‘…they were like sheep without a shepherd…’ (Mark 6.34, NRSV).
Trying to take the day off, I picked up my Curious Lancashire Walks book and found my way to the little village of Dutton. Walking in England, one is bound to run into some sheep. Usually, they ‘baa’ at you from a distance and if you come close they tear off for another part of the field. Today, was no different in that I encountered a lot of sheep. I didn’t even think twice about it as I heard them scattering around me. That is, until I noticed they were grouping together behind me. Sheep were coming from all parts of the field – and in a hurry! – to form part of this pack that stood behind me. For a split second, I thought maybe they had organised in a plot to take me hostage. But, as they stood there, taking turns shouting at me, I noticed they were too scared to approach.
So, I started walking, assuming they would disperse when realising I didn’t want to harm them. Instead, I heard them following me. Still a little scared, but never hearing about sheep attacks on BBC Lancashire, I turned around. They all stopped, but kept talking. OK, I may have been seeing things, but I swear I saw some look of earnest in their faces, like they expected me to do something for them. Like they were hungry for something. So, I did what all people do with animals – talk and act as if they could understand me. I said, with open and empty hands, ‘I don’t have any food or anything else for you.’ I turned and headed on my way down the hill. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them following me down the hill, neatly forming their own group. I stopped to look at them and they had that same look of earnest, as if they were desperate to follow someone – anyone that would lead them somewhere. I could only imagine what we looked like – my iPod in my ears and walking book in my hands, trying to find the path – and with a whole bunch of sheep following me.
We carried on this way until we got to the bottom of the hill and I reached the fence, climbed the stile, and turned around. They gathered at the fence, disbanding from the group so they could line up on the fence. Some late-comers were still running down the hill. They all just stared at me, except one sheep who seemed determined to get through the fence by sticking his head through the holes. Down the hill, I had the feeling that I wanted to help them – as if they were asking me for something and I wanted to give it, but didn’t know what they needed.
Looking at this scene of sheep standing at the fence, all I could think of was that verse from Mark (well, that and Monty Python’s Brian trying to get the crowd to stop following him). The – I don’t know – desperation (?) they appeared to have to want to follow me, even though they were too scared to come near me. And my complete confusion as to what to offer them or imagine what they wanted. Why, when so many sheep simply run away at the sound of my voice, would they be willing to try to climb through a fence to get to where I was going?
Mark’s words came alive to me as more than just a simile. It will change how I read this verse from now on. It makes sense now – I can imagine what the crowd looked like on that day, see their faces as they were desperate to follow someone, but still a little scared. I had always imagined that Mark meant they were scattered or lost, but never hungry for something more, willing to see what this Jesus was about – even if from a distance while trailing behind him. Perhaps even following others who had come along, hoping that this was the one who would fill their needs.
On another side, I can’t help but make the parallel to ministry. Churches, desperate for someone to lead them and a pastor who seems at a loss to know what is best for them. They a little scared of me and I of them. Where am I leading them? What is it they need? Am I focusing too much on my part and not giving room for the Holy Spirit, believing that I need to think of something to ‘fix’ it? What will happen when I finally come to that ‘stile’ and need to move on?