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On entering the miserable hovel in a wild district of Ireland, I looked around me and at first found no sign of any inhabitant, except an old woman who sat crouching over the embers of a peat fire. She rose as I entered and offered me her stool. I thanked her, and passing on, discovered in one corner of the hut a heap of straw, on which lay the poor sufferer. Some scanty covering, probably his own clothing, had been thrown over him, but as to bed or bedclothes, I saw none in this humble home. I approached and saw a young lad about seventeen or eighteen years old, evidently in a state of extreme suffering and exhaustion and, it was to be feared, in the last stage of consumption.
His eyes were closed, but he opened them on my approach and stared at me with a kind of wild wonder, like a frightened animal. I told him as quietly as possible who I was and the reason I had come, and I put a few of the simplest questions to him respecting his hope of salvation. He answered nothing; he appeared totally unconscious of my meaning. On pressing him further and speaking to him kindly and affectionately, he looked up, and I ascertained from the few words he uttered that he had heard something of a God and future judgment, but he had never been taught to read. The Holy Scriptures were a sealed book to him and he was altogether ignorant of the way of salvation as revealed to us in the gospel. His mind on this subject was an utter blank.
I was struck with dismay and almost with despair. Here was a fellow-creature whose immortal soul, apparently on the verge of eternity, must be saved or lost forever. Not a moment was to be lost, and what was I to do? What way was I to take to begin to teach him, as it were at the eleventh hour, the first rudiments of Christianity?
I had scarcely ever before felt such a sinking within me. I could do nothing, but on the other hand, God could do all. I therefore raised up my heart and called to my heavenly Father for Christ’s sake to direct me in this most difficult position and to open to me, by His Spirit of wisdom, a way to set forth the glad tidings of salvation, so as to be understood by this poor boy. I was silent for a few moments, while praying silently and gazing with deep anxiety on the lad before me. It struck me that I ought to try to discover how far his intelligence in other things went and whether there might not be reasonable hope of his understanding me, when I should start to open to him the gospel message of salvation. I looked down on him with a pity which I most sincerely felt, and I thought he observed that compassionate look, for he softened as I said, “My poor boy, you are very ill; I fear you suffer a great deal.”
“Yes, I have had a bad cold; the cough takes away my breath and hurts me greatly.”
“Have you had this cough long?” I asked.
“Oh yes, a long time, near a year now.”
“And how did you catch it? A Kerry boy I should have thought would have been reared hardily and accustomed to this sharp air!”
“Ah,” he answered, “and so I was until that terrible night. It was about this time last year, when one of the sheep went astray. My father keeps a few sheep on the mountains, and this is the way we live. When he counted them that night, there was one missing and he sent me to look for it.”
“No doubt,” I replied, “you felt the change from the warmth of the peat fire in this small little hut to the cold mountain blast.”
“Oh! I did; there was snow on the ground, and the wind cut through me, but I didn’t mind it much, as I was so anxious to find father’s sheep.”
“And did you find it?” I asked with increased interest.
“Oh yes, I had a long, weary way to go, but I never stopped until I found it.”
“And how did you get it home? You had trouble enough with that too, no doubt. Was it willing to follow?”
“Well, I didn’t like to trust it, and besides it was dead tired, so I laid it on my shoulders and carried it home that way.”
“And were they not all glad to see you when you returned with the sheep?”
“Sure enough, and that they were,” he replied. “Father and Mother and the people around that heard of our loss all came in the next morning to ask about the sheep, for the neighbors in these matters are mighty kind to each other. Sorry they were, too, to hear that I was kept out the whole dark night; it was morning before I got home, and the end of it was, I caught this cold. Mother says I will never be better now; God knows best. Anyways, I did my best to save the sheep.”
“Wonderful!” I thought. “Here is the whole gospel history. The sheep is lost; the father sends his son to seek for and recover it. The son goes willingly, suffers all without complaining, and in the end sacrifices his life to find the sheep. When it is recovered, he carries it home on his shoulders to the flock and rejoices with his friends and neighbors over the sheep which was lost, but is found again.” My prayer was answered, my way was made plain, and by the grace of God I availed myself of this opening. I explained to this poor, dying boy the plan of salvation, making use of his own simple and affecting story. I read to him the few verses in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, where the care of the shepherd for the strayed sheep is so beautifully expressed, and he at once perceived the likeness and followed me with deep interest while I explained to him the full meaning of the parable.
The Lord mercifully opened not only his understanding but his heart also to receive the things spoken. He himself was the lost sheep and Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd who was sent by the Father to seek for him and who left all the joys of that Father’s heavenly glory to come down to earth and search for him and other lost ones like himself. As the poor boy had borne without murmuring the freezing snowstorm and the piercing wind, so has the blessed Saviour endured the fierce contradiction of sinners against Himself and the bitter judgment of a holy and a righteous God, without opening His mouth to utter one word of complaint. And at last He laid down His precious life that we might be rescued from destruction and brought safe to our everlasting home. Neither will He trust His beloved ones, when rescued, to walk the perilous path alone, but He carries them on His shoulders, rejoicing, to the heavenly fold.
My poor sick lad seemed to drink it all in. He received it all. He understood it all. I never saw a clearer proof of the power of the divine Spirit to apply the Word of God. He survived our first meeting but a few days. I had no time to read or expound to him any other portion of the Scripture. At times we could hear nothing but a stifling, rending cough; at others he slumbered heavily for a little. But whenever he was able to think and listen, these verses in the fifteenth chapter of Luke satisfied and cheered him. He accepted Christ as his Saviour, he earnestly prayed to be carried home, like the lost sheep, in the heavenly Shepherd’s arms. He died humbly, peacefully, almost exulting, with the name of “Jesus, my Saviour and my Shepherd” the last upon his lips.
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
“The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).