My mother lives in a beautiful house atop a hill in Dekalb County, a turkey’s flight away from where I grew up (turkeys don’t fly very far). Thanks to some enterprising folks back in the 1930s and 40s who propagated it around the South to prevent soil erosion, kudzu has taken over these hills, choking the bushes and trees that my mom would prefer to flourish. I wasn’t aware that you could do this, but she has rented a small flock of sheep for a short time to graze about her property and clean up the grounds. I take it that they love kudzu.
The sheep are contained by a temporary electric fence to prevent them from wandering. Farmers wanting to make a few extra bucks on those sheep in the pen? Rent them out to refined yet free spirited suburbanites with a few dollars in their account and no fear of reprisals from a homeowners association. Picturing her sipping wine on her deck, watching the woolen creatures meander about, it’s not far fetched to imagine her acquiring a permanent flock. I know not to expect lamb for any holiday dinners.
It’s Tuesday morning, and, as cute as the pictures of the sheep are, I’m agitated. I have just returned from treatment in Nashville, and I always feel this way. Tired and grumpy. A drop or vial of self-pity. And the self-pity reminds me that I’m dealing with a condition that I didn’t ask for and cannot control, and my mind repeatedly iterates over the friends and family that, frankly, are miserable or are making others so. And I have the answer, right? Jesus, right? I proclaim, proclaim, proclaim, or at least think I do, and expect change, change, change. But some of this misery has lasted a lifetime. The misery is the life. And misery is exhausting.
And then I think of mom’s sheep. If one were to escape, to get lost in the woods, my mom would drop everything, including her wineglass, and go running after it, though I’m not sure what she’d do if she found it. Lure it back into the fold with a favorite snack, say pretzels filled with peanut butter? Camembert cheese?
Many of you know where this is going. The Bible speaks again!
The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7). Such a short and sweet parable about a shepherd of 100 sheep who discovers one is missing. He leaves the 99 that are safe together to pursue the one that has strayed. The parable describes the joy of the shepherd as he brings the lost sheep home, “5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing…” (ESV).
A simple and beautiful image.
But if this is a parable, then the stories are about people, and from my experience, people don’t usually think they’re lost, and when you pursue someone as such, they don’t typically thank you for finding them. In an age when self-reliance is king, who needs a shepherd? Who wants to be a sheep? No one likes to be herded. The lost sheep often escapes and seeks others who don’t want to be a part of that flock. Pursued by the shepherd, the sheep runs.
Oh how I wonder how pastors endure. Even in my own calling to pursue the lost, I see how it affects me. How vulnerable we become, how dangerous it is to be involved in others’ lives, especially those who are hurting deeply, or to be entangled in broken relationships. Expanding the parable, I picture the shepherd, staff in hand, staggering over a craggy landscape, calling his sheep by name. The distant bleats that direct his course could be distress, but they may very well be the sound of its joy in its freedom. Upon finding it, does the master lasso and subdue it? Would that be cause for rejoicing upon return? No. I can only picture a scene where the lost collapse under the weight of their own brokenness, and it is then that the shepherd lifts and carries them home on his shoulders. On mornings like Tuesday, I wonder when the shepherd himself collapses in exhaustion and who will be there to rescue him.
As you all know by now, I’m a Christian, and the flock to which I belong gathers once a week on Sunday mornings. Other than that, it’s free time in the pasture. But to a lone sheep struggling with physical, mental or emotional distress in a world that screams your beliefs are foolish or quietly ignores them altogether, the pasture feels more like wilderness, and in it the sheep is lost.
It is now Monday morning, and I’m stuck at home. The past several months I’ve been battling a wound near my ileostomy, the portion of my small intestine that was exposed on the right-side of my abdomen to divert waste from my colon, which is a dead-end tunnel (a tumor blocks the exit). This is technical, but the wound is in a difficult area to heal because it lies under the appliance (known as a wafer) that I must attach to my body to collect stool (I know, gross). I would normally avoid sharing any of these details with anyone outside my wife and closest friends, but I’ve had a very difficult weekend and I’m beginning to lose heart. The wound seems to have eroded tissue under the skin, and now a trench forms whenever the stoma contracts, creating an opening under the wafer that allows stool to smother the wound, preventing healing, causing infection. The recommendation is to change the wafer/pouch system every 4-5 days and no fewer than 3, but I think I’ve changed it 8 times since Friday. It was so painful that night that I “slept” on the couch in the basement, kitty-cornered at the intersection of two sectional modules. I lay on my stomach with the stoma facing down in the open corner of the angle change with a dog waste bag taped around the area instead of the pouch system, hoping to avoid the problems that it causes when I sleep on my back. It wasn’t a good look when my wife found me early Saturday morning.
So when I started this post 6 days ago, I had in mind friends and family with which I’m tired from either pursuing or even merely watching as they wander, knowing the misery they cause themselves or those around them. But this morning, I’m exhausted from my body’s brokenness and wonder where is my Shepherd to comfort me? Some days are spent in green pastures, others in the valley of the shadow of death.
When does the shepherd triumphantly carry the sheep home on his shoulders? I always picture today. Or tomorrow. Sometime soon, if we just hang on. I imagine the time when relationships are reconciled, when the pain subsides or the injury heals, when the sun comes out on friends stuck in the darkness of debilitating depression, and, I’ll say it, when friends and family who live like I, in my weakness, so often believe, that “all you touch and all you see/Is all your life will ever be”, finally will themselves to enter a church and join a flock of their own (to borrow a line from Pink Floyd’s ‘Breathe’).
It could be that this is something I’m not meant to see, not on this side of the grave anyway. Perhaps the sheep in the parable are souls, not people. And it is when we die that the Shepherd calls us for the last time. We hear His voice, and we turn to Him–that’s what it means to repent, after all. He picks us up and carries us home on His shoulders, and there is joy in Heaven. This Shepherd never tires.
I have made several phone calls the past few days. I’ve talked to nurses in Houston (MD Anderson Cancer Center) and Nashville (Tennessee Oncology). I’ve gotten conflicting advice on how to treat the wound. It was suggested that I might have a condition known as pyoderma gangrinosum, and I need to see a dermatologist for diagnosis and treatment. A phone call produced an appointment for Tuesday, but, as I had a leak again last night and needed to change the pouch system, I had hoped to get in today so I could change it in the doctor’s presence and avoid having to do it again tomorrow, if so fortunate. I then made a call to the wound/ostomy answering service at MD Anderson to clarify if it was better to change the system frequently to keep the wound clean or to keep it covered and avoid the irritation of frequent removal.
I received a call-back 15 minutes later from a helpful nurse who spent several minutes on the phone with me discussing my condition, what I’ve tried, and her offering suggestions. She didn’t solve my problems, but she certainly clarified the situation for me. Before we hung up, I asked for her name. In a world of millions of voices and thousands of faces, names are still important. I didn’t want hers for my records, I wanted it because if this life is eternal, there’s a chance we may actually meet, and I can thank her personally, pilgrim-to-pilgrim. Names matter, also, if you hope to hear your Shepherd’s call. She answered, “Faith. F. A. I. T. H. Faith….. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
I bleated the words “no, thank you” before I put the phone down and cried.