My Own Personal ‘Shepherd’s Staff’

For a few months now, I’ve been carrying around three small stones that I picked up on the coast of Maine while visiting family this past August.

One of my favorite pastimes while oceanside is to walk the beach looking for unusually-colored or oddly-shaped stones thrown up on the shore by the waves. The East Coast beach we have been visiting annually is fairly rocky, and many of the stones are nearly-perfectly oval…and very smooth. I started collecting a handful of these stones during every visit over the course of the last four years, and now my home has these reminders of Maine – a precious time of quiet restoration in the lives of our family – displayed around our home in various places.

Humility, Trust and GratitudeBut these three particular stones are reminders of a different kind, and I have been carrying them with me as often as possible. They serve to remind me of three qualities that I believe are key to living out faith in the day-to-day routine, qualities that I so often lack as I hurry from place to place, task to task. The three qualities that I believe, combined, help me actively live out my faith when things get hard are humility, trust, and gratitude. Fleshed out, here’s what I mean when I use those three words to remind me what lived-out faith looks like:

  • Humility: I need to accept – without questioning – that even in the worst of situations, God is at work. I don’t have to understand why such-and-such was allowed to pass through His fingers; I simply need to accept that it did.
  • Trust: The default position of my heart should be to trust that God’s plan for “my” day and “my” week is far better than my own, and far surpasses the value of the temporal things I am tempted to focus on.
  • Gratitude: Instead of constantly looking for my next blessing, I need to focus on all the things I can already be grateful for, even in the midst of a difficult situation.

But even knowing all that, here’s how things too often play out “on the ground” as I begin my drift away from God.

A few weeks ago, my husband woke up sick, on a Monday, with what looked like the beginnings of a bad head cold. “No problem so far.” He stayed home in bed while I took our son to school that morning, then went through my day knowing he didn’t feel well enough to play his typical support role in family life. “Sure, I can do this.” I made dinner on my own, cleaned up afterwards, shepherded our son through his evening, got him to bed…all good.

The next day, though, Warren felt no better. In fact, he thought his head felt a little worse. So…my Tuesday looked much like my Monday and, again, I made it through my day thinking, “I got this. No problem. I can care for my husband by picking up the slack.” I even spent some time encouraging him when he expressed frustration over this particularly-ill-timed illness, gently reminding him to trust the sovereignty of God and to simply accept his reality and rest.

Great words. Wise advice. I wish I’d been listening to myself.

By the time we entered into Thursday, Day Four, it seemed clear that Warren was “legitimately sick” and should probably see a doctor.

I was getting edgy. Annoyed. Not with him, of course. I knew that he couldn’t help the fact that he had gotten sick, but I was getting tired of the way in which his illness was impacting my day, my agenda, my plan for my life. I found that I had offered wisdom to my husband a mere few days earlier, inspired by the three little stones I carry around, and yet not thought to apply them to my own situation. Lord, have mercy on me! I can be so blind, so hypocritical! Even with physical reminders intentionally carried on my person – reminders I myself chose for the very purpose of “righting myself” when I start to go south – I had once again wandered off into the weeds of unbelief and rebellion, chafing that I wasn’t in control.

There are probably a lot of reasons why Jesus uses sheep as a word picture for His children. As you consider the entire animal kingdom, sheep are not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer and we human beings are clearly prone to a lot of foolishness. Sheep have a tendency to wander off from the pack and endanger themselves in so doing; I don’t imagine those wandering sheep intentionally determine to put themselves in harm’s way. But, forgetting what safety looks like, they nevertheless wander over and over again, forgetting that the last time they wandered, they had to be rescued.

Much like the foolish sheep, it’s the tendency to wander that catches me off-guard most often.

I briefly considered abandoning “the three stones that had failed me” during that week of illness but, ultimately, it wasn’t the tool I’d chosen that was ineffective. It’s the stubbornness of my own heart at the root of that particular failure, and every other failure I can point to. I do believe that the foundational qualities of a Christ-follower that those stones represent came back to me more quickly because I had ascribed specific meaning to them and then kept them close at hand as reminders.

They continue to be tools I use as ever-present reminders of what I want to be true about me, about my faith.

My reason for sharing my need for visual reminders is to suggest that we all have just such a tendency to wander away from the truths that will keep us grounded in our faith, a living faith that believes that God is who He says He is. As forgetful people, we all need reminders.

Humility. Trust. Gratitude.

These are all good qualities, but they are not necessarily the three qualities every person needs to focus on. Perhaps for you, perseverance might be a key word you could use, if you are tempted to despair and walk away from your faith in the midst of a dark valley. Maybe steadfastness is a word you need to say to yourself over and over again, to help you believe that God is constantly with you and for you, no matter your performance, as you struggle with besetting sin. Your visual reminders don’t need to be stones you physically carry, either. Your “reset button” could be Bible verses written on a note card, maybe taped to your bathroom mirror, a constant reminder of some truth you need to cling to. Whatever you choose, my suggestion would be to ensure it’s something with which you must interact on a daily basis; car keys, computer keyboard…whatever.

Right now, my husband Warren and I are in what I would call an incredibly-busy season, but one marked by peace. It hasn’t always been that way.

A few years into our marriage, we went through a very long, very dark valley of trial. During that time, one of the truths I needed to cling to was that God steadfastly loves me. I needed to believe that what I was going through was part of His good plan for my life, even when it looked like nothing but destruction (Romans 8:28; Jeremiah 29:11). In some ways, it was easy for me to remember that humility is a part of the Christian life, because I was being humbled daily by circumstances out of my control.

In this season of peace – because I am a forgetful, wandering sheep – I need to actively remember to think humbly about the relatively minor difficulties that I’m faced with. Like a disruption of my planned agenda for my day (or week) caused by someone who dared to fall ill inconveniently! We are all so very foolish and forgetful, but I encourage you (and remind myself) not to despair, even when the visuals aren’t immediately helpful. They can still help us “run back to the fold” faster than we might have otherwise. Praise God we have a patient Rescuer who never tires of reminding us when we forget who we are and who He is.

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