Letters to Peregrinus #66 - On the Scattering of Sheep

Good Shepherd by Jean Baptiste de Champaigne
“Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him ”
- J.R.R. Tolkien
The Fellowship of the Ring
Dear Peregrinus:  (A Wednesday in July)

Well, my dear friend, it has been another journey around the sun since I, Tara Ludwig, have written to you last.  A full and busy year for our family, as my Matty and I continue to shepherd our three little ones and watch the beautiful majesty of their lives unfold.  I hope you have been well and look forward to hearing the many tales from your travels along the pilgrim’s road this past year.  

You have been on my mind lately as Matty and I navigate a new challenge with one of our children.  Our youngest, Gesumina (who, if you remember, is nearly three) has developed trichotillomania , the habit of compulsively pulling out her own hair.  I had never heard of such a thing before, Peregrinus, have you?  Alas, motherhood is full of such surprises. Thankfully, after consulting with many doctors and therapists we have learned that there is no underlying medical cause to her hair pulling, and the condition is entirely behavioral.  Still, it has been hard for me, as a mother, that where my baby once had beautiful golden curls, she now has only bald patches with bare, sunburnt scalp, and erratic scraps of scraggly hair.  She looks to me like a child that is severely ill; a toddler with leukemia, or heart disease.  And I have cried many tears over this, Peregrinus.  

Recently I was upset after finding more clumps of hair on the floor, where Gesumina had let them fall after pulling them out, and Matty asked me why I was taking it so hard.  I responded that it was agonizing for me, terribly frightening really, to see her looking so sick.  And Matty, in his quiet way, said to me gently:  

“But she’s not sick, Tara.  She’s not sick.”

And it struck me Peregrinus, that many of us might need the reminder right now that things are not always as they appear.  Because in these dark days we are gazing out upon an entire world that looks sick. It is a time in history where violence, strife, and injustice seem to have poisoned society beyond reckoning, where the venom of hatred seems to have spread irrevocably within our institutions, our communities, and our relationships.  We can all see the symptoms of a world in its death throes, and I hear from many friends and family that they fear we are a people past hope.    

But what if the darkness we see spreading over the world is not the full story, is not all that’s real?  What if, like with my bare-headed little Gesumina, what appears to be racked with disease and damage on the outside is still vibrantly full of beautiful, profound goodness and life on the inside?  
I do not wonder this because I wear rose-colored glasses, Peregrinus.  I am well and fully aware of the evils of our times, and they weigh heavily on my spirit; I find the world a hard place to be, and always have.  There is no naïveté in me.  So it is not through the voice of a false optimism or resolute ignorance that I ask if there is more going on here than what we can see.  

Rather, it is because I understand that Evil is heavily invested in causing people to fall into despair.  And so it is in the best interest of the Evil One to keep our minds and hearts preoccupied with darkness, to colonize our imaginations with images of wickedness and cruelty, such that we are overthrown by fear and cease to lay hope in what is still good and beautiful.  

Now, wickedness and cruelty are real Peregrinus, I do not dispute it.  But they are not all that is real, and the dark powers of the world would have us forget that.  

If you recall, Peregrinus, my family loves to explore wild places, and we are often out in nature having adventures.  But being in nature in Oregon comes with the risk of encountering black bears and mountain lions; they are a reality of our state, especially in some of the lesser-traveled corners where we like to romp, so Matty and I are well-versed in what to do if we should ever meet one of these powerful animals.  And the first strategy, if you come face to face with a bear or mountain lion, is to make yourself look bigger than you really are : you open your jacket wide, put your arms above your head, stand on a rock, anything to trick the animal into thinking that you are a big, dangerous opponent not worth fighting.  

And it seems to me that this is also what Evil does, Peregrinus.  It is in the habit of threatening us by making itself look larger than it really is, so that we will feel hopeless to fight against it.  Indeed, we are constantly bombarded by media images of unthinkable despair, news stories and videos that relentlessly show us only the worst of what humanity has conjured against itself.  And it is tempting, in the face of such pervasive suffering, to wonder if there are monsters that are beyond the powers of God to vanquish.  

