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What is a Shepherd?

By Laura Wilson

My early childhood was spent at the edge of a small town in Oklahoma. We lived next to a wheat field, and just north of this field were sheep pastures, where my brother and I would routinely go and watch the sheep, never imagining that what we learned there would benefit our spiritual lives!

Have you ever seen a lone sheep? No! They’re meant to live in community because they’re virtually defenseless. They’re meant to have a leader, a protector; without this advocate, they have no chance of surviving, much less thriving. As a flock, they’re required to be vigilant and to respond to each other. Each one is unique: my brother and I loved to listen to their bleats, because each animal had a unique, identifiable voice. Sheep can learn their names and come when they’re called; however, they respond only when they’re called by someone whose voice they recognize and trust. Young lambs will gambol, where one starts running and jumping, and the other young lambs fall in line behind it, mimicking that behavior. Parents, does this sound familiar? The sheep’s main value is that it produces wool, but it cannot shear itself; its bounty only becomes evident when there is someone to shear it, just as it is Christ who brings the true value to our lives; without Him, our lives can feel hopeless and worthless.

The parallels between we humans and sheep are amazing, yet Christ is described as a shepherd, and equally deep parallels exist there too: a shepherd was just about the lowliest job imaginable, yet Christ was willing to humble himself for us. Shepherds were dirty, smelly men, banished from the routine life of the cities and villages for days on end when their herds had no fold to return to at the end of the day. Vigilance was a must in this 24x7 role. Predators were real, so courage was a required trait of a shepherd. The shepherd’s rod was used to beat away threats; his staff was used to guide a sheep, or to pull a sheep out of water (since wool is highly absorbent!) Errant sheep would try to wander off in search of a better pasture, or fall into a crevasse, and the shepherd would use his staff to rescue them. Shepherd would “table” a stream when its water was low: placing a rock into the stream, creating a small dam to pool the water, so that sheep could safely drink without falling into the water (since again, wool is highly absorbent!) So too Christ makes running (‘living’) water available to us all.

Armed with these insights, re-read the 23rd Psalm. I can’t read it without seeing Christ and seeing my weak, dependent self and having deep gratitude that I have the great privilege of being one of His sheep, living in a community with all of you.

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