apart?”
I never cease to be amazed and tickled by this. It’s like asking a mother of a blonde-haired brood if she really knows who’s who. I want to laugh out loud and exclaim, “Well, for starters, the boys have horns!” (The girls do, too, incidentally, but they are such dainty little adornments that you really don’t notice them at first.) And how on earth could anyone with eyes mistake that exquisitely placid expression of Beatrice’s for the pert little inquisitive one of Hermia? Isn’t it quite as plain to everyone else that Benedick looks just like Kenneth Branagh and that Harry is dignity itself and that Sebastian has an almost dog-like friendliness about him? Titania with her fastidious little nose the color and sheen of wheat-colored velvet and that adorable widow’s peak of wool that grows down over her forehead? And what about Ophelia—honestly, if you didn’t know better you’d think she made up those gorgeous eyes of hers daily with mascara and eyeliner.
But I have an advantage over the casual acquaintance of my flock: the keen and unmistaking eye of Love. I love my sheep. I love them to the point of utter distraction. The slightest bleat sends me dashing to the back porch just to make sure everyone is alright and happy. I know where each of them likes to be scratched and who likes apples better than pears and which one is most liable to pick a fight when they’re hungry. And who they’re going to pick a fight with. And when I call them of an evening, and they lift their heads from the bit of earth they’ve been grazing, recognizing my voice and my form and then come at a run, I seriously wonder if there’s any finer compliment in life.
I love my sheep so much that people laugh at my supposed neurosis in measuring and mixing grain and my insistence on ‘horse quality’ hay. When a cold ran through them at the change in the weather last fall, I was the Florence Nightingale of the barnyard, administering tinctures and vitamins and herbs to anyone who so much as sniffed. I’ll go over the pasture with a fine-toothed comb checking for wild cherry (a real no-no) and hand clip treats of cedar and pine for them from the family farm to bring back as a surprise.
My little flock is a lovely, living, daily parable.
Predictably, all of the verses in the Bible that have even the slightest reference to sheep have come more alive to me in the last year than ever before. I’ve become fascinated with the differences between the Eastern shepherds, which are the pattern of our Bible stories and allegories, and the more contemporary Western approach. Jesus wasn’t just embellishing his narrative of the Good Shepherd and His sheep in John 10 with a few pretty, humanizing details. When He says that the He calls His sheep by name, His audience knew exactly what He was talking about.
According to Phillip Keller in A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd and His Sheep, the modern, industrialized mind cannot conceive of the bond that these shepherds have with the individual members of their flock:
“A…remarkable aspect of the care of animals in these countries is that each one is known by name. These names are not simple common names such as we might choose. Rather, they are complex and unique because they have some bearing upon the history of the individual beast.”
I’ve had the unique opportunity this past year of looking at things from the shepherd’s perspective. I have experienced first hand the joy that comes of a sheep learning its name, learning to trust me, learning to look me in eye without a shade of fear in those gorgeous limpid depths of theirs.
I have an inkling of how Jesus feels when His sheep run to Him not only for protection, but for the sheer pleasure of His presence.
And I will never, never forget the first time that my sheep actually followed me. It was several weeks after we had brought them home, and I was just beginning to smile rather sadly upon my preconceived notions of ‘pet lambs’ as a naïve delusion. After hand-feeding them grain and spending hours in the stall with them, talking quietly to accustom them to the sound of my voice and consciously avoiding the perceived threat of direct eye contact, they still seemed rather indifferent and afraid. One evening, however, just about the time the sun met the tops of the pines fringing our west pasture and the light became diffused with a dusting of gold you could almost touch, I went out to call them in for the night. I rattled the grain scoop. I called them again. I could see them all, grazing beneath the pecan tree, a portrait of ovine contentment. Suddenly one of them raised their head—Hermia, I’m sure it was—and looked right at me. A bleat and an answering “Blah!” And suddenly, with a tender thundering of little hooves they were coming at a run. I turned towards the barn and they fell in behind, scampering and capering and clicking their heels and bobbing their heads, as lively as my goatlings could ever be. And I walked on, cooing and soothing with the voice they had at last learned to trust, feeling about ten feet tall.
“Lord, is this something of what it must be like for You?” my spirit whispered.
But I knew without saying that it was. This wonderful, beautiful acknowledgment of Love; this sprightly little parable Peace, it went straight to my heart, stamping an image, a moment, that will be with me forever.
My name is not only known to Him—it is precious to Him.
He is not only acquainted with but passionately interested in the details that make up my life. Nothing is too unpleasant a task for His ministering hand. He cares for me every bit as tenderly as I do my flock of seven—every bit and a universe’s worth of more. And when I follow Him, my joy is second only to His.
He does not drive us from behind, goading us on as the Western shepherds do, with dogs and commands.
He leads. He calls us by name with a voice that is our soul’s sweetest music.
And in the voluntary compulsion of Love, we follow Him. And what follows us? Goodness and mercy, all sufficient and all encompassing, all the days of our lives. Green pastures and quiet waters and an unfailing Presence in the valley of the shadow. We shall not know the meaning of want.
My sheep had to choose to trust me.
They have to remember who I am when they see me coming with that odious dosing syringe, dripping wormwood. Through all the ordeal of hoof trimming and shearing. Through the winter barrenness when I portion out the right amount of hay—neither too little or too much—for their sustenance. And in the coming plenty of spring when I limit them from one pasture and choose for them another. Because with all the ear scratches and loves and apples and goodnight kisses, comes a whole lot of stuff that’s not as much fun in their opinion.
I doubt that Jesus could have chosen a more tender, a more infinitely attentive symbol for His relation to us.
For me, as I go about my barn duties, from mucking stalls to picking up the wheelbarrow an impish Sebastian has just overturned, to running a careful hand over everyone as they go out to pasture, it is a mercy that is new every single morning.
Photography: Copyright 2009 Philip Ivester