The Story of the Lost Sheep, Revisted

[A guest post from Glen Henshaw, a husband, a father, an engineer, a lover and raiser of animals, and a longtime reader of the blog.]

We found this lamb, named Pearl, hiding under a bank of the creek that runs along the back of our property one morning last week. This is the near bank, which means she could not be seen from our side of the creek – we had to wade the creek or jump the bank to see her. Pearl was not making a sound, and it took some careful counting to realize she was missing, and some careful searching to find her.

The scene we encountered that morning included all the sheep except four being right where they should be, in the barnyard. But the electric fence at the back of the pasture had been vandalized. It was lying on the ground and had wool all over it. The hay feeder had been flipped upside down, and the water in the waterer was all muddy. Someone had been committing some mischief.

And then this ewe lamb was hiding from us. She was with another, older ewe named Quinn, who was standing in the brush on the far side of the creek, barely visible.

You would be excused if you thought that these sheep were up to no good. The evidence is all there. Something had flipped over the feeder, splashed through the drinking water, and destroyed the fence. Pearl and Quinn had made a series of bad decisions that culminated in them leaving the flock and ending up in the creek in the rain. Quinn, the older ewe, has in fact been making her way through the electric fence all spring, leading all the lambs out of the pasture to graze in the woods, and Pearl is one of the lambs who has been following her. Clearly these two are bad news.

But that’s only because you don’t know what actually happened. What actually happened is that we have a new 18-month-old sheepdog who will be a good dog someday, but that morning he was a very bad dog. We left him in the backyard unsupervised for two hours early in the morning. But he didn’t stay in the backyard; he found a hole in the fence, showed it to our other two dogs, and they entertained themselves by running the sheep. Dogs running sheep is very dangerous — the sheep can drop dead through exhaustion and stress.

The first we noticed anything was amiss was when we went to let the dogs in and discovered they were missing. Then we saw a dead ewe lying in the far corner of the pasture. They had run her to death. That’s what led to us counting the sheep in the barnyard; we had to know whether there were any more sheep missing.

In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus tells of a shepherd who notices that he is missing one of his hundred sheep, and searches for it until it is found and returned to the flock. If we are being particularly insightful we note that sheep aren’t simply misplaced; they end up where they are by walking, so — we say — this lost sheep had wandered away from the flock, and therefore we should diligently seek out and help those who have gotten to where they are through their own poor decisions.

This is probably wrong.

Sheep don’t wander away from the flock; it isn’t in their nature. A sheep who has left the flock left because it was driven away. It was terrified and did not know where to look for safety, so it ran. And the reason it was terrified is usually due to poor shepherding — the shepherd has led the flock to a pasture where there are predators or has left it out in a storm. Or the shepherd has neglected that hole in the fence, and left unsupervised a young, inexperienced sheepdog, who is supposed to be a helper but has discovered that terrorizing sheep is darned fun. And then the shepherd went back to bed.

In other words, very often the person we are to seek out is not “lost”, and is not missing because he or she made poor decisions. They left because we drove them away. They did not look or talk or think or love like we do, and we did not create spaces they felt safe in. We looked the other way when they weren’t admitted to our schools because they weren’t a “good fit”, or they were given a hard time because they were a woman in a man’s job or a man in a woman’s job. We did not invite them into our neighborhoods, or our clubs, or our churches. When they were harassed by police we told ourselves that it was their fault for being where they were, behaving how they behaved. If they would just make different choices, they could help themselves.

The hero of our story is not the shepherds; it is Quinn, the older ewe standing in the trees. Quinn led the lamb there specifically because she had been going to that spot all spring; she knew the territory. And she mothers all the lambs, her own and everyone else’s. She is the cool auntie of the flock. Pearl followed her because she had been following her for months and trusted her. Quinn’s daughter, whom she could not save, was the dead ewe lying in the pasture. Pearl, whose life she did save, was not her daughter. Once we got them back across the creek, Quinn collected Pearl and led her towards the safety of the now dog—free barnyard. On her way she spotted the fourth missing lamb, who was hiding in yet another corner of the pasture and who we could not persuade to follow us. She called to that lamb as well and led them both back to the flock.

Pearl was hiding from a predator who terrified her and had killed one of her sisters, and that was not her fault. It was ours. Quinn was not leading her astray, but to safety. That, also, was not our doing.

When you see someone heading out of the pasture, perhaps they’re going that direction out of fear. Perhaps they’re going out of love.

If you would seek the lost sheep, you should know the territory. So maybe staying in the pasture all the time isn’t a good idea. And if you would bring the lost sheep back to the fold, first admit that you may be part of the reason they aren’t already here.


  1. This is wonderful!

  2. Sam Gappmayer says:

    Thank you for this.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Wow! Thank you for this.

  4. Michael Austin says:

    This is a beautiful meditation. And true.

  5. HokieKate says:

    Absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this insight.

  6. Janna Rew says:

    I loved this.

  7. Fantastic Glen! I’m a big fan of yours through our branch (though you could say I’m one of those lost sheep) and knowing your wonderful wife!

  8. Michael Colin says:

    Your “The Story of the Lost Sheep…” is beautiful. This illustrates so well some of the problems we face as a society, both inside the church and outside. I must have a visit with myself to see how it is that I might be responsible for some “lost sheep”, unintended but none-the-less — responsible.

  9. This is so thought provoking. Thank you!

  10. Doug Hall says:

    This is an amazing update to an already great parable.

  11. Antonio Parr says:

    Beautiful and wise.

  12. This is outstanding. Thank you so much for writing, and to BCC for publishing.

  13. Freckles says:

    So beautiful and true; thank you.

  14. Great points. When Jesus tells us this story, do you tell him that he’s the reason for the lost sheep? If so, why? If not, why not?

    Surely, a credible case can be made for either scenario, just as you can make the case that it’s Peter Priesthood or Molly Mormon that drive them away. Of course, it could also be Apostate Amy. She’s always dragging others down.

    I’d just add another point that’s outside the parable but just as applicable in real life as it is in principle. All too often the inexperienced person going to the rescue of a drowning victim drowns themselves. Or rather gets dragged down by the one they presumed to save.

    Agency is a beast.

  15. At one point during a Sunday School lesson, the teacher suggested that people who feel they belong at church rarely make others feel like they don’t belong. That struck me as the opposite of the truth: folks who feel like they belong often have *no idea* why other feel alienated, and in their ignorance can very easily contribute to that alienation.

    I’m sure the dogs felt very comfortable in the pasture.

  16. Thank you for this.

  17. Wow! Great perspective and lesson given in a biblically correct and Mormon friendly form. I hope I can use this in stalk or lesson.

  18. Archie B Dunbar says:

    I know that analogies and metaphors should not be pressed too far. They are tools, not weapons. As we apply them we must try them on and determine if they fit and just what they mean in the context of our experience. For me, I can see that I have a different times been both the bad dog and Pearl. I would hope that I have sometimes been Quinn but I don’t feel that there is anyway to really know. Quinns are selfless and only the rest of us can see them in their many and varied incarnations and even then that appearance may be fleeting.

    Thanks for sharing this

  19. Jenifer Baxter says:

    wow! so many good thoughts to process here, especially as one who is not currently feeling safe in the pasture after calling out emotional abuse in an almost 3 decades long marriage.- I have a deeper connection to those who have been exiled, pushed out or never allowed in- thanks for sharing this perspective and encouragement for us all to be a little more Quinn-like!

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