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Lessons from a Sheep Dog
By Phillip Keller
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2002 W. Phillip Keller
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLesson 1 In the Wrong Hands
As the owner of Fairwinds, I quickly realized I would need help to run the ranch and handle the flock efficiently. That assistance had to come from a faithful, loyal Border collie, bred and disciplined for this unique work.
Though I was an energetic young man I simply could not round up the sheep alone. The flock often scattered and fled in five directions. No matter how fast I ran or how loud I shouted the sheep still strayed in their own stubborn way.
So I was obliged to find a coworker, an "under-shepherd," in a sheep dog who would carry out my will in managing my flock. Working together in harmony, one good sheep dog and myself could accomplish as much as five men.
The same precise principle holds true in God's dealing with men and women. The Lord called Himself the Good Shepherd. He pictured Himself for us as the one who had come to care for the "lost sheep." He carefully instructed His disciples to be His colaborers and feed and tend His ewes and lambs.
After His resurrection, Jesus met His young friends beside the Lake of Galilee, and there prepared for them a breakfast of fish and chappatis. When the meal was over He turned to Peter, asking him three times:
"Peter, do you really love me? Are you really my friend?" When the burly young man assured the Master of his loyalty and love, Jesus responded three times by saying:
"Peter, feed my lambs."
"Peter, feed my sheep."
"Peter, feed my sheep."
This was the special labor, the unique work to which he was assigned.
It has been well said that "God has no hands in the world but our hands. He has no feet here but our feet. He has no lips but our lips." This is stating the rather obvious case that our Father God chooses to carry on His purpose through the fallible agency of common people.
He can, and does, break through into human affairs in supernatural ways. Yet in the main He chooses to use us ordinary people to accomplish His grand designs. Seen in this dimension we begin to perceive the enormous honor He bestows on those chosen to become His coworkers.
Very often, as in my first encounter with Lass, He finds us cast in the wrong role, caught in the toils of our own intransigence, abused and misused by the wrong hands of an uncaring master.
This truth struck me with tremendous impact the day I drove up to the lady's gate and heard her rant and rave about her "crazy collie." She had no inkling of how to handle such a beautiful creature, bred for special service. Nor did she seem to care that all the potential locked up in this animal had gone wrong.
It was a profound portrait of so many of us. For in the dusty dog hobbled with chains, I saw portrayed the plight of men and women who, originally destined for noble service, have fallen into the wrong hands. Now they groveled in the despair of wasted, misspent years.
The skilled master-breeders of the border counties in Britain had produced sheep dogs of acute intelligence and enormous energy. A beautiful specimen like Lass carried within her the capacity for outstanding work.
But she had to be in the right hands! She had to come into the care of a good shepherd. She had to have her old habits broken and her instincts channeled into the purposes for which she had been bred.
The same principle holds true for us. We have been created in the generous sovereignty of God to achieve great things with Him. He endows us with the capacity to carry out His will and do His work in the world, as we work together under His care. It is His intention that we should touch lives, enrich spirits, and bring souls into His care and management.
For this to happen we must be loosed from the tyranny of the wrong owner. We must be released from servitude to sin, to self, and to our slave-master, Satan.
This implies, of course, that a person is unshackled from one owner, to be brought under the management of another. There is no such thing as "absolute freedom." For even though human beings are free agents, they must come under the control of forces and influences greater than themselves.
Often, young people boast of being free to do as they wish, to go wherever they will, or become whatever they choose. This is only partially true. For though they may not realize it, their decisions, their behavior, their lifestyle are not those of their own free will. Rather, they are conditioned, shaped, and directed by the hands that govern them.
Unfortunately, Lass had fallen into the wrong hands. Under the mishandling of the wrong owner, her talent had been twisted and subverted for destructive ends. Her vitality and instincts were being wasted on chasing boys and bicycles. Her capacity for worthwhile work was expended on the empty pursuit of cars.
The upshot was, day by day, she herself unwittingly was forging the shackles of steel that bound her.
We do exactly the same. Jesus stated categorically: "Every one who commits sin is a slave to sin" (John 8:24 RSV).
Those who brag about being free seldom realize they are inexorably bound by their own destructive lifestyles. They are trapped in the toils of their own destructive decisions and desires.
Nor can they be loosed except by the loving hands of the Good Shepherd.
