Sheep, The Gospel, and You

For our topic this month, the stake presidency asked us to use Elder Gerrit W. Gong’s general conference address, Good Shepherd, Lamb of God. It’s a wonderful speech, all about the many ways our Savior provides for us. He says, “At this Easter season, we celebrate the Good Shepherd, who is also the Lamb of God. Of all His divine titles, no others are more tender or telling. We learn much from our Savior’s references to Himself as the Good Shepherd and from prophetic testimonies of Him as the Lamb of God. These roles and symbols are powerfully complementary—who better to succor each precious lamb than the Good Shepherd, and who better to be our Good Shepherd than the Lamb of God?”

We’re almost always given topics in this manner. We’ve got a whole talk to draw on, and we’re let loose to present the message as we see fit. Usually when I approach writing my talk each month, I read over the talk and jot down ideas and passages that stand out to me. Almost always, when I get to the end of the talk, all I have to do is look back over what I noted, and I’ve already got the makings of what I want to say.

Not this time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like the talk. As I said, it’s wonderful, and I definitely recommend you give it another read through when you can. It’s just that so much of what Elder Gong said seemed like I couldn’t bring anything of myself to the topic. Not that I didn’t agree with it, but rather that if I were to really base my talk on his, I would end up doing the dreaded “He said it better than I could, so I’m going to read the whole thing to you” approach. I don’t think that’s my role as a high councilor. If the goal was to recreate the talk as best as we could, then there’s this lovely thing called the internet, where his talk is available to watch even as I speak. It would be a simple enough matter just to throw it up on a projector so we could all watch it once more together.

So quoting extensively from the talk doesn’t really feel right to me. When I get stumped, I pray about what to focus on. This time, that prayer gave me one word. Sheep. So here we go, brothers and sisters. Twenty minutes, all about sheep. Wish me luck.

I know the typical image that comes to mind when we talk about sheep in the Gospel. The Lord’s flock. The Good Shepherd. I don’t know why, but it wasn’t until I was writing this talk that I realized the disconnect between the way I think about sheep in Gospel terms and the way I observe them in reality.

Growing up, my family had a cabin in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. We would go up there each summer and go hiking, fishing, and swimming. The area has many things in its favor. Cool evenings even in the summer, beautiful vistas, and fresh air. But it also has plenty of sheep. Sheep that left dung all over the fields. Sheep that milled about in the road, confused by the simplest of things. The sheep I have met in real life are not animals I really want that much to do with. Mary can keep her little lamb. I’m more of a dog person, myself. In geek culture, if you want to disparage someone, you say they’re a sheep, willing to do what anyone else tells them to do.

Let’s face it. These days, if someone’s running a PR campaign for sheep, they’re doing a pretty miserable job. If someone says “sheep,” I think “obstinate, stupid, and easily confused.” Unless someone says “sheep” in church, in which case my mind translates that as “follower of God.” Which some in the world might argue means essentially the same thing.

But that contrast between definitions is a disconnect, and one of the things I love doing most, academically speaking, is exploring areas like that. Places where things don’t quite match up. So how does the idyllic Gospel view of sheep line up with my modern day experiences?

The time I hear us discuss sheep the most in church is when they get lost. Helping lost sheep back into the fold is an analogy that’s used frequently. The other day, we were discussing the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Elder’s Quorum class. And as we discussed the ways in which we can look out for our neighbors, one question kept coming back to me: how should we handle a neighbor who doesn’t want to be looked out for? What do you do for a lost sheep who likes the pasture it ends up in, even if it’s not the pasture you feel would be best for it?

Having held various leadership callings in the church over the years, I know we all spend a lot of our time worrying about what we can do for those who are less active, or those who are new members in the church. I have spent hours in discussions about how to help people who haven’t necessarily ever expressed a desire for help. I’ve also spent hours trying to come up with ways to help people who ignored help when it was first offered, then only came back for help when the situation became more than they could handle, due mainly to the fact that they ignored the initial help and advice. How do those cases relate to the story of the lost sheep? How can we best meet others’ needs in these sorts of situations?

