My favorite image of Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-16). I’ve never come close to laying down my life to save our sheep from wolves or coyotes. I don’t camp outside with them in a desert, or lead them for miles to find food and water. But I do care deeply for these gentle creatures. In their quiet acceptance of God’s Will—just being what they are—they teach me to trust that “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23), no matter what.
“Something’s Wrong with Appy”
One evening, as winter rains drenched our small farm, my husband Don stood at a window overlooking the barnyard and beckoned me to joined him. In the yellow light shining from the open barn door, we saw our sheep inside, jostling for the best places around their feed bins. But outside in the rain, one spotted sheep stood alone. His head hung low and his ears drooped.
“I’ll check on him,” I said, trying to sound upbeat. By the time a sheep is sick enough to ignore his herding instinct and separate from the flock, it’s often too late. After pulling on mud boots and a hooded jacket, I headed out into the night.
My insides shrank at the thought of facing death again so soon after burying my mother. Mom had loved her summer visits to our farm and we loved having her. She laughed like a schoolgirl when she threw overripe fruit to our sheep, noisily begging for more. In my sorrow, I found that farm work—wedded to the passing seasons and ever-repeating cycle of life—brought solace. “Though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.”
By then too weak to stand, Appy was lying near the barn. His breathing was shallow. Kneeling beside him, I stroked his cold, soaking-wet, wooly head—and remembered the starry spring night he was born.
The Night Appy Was Born
That year, we had several pregnant ewes in our flock and, when the time came for them to lamb, we hooked up a baby monitor in the barn. The listening device was beside our bed, so we could hear the distinctive call of a ewe in labor to her unborn offspring. Around midnight, Don and I woke to that low, gentle crooning. We dressed quickly and hurried outside.
When we got to the barnyard, my heart sank. Some first-time mothers—like Muffin, a beautiful white ewe—panic after giving birth. Wild-eyed, she huddled against the barnyard fence, as far as possible from the newborn lamb gasping on the ground. Usually we try not to interfere with nature, but that night we had to act fast.
Don caught Muffin and maneuvered her, fighting him at every step, into one of the lambing pens we’d readied. I picked up the shivering lamb, wrapped it in a bath towel, and cleaned its eyes and nostrils. As my finger swept its tiny mouth, the baby sucked hungrily on it. I held it up to Muffin’s face, hoping she would recognize her unique scent on the newborn’s wet coat. Terrified, she backed away.
Suddenly the lamb cried, a pitiful wail. Muffin stopped struggling. She peered closely at the bundle in my arms and sniffed. The lamb cried again and Muffin’s eyes glowed. She began to call her baby, a dainty ewe with curly white wool. As the lamb wobbled to its feet, the new mother licked it dry and nudged it to nurse.
Shortly after, Muffin gave birth to a second lamb, a little ram—and accepted him immediately. The brown markings that splashed across his white head and body reminded Don of an Appaloosa’s coat. He named the spotted male Appy, and his twin sister, Sunshine.
Two more ewes lambed that night; both had healthy twins. Dawn was breaking when Don and I, exhausted but overjoyed, tiptoed from the barn. Mothers and babies snuggled together in fresh straw, their pens stocked with buckets of feed and warm molasses water. Within days, Appy was running and leaping with the other lambs. Later, he joined other young rams we chose not to breed, but kept to graze the pasture.
In the Shepherd’s Arms
That spring night felt an eternity away. Now, in a thick mist on a starless night, I knelt and petted Appy’s head, unable to do anything but offer comfort in his last moments. Suddenly he turned, raised himself up, heaved a sigh, and fell softly into my arms.
I held him close, just as I had the night he was born. Just as I had held Mom as she lay dying. I felt their living presence as strongly as I felt the wet earth soaking my jeans, as truly as I saw the bare apricot trees promising to burst into fragrant bloom. In silent awe, I closed Appy’s eyes and gently laid his head on the ground. With the privilege of witnessing his first breath and his last, I had been allowed to touch the divine. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”