As I approached Lass on the day that I found her in such a forlorn state, she met me with blazing eyes, low growls, and bared teeth. She did not want me to touch her. She trembled at the tone of my unfamiliar voice.
This was not surprising. She had been misused, abused, twisted and torn in spirit. How or why should she trust anyone?
And this is precisely the same with us when first the Great Shepherd comes to us with outstretched hands. We resist His approach. We resent His voice calling us. We recoil in fear from His overtures of good will.
Doubts and misgivings surge through our minds. We cringe from His coming. Our wills are set in stern resistance. We are convinced we will suffer abuse at His hands.
But it is only the hand of God that sets us free. It is His strong hands that can train us to move in new directions. It is His gentle, yet strong, hands which can handle us with skill and love and strength. It is His hands which can change our character, alter our conduct, and send us out to do great and noble service.
The first owner Lass had did not understand dogs. She did not care about the lofty capabilities of this beautiful creature. She wanted only to get rid of Lass as quickly as possible.
Few of us think seriously about the sinister and subversive character of Satan. To many people he is almost less than real, sometimes supposed to be nothing more than a superstitious phantom or a product of man's imagination.
The terrible truth is he is very real, very active, and exceedingly deceptive. While appearing to give us liberty by allowing us to do whatever we wish in response to our own inherent selfishness or sin, he watches us enslave and destroy ourselves.
Ultimately, in the case of Lass, unless a new owner had intervened, she would have been destroyed.
Happily that did not happen. A stranger showed up in her backyard that day. His coming would change the entire tenor of her life. This one who came saw beyond the dirt and dust that clogged her mottled coat. He saw the magnificent head, the strong constitution, the beautiful body so well proportioned. He knew the powerful potential for good locked within this tormented creature.
So bravely, boldly, I unshackled her chains and unhobbled her legs. I put my own soft collar upon her and took her to my home.
She had passed from one set of hands into another. At first it was terrifying. But one day she would know it was all very wonderful.
Many of us have been under the wrong management—in the wrong hands. We have been so mishandled that all of the original, superb purposes for which we were created have been distorted. We are virtual slaves to sin, to ourselves, and to Satan.
Yet the Stranger of Galilee comes into our lives. He looks upon us with love and sees beyond our sins. He extends His knowing hands to take us into His care.
We are not always keen to go. Life under the old master has made us suspicious. In our human ignorance we are convinced that to come into Christ's care can be even worse bondage than before.
As I put Lass into my old car and started down the road to Fairwinds she was sure something terrible was about to happen. She crouched on the floor behind my seat, trembling and tense with apprehension. It would take weeks and months for Lass to fully discover that her new master had only her best interests at heart.
It takes some of us a lifetime to learn that Christ, our Good Shepherd, knows exactly what He is doing with us. He understands us perfectly. He manages us with incredible wisdom and loving skill, both for our benefit and His.
Bless His Name!
Chapter TwoLesson 2 Set Free—to Follow
Long before I brought Lass home to stay with us, I had painstakingly prepared a new kennel for the special dog that would share our life at Fairwinds. In my mind's eye I had pictured a Border collie that would work with me on the ranch, share in the care of the sheep, and become a virtual member of our family.
There was a new leash as well; there were also clean dishes to hold fresh food and water. Everything was in readiness for the dog chosen to be my companion and coworker. There was so much at stake in this selection. The successful operation of the ranch depended on a good dog. The skillful handling of the sheep was bound up in the creature's capacity to work obediently. My own contentment in managing the flock rested in her responsiveness to my commands.
All of these hopes, dreams, and aspirations moved through my mind as I drove home with Lass in the car. At last we pulled up at our gate. Gently I opened it, then drove to our rustic cottage perched on a rise of ground overlooking the sea.
Here in our country setting all was tranquil. Only the wind in the trees, the tide running against the rocks, the gulls and crows wheeling and crying in the breeze above the shore, broke the silence.
There would be no boys racing on bicycles. No cars roaring up the road. No traffic din or city noises to distract and disturb. Lass was coming into a new setting of quiet serenity. She was entering the life of a brand-new master. What would she do?
Her initial reaction was to slink away, crouched low in the grass, in commingled fear and foreboding. Had she not been on a long leash she would have fled into the nearby forest behind our home.
Speaking to her softly, petting her gently, I led her to the kennel standing in the shade of a lovely oak. She simply stared at it, refusing to enter. Instead she stubbornly crouched at the entrance, staring up at me with defiant eyes.