As I’ve thought about it, it feels like each of these situations call for different approaches. Ideally, we should be sure everyone knows they’re welcome at church. Knows that we’re here waiting for them, ready to accept them and help them. People who have left the church or are less active should know where and how to come back, but we should never get to the point where our obsession over them returning becomes an obstacle to that return. Where we just won’t leave them alone. Some sheep just want to jump flocks. They don’t need us there to constantly remind them we think they’re making the wrong choice. That’s not going to do anyone any good at all.

For those people who ignore earlier help and advice, only to turn around and come back for help later on when the situation is even worse, I try to view it from my interactions with patrons as an academic librarian. Each semester, I give instruction to many students about how to efficiently find information through our catalog and databases. I go through the intricacies of where to find books in Maine, and the differences between a keyword and a subject search. But perhaps the biggest point I try to emphasize is how important it is that they give themselves plenty of time when they’re doing research. To end up with the best paper possible, you need to give yourself access to the best research you can get your hands on. Often that research isn’t available in our library at the click of a mouse. You have to request it from somewhere else, and it takes time, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, for that information to arrive, depending on where it originates and in what form. There is no possible way for me to make a book in California get mailed to Maine any power. Yes, I’m the library director, but my powers stop well before the US Postal Service.

I emphasize the need to give yourself plenty of time because I have seen the other side of that equation all too often. The student who rushes into the library, frantic because their paper is due in a few days (or, once, a few hours) and they still haven’t started their research. At that time, there is little I can do. I can show them full-text databases. I can point out the books that are in our building, but they have limited their options by their own choices, and there’s nothing I can do to bring some of those options back.

When a person makes decisions, those decisions have consequences we can’t shield them from. Sometimes that results in very hard feelings. I’ve stood through more than a few instances of students telling me just what they thought of my library and my services. I understand that things can get emotional in the heat of the moment, but I’ve never let those interactions change the overall mission of the library. It’s a simple matter for me to separate those individual instances from the overall direction our services are heading.

That’s not always as easy to distinguish when eternal salvation is at stake. At those times, I think of the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:

1 aThen shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten bvirgins, which took their clamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all aslumbered and bslept.

6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the abridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their alamps.

8 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps aare gone out.

9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were aready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was bshut.

11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

12 But he answered and said, aVerily I say unto you, I bknow you not.

13 aWatch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Using this as our guiding star, it would be an easy enough matter to dust our hands off and ignore any and all wandering sheep. They should have thought of that before they started wandering, right? It’s important, however, not to set all your belief in any one of these parables. For one thing, Christ gave a series of them one after the other, saying in each “the kingdom of heaven is like.” Like ten virgins. Like a man giving out talents. Like a field of wheat and tares. Like a mustard seed. Like a beautiful pearl. The kingdom of heaven is only like each of these, because it is greater than each of them. It the sum of them all gathered together, with each parable describing only a part of that sum.

When I was in elementary school, my class did a skit of the story of the Blind Men and the elephant. A group of blind men go up to an elephant, an animal none of them have ever encountered before. Each feels a different part of the beast. Its ear. Its tusk. Its leg. Its tail. And afterward, they argue about what an elephant is like. Thin and ropy. Smooth and straight. Flat and flappy. Never realizing that they each only had experienced a piece of the elephant.

Do we ever get so bogged down in trying to debate what the Gospel is and isn’t, when what we fail to understand is that it’s possible the entirety of the Gospel is just beyond our understanding? I think there’s a reason Christ spoke in parables. Not because he had a penchant for the poetic, but because it really was the only way to try to get his audience of mortal minds to understand even some of what he was trying to convey to them

So aren’t I doing the same thing as I try to pick apart what exactly a lost sheep is and how best to handle it? Yes and no. It would be a mistake to casually dismiss a person because of their past. To give them a Gospel equivalent of an “I told you so” when they try to sincerely repent. But at the same time, the more I come to understand my role in the Gospel and my role as a parent, the more I see how important it is that we each learn from consequences, because often that’s the only way we can have hope of really understanding a principle.

