by Glenn Crumpler
While walking through a friend’s sheep pasture many years ago, I came across a strange sight – but one I have always remembered. Most all the sheep looked to be in pretty good shape … some better than others, but they all looked healthy. As I walked and examined them one by one, some movement in the distance caught my attention. I crossed over the terrace to get a better view of what I had seen. I found a really nice ewe on her side, gasping for air and frantically kicking her legs. My first thought was that she was lambing (in birthing labor), but further investigation ruled that out.
About that time, the owner arrived and thanked me for finding his cast sheep! I had never heard that word before in this context.
"What do you mean by ‘cast’?" I asked.
"Well, this is one of the most frequent things you really have to look for when you have sheep," he explained, "especially fat ones, ones getting close to lambing and ones carrying a heavy load of wool like this one.
"Often times the heavy, fat sheep will lie down in some little hollow or depression in the ground. It may roll on its side slightly to stretch out and get comfortable. Eventually, the center of gravity in its body shifts so it turns on its back so far its feet no longer touch the ground. This causes the sheep to panic and it begins to paw frantically. This usually only makes the problem worse because it will roll even further onto its back. Now it is cast and virtually impossible for it to get back on its feet without assistance.
"As it lies there struggling, gases begin to build up in the rumen. As these gases expand, they tend to slow down and eventually cut off the blood flow to the legs. In hot weather, a cast sheep can die in just a few hours. In cool or rainy weather, it may live in this condition for several days. If you do not arrive on the scene within a relatively short period of time, the sheep will die.
"This is why, with sheep, you must always keep an accurate count. If one is missing, you can find the cast sheep before it dies or is killed by a predator."
Knowing any cast sheep is helpless, close to death and vulnerable to attack, makes the whole problem a very serious concern for the owner.
As I write this article, I have just finished preaching my fourth funeral within a two-week period, the first one being my Mama’s. At some point in these services, and in most Christian funerals, the 23rd Psalm is read or at least referred to during the service or at the graveside. Even to those who are deeply rooted in the Christian faith, this verse often brings a sense of calm, hope and assurance more than any other verse.
One thing we learn from the life of King David, who wrote the Psalm, is that he is very experientially familiar with all the characteristics of sheep and what it means to be a good shepherd. He also knows the difference between a good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep, and a hired hand, who does not love the sheep and will run away when danger approaches and leave the vulnerable sheep to fend for themselves.
In the 23rd Psalm, we also see David knows by experience the hope of a cast sheep who belongs to THE Good Shepherd!
In Psalm 42:11, King David cried out, "Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope thou in God ...." (American Standard Version) He was using terms he knew from years of being both a good shepherd and a vulnerable sheep to describe his own personal condition and feelings when he found himself completely cast and unable to help himself.
Though he finds himself cast, he knows that his Shepherd is indeed a Good Shepherd who knows exactly what He is doing. When a good shepherd searches for and finds a cast sheep, he lifts it to its feet. Then straddling the sheep with his legs, holds it erect, rubbing its limbs to restore the circulation to its legs. This often takes a significant amount of time and work. When the sheep finally starts to walk again, it often stumbles and staggers around only to collapse into a heap once more. Little by little, the once-cast sheep will regain its equilibrium until it can once again begin to walk steadily, being completely restored and brought back into the fellowship of the flock and the presence and care of the Shepherd. David knows from experience that the Good Shepherd to whom he belongs will not give up on him (the lost or cast sheep) until He has found him and restored him.
There is something intimately personal, tender and loving, but also intensely riddled with danger, in this picture. On one hand, there is the cast sheep, so utterly immobilized and completely helpless – though strong, healthy and flourishing. On the other hand, there is the attentive shepherd, quick and anxious to come to its rescue – ever patient, tender, helpful and merciful. He comes to us quietly, gently and reassuringly – no matter when, where or how many times we may be cast down. Psalm 56:13 is good commentary on this concept. "For You have delivered my soul from death. Have You not kept my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?" (New King James Version)
If we are honest, most of us born-again Christians – though we belong to Christ, our Lord, and we desire to do His will and be led by Him – occasionally find ourselves cast down for one reason or another. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:12, "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." (New American Standard 1977) Sometimes it is when we are most assured of ourselves that we stumble and fall. When we appear and believe we are flourishing in our faith and beyond the risk of stumbling, it is often then we find ourselves in a cast-down situation – utterly frustrated, discouraged, depressed and feeling like a failure – unable to pick ourselves up.
Like sheep, sometimes we become cast because we are looking for a soft spot, an easy place, where there is no hardship or risk and no need for endurance or self-discipline. Like the rich young ruler in Scripture, we think we are safe when we are on the verge of being cast down. In this case, the Good Shepherd may move us to a new pasture where things are not as easy and we are less likely to become cast. This too will be for our good.
A second reason we may become cast is just because we are carrying around too much wool. We may be clinging to the accumulation of things and the pursuit of earthly desires and pleasures that weigh, drag and hold us down. In this case, the Good Shepherd may have to shear us to free and keep us from becoming cast by the weight of our own self-centeredness.
Sheep do not enjoy the shearing process. They kick and struggle, getting a few scrapes and cuts. It is also a lot of work for the shepherd, but occasionally it must be done. This is usually not a pleasant process but it sure brings relief when we are free from all the worries.
Another reason is because our fleece gets burdened down by mud, manure, burrs and other debris. This is when we succumb to our temptations and fall into willful sin. This may be the easiest to see, but it is often the most hurtful and the hardest to overcome. But even then, the Good Shepherd will take us in hand and apply the cutting edge of His sword – the Word of God – that pierces our soul, brings us to repentance and frees us from the sin that weighs us down. This too can be unpleasant, but what a restoration!
Many people have the misconception that when a child of God falls, frustrated, helpless and in a spiritual dilemma, God becomes disgusted, angry and fed up. The fact is that this is not accurate. We see God’s heart in this matter when we realize He sent Jesus to be our Shepherd. He has the same identical concern and compassion a good shepherd has for a cast sheep. He comes quickly and eagerly, ready to help, to forgive, to save and to restore. All we have to do is surrender and cooperate in His restoration process.
This is why David said in Psalm 23, "The Lord is MY shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake ...." David knew what it was to be cast and what it was to be restored by the Good Shepherd! He learned his Shepherd would always be looking out for him. If ever he fell, the Good Shepherd would seek him out to restore him. All he had to do and all we have to do is cooperate with our Shepherd and allow Him to do in our lives whatever He needs to do so we can be fully restored in our relationship with Him, with others and even with ourselves.
The Lord – He is my Shepherd!Glenn Crumpler is is president of Cattle for Christ International, Inc. He can be contacted at 334-393-4700 (home), 333-4400 (mobile) or www.CattleforChrist.com