From the Gospel according to John:
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 10:7-10 (NRSV) – March 20, 2013.)
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” This sentence really hit me today for a lot of very personal reasons I won’t get into. As I was doing my morning ablutions, I thought of the thieves who have stolen in and taken away loved ones, family members, and friends. I thought of how obvious those thieves were about it, and yet we passed those thieves off as simple eccentricities and odd behaviors.
The thieves of which I speak have names . . . names like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, glioblastoma, alcoholism, bipolar disorder, drug abuse, and the list goes on and on. When I think of these thieves and the havoc they wreak, I think of my cousin who served honorably in the U.S. Navy and then, after his discharge, slipped away from the family into the embrace of schizophrenia never to be seen again. I think of my father whose alcoholism led him away to death in a one-car motor vehicle accident. I think of my brother whose slightly strange behavior in speaking Italian to his spouse – who didn’t speak Italian – was the first sign of the glioblastoma (brain cancer) that took his life. I think of my mother-in-law whose occasional lapses of memory were the first steps of a slow downhill dance into the darkness of Alzheimer’s Disease. I think of the people I see in shabby clothing pushing supermarket trollies down the street muttering to themselves. They have all been stolen away by thieves, leaving behind families who grieve their loss and who may be in ignorance wondering where their loved ones are.
These thieves slip into the fold under the disguises of eccentricity, oddness, unconventionality, quirkiness, and peculiarity, none of which are the least bit objectionable in themselves. But in someone who isn’t or hasn’t been eccentric or quirky, they are the warning signs, the masks warn by the thieves.
In Nevada where I was born and raised, there was a thriving sheep industry at one time. (There may still be; I haven’t lived in Nevada for many years and really don’t know.) That is the reason there are so many people of Basque descent in Nevada and neighboring states; the Basque shepherds came to tend the flocks. I remember years ago reading that one of the things the shepherds had learned was the use of llamas as guard animals for their flocks. Llamas are accepted by the sheep as one of their own; the sheep are much more comfortable with the llamas than they are with sheepdogs. The llamas can mingle with the sheep and not upset them.
Llamas, however, are very different from sheep. Sheep, of course, are timid and easily frightened; sheep will run from something or someone strange. Llamas, on the other hand, are intensely curious animals and when something unknown approaches the flock, they will go toward it to see what’s up. If a coyote (the most common predator in the Nevada desert) approaches the flock, a llama will move toward it. Predators find this behavior disconcerting and even deadly! They will run away and not bother the sheep.
Llamas react to coyotes threatening the flock in a variety of ways. They begin with with an alert and attentive posture which alarms others in the herd or flock. The animal then makes a special alarm cry and often runs toward the threat. If the llama closes with the coyote, it will place itself between it and the flock, and even kick at the predator. Coyotes have been injured and even killed by llamas. Many shepherds who use llamas as guard animals have reported a 100 percent reduction in predator losses after employing the llamas.
We need to be like llamas. When we observe eccentricity, oddness, unconventional behavior, and peculiar conduct, deportment that is out of the ordinary in friends and loved ones, we need to move toward it, take a good look at it, figure it out. Is it just quirkiness? Or is it the mask of the thief of mental or physical illness.
Our Shepherd has come to give us life and give it abundantly, but there are thieves and predators prowling around – substance addictions, brain dysfunctions, emotional illnesses among them. They threaten to take us and those we love away from the abundant life our Shepherd promises. We can be the llamas in the flock, vigilant, curious, on guard, working with the Shepherd to prevent them from taking away his sheep. Be a llama for your loved ones! Be a llama in the Lord’s flock!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.