September 24, 2016 | Steve Vistaunet

Scripture makes it plain. Some people are going to be sheep and some goats. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground in this imagery — no halfway pen of undecided antelopes. I used to wonder about all of this. But then came the summer of the goats.

It was my first time ever at summer camp — not as a camper, but as staff. “You’ll love it,” friends said. “It’ll be one your best experiences ever,” they said. And so there I was, sleeping bag and toothbrush in hand, the tenderfoot of the gang, clueless to established protocol, the recipient of all undesired tasks.

To be sure, the setting was idyllic. The vanilla scent of ponderosa pines filled the mountain air. A nearby river coursed through turquoise pools set in granite. Nights revealed diamond-studded, Milky Way handiwork.

But at the top of the hill lay a challenge: the goats, a petting zoo experience for campers. I was granted the privilege of providing them daily sustenance — the goats, that is.

The first morning was memorable. Pail full of feed in one hand, I confidently opened the gate into the pen and stepped in. It was all over in a moment. Bounding creatures of all sizes converged on me in a tightly packed phalanx. Like Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, they rushed straight for the objective — in this case, the food. The upended pail and I went down under the onslaught, throwing the feeding frenzy into high gear. I struggled out from the midst of the melee a much wiser, warier man — no ifs, ands or "butts" about it. It is my studied opinion that the song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” may not be fictional after all.  

In the days ahead, I learned how to manage the herd. After watching their behavior, I began to pick out individual personalities — the brown and white “kid” that always had to be king of the hill; the brindle mother who ruled the young ones with an iron hoof; the runt who needed the reassurance of constant contact. In my particular herd there ran an insidious and common streak of willfulness and rebellion.

Gleaner goat lovers will no doubt call me to task, but in my recollections, goats are closer to humans than we might like to admit. All we like sheep may indeed go astray, but like goats, we’re loath to come back to the fold. We glory in our independence. We are driven to do things our way.

But Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Perhaps this is the core difference in the gospel imagery of sheep and goats. Are we happy in our separate lives of independence? Are we prone to choose whatever guidance fits our inclinations?

Or have we learned through hard experience to bow self before the Master, to follow the call of the Good Shepherd?