When Bambi and I drove off the ferry to Skye, an enchanted island off the Scottish coast, we decided to take what Robert Frost called “the road not taken.” All the other cars turned right and we turned left. Soon our road dissolved into a single lane where we crept along, hoping to dodge any oncoming vehicles.
Twenty minutes later, after traveling all of three miles, we were confronted by a cattle gate, barbed wire fence, and a sign that proclaimed in big red letters, “CAUTION.” The fine print alerted wayfarers like us there was a bull roaming the property. At that point, Bambi decided to take a break and I opened the gate and pressed on up the lane.
As the gods would have it, I was blessed for my dogged (or foolhardy) determination to continue down that path. For soon I was confronted not by a raging bull, but by a lovely flock of sheep cresting a hilltop on the road ahead. The sheep surged down the road toward me like a great, white tide, eager to sweep me into its wooly embrace. But just as I prepared myself for the hug of a lifetime, the sheep veered off the road, just ahead of me, and set off into a wild, unkempt pasture.
I saw and heard the shepherds, three generations of them–father, son, and grandfather–calling to their sheep from a distant hilltop. Or so I thought. Actually, they were giving directions to their border collies who came bounding over the hill. The border collies set about corralling the sheep, alternately blocking and terrorizing them in the right direction. Whenever the sheep started to stray from the pen where they were headed for the night, the sheepdogs swept in with their yips and snarls and constant, buzzing motion. I watched in amazement at this perfectly choreographed movement.
Watching these sheepdogs working their craft, I remembered what the renowned English clergyman and author, Leslie Weatherhead said about God’s sheepdogs. He said that in ancient Palestine, shepherds led their flocks but in Weatherhead’s native England, shepherds came along behind, calling to their sheepdogs who in turn, nudged their sheep in the right direction. Musing about the meaning of the last line in the 23rd Psalm–“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me forever and ever”–Weatherhead suggested “Goodness” and “Mercy” were God’s sheepdogs, pursuing God’s flock with focused, unflagging devotion.
Even so, God the Good Shepherd goes ahead, leading us through life’s every delight (“green pastures, still waters”) and peril (“the valley of the shadow”) while Goodness and Mercy chase us from behind. Thus, throughout our lives, we are surrounded by God’s grace on every side: grace before us, grace beside us, and grace behind.
As I mused about the 23rd Psalm, the great tide of sheep flowed slowly, inexorably toward their pen. Suddenly, a lamb decided to make a break for it. He darted off from the flock, heading in the opposite direction. I wondered what would become of that little lamb, so wobbly and frail, out there in that vast terrain, all by himself, for a long, lonesome night.
Just then, one of the sheepdogs–either Goodness or Mercy– took off after the fleeing lamb. The dog shot across the pasture, bounding the rocks, brush, and creek in zealous pursuit of his prize. In very short order, the dog caught up with the fugitive lamb, got behind him, and pointed the errant lamb back to the flock with a poised muzzle and popping bark.
Jesus said the Good Shepherd seeks the lost sheep until he finds it (Luke 15:4). I take comfort in this promise because as one of God’s wayward lambs, I have a way of getting lost: I lose my focus, my resoluteness, my sense of God’s presence. I lose my perspective, my forgiving spirit, my willingness to be wrong. I lose my passion for serving those who are suffering and oppressed, the vulnerable and the week. That’s when I pray, or better yet, the Holy Spirit prays on my behalf (a la Romans 8:26) the desperate S.0.S. of the Psalmist: “I wander about like a lost sheep; so come and look for me, your servant” (Psalm 119:176).
And so, on a forbidden path where I, the lost soul, was not supposed to be, God’s all-embracing grace surprised me in a powerful, palpable way. For surrounded by a sea of wool and the soft down and sharp barks of sheepdogs, I was reminded it is impossible to outrun, outfox, or defeat the restless, relentless, ever-resourceful love of God.
It comforts my fretful heart to know that Christ, the Good Shepherd–and his sheepdogs, Goodness and Mercy–will never give up on finding me. For as with all God’s flock, it is when I am lost, that I need him most.
Bob Setzer, Jr.
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