From Tragedy to Understanding–Finding a Purpose


Why in the world would anyone want to be a minister, a doctor, a nurse, or a teacher? Or, a better question is, why wouldn’t anyone want to be in a service career?  What gives people a service heart? What drives a person to work day after day in a demanding service professions focused more on the needs of others rather than personal gratification? Even the one’s that are well paid have little time to enjoy the fruits of their labors!  And, many of the teachers, fireman, nurses, police man and ministers can never pay their bills without a spouse helping to bring home another check to meet the family responsibilities.

Perhaps, some enter a service career because they are expected of to follow the path of a parent. Others submit to some type of a mystical calling to a service career.  For example, Mother Teresa was highly influenced by stories about missionaries serving in Bengal and by age 12 was certain that she should commit her life to religious service. Others work tirelessly because they are driven by some internal passion they can never identify. I suppose all these motivating factors help from time to time, but I contend that compassion surfaces as the most sincere and sustaining motivation for a service career. This idea is reinforced by Matthew 9:35-38, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  (v.36)

I grew up on a farm in southeastern Iowa. Life in the 1950s for a tenant farmer was tedious financially, and my parents had to plan ahead for my college education at best or my spending money at worst. They purchased two ewes and a ram for me to start a herd of sheep. My flock had grown to nearly forty by the time I graduated from high school and I was winning top prizes at the annual county fair with frequency. Then tragedy struck.

This was the best of the herd during my entire ten years as a shepherd.

One evening 1 forgot to lock my sheep in the protection of the barn. I woke up with a start and immediately thought of the flock.  I ran through the back lot and down the dirt driveway by our two ponds filled with fish and bullfrogs to the hillside where the sheep normally grazed, but they were not there. By now, panic drove my legs faster and faster scanning the hillsides as I ran from field to field.  When I found them, it was obvious that wild roving dogs had ravaged them.  My horrid fear was confirmed as I scanned my fallen charge.  Eight were dead, ten brutally torn and gashed, and those remaining unharmed physically were still trembling from the assault. I stood and cried over my flock. I learned the real consequences for sheep left without a shepherd.  A script to help the defenseless and weak was being written in my heart.  I didn’t realize its impact at the time, but the experience had deeply etched a lifetime urge to serve those that apparently had needs they could not resolve alone.

As I think about the people of the world today, my heart fills with compassion. Many, like those sheep, are spiritually dead without a faith in a higher being. Others are brutally torn by the world, unable to find a sense of security. Many of the masses live in fear with no answer for their anxiety. They wait and watch expectantly for some witness of resolve or hope.

We can define compassion as a consistent sensitivity and response to the needs of others. We can define mission as a response of love that attempts to provide an avenue to meet the needs of the world through personal service and the corporate outreach of those committed to service.

This painful experience was likely one of the first times I felt the birth of a motivation and purpose that would eventually feed my energy and fulfillment for my life’s work.  Until today, I periodically revisit those pastures in my mind’s eye to refresh my purpose for a life of service.

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