I shared this regrettably true story in the 8th chapter of my essay on Learning Leadership Lessons from 2 Corinthians. The chapter is called “Leaders lead in the Lord, not by the letter,” based on 2 Corinthians 3:6-18.
I had seen a live Nativity scene at a church and thought it was a great idea. We too could have Joseph, Mary, shepherds, real animals – the whole deal. We didn’t have our own church facility, the Lutherans were gracious enough to share, so with their permission we’d use their grounds for our simple yuletide scene. A couple of the men built a small barn-like structure (even though Jesus was probably born in a cave), we made up the cast from church members, and the only animals we could get to the scene that first year were a few sheep from the local 4-H Club. The problem was, we were all pretty suburban, and knew little-to-nothing about sheep. One of the guys built a pen that seemed sufficient to all of us, about three and half feet high. These were full-grown animals (at least they looked full grown to my keen agrarian eye), plump as could be. No way they were high jumping the fence.
On the first night of the production I came to the scene. Everything was in place, ready to go, except for the sheep. The pen was empty and my key person, Michael, was missing. I inquired about him and the sheep, and I was told they (the sheep) had easily sprang out of the pen and Michael went after them. I was amazed at two things. First, that those fat animals could jump so high was totally unexpected. The sheep I had always imagined, and counted while trying to get to sleep, jumping over fences were so much skinnier! Secondly, I was shocked that it was Michael who went after them. He wasn’t really a farmer/rancher/animal-lover type. Michael was always well-dressed, never dirty, a more into malls than meadows kind of guy.
I asked which way they’d gone and took out after them. The only thing I knew about sheep was what I had read in sermon-prep (they show up quite a bit in the Bible). I’m sure you’re seeing the irony of this – the shepherds out looking for their lost sheep. Yet another thing they didn’t prepare us for in Bible College!
Jeff, the guilty pen-builder had also joined the sheep hunt, and since we were fresh out of sheep dogs we armed ourselves with ropes. How else do you capture sheep? After trudging through a muddy hillside we found them. There they were, huddled together in someone’s back yard. And then we did it. We slipped our ropes around their necks and tied knots that were definitely not the knot you’d use to rope a sheep! But since we didn’t know the authorized sheep knot, and there was no way we were calling 4-H to ask them, we did what we could. By the way, we never told this story to the 4-H people, so keep this quiet. I’m not sure what the other guys imagined, but in my mind, these fat, yet nimble creatures were just going to obey the subtle tugs on our ropes and follow us home. That’s not exactly what happened.
Apparently, sheep don’t respond well to roping. At least these didn’t. Their response was to emphatically resist, and then lie down on their stomachs with all four legs spread out to the sides. The more we pulled, the more they objected, and the tighter the ropes around their necks became. That’s right. We put the ropes around their necks! Where would you have put them? Their stomachs were too large, and they don’t have but tiny tails. We had them by the throat, so to speak. But they didn’t seem to understand that it would be to their benefit to just go with us calmly – a nice loosely fitting noose is always better than a tight one. But what do sheep know? I’d been told they were dumb. Now I know it. The problem was I didn’t know what to do about it. I guess that makes me as dumb, or dumber, than they.
Spiritual lessons aside, we still had to get the animals back to our serene nativity scene for show-and-tell. We were pulling, they were refusing, their eyes beginning to bug out. Since sheep don’t seem to make much noise (they weren’t growling or hissing or barking or anything), the only noise we could hear was them gasping as our ropes choked off their air. I thought at one point my sheep (the one I was tugging on) stopped breathing! I’m begging you, please don’t tell the 4-H, the SPCA, or any farmer-types about this. None of the animals died or were permanently damaged, other than a little PTSD. Even if this were to get out, I think the statute of limitations has passed, and we are no longer in jeopardy of prosecution.
We also learned that sheep don’t respond to reasoning, yelling, or cussing. (I think I heard one of the other guys say a bad word. I myself only thought bad words.) We pulled, we pushed, and we prayed. Inch by inch we made our way back to the site where the baby Jesus was waiting for his farm animals. We were filthy and the animals were exhausted. I think I heard one child ask his mother why the sheep looked sick. We added height to the pen (about another six feet). Now it looked more like a jail than a sheep pen. Everyone took their places. Serenity was restored and Jesus had animals at his birthday.
What we have here is a parable of ignorant shepherds taking stubborn sheep where they don’t want to go in a way that they don’t want to be taken. Sheep do what they want. Watch them and pray they won’t jump the fence. Don’t rope them. It only makes things worse.
With that in mind, you might consider reading 2 Corinthians 3:6-18. If you’re a spiritual leader do you see people whom you are leading being “transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory?” If not, ask God if part of the reason might be that you are ministering the letter more than the Lord of the letter, or that you are trying to rope sheep rather than lead them. If you have a dear brother or sister who could stand to be reminded of this, please pass it on them.