The Sheep I Count

By Jackina Stark

As I think about the articles and books I’ve written in the last 30 years, certain themes emerge—themes that are part of my spiritual DNA. No theme is more prevalent in my writings, or more beloved, than the wonder of the abiding presence of God in our lives.

I saw God transform my parents’ lives when I was 9 years old. But I believe the wonder began a year or two before that when I walked to a nearby church on Sunday mornings with my younger sister and, I think, even my baby brother in tow. As I recall it, the younger kids went to a class while I sat alone on a pew near the back of the impressive old auditorium, staring at the stained-glass windows, swinging my legs no doubt, and singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I seemed to understand intuitively that the holy God we sang of was both merciful and mighty.

I was in love.

Of course, I’ve had much to learn about what it means to love, but as I’ve slowly, sometimes painfully, grown, he has been merciful and mighty, and always near. He has made that known to me by his objective Word and by his tender and breathtaking (and admittedly subjective) touch on my life.

Thus, my life verse is the second part of Hebrews 13:5, “God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” This assertion was first made to the Israelites and recorded in Deuteronomy. But the concept permeates Scripture from beginning to end, and even the last recorded words Jesus spoke before he returned to his Father comfort us with this most spectacular of truths: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).

I have heard this assurance when my heart has been broken. I have heard it when I have been at my mortal ugliest. I have heard it when fear has threatened to overtake me. I have heard it when doubt has plagued me. I have heard it when joyful surprises have made me gasp in wonder and delight. I have heard it when well-being and gratitude have utterly quieted me.

It is not surprising then that my first novel, Tender Grace, published in 2009, highlights this theme. For some time now I have watched my parents, 94 and 85, in perpetual leave-taking, dreading the time one of them will be without the other on this earth. My husband and I are old enough to dread the same thing. So in that novel I ask the question—How do we go on? Not how do we keep on breathing without our life’s mate, but how do we keep on really living?

Audrey’s story is my only answer. It is the tender grace of God’s presence that brings healing to Audrey Eaton when her husband dies so unexpectedly. I gave her a mantra of Scripture verses for her journey across the country and into healing: “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me,” “It is I, don’t be afraid,” “I am with you always,” “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

My character, Audrey, found that these verses had the capacity to dispense calm and courage when she needed them. She says they are the sheep she counts when she cannot sleep. They have become my sheep to count as well.

Several images of God’s presence have sustained me through the hardest times of my life. One of them I thought appropriate to use in Tender Grace. It came to me one Sunday as I sat in church close to tears. I can’t recall what hurt troubled me so, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the song I heard, one I hadn’t heard for quite some time. Actually, it was the refrain that captured my attention that morning: “Jesus will still be there.”

Not that I didn’t know that. “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” is never far from my mind. But during that song, an image came to me of massive hands extending from strong arms reaching over a cliff and grasping my forearms. I remained suspended in midair throughout the song, but I didn’t fall. The comforting image of being grasped securely by the Master of the universe, who will never let go of me, was born of my life verses.

Nature, for me, also reflects these verses. Just one of so many examples is the returning tide. My husband and I love walking on the beach when we get a chance. The waves breaking on the shore, though a depressing image in some of the finest poems I know, have a calming effect on me. The return of the tide does not bring to me, as it did Matthew Arnold, an “eternal note of sadness” or the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery.” I do sense eternity in it though. In the repetition of waves breaking and spreading on the sand before me the Creator seems to be saying, “I’m here. I’m here.”

I call those dearest to me—my parents, husband, children, and grandchildren—“my beloveds.” They know this. I call God “my Beloved.” Many of them know this, too, and appreciate the subtle but profound difference.

I simply cannot get over God’s faithful, tender presence in the lives of those who seek him.

Jackina Stark is a retired English professor and an author living in Branson, Missouri.

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