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In our most recent General Conference several talks referred to shepherding, including President Uchtdorf’s lighthearted mention of being a German shepherd.
I was struck as I listened to the inspired words of Sister Bonnie H. Cordon and Elder Gary E. Stevenson and saw beautiful artwork depicting Christ watching over His sheep. I had just returned from a trip to Norway, where shepherding is sometimes done a bit differently.
Our daughter, who served a mission there, arranged for an Airbnb off the beaten path. Way off. And, as is so often true with travel, sometimes the most beautiful experiences happen when you leave the tourist spots and find the lesser known spots. In this case, we were staying with a wonderful family of six. Though the father has other businesses, he persists in keeping an old tradition alive: He allows 200 sheep to graze on the sheer cliffs along a fjord, then collects them on foot in the fall.
I was thunderstruck. I looked up at the vertical face of mountains where it seemed as if one wrong step could plunge you to your death. But I also realized many Norwegians are like avatars—incredibly fit and willing to climb any terrain in any weather. (He is also able to shear ten sheep in an hour, but that’s another story.)
I saw other people’s sheep grazing in pastures and asked why he didn’t just do it the easy way where they’re fenced in (and this probably reveals something about me!). He explained that the grass has more moisture and is richer and more nutritious at the glacial melt line, but also his method honors the shepherding tradition there, which is hundreds of years old. He brings his older children along in hopes they will continue the practice. So with only one dog to help, he scales the mountain and gathers the sheep.
I couldn’t help feeling like a spoiled American who doesn’t even like walking to the mailbox, much less hiking what looks like Mount Everest. But the lesson here wasn’t just about physical fitness. It was about resolute commitment to a task. And in this case, the task is gathering sheep.
So often we think of reaching out to lost sheep in everyday ways: We call, we pop by, we take a plate of cookies. And if they don’t respond, we tell ourselves we tried. We did our duty and they just weren’t interested.
Imagine actually herding sheep this way. Incidentally, sheep are not trained poodles and do not always come to their master’s voice. So a call doesn’t cut it. Waving hello doesn’t work, either. And standing there with a handful of food only works with sheep who are close by.
No, we have to get creative. We have to roll up our sleeves–or put on a jacket and gloves–, we have to wear heavy boots, we have to tough it out in the rain, and we have to scale whatever mountains people have chosen to climb. Unlike actual sheep, humans have been known to deliberately hide. They also don’t respond to being picked up and slung over someone’s shoulders, so we have to do that figuratively.
Let’s expand this analogy with a few things I’ve learned about these remarkable animals. When it comes to memories, sheep are like elephants and can remember 50 people’s faces and voices for years. We do the same thing, but with hurts and offenses. So many are wandering because of a slight they suffered. Can we be the person who listens without judging, understands, and makes it safe for them to return again?
Like turtles, a sheep on its back cannot get up. It needs someone to help turn them. You know where I’m going with this—so many people don’t even realize they’re in peril. But we can be the person who rescues them, who helps them back onto their feet. If someone has suffered a health or financial setback, we can do much more than bring in a meal. We can pray with them, steer them to real solutions, arrange for the bishop to counsel with them, offer to drive their children, connect them with professionals we might know, set up a schedule of volunteers to care for their home or yard, really tailor our service to actual needs.
Sheep are very social, and even have best friends. Who can’t use a trustworthy best friend? How can we offer love without judging, help without an ulterior motive, and behave as if we actually are that person’s best friend? There is no limit to the amount of effort a shepherd puts into gathering his sheep. This is the same way we should minister. Nothing should be out of our willingness to tackle. This doesn’t mean you re-roof someone’s house, but maybe you find the people who can. We find their greatest need and then give our greatest effort to meet that need.
There are 900 breeds of sheep, and billions of kinds of people. Each person is unique, a treasured creation, the son or daughter of a God who loves them eternally. This means there is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to gathering our lost brothers and sisters. We must pray for inspiration, then be willing to put that love into action.
Perhaps it’s actually a simple formula. We can ask ourselves, “What would I do if I truly loved this person?” and suddenly you’ll know. When you see the people you minister to, think about loving them. Even if they reject your overtures, persist in that love. Don’t make them feel like a project, and don’t make it about reaching some kind of goal by a set date. Just enjoy their personality, their perspective, their humor, their ideas. Isn’t this what you’d want if someone came to visit? Everyone wants to be loved for their inner self, the person they really are, where they really are. That’s how we shepherd humans. And whenever I think of that father high on the mountain, my tasks look incredibly easy.
Hilton’s LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.