We were flipping through some old photographs of my friend. Ed McLaughlin is an old Irishman who loved to listen pan flutes, feel the soft spring grass, and smell newly turned earth. He often called me “Lad” whenever offering instruction. I was always happy to receive Ed’s instruction whenever he offered. He was wise and I enjoyed spending time with him.
On this day, we were reminiscing of his younger years and in the stack of photos on my lap, there were many pictures of woods & fields, barns and greenhouses, flowers and sheep. Lots of pictures of sheep. I asked him about the flock. He laid down the photographs in his own hand and took a deep breath. He looked up to the ceiling and said nothing for a long while. He turned his head to look out a window and began to tell me a story. As he spoke, his voice grew thick and tears formed in the corner of his eyes.
As a younger man, Ed tended the estate of a successful inventor. Ed maintained his flower gardens, manicured his lawn, developed wooded paths, and preserved flowing streambeds. He was the caretaker of the estate but also an artist. While looking over the property, Ed determined that one quiet meadow needed some grazing sheep to make the picture complete. It started with just a few sheep but over time grew to a flock of many wooly beasts. Now Ed was caretaker and shepherd.
He took them to the barn each night and led them to the pasture each morning. He was present at each lamb’s birth and comforted every ewe when a baby would die. He nurtured the flock’s growth and ministered to their injuries. Ed was their sole caregiver and he loved them deeply.
He told me about his duty to the sheep and their unending faithfulness to him. Everywhere that Ed would go, the sheep were sure to follow. In fact, most of the pictures I held in my hand illustrated this truth. So many shots contained Ed walking down a path, up a road, through a meadow; and the sheep were directly behind, single file, following their shepherd.
He paused to wipe a tear from his cheek and take a drink of tea. After a moment, he continued his story. There came a day when the estate changed hands and the new owner hired his nephew to manage the property. As Ed tells the story, it took less than a year for the nephew to loose all patience with the flock. They became stubborn and he became furious. The sheep had lost their shepherd and instead of following this new hired hand, they would wander off on their own. Instead of leading, he would drive them with sticks and blows. Instead of speaking soft words of love, he would curse them with every breath.
By the end of the first year, the flock was scattered. Some went to area farms but most went to market and were destroyed.
Ed stopped talking. The silence in the room grew. When I looked up from the pictures, the old man was crying, brokenhearted at the thought of his beloved sheep and their tragic end.
That was many years ago but I will never forget that moment. Ed’s heart still ached for those he loved. Even without his sheep, he was still a Shepherd at heart.
Jesus told the same story. He understood that kind of a love. He said, “The Shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (John 10:3b-5)
Jesus went on, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
I am convinced that Jesus’ heart must break even more than the heart of the old Irishman. Jesus’ soul must long for his sheep to follow him. He calls us by name and we so often ignore his call, deny his voice, hide from his love. He is not a hired hand. He is our shepherd and he calls us to the safety of his arms.