Leaving the Ninety and Nine for the One

I feel blessed in that the testimonies in my ward are usually pretty good. We don’t have that one crazy person most wards have who gets up every month and dominates the meeting with absurd ramblings. We have our fair share of the typical formularity (“I know X is true”), but usually these assertions are grounded in stories of personal experience, which makes them both interesting and moving to me.

Today I was particularly touched by a testimony given by a woman I’ve known a long time. When I first moved to Chicago, she and her husband were in my ward. (We both at different times moved into the ward we currently attend.) At that time they just had one child, a son, who died at age 16 of cancer. They weren’t able to conceive any more, so they went a little nuts and over time adopted six children, all from difficult backgrounds and some with special needs.

She began by explaining that she had always had a hard time understanding the parable of the Ninety and Nine. She considers herself a 99er; she is obedient, does what she’s told, occasionally rebels but her rebellions are brief. It always struck her as unfair that the Lord should leave her and her fellow 99ers and go off in search of the one. What is she, chopped liver? Does one have to be a rebel to merit the Lord’s attention? She just never “got” that scriptural story. But over time, trying to parent a group of very challenging children, the meaning of the parable has become apparent to her.

She talked about her son who is on a mission to New York and will be coming home this week. (In high school, this boy and my son were best friends.) When he was about 12 or so, this boy had completely rejected the Church. He didn’t want to have anything to do with it. The parents goaded him into coming to Church, but he made it clear he wasn’t interested. They didn’t know what to do; all they could do was not give up.

Then one day a brother at Church took an interest in him. This was someone this young man respected, and this brother became a mentor to him. This brother was able to talk to him and reach him in ways that his parents couldn’t; the young man perceived his parents as hopelessly lame, but this man was cool. Finally, the brother offered this young man a job, and told him that if he would go to seminary and go to church, he would pay for his mission, and if he attended BYU or BYUI, he would pay for his education. (The brother is very affluent, I should point out.) So this young man comes home from church one day and announces he’s going to go on a mission and attend college at a church school, just like that. His parents were absolutely stunned at this remarkable turnaround, which is something they on their own never could have engineered.

This young man will be home within a matter of days; I plan to see him later this week. He is black, 6′ 6″ (a little taller than me), very good looking (a tall, attractive black man walking the streets of boroughs around New York in a suit? He regularly has women approaching him on the streets asking for dates, to the amazement of his companions), and an incredible personality. He’s a natural born leader, almost a pied piper. And the Lord knew what he was doing when he sent this young man to New York. That was in my view the perfect place for him. I can hardly wait to see him again.

His mother said she couldn’t even put into words the miracle it was that her son went to serve a mission, and how having a missionary son has sustained her as she has faced struggles with her other children (drugs, running away, pregnant by different men, you name it).

And so from her struggles with raising her children and the many people who have reached out to help, she has come to grips with the story of the ninety and nine. She is content just to be in the Lord’s pasture. When there is a rebel who has strayed, she now realizes that she and the other 98 will be fine; by all means, Lord, go after the one, just as angels came and lovingly brought her own precious lamb in their arms back to the fold.


  1. Wow! What a cool story! =)

  2. What a wonderful story. It always lifts me up to hear things like this. It gives me – and probably a few other people – a lot of hope.

    Hope is my favorite of all.

  3. I hope the Barney-o-rama continues all week.

  4. Researcher says:

    Nice anecdote; thanks for sharing.

    Not to quibble with the meaning of a parable; rather with the application I usually see of it. The “99” are those that are active in the church. The 1 is those who are not. So we should focus all our resources on that 1 inactive.

    That’s fine, but it ignores the “99,” some percentage of whom are actively suffering and have deep and sometimes critical needs that they are not going to bring to the notice of the bishop or EQ president or visiting teachers because the responsibility of the church is, after all, to look after that “1,” that inactive or financially struggling person, and not the person whose need is not so obvious. Any member of the “99” may spend years living in the desert (although remaining active in the church) without any help or nourishment due to a sense of duty or a sense of pride or whatever prevents them from looking like the “1.”