But I am comforted when I remember Peregrinus, that whereas Evil is in the business of making itself look larger to scare us, God has the opposite inclination.  Because while Evil prefers to show itself in big, flashy, aggressive ways (so as to best capture our attention and imaginations), God tends to reveal Himself through small, quiet, and unobtrusive means:

And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?  (1 Kings 19:11-13)  

God spoke to Elijah not in the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the still, small voice.  Just like Jesus entered the world not as a rich, mighty king on a golden throne, but as a soft, tiny infant cradled in his mother’s arms.  And I am convinced, Peregrinus, that even in these profoundly troubled times, Goodness itself continues to come to us quietly every day, in gentle, unremarkable ways; but we must be wise and disciplined enough to know how to see it, and to recognize God at work in all things, just below the surface.  

On warm summer days I love taking my children to the Gresham Farmer’s Market.  We were there on a recent Saturday, and as my little ones played in the Children’s Fountain, I watched the goings-on of the crowd:  people enjoying live music, eating donuts from Grandma’s Food Truck, buying vegetables, sitting on the grass laughing and talking.   A perfectly ordinary, carefree summer day.  

And it struck me, Peregrinus, that most of what happens in the world every day, is just this:  people behaving decently and peacefully going about their lives.  On any given day, most people—in fact billions of people—do not commit acts of unspeakable violence, do not enter a school with a gun and murder children, do not set off bombs to kill people they have never met.  Instead, they just do the daily work of living an ordinary, unremarkable life.  True, each day there are a handful of people across the globe who choose to hurt others, who choose to create chaos and carnage.  But billions of us, the majority of us, choose not to.  

Most days, most people choose to do the right thing.  They go to work to take care of their families, they make food for their children, wait their turn in line at the supermarket, and hold the door open for someone at the library.  Daily life is full of these small, hidden graces, the little kindnesses that keep civilization alive and running.  And I wonder, Peregrinus, given God’s choice to “play small” in the world, if humanity’s micro-works of goodness are actually a reflection of His own nature, and perhaps there is really nothing “small” about them at all.  

But such unglamorous things never make headlines.  Our newspapers and social media and phone notifications do not make it a priority to remind us that most people are good and decent.  No, they thrive on the opposite; they relish in invading our consciousness with stories of mankind at its worst.  Goodness and decency have been made invisible, and instead it is what is most evil that is most apparent, violence and cruelty which have been made to seem perfectly ordinary.  

And it is here is where I sense a great evil at work in the world, Peregrinus: in those forces that are intent on keeping us afraid of each other.  

In a letter he wrote to you a few months back, our mutual friend, Rick Ganz, said, “gifts from above are most often given in other human beings, so that we might learn how to find them there ”.  And it is true, in my experience and in my readings of the Scriptures, that God so often comes to us through other people.  I am disciplined, Peregrinus, about teaching my children to look for this, and to recognize when God touches our day through human kindness.  When a young woman at the UPS store smiled at Sabina and gave her a sticker for being patient, this was God at work; when the vendor at a festival gave Gesumina a second balloon because hers floated away, this was God’s mercy; and when Cirocco received a box of cake pops from his grandparents who miss him, I said, “here is the love of God in our midst”.  

We encounter God every day through the care and goodness of other people.  So the Evil One, who is cunning, knows to attack right at the heart of that relationship by tricking us into seeing other people as enemies so that we will miss it when God is working through them.  And what I notice happening in the world right now, Peregrinus, is a dangerous ease around making people into enemies; a lack of effort to see the genuine good in each other, a quickness to categorize people as the “right type” of person or the “wrong type” of person, and then either accept or reject them accordingly: this person has the right kind of bumper sticker, so they are the good kind of person, this other person has the wrong kind of sign in their front yard so they are the bad kind of person, etc.  As soon as we have placed someone into the “bad” category, we have dehumanized them, reduced them from a real person into a caricature, and we do not remember to look for the ways that God might be alive in them.  

