SHEPHERDING IN A HARD PLACE

Boise National Forest

Rattlesnake Pass Trail, Boise National Forest

I have always thought myself as a meadow shepherd or a beside the still waters kind of a guy. Those are the familiar images of shepherding that I always envisioned. I have always assumed that is the goal in shepherding God’s flock as a pastor. I have always assumed that my expectation should be to lead a church into a place of nourishment and calm. I have believed that my job has been to lead the flock into places where they could be sustained and away from trouble, “beside still waters.”

Also, I have had a secret thought that has been in the back of my mind: Lord, please spare me the hard lessons in life as much is possible. To the best of my ability, I have avoided trouble.

In spite of my preferences, a few years ago, my life became rather tumultuous. I experienced several setbacks in my ministry at that time. Frankly, it caused me to question whether God had called me to be a pastor in the first place. Although I have met with some measure of success in ministry, nevertheless, the set backs and trials were seemingly unbearable and might point to a different conclusion rather than service in a pastoral ministry.

At that time, God chose to teach me a lesson about pastoring. He did it through an object lesson that to this day causes me to marvel at the Great Shepherd. I want you to journey back a few years and follow me up into some rugged mountains on a journey to learn about shepherding. It all began as I was on a trip with my wife Debra to visit with her family in Idaho. When I go to Idaho, I have a secret place up in the mountains that the locals know about. It’s a swimming hole that is located on an old Indian ceremonial site high up in the Boise National forest two hours north of Boise.

It was early summer and I was making my annual pilgrimage to the hot spring that I love to visit. Let me describe the trip: You drive north of Boise up into the mountains on a paved highway for a little over forty miles. You wind your way through a heavily forested valley another twenty miles on a narrow and roughly paved road. The paved roadway then turns into a gravel road. You travel six miles on gravel and turn onto a winding and twisting dirt road for another nine miles. You finally arrive at your destination high up in the Boise National Forest—one of the finest hot spring swimming holes you’ve ever seen.

On the way up the dirt road, I noticed a small herd of horses and mules sheltered along the road in a ravine and in amongst the trees, seemingly unattended. I thought it was interesting to see this herd abandoned up in the forest. Later, I would learn that they were not abandoned and were to be a part of the object lesson that the Lord would use.

On that day, my wife and I stayed at the hot spring and swam for a few hours and then started back down the mountain side. We had come to a crossroad in our life’s work and had prayed the night before regarding our ministry. The evening before, we entered a prayer chapel on the campus of a Christian college in my wife’s home town. We agonized in prayer asking the Lord to show us His desire for our ministry and the fledgling congregation that we were now leading.

As we were coming back down the mountainside, I had my wife read from the apostle Paul’s words from 2 Timothy 4. Specifically I had her read Paul’s words, “At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge” (2 Timothy 4:16). She read the chapter as we bounced down the dirt road and then closed her eyes to rest (the chapter was a valuable reminder of the hardships experienced in ministry but reading was unsettling to the stomach).

As we rounded a bend in the road, we saw sheep covering the roadway ahead. They were pouring out of a crevasse from the left side and crossing the road in front of us. Before we knew what was happening the road in this densely wooded stretch of road was filled with sheep. Mind you, we were traveling on a dirt road at almost a mile high in the Boise National Forest. The incline was so steep that any man would find it difficult to traverse. In the midst of huge boulders and pine trees, sheep seemed to be erupting out from the ravine as if from nowhere. I stopped the van and got out and found myself surrounded with sheep but there was no sign of a shepherd. All I heard was the bleating of sheep and the occasional clanging of bells that were hung around the necks of some of the sheep. At times a sheep would pause and look at me and then skitter on over to the right side of the road ascending up the hill.

I have traveled this road many times over the years, and I wondered as I saw the sheep ascending toward a ridge some 100 yards away, “Where in the world are the sheep going?” Many times I have looked over the side of the road and down the steep mountainside and worried about driving off the road. I have often wondered what it would be like to plummet down the thousands of feet to the treacherous valley below. Now I thought, “Here are all these sheep coming from nowhere journeying to a mountain ridge above that must lead to oblivion.”

