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between-our-steps-09-13-17-doubleOne of the most popular parables of Jesus to render into stained glass or painting is the one where he said that when the shepherd realizes one sheep is missing, they leave the 99 to search for the lost.

As profound as this image is, the pictures of it make me laugh. A man in rough but clean, untorn clothes strides across the rock with a quiet white lamb resting across his shoulders. A smile plays on his lips.

Excuse me!

A sheep doesn't get lost in the short grass or familiar pasture. The lost animal might be injured, or muddy, or full of burrs. The shepherd who pushed through brush or slid into isolated ravines is scratched, exhausted, dirty. Searching leaves its mark.

For example, I went to lock the ewes in one drizzly night and saw a solitary ewe on the far side of a fence row about as far from the barn as she could get. My heart sunk. I knew which sheep this was. She was blind and weak from a thiamine deficiency.

To get there, she would have followed the flock, but she missed the cue to come in and now she had no idea which way home was. I headed out to get her.

When I got behind her and called, she ran directly away from me toward the boulders and trees of the fence row. She couldn't see the gap to her right. She tripped among the rocks, and I had to help her up. Which she did not like so she tried to run. I scrambled through the brush, slipped on the wet rocks, made it through.

She stumbled again. I got behind her and helped her to her feet. She panicked and ran until her strength gave out. Again, I dug cold fingers into her wet wool, found her hip bones and helped her up. I followed with water dripping from my hat down my neck.

The next run took her almost to the end of her strength. And she found a barrier in front of her: the manure pile. She fell in the muck. She put her head down and groaned. This time when I lifted her 150-pound bulk, I had to use my knees to help her forward. In a moment, my jeans were soaked through with wet mud.

Fortunately, we got past the pile and other ewes called. She found a little strength to make it the last few steps to shelter. I stumbled to the house, exhausted, soaked and dirty. She did not go out to pasture again.

That was a particularly mucky rescue. Often, it's a young lamb who got separated from its mother and is laying still in the long grass. The mother's calls tell me its missing and give a clue where to find it. On these occasions, as I carry a small lamb in my arms, I may look like the painting. It just depends how long it took to find it and if it was raining or not.

A couple weeks ago we let out nine six-month-old lambs that we are keeping as replacement ewes. These ones, for some unknown reason, ended up in the swamp.

Again, to move these panicked sheep, I had to get behind them. Another year, it would be pretty dry among those cedars, but not this year. Murky water lay everywhere between the hillocks. I got my hip waders, but I could not tell how deep the water was or how mucky the ground might be. So, I balanced on fallen logs to cross from dry spot to dry spot. I pressed through shrubs, scratching my arms, to keep to solid ground.

Because they headed for the pond and sheep don't swim, I had to risk the water and drag one to point the way out. The rest followed, though they still didn't know the way home and I had to run to get around them and keep them from going back in to the swamp.

Imagine how shaky and tired I was after that rescue. That's what a picture of the good shepherd should look like.

The thing is, Jesus' story was a metaphor for helping lost people. And rescuing the lost is always hard work. Helping the troubled is messy. Bringing someone back from the edge is exhausting. That traditional picture hides the real work.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.


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