I recently learned the word “flock” is reserved for a group of sheep numbering around five or more, generally found in the pastures of modest homesteaders like us. But when you get into the big sheep operations, they’re no longer referred to as a [sweet little] flock. They’re called a “band” or a “mob” of sheep. After shepherding our small flock for a couple of months, I can see why vast multiples can spell trouble. I imagine “mob” is quite fitting when they suddenly get a wonky thought in their woolly little heads that makes them stray or panic and run for their lives—or do something utterly random, like jumping three feet straight-up in the air (we've learned this is possible the hard way).
I’ve been observing the way the sheep move in general, trying to get a handle on their flocking instincts and how they communicate. It’s fascinating to see how it starts with a whisper…one sheep decides it’s time to move on; the others pick up on the subtlest cues and quickly fall in line. In the wild, this tight-knit flocking would be their best defense against predators. Outliers are easy targets and survival depends on sticking together. On the downside, that same flocking instinct and propensity to follow the leader can be treacherous. One sheep can easily lead the rest to slaughter or over a cliff. The others don’t think. They just follow.
In this photograph, Bernadette seems to be “leading” the flock. But when I ruminated over the particulars, I realized that in this photo and in others I took at that time, Bernadette’s orientation is always toward me. I was walking slightly forward of the flock on the other side of the fence and it was as though she kept looking at me for cues as to where “we” were going and where we were going next. I was humbled to realize I’m slowly but surely earning my shepherd’s stripes—and my lambs’ trust.
It’s not a big stretch to find the Biblical corollary: Christ, the Good Shepherd, says, “I know mine and mine know me.” (John 10:14). But what’s vastly different from a sheep’s flocking instinct (which leads them to slaughter or over a cliff if the leader gets it wrong, remember?) is that as the flock of Christ, our gift of free will gives us the choice to follow Him—or to cut loose, wander, rebel, or to have our own way.
Following Jesus, and only Jesus, is a choice we make anew each and every single day. He won’t force us to follow Him. But if we know Him and we know His promises, then we also know He is trustworthy. And what does he promise His flock? Back to John 10:
“I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.”
Here, He promises to keep us safe from predators—that is, the wickedness and snares of the devil who can slaughter our souls and lead us over a cliff into the abyss of Hell. Moreover, Jesus promises that He will hold nothing back—not even His own life—so as to ensure our safety and eternal salvation. In essence, we're following Him back to Heaven. The alternative? Fall in with a random mob of sheep who easily flinch, flee, and ultimately forfeit their chance at everlasting life.
At the end of the day—who is more free? The one who follows an unruly mob and their “leader du jour”—or the one who chooses to faithfully follow the Good Shepherd? Large flock though we are (there are 2.56 billion Christians in today’s world), we are hardly a “mob"; after all, we were each called into being and are intimately known by God:
“I have called you by name, you are mine.” ~Isaiah 43:1.
As for me, I choose to follow the loving voice of the Good Shepherd, who assures His sheep a place on His right and says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” ~Matthew 25:34
And as the shepherdess of this sweet little flock, I believe these little lambs are learning to trust and to follow me and my voice because they sense that they are safe. They are named. And they are mine:
Come, Bernadette, come, Faustina, come, Thérèse, come Josephina, and see the good things I have prepared for you!