My wife, thrilled and excited by the beautiful dog, brought out a heaping bowl of food. I fetched another dish full of water for her. She ignored both of our offerings. She refused to touch either the food or drink.
This went on day after day. I was utterly dismayed. There was no sign of positive response. Her form became gaunt and wasted as day followed day.
In a bold and desperate act I undid her leash and set her free.
In a flash she was gone. Like a fleeing phantom she vanished into the woods. I wondered if ever I would see her again.
I drove up and down our country road in hope of finding her. I called at neighboring ranches. I combed our fields and ocean edge. But no sign of Lass.
In the anguish of my search, I began to understand a little of the sorrow God endures, amid all His endeavors to draw us to Him. Again and again we refuse His benefits offered to us. Belligerently we rebuff His love and concern.
Yet, in spite of her indifference and unyielding resistance, I had an enormous empathy for the dog. I longed to redeem her. I was consumed with a desire to make her into a loving, loyal companion. I yearned to see her rise to the potential that lay dormant within her.
All of these hopes seemed dashed into dust, until one evening I looked up onto the edge of a rough rock outcrop behind the cottage. There she was!
I decided to take food and water up to her lookout. Every morning it was gone. And yet every evening she would be back. Every time I approached her, called her by name, or whistled, she vanished, spirited away like smoke whisked away in the wind.
I began to wonder if this distant dog would ever become truly mine. She did not mind eating the food set out for her; she drank the water poured out for her; she relished the total freedom she had been given.
But she was not mine. Nor was I hers!
Caught up in this stand-off, the gracious Spirit of God brought home to my heart with great clarity the predicament in which people put themselves before God.
The Master comes to us in our plight. He offers to take us into His family. He spares no pains to provide all that is necessary for our welfare and contentment. He speaks to us reassuringly. He calls us by name. He sets us totally free.
Yet the personal response of most people is to recoil from Him. They resent His approach. They refuse to respond to His overtures of compassion. They flee to escape from His hands.
The paradox in this belligerent behavior is that at the same time they do not mind taking advantage of Christ's benefits, but at the moment and place of their own choosing in their own self-willed way.
God in Christ has come and set people free. He has placed before them the benefits and delights of belonging to His family. He has made available to them His love, His care, His provisions in generous measure.
In spite of this, their liberty and freedom is used for selfish ends. They insist on doing their own thing—in their own way—at their own time. They are not under the Master's control. All the good of which they are capable comes to nothing.
One night a few ewes and lambs grazed up near the rock where Lass would lay. I saw her sit up, cock her head, and watch them with great intensity. Perhaps her latent instincts to shepherd sheep were coming to life.
Each evening when the day's chores were done, I would direct a few sheep toward her ... hoping this might somehow help to establish contact between us.
But nothing seemed to elicit her positive response. I began to wonder if all my overtures of love were in vain. The dark prospect that she might have to be destroyed loomed ever larger.
This was the most poignant lesson I learned from Lass. It was she who eventually must make the decision whether or not she would come to me, entrust her life to my care, allow me to control her conduct.
At this point in my own walk with God I had been bewildered by the conflicting views and highly divergent doctrines debated within Christendom. Discussions on the absolute sovereignty of God as held by the extreme Calvinists, and the grave responsibility of man as taught by the Arminians had always dismayed me. For in the final analysis the issue always arises as to the ultimate end of man.
Does he decide his own destiny? Does he determine his own destruction? Does he discover that hell or heaven are of his own choice, not God's.
In my agonizing approaches and appeals to Lass I saw with intense clarity that both views were correct, complementary, and reconciled within the response of an individual's will.
As her new master, I had done everything I could within my power and sovereign love for her. Now she, in response to my compassion, would have to choose to come to me of her own free will, yet ever drawn by my overtures of concern.
The last thing in the world I wanted was to have this dog destroyed. Just the thought grieved me. I cringed from the very prospect of losing this lovely creature.
God's Word is very clear in this whole matter. He does not come to condemn us. He does not desire to destroy us.
We ourselves choose what our end shall be. We are free to follow our own feeble ways, or we are free to follow Him who came to deliver us from the despair of our own dilemma.
Excerpted from Lessons from a Sheep Dog by Phillip Keller Copyright © 2002 by W. Phillip Keller. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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