The bright spring sunshine chased remnants of melting snow from the fell tops in cascading fountains, gushing into the rivers below. The wet earth smelt delicious. Steven leaned over the dry stone walling, marvelling that his youthful craftsmanship should withstand yet another winter.
On the other side, a ewe was struggling to give birth. Close by two new-born lambs shakily clambered onto all fours. There was a nip in the air that bit into Steven’s ears and turned his nose red. Pulling down his beanie he walked on. Now, he felt he was home.
The annual pilgrimage was pure nostalgia, yet therapeutic. He needn’t come. His family were long gone. The pastures were farmed by strangers now; and technology, as the world over, played a huge role in everyday life. Steven’s world had changed too.
He came to rest at ‘The Old Coach House Inn,’ an ancient watering hole once catering for weary travellers. Nowadays it saw more Range Rovers and Bentleys pulling up in the courtyard, as people of a certain social standing came to sample the haute cuisine.
Steven plonked down on the bench outside, pulled off his walking boots and stuffed his socks inside. He didn’t care what the visiting, puffed-up ‘townies’ thought of him. This remote little village on the picturesque ‘Dales Way’ was his birthplace and home until circumstances forged a change.
Setting down a flask of sweet tea, he took a huge bite of the ‘Ploughman’s’ he’d rescued, flattened but intact, from the back pocket of his pants. He picked up on a familiar sound carried in the wind.
‘Baa… Baa… Baa…’ Steven, well versed in the plight of sheep straying through gaps in the hedge, looked around and spotted a lone lamb, bleating pitifully and frantically seeking the way back in.
“Hey little feller,” he chortled. “Just look at you!” With one hand, he deftly scooped up the frightened creature and tucked him under his arm. “And I thought I was the only black sheep around here,” he added.
The lamb, unimpressed, but undoubtedly a captive audience, settled down to listen.
“You know what Blackie, when I was a youngster like you, I would ask Dad why most sheep were white, but sometimes a black one, just like you, would pop out. He told me white wool was best because folk wanted to dye it to make pretty garments. Black wool can’t be dyed easily, so no farmer welcomes a black sheep.
“See the church over there?” He pointed. “I attended every Sunday service, from birth to becoming a young man. Old Dad was a devout man of God and intended us kids to be so too. He ruled with a rod of iron and no-one questioned his judgement.” The lamb yawned noisily.
“He vetted the kids at school. If the parents were deemed worldly, we couldn’t mix. The Mission Hall kids were acceptable because they could spout the rhetoric off pat. I could do that too. I was programmed young!”
“You need to get saved Steven,” Dad said. “Or you’ll go to Hell. None of us will be there. You’ll be alone, forever.”
“Why was God so harsh? Shouldn’t He love me? Why did God speak to Dad and not to me? Why daren’t I ask Dad the question?
“One day, there was to be a baptismal service. I should go, Dad said. It was time. It was a joyous day for all, except me--and the dead cockroach floating in the freezing pool.
“The truth is little Blackie, I came to hate the God who placed all these burdens on my conscience. I wanted freedom. I was eighteen years old when I walked out. Dad disowned me, like he said he would. Being a respected church elder, he felt ashamed losing control of his own son.
“The next and last time I saw him he was in a hospital bed. He asked my forgiveness for his misguided approach. I’d forgiven already. I told him I’d sought, and found true freedom and rested in perfect peace. I’ll never forget the look on his face Blackie.”
“You see Dad,” I said. “I couldn’t accept Jesus through a second-hand encounter. I needed to know Him for myself.”
Blackie was mesmerised by the time Steven reunited him with his mother, affirming,
“And so, little black sheep - you ‘n’ me both!” He whistled the old chorus as he walked away…
‘Wash me in the blood of the Lamb
And I will be whiter than snow.’
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