For about fifteen minutes all I heard were bells clanging, bleating, the sheep chomping on vegetation, and yet the sheep kept coming. I wondered, what kind of shepherd would herd his sheep into such a rugged and wild place. Suddenly, I saw a huge white grungy looking dog come up out of the ravine [later I learned it was an ancient breed of dog called a Great Pyrenees]. I was not familiar with the breed, but he paused and looked at me as I looked at him. At first, I wondered, “Will he growl, bark or possibly lunge toward me?” He only paused, looked at me, surmised that I was no threat and then went on above into the tree canopied meadow moving among the sheep.

A moment later I could hear the shepherd’s voice down in the ravine calling out. Several minutes passed before I could see him climbing out of the ravine to a promontory by the roadside up and behind me. He watched over the balance of his flock that was still ascending the hillside.

Since my grandfather had been a shepherd as a boy in Romania I felt a kinship with this shepherd. I wanted to ask him some questions about his flock that came from nowhere and was headed to nowhere. He watched me as I made my way up the road. He stood above on a small cliff all dressed in Carhart pants and jacket, a leather hat, checkered shirt and a red bandana. He looked as if he had been for stroll in a park. His shepherd’s staff was a tree limb that reached from the ground to the height of his chin. His tall slender appearance was quite striking on that bright and sunny afternoon. His bearded face was tanned from exposure to the elements, and he didn’t seem winded from his climb up through the ravine. At his feet lay four border collie pups. As I approached him, a couple of the pups jumped to their feet and began to bark, but he spoke a word and the pups dropped down to lay down in silence.

When I finally stood before him I tried to strike up a conversation. I told him that my grandfather had been a shepherd when he was a boy. I asked if he were Basque, but he shook his head. I then asked where he was from and he strained in search of his words and stumbled to say, “Mex. . .” And I finished, “You’re from Mexico?” He nodded his head. I asked him, “How many sheep are you driving up the mountainside.” He hesitatingly said, “A thousand.” [I have learned since that a thousand sheep is a band and anything less is a flock.] I could tell we were going to have a language problem beyond my few questions so I cut our conversation short. I smiled, thanked him, and walked back toward our van. I was thinking to myself how much control one man exercised over so many animals. With a few dogs trained by this shepherd, absolute control was maintained over this huge assembly in the forest.

Before I could reach my car door, a mule came charging up the road at first by himself. He thundered past me and stood before the shepherd and began to bay. Before I could grasp what I was watching a horse came galloping up the road, stopped at a hundred yards down the road, and whinnied as if to shout at the mule and say, “get back here, you stupid mule.” The horse seemed to be the mule’s immediate superior and commander. Without a verbal command from the shepherd, the mule turned and galloped behind the horse down the road. As I opened the van door I found my wife, Deb, tearfully in awe of this shepherding feat. At that moment we didn’t exactly understand all that we had seen, but we recognized that there were spiritual lessons to be learned from this experience.

I quickly started the van and told her, “I want to follow the horse and mule to see where they go.” It was a guess on my part, but the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that the shepherd had trained the horse to keep the mule in line. I followed them as they trotted down the dirt road for a mile and half and realized that I had seen them earlier hidden and unattended in the ravine. They joined the other horses and mules to forage in the midst of the rocks and trees in their forest shelter.

SOMETIMES YOU SHEPHERD IN A HARD PLACE.

In the days that followed, I decided to take another look at shepherding in the Bible. As I studied the Scriptures, I learned a couple of lessons about shepherding and ministry. What I learned from the Bible was dramatized by the event in the woods. After all, the Lord had taken Jeremiah down to the potter’s house to teach Jeremiah a few things. In Jeremiah 18:2 God said, “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear My words.” Debi and I knew that the Lord had answered our prayer, and we knew we had to turn to the Scriptures in order to understand.

The first lesson I learned was that: at times a shepherd will lead his flock in a hard place. Shepherds don’t lead their flocks beside still waters and green pastures all the time. The next year a forest ranger told me that shepherds were contracted to bring their flocks into these inaccessible places. The purpose is to have the sheep feed on the under growth in these rugged areas in order to reduce the risk of fire spreading in the forest. Shepherding sheep in a woods is an ancient practice. Micah 7:14 pictures the shepherd tending to his flock in the woods, “Feed thy people with thy rod, the flock of thine heritage, which dwell solitarily in the wood, in the midst of Carmel: let them feed in Bashan and Gilead, as in the days of old.” Anyone familiar with the holy land is aware that Mount Carmel would be a treacherous place to herd sheep. Bashan and Gilead are also wooded areas and yet it was understood that God’s flock would rest in such places and find nourishment there. In contrast, we have come to expect that if we are doing our job correctly, our surroundings will always be pleasant and consistent with our understanding of success. Like a shepherd, at times a pastor will shepherd his flock in a hard place.