    Well, that was a rather rambling thought! I certainly don’t mean that the Bishop of any given congregation should do more. I mean, rather, that we should listen to each other and particularly to those in our stewardship and not assume things about each other and our situations.

  5. by all means, Lord, go after the one

    My nightly prayers, pretty much. Sandra (my wife) and I were married previously and have nine kids between the two of us. Of our nine kids, four served missions and are married in the temple; four are completely inactive; one is semi-active but struggling. All face the various trials that life offers (as, for that matter, have Sandra & I). I pray for all our children (and grandchildren), but I plead especially for the last five. ..bruce..

  6. Kevin, this hits too close to home to not resonate with me – and to not break my heart and leave me crying, as well.

    We helped raise another 6’6″, charismatic, babe-attracting, 16-year-old black son – only he now is back with his biological mother, in and out of work, on his way to being just another baby daddy with wasted potential and no future. His time with us was brutally hard in many ways, but it forged a love for the goodness of his heart that will never fade. I hope with all my heart that someone else can reach him and bring him back into the fold, and if that happens I will bless eternally whoever finds and “saves” my “one”.

  7. I’ve never understood this parable, either; it’s always seemed terribly unfair, but then Ray said this:

    whoever finds and “saves” my “one”.

    and it occurred to me that though we are the sheep, we are perhaps also shepherds and we each have a flock. I might be the “1” in someone else’s flock and that shepherd may have to come looking for me. There will be a “1” in my own flock whom I will have to go find.

    Perhaps that’s a whimsical take, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

  8. merrybits says:

    Kevin and MoJo, wow. Those are amazingly beautiful thoughts. A big contrast to our meeting today where on speaker simply read the most boring Ensign article printed and the other speaker (on the topic of prop 8, who also unfortunately happens to be the ward crazy person) spoke about how he’d rather put a bullet in his head than go against the prophet. Your comments saved my Sunday.

  9. That was wonderful, Kevin.

  10. God bless any member that takes an interest in someone else’s teenager. What a great story.

    Incidentally, I have noticed that we seem to get many black missionaries assigned to our upstate NY mission. I would say that for all of the last year, we have had at least one, but generally two black elders in my ward (probably 10ish), and I know there are others in the mission. It is great for us–a true joy to see–but it has seemed to me that we must be getting more than our fair share. I don’t mind.

  11. Thanks, Kevin. A lovely story. It makes me grateful that when my kids have noticed that I am hopelessly lame there has been someone cool to love and inspire them at church.

  12. I feel so much for this woman, as I too have the experience of adopting a troubled teenager. Somehow the more troubled he is, the more my heart goes out to him. Everything comes so hard to him. He suffers so much, and struggles so mightily every day.

    Occasionally the light breaks through, though, and when it does his divine nature is patently made manifest, and I’m so filled with joy, that I imagine no “normal” child could possibly compare with the joy he brings me. When he finally makes it through, when he comes home to live in the gospel for good, I can’t imagine anything in life bringing me more happiness. So I understand the parable of God dropping everything to go after the one. A sincere smile from my sorrowful troubled one is worth any amount of effort, and the universe holds no beauty to compare with that, to my heart.

  13. This was beautiful. Thank you.

    that though we are the sheep, we are perhaps also shepherds and we each have a flock

    This is one way I see it, too. We all help reach out and care for the 99 as well as seek for the one.

    I also think it’s helpful to consider what it means to be in the Savior’s fold, and the Savior’s help and power that are available through the covenants, ordinances, and organization of the Church. He has not left us without love, support, and help and a direct connection to Him through the blessings of Church membership.

  14. a Black sister says:

    Please note that there are hundreds of thousands of well dressed men of color walking the streets of NYC on any given day. Let’s not get driven to distraction by rhetoric and stereotypes. Please.

  15. I actually think we read this parable the wrong way. In the Luke account Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and concludes the parable with:

    “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.”