I came from a pretty cushy upbringing. Whenever I had a problem, I had parents willing to bail me out of most of them, despite the fact that I don’t think I fully appreciated just what they were doing for me. When I moved to college, however, some of that changed. I was living in Deseret Towers at BYU, and this was back in the days of modems that chirped and whistled whenever you wanted to go online. I’d just set up my new computer (bought by my parents) and plugged the modem into the wall jack in my room. When I went to connect, however, it whistled and chirped for a moment, and then it went dead. No amount of futzing with the computer or modem could bring it back to life. Those noises were annoying and all, but speaking from experience, annoying chirpy noises were much better than no noises at all

I went to campus IT, and I discovered the system in my dorm needed an adapter for modems to work. If you hooked it up to the wall without an adapter, it would fry the modem after just a few seconds. A new modem was fifty dollars. No problem. I called my mom up and explained the problem to her, detailing just how unjust it was that no one had told me about this modem adaptor thing ahead of time, and how much it was going to cost to buy a new modem.

“That’s terrible,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

What she didn’t say, however, was “I’ll buy a new modem and send it to you right away.” I remember being taken aback by the lack of an offer to help. In that one moment, I suddenly realized how much she’d been covering for me before, and how it would be a fair bit different without that parental insurance program in the future. Now, let me be clear. It’s not that she suddenly stopped helping me. In fact, my parents continued to help me for decades to come and still stand ready to pitch in during tough times. But there was a definite shift in approach with that modem purchase. They were forcing me to become more independent, and it was impactful enough that I still remember the lesson, almost 23 years later to the day.

When I first started learning math, the teacher didn’t hold me accountable for calculus. When I go to a middle school orchestra performance, I don’t expect to hear the same caliber of musician as I do when I go to a performance in New York City. In the same fashion, we can’t expect every lost sheep to have the same wherewithal to recognize it’s lost and in need of help that we might have in the same situation. But I ask myself, what would I want someone to do if I were lost, or if my children were lost? Where would I want them to draw the line between being too pushy and not helping enough?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m not sure what the answer is, honestly. In some situations, one approach might be too much. In others, that same approach might not be enough. I don’t think it’s a dilemma that can be easily answered with a “What would Jesus do?” response, either. I believe many people have an ideal answer in their head when that comes up, and Jesus, naturally, would always choose the ideal. Wouldn’t He? Each response would be the perfect one.

But sometimes, Jesus wasn’t all hugs and forgiveness. Sometimes He was scourging money changers in the temple and overturning tables. We have a very limited knowledge of Christ’s actual life, all of it consisting primarily of four accounts of his three year ministry. I’m not trying to dismiss the Bible at all, but we have almost no record of what Christ was like during the first thirty years of his life. How He behaved at parties. How He handled friendships. What happened when He got sick. What I mean is that in the vast majority of instances where people like to trot out the “What would Jesus do?” question, I’m not entirely sure what the right answer is.

Consequences are an integral part of our experience here on earth. If you touch a hot pan, there is no one who can take that pain away from you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be helped. Someone can bandage the wound. Someone could tell you not to touch the pan ahead of time. But I think we can all agree that the person who comes up to you just after you’ve experienced a traumatic event and says, “See? That’s why you don’t touch hot pans” doesn’t suddenly rocket up to the top of your Favorite Person in the World list. “I told you so” doesn’t become any more helpful days, months, or years after the fact.

In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the wise virgins don’t take time to tell the others what they ought to have done. “We’ve been telling you since noon you need to get oil for your lamps. This is why you always need to be keeping your lamps ready.” Instead, they offered them advice on where they might go to get oil and left it at that. In his book, Faith Precedes the Miracle, President Kimball wrote, “Attendance at sacrament meetings adds oil to our lamps, drop by drop over the years. Fasting, family prayer, home teaching, control of bodily appetites, preaching the gospel, studying the scriptures—each act of dedication and obedience is a drop added to our store. Deeds of kindness, payment of offerings and tithes, chaste thoughts and actions, marriage in the covenant for eternity—these, too, contribute importantly to the oil with which we can at midnight refuel our exhausted lamps.”

