One of my earliest memories of my mother is of her sitting cross-legged on the floor of our living room surrounded by a massive pile of freshly-washed wool from the sheep she raised on our Oregon farm. In her hands she held two slightly curved wooden paddles with sharp metal bristles to card the wool.
Working the wool between the paddles, she would loosen the tightly-clumped fibers from sheep she’d shorn herself in the back barn, pinning them between her legs to buzz off their heavy fleeces in the heat of the summer the way a barber might buzz-cut an unruly child. The combing not only prepared the fiber for spinning, but caught bits of hay and grass that tangled in the sheep’s fleece, making it too rough to use.
Mom didn’t just own sheep, she loved and knew them intimately – which ones were most apt to try to escape from the safety of the pasture, which ones consistently bore twins, which young ram would try to pin her against the fence.
The Bible often likens us to sheep. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way,” the prophet Isaiah wrote (53:6). I’ve often heard pastors, most of whom have never run a farm, say that God calls us sheep because we–like they–are stupid.
No, God calls us sheep because we are vulnerable. Apart from the protection of the shepherd, we have no natural defense against the evil one, God’s enemy, who scripture says roams the earth like a hungry lion. We also tend to clump together and follow others, sometimes to our destruction.
And he calls us sheep because we have something valuable to provide. The work we pursue, the goodness we produce, the sum of how we invest our time and energy is like wool – warm, comforting, and ready to be twisted and knit into something precious in the hands of a skilled spinner, like my mom.
It takes work to prepare a fleece. First, it must be painstakingly cleaned, carded, and spun into yarn before it can be knit into a sweater or hat or blanket – something of usefulness and value. This is a labor intensive process. Mom often worked while watching Masterpiece Theatre, PBS’s long-running drama series. Then she’d pull out her spinning wheel and get to work, hands twisting mounds of clean, soft wool into something beautiful.
This month, taking care of my mother’s house, I came upon her spinning wheel – along with several boxes and bags of wool – some smoothly carded, some still rough – that she’d saved from our farm all those decades ago. Digging my hands deep into the fibers, I was filled with comfort and peace, recognizing all the beauty she had created with the time and talents God gave her, not just on the farm but in the decades after.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says in John 10:14. “I know my own and my own know me… and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
In God’s fold – following the Good Shepherd – we are not only known and counted and protected, we are loved as he turns the rough, tangled wool of our lives into something precious.