In the age of comparisons with the Mega-church and when success is measured in nickels and noses, another idea must be remembered by the under-shepherds and flock: At times sheep and shepherds alike pass through hard places and difficult times and yet God has not forsaken them. Consider the apostle Paul’s experience in Rome, “At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me . . . .” (2 Timothy 4:16). Should we conclude from Paul’s words that Paul had failed or that God had abandon him? No, of course not.

THE SHEPHERD IS IN CONTROL OF VARIOUS ELEMENTS

I fear we live in a time in America where patience is in short supply. Since a worldly value system at times reigns in the hearts and lives of churchmen, it is assumed that hard times demonstrate that God has abandoned His people and servants. While my experience in the forest seemed to point to a situation that was out of control, nothing could have been further from the truth.

The second lesson I learned was: being in a hard place didn’t prove that the shepherd had lost control. He drove sheep, commanded dogs, worked through trained horses and even mules—he was in absolute control. This place is near a trail marker which reads, “Rattlesnake Trail, Elevation 5120 ft.” There was a mule on the ridge grazing among the sheep trained to protect the flock from rattlesnakes. Unfortunately, when we go through hard times, we conclude that the Lord, the Great Shepherd, has lost His touch but nothing could be further from the truth. Isaiah 49 speaks of how the people of God and shepherds can feel abandoned by God. In Isaiah 49:14 the Lord comforts His people when Isaiah wrote: “But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me,’ And my Lord has forgotten me.'” In verse 15 we read the Lord’s response to such foolish talk: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me.” The Lord works through men, and angels, and uses adversity to mold and shape our lives and ministry. He is in absolute control for His grand purpose.

A SKILLED SHEPHERD CAN LEAD HIS FLOCK IN RUGGED TERRAIN

The third lesson I learned was: a skilled shepherd can lead a flock anywhere and whenever. This skilled shepherd delivered his flock on a mountain side in a place men would not expect. A year later I learned that there was nothing beyond the ridge line. It does drop almost straight down a couple of thousand feet. I know men prefer to begin congregations in the place where community growth patterns are most favorable to planting a church, but God can place a congregation in a hard place. You may not be a pastor but you are going through a hard time. Recognize that the Lord, the Great Shepherd, can lead you through a hard place if you’ll let Him. The clear mark of something that God does is that it defies conventional wisdom and it can be unorthodox running counter to the accepted way of looking at things.

FAITH PREPARES FOR RADICAL CHANGE

The sheep came pouring out of the ravine as if they were erupting out of the ground itself. There is a fourth lesson and that is we need to be ready for sudden change. Micah 2:12 provides another glimpse of God’s promise to His flock Israel, “I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob, I will surely gather the remnant of Israel; I will put them together like sheep of the fold, Like a flock in the midst of their pasture; They shall make a loud noise because of so many people.” Years later I still marvel at the shepherding feat that we had witnessed. A thousand sheep in a rugged and desolate place. The Lord spoke to Israel through Isaiah and made a similar promise, “For your waste and desolate places, And the land of your destruction, Will even now be too small for the inhabitants; And those who swallowed you up will be far away. The children you will have, After you have lost the others, Will say again in your ears, ‘The place is too small for me; Give me a place where I may dwell.” (Isaiah 49:19-20.) I’m not suggesting these promises were made to us. These are promises to Israel. But we do serve the same God and there is a pattern here. He takes things away from His people and in time restores our blessing. We must learn to bide our time in faith and confidence.

This event marked a radical change in my ministry. I have learned that the Lord takes things a way from us to give us something different. He will not always give us more, but it will always be better. We must learn to trust the Lord even in these hard times. Others may have forsaken us but the Lord cannot. If we are to inherit abundance we must learn to trust the Lord in times of lack and distress. The times of lack are times when we must prepare in faith for what God intends to do. These hard times must be times of anticipation of God’s great reward. When hard times come we dare not think my time must have past, we ought to say: I better be getting ready. Like Sarah unbelief laughs at God’s promise (Genesis 18:12). Faith gets the nursery ready.

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Title :: SHEPHERDING IN A HARD PLACE
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