Everywhere we looked, the beauty took our breath away. From steep cliffs to large pastures of sheep and cattle to waterfalls surprising us at too many turns to count on the single-track mountain roads. One of us was always saying wow! Or, look to the right! Or, highland coos to the left! Or, did you see that? And yet, as we gushed over the landscape, we were reminded that the magic of this place was also thick with melancholy.
The Scottish Highlands was our last of three stops on a recent family vacation to the United Kingdom. While I loved all the places we visited in the UK, this particular place will stay with me for a long time.
The peaceful pastures, ragged rock ruins, and signs with both English and Gaelic throughout the northern half of Scotland are mysterious and magical, and they are also a reminder of the brutal history and strong spirit of the Scottish people. In the 1700-1800s, entire highland villages were forcibly removed from their land to make more room for sheep and to erase highland culture. Along with the removal of people, the Act of Proscription was passed to force assimilation. The law prohibited bagpipes, traditional clothing (Clan tartan), and the teaching of Scottish Gaelic.
Ruined rocks of remembrance scattered throughout the Scottish highlands reminded me that the land and the people who lived there have grieved and were grieved against for the sake of power, profit, and control.
In John 21, Jesus gives His disciple, Peter, a three-fold command to feed His sheep. Our resurrected Jesus appeared and took the time to feed His disciples on the shore of Galilee. He then asks a full-bellied and full-spirited Peter if he loves Him. Each time Peter declares that yes, he loves Him, and Jesus responds to that declaration with a command to “feed His sheep.” Jesus was telling Peter that loving Him, the Shepherd and King of kings, would be proven by his feeding, caring for, and tending to, Jesus’ sheep — His people. Peter’s love for Jesus and his leadership had to be motivated by serving others in love — never to be proven by proclamation, power, and profit.
It’s easy to imagine Jesus holding a soft fluffy sheep or standing among a flock with a shepherd’s staff, but when we were walking through pastures full of sheep, I was struck by the smell and how hard it was to dodge the sheep droppings that covered the grass and walking paths. The sheep huddled together in groups, adorable but leery. They were cautious of us, constantly skittering away to keep a safe distance. They were much messier, more varied, mistrusting, and wild than I would’ve imagined them to be.
Living out our love for Jesus isn’t tidy or time-efficient. Love suffers long, and it’s willing to walk through messy, smelly pastures for the sake of another. Living out our love for Jesus isn’t shiny or brag-worthy; it is ordinary and often wearisome work. To care for people made in the image of God, Jesus’ beloved “sheep,” requires that we regularly tend to our identity as those who are loved and created to love, nourish, and tend to others just as we have been by Jesus.
The history of highland clearances seems removed and far away from my daily life and experience, but when I think of the relational strife amongst my kids, and how wearisome it can be to work through the same issues day in and day out, I see myself and how often I want to control them instead of gently love them through it. I think of the family member whom I find little in common with, how often I’ve rolled my eyes over their comments or wished they would change or see things my way. I think of the parts of myself or others that I struggle to accept and want to squish into the image of another, and realize that the lie of assimilation comes for all of us in some way, shape, or form. I think of the weeds that keep growing in our yard, wishing there was some instant magic to get rid of them all and how if there was, I’d choose it instead of the hard, sweaty, repetitive work of weeding over time. Again and again, I see in myself a tendency towards fixing what’s wrong in my own power, taking over, pointing my finger, and letting fear of what I don’t understand in someone else motivate me, instead of curiosity and humility.
While the world weeps with so much historical injustice and present pain, I feel overwhelmed by how much there is to tend to. I find myself faltering behind the cowardly laziness of “why bother?” Or I sink into the overwhelm of trying to take in too much. I ask Jesus, “How long?” Then I hear His voice and His heart again saying, “Do you love me? If you love me, feed my sheep.”
This gentle command is somehow enough to remind me who I am, who my neighbor is, and to help me begin, rest, then begin again.