I recently heard the strange story of a shepherd and his son who were driving on a dirt road adjacent to their fields. When the father saw that his sheep were grazing on a crop of alfalfa, he jumped out of his truck, hopped a fence, and proceeded to stab each one of the sheep. Of course, the boy was horrified. The father then directed the son to retrieve the sheep and throw them over the fence, which the son, still shocked and confused, did. It was only later that the shepherd was able to explain to his boy that alfalfa, though delicious and even irresistible to sheep, caused their stomachs to bloat with so much gas that it could be deadly for them. By stabbing them, he was giving the gas and mucus a means of escape, and therefore saving the lives of his sheep.
Later that day, I heard a story on the radio about the science and philosophy behind grafting. To tie two plants together, some damage needs to be done to each one. The branches are then wrapped in gauze or tape until the sap from the host plant becomes the lifeblood of the grafted plant. Grafting is violent, and the time in which the two plants are wrapped together is fragile for both plants. It’s taxing, and it can look like death, until the evidence of the new life appears on the grafted stem. Sprouting leaves and blooming flowers are evidence that the plant is now one, new, living creation.
Though these two stories seem to have little in common, there actually is a thread that ties them together, and it’s death. What looked like harm to the sheep was actually life-saving, and what looks like harm to the branches brings new, abundant life. In my own story, I see how God has used experiences that look and feel like death to save me and to bring me closer to Him so that He can live more completely in me. Like the sheep, I sometimes choose things that are appealing and delicious, but in the end bring destruction. Pride, envy, control…these give me a feeling of fullness which I crave but in the end will only harm me. A Shepherd who loves me and wants my good would have to remove these things eventually, and this He is slowly doing through circumstances I would never have chosen. Sometimes this hurts, but it’s always for my good.
Similarly, the Lord has used seasons of my life to draw me closer to Himself, ultimately to live in Him, like a young seedling is grafted to a larger plant. I must admit, even as a cradle Catholic-Christian, I’ve never fully understood the phrases we so often use:
“In Him, we live, and move, and have our being.”
“Take up your cross and follow Him.”
“For to live with the Lord, we must die with the Lord.”
As I’ve recently (finally) begun to understand, dying to self, for the Christian, is not an option. It really is in dying that we can live a new life in Christ. I’ve felt it first-hand, in the face-down dependence I have experienced in this last season of my life. Like that sheep, I’ve been struck, and like that branch, I’ve been harmed, in ways I can’t find words to express. But like the sheep, I’ve been carried to safety in the garden of the Lord, and He is tending my wounds. Like the branch, I feel the first tender drops of His life living through me in an entirely new way. We are wrapped together still, He and I, and we will remain in this covering until I’ve disappeared entirely into Him. One day it will happen.
A host plant can live its whole life without having something grafted onto it. To allow the graft is to allow a wound, a cut, or a knot, to make a space for a small branch to come close enough to become one together. As we head into Holy Week, I am ever more mindful of the wounds that Jesus took on for me so that our lives could be forever connected, so that now He lives in me, and I in Him.
“By His wounds, we are saved.” It’s another of those phrases I was never able to grasp until recently. But it’s true. Our Good Shepherd was not required to take on the project of saving the world. He could have lived eternally without our small, fragile branches. But He didn’t, friends. He didn’t. He laid down His life for His sheep, thanks be to God, and even in my pain I’m grateful for that sacrifice, and it causes me to raise my eyes up to Him who paid the far greater price.