And yet, how often we use the name of God to justify our conception of who the “right” and “wrong” types of people are!  “God would not like that they do this”, or “God would not approve of them.” But blame and division are not God’s way; Jesus was precisely in the habit of befriending exactly those who society said were the “wrong” kinds of people—lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, Gentiles.  No, it is we humans, not God, who are so adept at disunity.  As my favorite author, Anne Lamott, has said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

I worry about how this increasing alienation from our fellow man is causing us to act in the world, Peregrinus.  We are too easily forgetting that most people, even those who disagree with us, are ordinary and decent and want the same things we do.  We are being trained to make enemies of each other instead of uniting against the enemy, the true Enemy.  

I am sure you know well that the Scriptures often use the image of a flock of sheep as a metaphor for humanity.  I offer just a few passages here for your consideration:

And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, because it is written, ‘I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.’”  (Mark 14:27)

They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered.  (Ezekiel 34:5)

He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  (John 10:12)

Do you notice, Peregrinus, that in every passage, when the sheep are frightened and have no shepherd, they abandon each other?  Each runs off its own way; and it is once the sheep are alone that they are most in danger of being consumed by wild beasts.  It is like this with people, Peregrinus.  We are all afraid, overwhelmed by a society gone mad, and in our panic we are abandoning each other, forsaking each other to the wolves of the world.  

I will not live this way, Peregrinus.  And I will not teach my beautiful, sweet children to think or act this way.  I will teach them to be unafraid, and I will teach them to love fiercely:  

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  (Luke 6:27-28)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?  (Matthew 5:43-47)

We have all heard it before, Peregrinus, but perhaps it is worth repeating, again and again, that God has commanded us to love each other.  And not just to love the “right” kind of people, the ones with bumper stickers and yard signs we approve of, but to love all kinds of people, even the ones we disagree with, don’t understand, or don’t like very much.  Our current cultural moment makes it so clear why God has commanded this; love is the only way to turn our enemies, and ourselves, back into human beings.  

These last few months our family has had a remarkable young woman named Arianna living with us.  Arianna (who is 26) and I could easily be understood, on paper, to be enemies:  we follow differing threads of the Christian tradition, come from very different backgrounds, and are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  I was concerned, when Arianna first moved into our home, that our disparities would cause tension, or create an impenetrable barrier during her time with us.  

But what I found, Peregrinus, is that when you get to know someone as a human being, with feelings, hopes, dreams, childhood memories, fears, and wounds—in other words, as a real person, and not a bumper sticker slogan or a hashtag—it is much harder to hate them.   Once I had seen Arianna in her fuzzy pajama bottoms, watched her delight my children playing hide-
and-seek and doing arts and crafts together, stayed up late with her drinking bubble tea and playing mystery games, it was unthinkable to me that I could do anything but love her.  And I do love her, dearly, Peregrinus.  In spite of our differences, we have listened to each other, learned from each other, and grown each other in beautiful complex ways that I’m deeply grateful for.

This is what God is so good at, Peregrinus; creating connection, compassion between people, bringing them together.  Let me return for a moment to the Scriptural metaphor of humanity as a flock of sheep.  Notice how, in the presence of the Good Shepherd, something very different happens to the sheep:

He who scattered Israel will gather him and keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.  (Jeremiah 31:10)

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.  (Isaiah 40:11)

They will hear my voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.  (John 10:16)

Do you see it Peregrinus?  When the sheep know they are safe under the protection of the shepherd they gather together.  They do not break away from each other, scattering across the land, every sheep for himself.  They are brought together by the love of the Good Shepherd.  
I offer these to you, Peregrinus, my deepest thoughts as a mother and a woman who sees with open eyes all the same darkness and damage in the world that you see, and still dares to hope against hope that peace will prevail.  Please do let me know if anything I have written stands out to you, as I always look forward to receiving your thoughts.  Goodbye for now.  

With Love in Christ,
Tara Ludwig

No Comments