By Rachel Leach
I sat across the table from Fr. Juan at his birthday party in 2013 and said something very risky: “Father, for your birthday can you give me a present?” After his inquisitive look I explained: “The Bible says a lot about sheep and the ‘Good Shepherd,’ and I want to live with sheep and get to know them to understand the Bible better.” Fr. Juan told me to go live for a week with the Bedouin and their sheep.
About a month later, I got a huge surprise, an urgent call from Waseem, one of our local team members from Magdala. He said, “Rachel, come now; we’re going to pick up the sheep.” My first lesson had already begun, though it had little to do with sheep: Ask, and you shall receive.
We headed to the very north of Israel. After getting the van stuck in the mud, visiting two farms, and drinking tea, we headed back to Magdala with four new four-legged friends in the back of the van, bleating and baaah-ing away. We had two new sheep: Wonka and Gloria, and two new goats: Bunny (later deemed Bonifacio) and Lucy. This was the beginning of my living among sheep – and goats.
Last week, about 3 ½ years after their arrival, we had to say goodbye to our four-legged friends. Bunny went to find a girlfriend, and the sheep went to live in a bigger pasture with a bigger family.
Wonka, Bunny, and their families will be missed. But the lessons they taught us are ingrained in my heart forever. What a gift it has been to meditate on their behaviors that mirror mine. What a gift it has been to discover firsthand what caretakers of sheep must do for their flock, and through doing so, what our Good Shepherd does for us, His flock.
Observing the sheep (and goats) taught me so much about Jesus, about us humans, and left me with many questions to ponder about my own behavior and faith.
A Lesson About Stupidity: Bunny the goat had a frustrated and doomed romance with the donkeys. He would spend hours on end sitting beside them instead of grazing or looking over the fence into their area mehh-ing to get their attention, which of course never came. His efforts would have been much better focused on a female of his own species.
How many times in life do I do just plain stupid things? My Good Shepherd is always there, chuckling lovingly, when I realize that my romances with idols will never amount to more than frustration. He is always there to gently lead me away from my mistakes and remind me whom I should be paying attention to.
A Lesson About Stubbornness: Moving a stubborn sheep is impossible. If you try to give him a nudge in any direction, he will lean against you with all of his immense weight in order to say, “I am NOT going there, I will stay HERE.”
How many times do I lean with all of my weight against the direction God wants me to go? How many times do I get stuck in my own comfort, unwilling to budge but rather intent on opposing his gentle nudges?
A Lesson About Vulnerability: Wonka, the male sheep, had a nasty habit of ramming people when they weren’t looking. He would wait until the moment that your back was turned and, WHAM. He’d come running from 10 feet away and send you flying. A handful of other volunteers and I can all tell the same story – thankfully we were all spared of any serious and lasting injuries. But we are all perplexed: why did Wonka wait until we weren’t looking to blindside us? Yet there we were the next day, perhaps limping, but always there to feed and care for the one that waited until we were most vulnerable to ram us.
Judas’ betrayal must have felt like being rammed by a sheep. Peter´s denial – another ramming. The sins we committed that Jesus, though innocent, died for, another hit from behind. Yet my Good Shepherd is there with compassion and understanding. He feeds me, cares for me, and leads me – no matter how many times I ram him from behind.
A Lesson About His Voice: My husband was in charge of taking care of the animals for the past year. Every time he whistled near their pen, no matter what they were doing, the sheep and goats would scramble to the fence to see him walk by. They knew his voice.
Each morning when it was time to go eat grass, my husband would open the gate to their pen and call their names. Within seconds, he had a trail of four-legged friends marching confidently behind him, happily prancing towards their grazing spot for the day.
“… and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice..” John 10: 3-5.
Cada mañana cuando era hora de ir a pastar, mi marido abría la puerta del establo y las llamaba por sus nombres. En cuestión de segundos, tenía un equipo de amigos de cuatro patas marchando con confianza detrás de él, felizmente caminando hacia su lugar de pastoreo.
Can I pick my Shepherd’s voice out from all of the noise that buzzes in my head in the busyness of each day? Do I trust that familiar voice enough to leave my comfort zone behind and venture out in the footsteps of my Shepherd?
After the experience of being a shepherd (of sorts), I will go back to my role as a sheep in my Shepherd’s flock. Though after getting to know the ins and outs of being a sheep, I hope to be a much more docile one from now on: do less stupid things, be less stubborn, live with more resolve to not ram my Savior with my sins, pay much more attention to His voice and where He is directing me to go, and above all, be thankful for His mercy that leads him to care for me, chuckle at me, and have a special spot in His heart for me despite my sheep-like nature.