I have been thinking about the parable of the lost sheep quite a bit lately. Our church congregation is in the midst of upheaval and growth that is way beyond my personal experience. With this tremendous influx of people, there has been an smaller exodus of people. A natural ebb and flow – I am aware of that, but an ebb and flow that in a way is disturbing, unsettling to me. I am a nurturing person by nature – it may be a part of being a mother, or it may be a part of the training as a teacher and pastor – I don’t know. This exodus of people disturbs me – why are they leaving? Is it because they don’t like the services? The people? The full parking lot? Are there too many in worship now? Has our growth taken away and diminished the unique charm that characterized our church?
There are two differing philosophies about this ebb and flow. There’s the “don’t let the door hit you in the butt” philosophy that I have seen. When a family or an individual leaves a church, there is no inquiry about why – just the general attitude “well, we’re better off.” If we don’t ask ourselves why they are leaving, can there be growth happening in the congregation? Isn’t the Christian thing to do to ask? If not to keep the individual or family in the church, but to understand how and where we didn’t fit their need and to honestly and prayerfully look at ourselves and see if the fault lies within? Of course people are going to leave because it is a bad fit: the worship isn’t right for them, our theologies don’t mesh, it’s too far to drive for community. But there are bad reasons to go as well – there were harsh things said, done, implied. Feelings hurt and individuals offended. In that case, we need to examine why the person left the flock.
There’s the philosophy of looking for that lost sheep. It’s our biblical directive. But the parable leaves questions unanswered. Who do you leave in charge when you go looking for that lost sheep? Can we assume that they will just naturally stick together? Won’t more wander off without an assistant shepherd? What if the lost sheep doesn’t want to be found? What if it really does want to join another flock? What if the sheep is so wounded that you can’t move it? What if it was wounded by the other sheep of your flock? What if your flock has been wounded by this sheep? What if it was I that wounded the sheep?
I am tending a few lost sheep right now. A couple of them have been hard to deal with. One doesn’t want to be found – he kicks and bites me when I get too close. He hasn’t been in a flock in so very long – and there are burrs in his coat and his hooves need tending. I can’t even catch him – all I can do is sit on a rock within eye range and patiently wait for him to come to me.
I am tending one who is too wounded to move. She lays there and bleeds. I tend the wounds, but they are taking so long to heal. Her wounds are self-inflicted – I am afraid that one day, she will bleed to death.
There is another wounded one who is too wounded to move, who was wounded by another shepherd. She cannot trust. Here too, all I can do is sit with her and wait.
I am remembering one who had hurt me tremendously. He has hurt half the sheep in the flock: he has hurt me and other shepherds. He has found another flock, but I remember the pain that was inflicted and I wonder if I should issue a warning to that shepherd, or trust that he recognizes this sheep’s behavior.
I can’t not look for the lost sheep. Each has a story – each has a reason, serious or otherwise why they have left the fold. Some shepherds have to stay behind and tend the flock – I do that occasionally, but I cannot forget the faces of those who have wandered off. I can’t help but think about them. I know that God will remember them, and if they wander off, He will look for them. However, some of these are my responsibility, and I will continue to sit with the wounded and wait for healing.
I want to thank Renee Altson for the image of a shepherd that waits.
Also, the picture of the sheep is "Dolly" -- the genetically cloned sheep. My attempt to be clever.