    Who is in need of no repentance? I think the 99 are those who fail to recognize the need for a Saviour, as the Pharisees failed in Jesus’ time. I think the 1 describes those who recognise their sinful nature and repent. FWIW.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Black sister, that aspect was my own editorializing (my understanding was that this was happening in a poor area, not on Wall Street); consider it withdrawn.

  17. One of the most beautiful poems I have ever read comes from Jeff Burton’s “For Those who Wonder”:

    A Skeptic’s Prayer

    “Is it true
    Thou lovest best
    Thy meek, unasking children?

    Thou has made us
    So diverse, so various,
    Yet in the image of a Sire
    Who filled the universe
    With His creative fire.

    What father has supposed
    His child would grow to manhood
    Only hearing and affirming?
    What man could honor such a son?

    How could a mind that,
    Like a sponge,
    Absorbs but never questions.
    Doubts, or wonders why
    Be offspring and apprentice
    to a God?

    It may be, Lord,
    Thou canst never love me
    With the calm relief
    a father feels
    For his obedient child –
    The one who’s never any trouble.

    But use me
    As a bridge
    To those more wayward still
    Than I.

    I cannot give them all the answers;
    But they will not ask
    The ones who think they can.

    Let me speak
    To Thy lost sheep
    As one who
    Understanding how they went astray,
    Still loves the Shepherd.”

    -Margaret Rampton Munk

    Sorry that was so long, but I wanted to share because I think we are here to use our experiences (good or bad – whatever they may be) to go after the one. I remember accidentally overhearing a conversation between our ward clerk and a new convert who was still having issues trying to overcome his smoking addiction. The clerk tried to advise the best he could but he admitted to not ever having any addiction problems so the best he could offer was to go to the gym, etc. As good as the clerk’s intentions were, I believe they were ineffectual simply because he could not relate to the convert’s situation. I think the Lord absolutely needs those who have had similar experiences so we can relate to the one in order to bring he/she back in the fold.

  18. My own vision of the ninety and nine is the sheep huddled together while the shepherd went off after the one. Maybe the Saints should be looking to each other for comfort instead of continually looking to their leaders, who might need to occasionally be in pursuit of those who are *REALLY* struggling…

  19. Good point queuno. Also, at what point do we stop behaving as sheep huddled together and take our own positions as shepherds in God’s Fold. If the priesthood is to mean anything it must help transform us into “Men of God”, not keep us as bleating “sheep of God”.

    As we listen to the gospel it is apparent that passive takers of the Word, isn’t exactly God’s vision for us.

  20. I have had a long enduring question on this. Does anyone have thoughts?
    Christ specifically addresses the need to gather sheep, even as in this example, which is wonderful, but he also speaks of goats, dogs, pigs and wolves, referring to other apparent classes of people. Who are they? Does anyone know of anything written on this?

    How do we identify the sheep? How do we know who the dogs are? What makes a “dog”? etc.

  21. This was a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing it.

  22. Rand (#21) – I don’t think we can combine the analogues of the various parables into a meaningful whole. I suppose that sometimes the pig, the sheep, the goat, the dog, and the wolf could all refer to the same person.

  23. #22 Dane, I agree with you, but his references to the various animal types has a consistency. It is also reflected in the way he interacted with various peoples. Also, the references to sheep, the flock, the way, the gate, etc, are all very consistent.
    Thanks for your comment and thoughtfulness. I will keep digging on this.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    I just got back from visiting my young friend who is fresh off of his mission. He’s really a tremendous young man.

    In the course of our conversation I asked him about the issue of girls hitting on him, and he showed me his “wedding ring.” He had gotten a wedding ring and wore it through much of his mission as a way of trying to ward off unwanted attention. Brilliant!

  25. I think we are here to use our experiences (good or bad – whatever they may be) to go after the one. I think the Lord absolutely needs those who have had similar experiences so we can relate to the one in order to bring he/she back in the fold.

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