What a Good Shepherd Looks Like

What a Good Shepherd Looks Like

In the beautiful Lakeland District in Cumbria, England, from 1844-1923, lived G.P. Abraham, a mountaineer, photographer and postcard publisher. One day he took a photograph of a Lakeland shepherd. The photo is a soft matte, a muted black and white. You first notice the man in the center wearing a heavy suit, boots, and a hat—is that a hole on the top left? His shirt with its stiff collar and slender tie is neat behind the heavy jacket. He is astride a large white workhorse, which is mid-step, plodding, head down, along a narrow stone path or lane. The horse looks tired, as if he is laboring hard, but he does look strong.

Your eyes travel to the next figure in the scene, a scrawny dog, alert, walking in step with the horse. The eyes of the slight dog are looking up at the horse, locked on a dark mass of something across the shepherd’s lap. That’s when you lean closer to take a better look and notice how long is the hooked staff angled across the top of the horse, and the dark lump underneath it. Your eyes will strain as you look closer, assuming correctly that across the shepherd’s lap is a small ewe. You’ll need to magnify the picture postcard to see the details of the long-haired ewe. Look closely enough and you will see its eyes looking back at the dog, undaunted. You realize then that the ewe is black. You might, like me, smile at the perfection in that. 

Your eyes pull up and you look at the setting. High, dark, grassy mountains blanket the background, grayed by fog or mist. But there, in front of the horse is the closer, sharper view, and your eye is drawn to a white sliver of a lake in a deep valley below. Yes, that’s right. A deep valley is clearly there. It’s then you reflexively lean back as you quickly notice the proximity of the horse to the edge of what you now realize is a cliff. A sheer drop to that valley is just two steps sideways, surely not more. Yet, the shepherd looks so steady, so sure. The horse, too, seems steady though they are high up on a cliff with a lane that indicates it’s used often enough to warrant its presence.

The shepherd is comfortable with the danger there. Vulnerability doesn’t bother him. A good shepherd, he has gone up and down that precarious path many, many times. He is confident in his horse and dog; he has likely spent time personally training them and despite their looks, they are tough and reliable. The fog or mist doesn’t deter him. He knows the way and his heavy clothes are perfectly suited for the weather. The ewe, black as he is, is safe again, his left side snug against the shepherd’s chest, the horse solid beneath him, the shepherd’s staff firmly across the outside of him, comforting him. There is no saddle to impede the flesh on flesh of the animals so comfortable with one another. The look exchanged between sheep and dog is almost humorous; if the ewe was in danger, it’s oblivious to it now. 

This is a shepherd who knows his work. He’s aware of the danger and he is on task, not training now, not tending the other sheep, he’s got the loner, the small black ewe, close to him. It’s not walking beside him, he’s carrying it for safe-keeping in a dangerous landscape, the long wooden staff firmly up against it. This, this is where we, like sheep, all have been, or longed to be. It’s how and where we come home, and back to the fold, carried securely through the danger in our Shepherd’s arms. 

For some of us, we are also the shepherd, leading family, ministries, or even churches. By faith we ride on the power of the Holy Spirit, moving slow, steady, strong despite the fact that to others He may look dubious. We have the help of others, who, like the scrawny dog, are tough and reliable, a help we take along as another responsibility, but one we dare not be without. We minister in precarious places and errant sheep bring us to the most uncomfortable paths. But if we are diligent in our faith, trusting, keeping our eyes on the sheep, the horse, the task at hand, we need not fear. We are called to this, to become the sorely needed shepherd with a long, hooked staff in hand who pursues the missing, the wounded, the loners, the immature. We are called to leave the 99, and spend ourselves on behalf of that one black ewe. Humbly, we bow to the dangerous task, knowing we have been the ewe, and we must be faithful to our Shepherd. May we all plod forward in one accord, carried and carrying, comforted and comforting, led and leading, sheep and shepherd.  

by Jill Cristao, Director of Connections and Communications
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