[serious trigger warning for sexual abuse, child abuse, spiritual abuse]
If there’s a metaphor I dislike for Christians, or for the church in general, it’s probably sheep. This is probably due to a variety of reasons, including the cultural reference that when a person is a “sheep,” it’s because they are somehow the worst form of a conformist. Not only is this person conforming to whatever is around them, they’re doing it without thinking about it, or analyzing it, or making sure that what they’re conforming to is good.
Another reason why I don’t like calling Christians sheep is that anytime I’ve heard this metaphor in church, it’s to call me stupid. I’m a sheep. I’m not smart enough to make my own decisions. I’m incapable of coming to any conclusion on my own– I need help from God’s appointed shepherd. It’s my duty to follow the shepherd, even when I don’t understand what he’s doing. The problem is that this “shepherd” was not Jesus– or anyone resembling Jesus. It was usually a pastor who stood up in front of his congregation, disparagingly called them his “flock,” and told them that God had chosen him to be their shepherd here on earth. He was not the Great Shepherd– but the Great Shepherd’s stand-in.
But there’s an image that’s been haunting me the past few weeks. I read a short post on sheep and wolves that struck me deeply, and part of what resonated with me was the idea of earthly shepherds allowing wolves into their flock– but what if there weren’t any wolves? What if the only thing in the fold was each other– our “fellow brothers and sisters”?
It’s dusk. The earth is starting to settle down for the night, and nocturnal creatures are beginning to peek out from their nests and burrows. The sun has set, and the flushes of pink and violet and crimson have faded down to a silvery gray.
A shepherd carries a lamb so small and frail and fragile into the fold, a lamb so exhausted she’s trembling. He finds a place for her to settle in for the night– a soft, plush bed of grass, and gently lays her down. He strokes her head, then begins moving more of the other sheep into the fold for the night. They settle down, and the shepherd takes up his usual post at the entrance, idly watching the surrounding countryside be swallowed up by nighttime velvet.
One of the sheep– one that all of the other sheep likes or respects, one that’s been there for as long as any of them can remember– begins making his usual rounds. He’s helped the shepherd corral them all into the fold at night, he’s let the shepherd know when one of the other sheep begins wandering off. So none of the sheep think anything of it when he approaches the fragile, exhausted little lamb. The lamb looks up, expecting a friendly little baaah of goodnight, knowing that this sheep is trustworthy. He’s a leader. He’s respected.
And suddenly, so suddenly that any of the other sheep couldn’t have predicted what was happening, this sheep begins attacking the lamb. He tears into the little lamb’s face– tearing at her ears. His jaw clamps down around her throat, sinking his teeth in, and he mounts her. The other sheep can hear the terrified lamb bleating desperately for help. After he’s done everything he wants to do to the lamb, he starts kicking her. He kicks her, again and again, over and over, until there is nothing left except a macerated bloody pulp of blood and wool. There’s one last weak, pleading bleat, and then everything is silent.
The other sheep in the fold stare at the bleeding remains. They look into the eyes of the lamb, and they see a terror so deep, so profound. They watch as the lamb’s body starts to convulse because of the agonizing pain, they watch her struggle to even breathe. She can’t even cry out for help anymore, her body is so bloodied and beaten and ragged.
And they turn away.
They find their spots in their fold, the places they all usually settle in for the night, and they go to sleep.
In the morning, the shepherd begins waking the sheep up and prodding them out of the fold. When they are all outside in the pasture, contentedly munching on the thick, luscious grass, he begins to count. But wait, one is missing. Where is the little lamb?
He goes to where the lamb has laid all night, shivering in anguish. The blood is dried and caked, mixed in with the sand and grass to become mud. Gingerly, he picks up the lamb, and the lamb is overjoyed. Finally, someone will help. Finally, someone she can trust to take care of her. He carries her out into the pasture, far, far away from all the other sheep. With a rising horror the lamb realizes where the shepherd is taking her. He’s taking her to the place where all the sheep know there are wolves. They know not to go there, because it’s dangerous.
And again, he sets her down on a bed of grass. “It’ll be ok. I just can’t let you inside the fold anymore. You’ll cause more harm to my flock, and I just can’t let that happen.”
He leaves her there. Leaves her where there is no place to run, or hide, or seek safety. Leaves her where she can’t even crawl away. He goes back to his flock, and he spots the sheep covered in blood. There are flakes of blood in his teeth, spattering his wool. His hooves are caked in blood, and the lamb’s wool has gotten caught in his teeth and in his hooves. The shepherd leads him to the stream, and there he tenderly washes it, cooing over him. He tells him that everything will be ok, that no one has to know, that the little lamb has forgiven him and there’s nothing to worry about or be afraid of. The sheep nuzzles the shepherd happily, and looks over at another little lamb in the flock.
It’s hours later, and the lamb is choking now, gasping for breath. Her heart is beating so violently she can feel it pounding, like it’s going to explode. She knows she’s going to die. This is the end. There’s nothing she can do, nowhere she can go. She can’t even go back to the flock or the fold. Everything she thought she knew was safe and trusthworthy has been obliterated, annihilated, destroyed. There’s nothing left.
There’s a rustling in the grass, but she can’t even turn her head to look at it, to figure out what it is, but she knows it’s a wolf, and suddenly, she’s thankful. Grateful for the death that is about to come swiftly.
But what touches her isn’t sharp teeth, gouging claws. It’s a pair of hands, and she tries to jerk away. Terror seizes her, tells her that she has to run, to hide, to get away. It’s the shepherd come back, and she doesn’t know what he’s going to do. But she can’t even move, there’s so much pain. So much hurt.
The hands gather her up, pull her close to a chest. And it’s a familiar feeling– oh it’s so familiar. She wants to give in to it, but she can’t. She can’t. She tenses when a hand touches her head. The shepherd used to do that. Used to hold her like this, stroke her head, her ears.
Everything is quiet and still for the space of what feels like a few heartbeats. But then… she hears crying. And the crying becomes sobbing, and the sobbing becomes wailing. And the hands pull her tighter to the chest, and the warmth feels good, but… she doesn’t know what to do, or what to think. The body that holds her begins to rock back and forth, and groan, and weep.
“Oh, my lamb.” A voice says. “My precious, darling, wonderful lamb. Oh, my lamb. My lamb.”
It’s a voice she’s heard before, somewhere, but it carries that sense that she’s heard it before in a dream. It’s deep, and wonderful, and there’s so much love. More tears fall into her wool, onto her face.
And the pain fades. It’s still there, aching and devastating, but it’s muted somehow. Finally she’s able to look at the body that’s holding her, and the face she sees is tanned from years in the wilderness, and gaunt from sleeping by roadsides, and scarred so horrifically and so beautifully it almost can’t be borne. She looks into his eyes, and they are overflowing with tears and with love, and he smiles at her, his lips trembling and tears pouring down his scarred, weathered face.
“I’ve got you,” He says. “I’ve got you.”