The Little Clay Sheep


On my desk sits a handcrafted, somewhat mangled, little clay sheep. I keep it there to remind me of the real reason I get up in the morning.

During 1971–72 I was stationed at a large U.S. Air Force Training Center, populated primarily by lonely, sometimes insecure single adults. In an attempt to respond to their needs, my wife, Kathleen, and I decided to hold a special family home evening once a week at our home. Each Sunday night our living room was jammed with upwards of sixty to seventy young people, many of them rootless and frustrated, who came to play with our children, talk with each other, and get some feeling of being at home again. We served refreshments, sang, played games, sometimes had serious discussions. The intent of the evening was simply to let them know that they were worthwhile and that they had a place to relax.

After holding these home evenings for several months, my wife and I decided to experiment with an unusual activity. One evening we asked our young friends to express the meaning of family home evening in their lives. We provided crayons, paper, scissors, pencils, clay, toys, and other items, and encouraged them to choose whatever media seemed most appropriate. We then turned them loose for approximately forty-five minutes.

What followed was a very enjoyable evening, full of laughter, fond memories, and serious personal reflections. Everyone took a turn reading a poem, showing a picture, describing a drawing, or just talking to a safe audience.

There were two young adults, however, who were very different from the rest. One, a loud, boisterous, rather unpleasant young man whom nobody really liked, wrote a poem, a very sensitive poem, couched in mathematical terminology. Nobody understood it but himself. But we knew that we had provided him with a forum to freely express himself, and we encouraged him to do so. As a result, he felt safe and comfortable. We found out months later that that evening had very possibly been a turning point in preventing his suicide. He had been extremely depressed, and that experience was the first evidence he had found that life was worth living. We learned of those feelings when he called us long-distance from Turkey to say “thank you.” Somehow that made a lot of sacrifice worthwhile.

The other young man, John, was extremely quiet. Although he came to our family home evenings, he always sat in the corner, never saying anything. Though others would try to start a conversation with him, he would not respond. Kathleen and I would invite him over on other days of the week, but he wouldn’t come. We tried everything we knew to get him to express himself and let him know that he was worthwhile. He never responded. We were particularly worried about him because he showed all the symptoms of dropping out entirely, and we didn’t really know how to get through to him, to let him know that he was worth more than his social security and that he had more to offer the world than the stripes on his sleeve. During that special home evening activity John convinced us that we need no longer be so gravely concerned.

At the beginning of the assignment, he took some clay and went off to a corner of the living room. Almost hiding, John very quietly stayed by himself throughout most of the evening, working the clay. Occasionally he smiled as someone else in the group made a contribution. Generally, he showed no emotion whatsoever and said absolutely nothing. So after everyone had made a presentation but John, we prodded him to speak.

To our pleasant surprise, John stood up and then said, “In the Bible there is a story about a shepherd who lost a sheep. This shepherd, as the story goes, was very concerned for the lost sheep, so concerned that he left the whole flock to seek out the one that couldn’t be found. I feel like I am the lost sheep, and you have found me. I want to give you this little clay sheep to show my gratitude.”

Then he sat down. No one said a word. I doubt that there was a dry eye in the room.

I can’t think of a better reason to get up in the morning than to feed my Father’s sheep. So, as a gentle reminder, I keep John’s gift on my desk—always.

[illustration] Illustrated by Roger Gylling