My hooves ache. My wool is embedded with scratchy bits of broken scrub that work their way down to irritate my skin. My tongue is dry and sticky, and I don’t even remember the last time I saw grass. My eyes burn from lack of rest. The only sounds I can recall are the clatter of rubble on rock and the howl of wind through the ravines—and the voice of the Shepherd. If not for the Shepherd, I would have lain down and died in this hopeless maze of rocks.
The day the Shepherd bid me follow was a sunshiny day in the pasture. I felt uneasy being singled out; the flock was always together. But I trusted the Shepherd because He always brought us to places with sweet grass and clear water. He protected us from wolves and mountain lions. I thought perhaps He had a special treat for me, so I trotted behind Him as He led me further and further from the flock.
I finally gathered the courage to ask Him, “What about the rest of the sheep?”
He paused and turned to look me in the eye. “Don’t worry about everyone else; You just follow Me.”
As night fell, we came to a barren cave. There was no food or water in sight, and we were miles from the pasture. I was confused, but so weary that I curled up next to the Shepherd and fell asleep right away with His hand on my side.
“Awaken, Dear One.”
The sun was shining, and the Shepherd had brought me breakfast—not a feast by any means, but enough dry grass and water to get me up and going. I had so many questions—where were we? Where was He leading me? Why were we alone? But as we travelled all that day and the next, and many more, the worst question kept returning—can I really trust this Shepherd?
“Awaken, Dear One.”
Every morning, the Shepherd woke me up the same way. Every day, I hoped our toil would come to an end; we seemed always to be climbing uphill. Every night, I wrestled with despondency and doubt. I had no strength to go on, but I learned to draw strength from the Shepherd’s presence. I came to depend on His staff to guide me. The days drew on, through fall, a dark and chilly winter, a damp and barren spring, and into another hot, dry summer. I forgot beauty. I despaired of joy. The year waned and rolled into another as we struggled onward, toward what? Sometimes I stumbled, but He always lifted me up and urged me to keep going. I grew lean and shabby, and I knew I would no longer fit in with my flock. I looked more like a goat now than a sheep. I was glad my old friends could not see my shameful appearance and pity me in my hard life.
Then one day, the Shepherd whispered to me, “Dear One, take heart. This journey is not the end. There is something I want you to see. Persevere.”
Somehow His voice gave me courage, just the tiniest drop required to take each next step. And something else happened—I began to understand His words in a new way, almost as if I could imagine where He was leading me. I could see a fertile highland meadow, speckled with flowers under a dazzling sky. There were other sheep on the meadow, too, and as the weeks and months passed, I slowly began to realize that He was bringing me to help them.
I balked. I would go no further, overwhelmed by fear and shame. “How can I help anyone?” I objected, “I can barely stay on the path; I falter so often, and hardly have enough heart to go on. I’m ugly and weak. I’m the one who needs help, not the one to give it, and You’re the one who brought me into these wastelands in the first place!”
Hopeless tears flooded my eyes. I regretted my journey. My trust in the Shepherd had never been lower. I curled up in a ball, refusing to listen to His words. I don’t know how long we sat like that, but His patience finally overcame my stubbornness. The fluffy, healthy sheep in the lovely meadow would find me pathetic and scrawny, but at least my future there was not as bleak as on this stony path.
“Awaken, Dear One.”
So I followed the Shepherd forward, practically dragging my muzzle on the ground between my hooves.
He continued to whisper to me as we went along. “Dear One, you are right when you realize you have no strength of your own. Just as you have leaned on My strength through this difficult journey, so you must continue to rely on Me in the meadow. I will not leave you, and I will not forsake you.”
As we travelled on, my body became weaker and weaker with hunger and exhaustion until I collapsed. Without a word of reproach, the Shepherd picked me up and carried me around His shoulders until I had regained enough strength to walk again. I came to rely on His strength and protection so much through those severe valleys of emptiness that I acquired the practice of sleeping in His lap every night. I depended upon Him more and more, and upon my own strength less and less. I sensed something new ahead—a springtime feeling that was new to me, yet familiar. I knew we were approaching the meadow, but my faith in the Shepherd had become strong enough to overcome my own inadequacy. If He brought me there, He would also sustain me. Fear lost its control over me.
This morning, we left the rock maze behind at last, climbed up through a narrow crack, and came to stand on the edge of the meadow. It was more vibrant and spacious than I had imagined. The Shepherd stood there with His hand on my head, and my heart burst with joy. We had finally arrived, and as we paused to admire the view, I began to notice the sheep dotting the grass. While they were well-fed, they were trembling with anxiety; they didn’t recognize the Shepherd.
“Awaken, Dear One.”
Slowly, I understood. My agonizing journey with the Shepherd had taught me how to rely on Him rather than myself. I had learned to set aside my own desires, even my own needs, and to trust in Him completely without knowing the destination. It was enough to know His voice. He had become precious to me—He had become everything to me, in a way these sheep didn’t know yet. My heart broke for them, and I understood why He brought me here. The meadow would be cool and soft beneath my way-worn hooves; it would be delightful to munch on sweet, tender grass once again, to roll about in it and smell the fresh air without choking on dust. These things would be nice, but my true food was to do His will—to encourage these lonely sheep to trust the Shepherd and to follow Him wherever He might lead.
The Shepherd holds me awhile on this edge between hardship and purpose. I can tell by His wide smile that He wants me to enjoy the moment to which He has brought me. We sit and remember the path we’ve traveled together, and delight in the joy that awaits. Perhaps tomorrow I will enter the meadow at last, but for today, I am content to pause here on the edge with my Shepherd, my Master, and anticipate the fulfillment of the work He has prepared for me to do. After all, there is nowhere I would rather be than by His side.
Awaken, Dear One. Tell your story. Share your life. Don’t be afraid.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6 NKJV
The featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Athena lives and writes in Colorado Springs, where she can look up at the mountains and be reminded of the nearness of God. Hiking, reading, and spending time with her family are her passions. She and her husband, Jon, are actively involved in the Anselm Society, and they also run a ministry for blended families at their church. Whether through fiction, nonfiction or poetry, Athena loves to use words to paint portraits that display the work that God does within each person.