Saturday, May 10, 2008

View from the Mountain Crag

The air was clear, and I could hear the bleating of sheep beneath me. On this particular day, I had sought solace for my reading on the crag of a mountain, high enough up the side that I could enjoy a cool mountain breeze. Since it was the south face of the mountain, there was also plenty of light for my reading, and stretching out below me was a burbling brook fed (I suppose) by a mountain spring or by the melting of snow from cap of the mountain towering behind me.

I had climbed to this perch, and figured no one would interrupt my scholastic pursuits, but the air's clarity had an unexpected side effect. I could hear not only the birds chirping, but also the words of the shepherds tending their flocks of sheep on a plateau below me.

How or why they brought their flocks up to that mountain plateau, I will never know. Perhaps it was the clarity of the water, perhaps it was the greenness of the plateau pasture, or perhaps it was the convenience of a mountain-side cave into which they could herd their flocks at night. Whatever the cause, my outpost gave me a full view both of the shepherds and their flocks.

I could hear the mother sheep calling to their lambs, and the lambs bleating back. But amidst the sheep, I could hear the shepherds talking: sometimes to themselves, sometimes to each other, but often to the sheep.

In fact, it was the call "Here sheep!" (in the shepherd's native tongue) that first caught my ear. What a marvelous sight it was to see. For what appeared to be a single mass of sheep coming from the distance shortly split into the two flocks, each following their shepherd - as the shepherds moved away from the book and into the meadow.

Of course, it was not only a call that the shepherds used, but occasionally a sturdy staff (was it oak? I could not quite make out its composition) was called to bear to the rumps and ribs of wayward animals.

I could see that the shepherds were friends, for they were not fighting for the sheep amongst themselves. Thus, I was somewhat puzzled over the division. My first theory was that they simply want to split up the sheep into two flocks to better distribute the sheep throughout the meadow. Soon, however, I recognized that this was not the case. Each shepherd viewed the flock as his own.

From my vantage point I could hear the shepherds as they went around throughout their flocks, calling each sheep by name, tending to their injuries, checking their health, and assisting the ewes in giving birth. I realized that the shepherds considered the sheep their own. They took a personal interest in their sheep.

The broad meadow was itself mostly flat. But at the edges of the meadow furthest from me, there was a dreadful precipice, extending a hundred or more feet to some more gentle slopes below. I had noticed this precipice first when viewing the mountain from afar, for it served turn the brook on the plateau into a sparkling ribbon of a waterfall that seemed perpetually graced by a rainbow in the daylight hours, and into a strand of soft silver in the moonlight.

But this beauty was best admired from the foot of the mountain. From the plateau, this cliff was a danger: an accident waiting to happen for any sheep that trotted off on its own.

The shepherds naturally appreciated this danger to their flocks. From time to time I would hear them shouting out warnings to their sheep to stay away from the edge, for it was dangerous. Once in a while, I would see the shepherds tan the hides of a sheep that started walking too close to the edge.

Mindful of my purpose in climbing to my lonely perch, I turned my nose back to my books. It was not long, however, till I heard the unmistakable bleat of a falling sheep - the sound of its "baa"-ing rapidly disappearing in the distance, followed by the muffled but audible "thump" of sheep making an impact.

I saw from my vantage point one of the shepherds holding his head in hands, weeping for the sheep that had fallen. After a while, he seemed to regain his composure. Then, I saw another sheep approaching the cliff edge. This time I saw the shepherd call to that sheep by name - warn him of the danger - and even strike a few blows with his staff to try to scare him back to the flock. But this stubborn sheep refused to hear. Instead it kept going as it was going.

Soon, I was sad to hear a recap of yet another unsuccessful experiment in the field of ovine aviation. More grieving from the shepherd followed. I admit I was astonished to see it. Looking across to the other side, I noticed a similar pattern with the other shepherd. A wandering sheep would leave the herd and make its way toward the edge.

The other shepherd likewise would call to his sheep, warn it of the danger, and smack it with the stick. There was a difference, though. If it seemed that the sheep was two stubborn to heed the warning and the beatings, the second shepherd would use the crook of his stick, to grab the sheep, and turn its neck back to the flock, thus saving the sheep from a gruesome demise.

I knew that the grieving shepherd could see how the other shepherd was preserving his flock, and finally my curiosity got the best of me. I shouted down to the grieving shepherd to ask why he did not do as the second shepherd did.

It was difficult to communicate because of my own lack of familiarity with the dialect of the shepherds, but eventually I came to understand the situation. The grieving shepherd explained that it was love of the sheep that prevented him from turning their heads back to the flock. "For you see," he told me, "I cannot force them to love life. I love them too much to do that to them. If they wish to destroy themselves, I must be content with the choices they freely make."

Then, I asked the other shepherd why he did not do as the first shepherd did. He also replied that love was behind his actions. He told me, "I love my sheep so much that I would die for them myself. I realize that they may not be as free as they like, but I truly believe that at the end of the day, they are happier for it. If I am willing to sacrifice myself for the lives of my sheep, is it so bad if I occasionally force them back from the cliff face?"

These reasons made me wonder, which shepherd really loved his sheep more? The shepherd who did everything in his power to preserve the sheep, or the shepherd who held back, because he was more concerned with the sheep's freedom than the sheep's life.

And you, dear reader, as you have read this fictional account: what say you? Which shepherd loved his sheep more? Why then will some claim that our loving Shepherd, who calls his sheep by name, might let some perish so that they can have something they view as freedom? Aren't we a little shocked by a shepherd who lets his sheep plunge to their deaths over an issue of "free will"? I trust we are.

Moreover, God can work more powerfully than any earthly shepherd. He has the ability to change the heart: to replace a desire to try to fly with a desire to be among the herd eating the green grass.

As the Apostle Paul explained it, "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?"

Now, we don't believe that the supposed "freedom" (some sort of self-deterministic autonomy from God) even exists. No, there is nothing that happens apart from the will of God - there is nothing that is "free" from divine predetermination. But suppose such freedom did exist! Suppose that man's autonomy were similar to the wooly-headedness of the sheep on the plateau pasture. Would not a loving Shepherd make every effort to save the sheep, not only appealing to its head with tender words, to its hide with the blows of a disciplining staff, but also to its neck?

Can we believe that a sheep's neck can be too stiff for a shepherd to turn it? Perhaps. But too stiff for God to soften it? God forbid! For God is the Almighty one. He does whatsoever he pleases and no one can stop him.

So then, let us recognize the love of God, which is able to overcome every obstacle and save those whom the Father has given to the son.

With Paul, "I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39) So then, repent of your sins, and trust in the Good Shepherd. Hear His voice, and enter into His love, dear reader.

Praise be to the Lord!