Whereas other cultures used to put children up chimneys, the norm for people of my age and background was to be put to work part-time as sheepdogs, in the absence of a suitably qualified collie. My father was hopeless at training his animals, and so he had four children instead who, if not as intelligent as collies, were certainly more responsive to his shouted commands.
As if this degradation was not enough, we would find ourselves subjected to ‘One Man and His Dog’ on television of an evening. I suspect my father hoped that we might pick up a few pointers if we watched enough episodes. He would comment on the shepherds’ control of their dogs, and of the responsiveness and obedience of said dogs. I, however, was always more interested in watching the sheep.
They are not the smartest of creatures, and they have a flair for the unpredictable. Nonetheless, I like their placid faces, and still maintain that the ear of a sheep is the cutest ear of any mammal you are likely to meet. And, having worked with so many of them, so to speak, I had gained an insight into some of their ways.
The outrun and the shedding was all good entertainment, but the moment I found most anxiety-inducing was the penning. Holding the gate open with his left hand, the shepherd would try corralling the flock in, often waving a crook with his right. You would almost be on the point of breathing a sigh of relief when – disaster – one woolly maverick would make a bid for freedom. Sometimes, this would be the end of someone’s dream. Frankly, if your only dream was to win ‘One Man and His Dog’, you probably deserved a reality check, but each to his own.
We too, like sheep, have gone astray. The Lord views us as his flock and it is the work of his church to help bring them safely into the fold. It is towards this end that the work of evangelism and outreach tends – get them on the outrun, win them for the cause. But I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that our eye should be on the ones we are just about to usher into the pen. There is a real flight risk there, and we all know why.
Satan is an awful lot more interested in people who are responding to the Lord than he is to the ones who are lukewarm, or even cold. They are nowhere near God’s pen; they are fully exposed to the ravening wolf, and easily picked off to be devoured.
Surely, then, a master strategist like the devil is going to turn his attention more fully on the ones who are almost – but not quite – safe. They are teetering on the brink of salvation, but the gate to the sheep-fold is not yet safely closed behind them. Something might yet catch them, out the corner of their eye, and they could easily turn and rush towards it.
I have been that sheep, so I know it’s true. It is while you are a churchgoer, a Bible reader, an utterer of prayer . . . but not yet safe in his grasp, that you are most vulnerable to the wiles of Satan. He will tempt you with the world in all its tinsel show; and he will contrast this with the dull rigidity of a life lived for God. Adept as he is at warping truth, he will remind you of all the things you want to do, all the things you have a right to do – and he will tell you that God can wait.
And I know others, now, who are in that position. The pen is open before them, they are almost within the circle of that gate . . . but Satan is up to his tricks again. He shows them the world, yes, but he does something else even more insidious. Coming right up to them, he whispers into their ears: ‘Look. Look at the ones who are already in. Apart from the fact that they are trapped, and can’t go anywhere, how different are they to you?’
He tells those who come to church, who hear the Word, and who are beginning to love the Lord, that they can have all of that – but why hang around with a people who are no better than those who live in the world? How are you, he asks them, meant to have fellowship with ‘these people’; and he lists them. I know he speaks to adherents, and I know he plays on the fact that they have seen bad behaviour from Christians. The church has in it liars, the self-righteous, the unjust, the vain . . . people, in fact, in all their brokenness.
Satan says to them, ‘why should you sit down in fellowship with these hypocrites?’ And they look again at the person in the pew next to them, and they realise that he is right. That upstanding Christian is a fibber. Or self-righteous, or egotistical.
Jesus, on the other hand, says to them, ‘take your place among these people – they are just like you; and yet I have claimed them all as my own’. He loved us while we were still defiled by original sin
We need to be mindful of his portion, to have care of one another. That includes especially those on the brink of life. Satan is watching them, hovering like a bird of prey over defenceless lambs. I have to examine my own life, therefore, and guard against being the stumbling-block that excuses them from coming in.
It gives an added impetus to our witness when we consider that those looking most closely at our example are nearer than we think. They are not necessarily the unbelievers on the outrun, but the almost-theres within the shelter of his gate.