So how does that tie into the Good Shepherd and His lost sheep? Well, for one thing, I cannot make the decision for how someone else needs to follow the Gospel. We each have our own lamp, and it can only be filled by our own actions. I can fast for someone else, but I can’t fast instead of someone else, if that makes sense. I can pay tithing for me, but I can’t pay tithing for you. In the same vein, the mistakes you think I’m making might not be mistakes at all. I’m not saying I live a perfect life, but I know there have been multiple times over the years when someone has told me (or told someone behind my back) that they think the choices I have made have fallen short of Gospel standards.

To them, I was a lost sheep in need of saving. So let me say from experience that not all those who wander are lost. When people came to tell me they thought I was wrong, it didn’t matter how well-intentioned those thoughts were. Often, they came across as judgmental and short-sighted. How many of the people that we discuss how to help would be upset to know we thought they needed help in the first place? Should we be helping those who don’t want that help?

In some cases, the answer is no. In others, the answer is yes. Case in point. Often when someone comes and asks us if we need help, we automatically will say no, even if we’re desperately in need of help. Why is that? Linguistically, it’s because we know most of those offers of help aren’t real offers. They’re phrases of speech we use to move through our day. In America, we’ll regularly ask someone how they’re doing, when all we mean is “hello.” In Germany, if you ask someone how they’re doing, they’ll look at you funny, and then, if they’re feeling chatty, they’ll proceed to tell you exactly how their doing, right down to their last sniffle.

If you ever want to make for an awkward interaction, take someone up on one of their offers of help they give right before they’re leaving a party, for example. We’ve all been there. You’re seeing people out the door, and someone says, “Are you sure you don’t need any help cleaning up?” The response we’re trained to give in this interaction is, “No. We’re fine. Thanks for coming.” If you were instead to say, “Now that you mention it, the bathroom really could use a good scouring,” I almost guarantee you’ll get some funny looks, followed by a “Gee, look at the time” before they duck out the door. That’s not because they’re uncaring or ungenuine. It’s because the offer of help wasn’t intended as a real offer. It was just a social nicety.

When you see someone in need, they’ll typically decline any help you verbally offer, especially if you say something like “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” That’s not going to be interpreted by most people as a sincere offer. If you really want to know if they need help, you might spend some time thinking of ways you could help them, and offer that, instead. “I’d love to make you a meal,” you could say. “What day would be best for me to bring it over?” Of course, the problem with offers like these is that they can sometimes be interpreted as insults. If you offer to help clean someone’s house, they might interpret that as you telling them their house is too messy. It’s the verbal equivalent of going up to a woman and asking when the baby’s due. Pro tip: don’t do that.

A different approach might be to be as honest and open with them as possible. “I can tell you’ve got a lot on your plate,” you might say. “I’d love to do what I can to help, and I’ve got some time next week. What can I do?” By breaking out of the typical linguistic mold of “is there anything you need?”, you can engage in a real discussion.

Fact. I’m about as far removed from shepherding as you’re likely to get. True, I suppose you could find some people in a large city who’ve only read about sheep and never actually seen one, but I’m not that far from that point. If I’m able to use my limited sheep knowledge to realize that sheep are sometimes obstinate and sometimes downright idiotic, I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to think Christ would have been aware of those same traits back when He was walking the roads of the Holy Land.

But as I’ve thought it through now, I don’t think there was a disconnect for Him when He first made the comparison. That’s only developed after the fact, as more and more people consume His words separately from their day to day meanings. In other words, when He said His followers were like sheep, might He have meant that we too could sometimes be obstinate and sometimes downright idiotic? That we are often too easily led astray and wind up in the brambles somewhere, bleating for help?

At some point in time, all of us are lost. In fact, all of us are lost at this moment. We’re constantly sinning and falling short of the commandments of God. May we keep that in mind as we try to answer the call of the Good Shepherd and help those around us do the same. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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