Dirty Sheep: Incarnational Thoughts

There’s a stable not far from my house.

It isn’t like the one I picture when I sing Silent Night.

You can smell it before you see it. Fetid and filthy, the sheep crowd in at the end of a day of foraging for food. In the summer, flies buzz. In the winter, stench and sludge freeze solid. I don’t want to go near; it is too dirty.

I often pass the sheep and their shepherd as I walk to and from work. I pity him a little, silently thankful that my own job doesn’t require me to mess around in mud and muck.

And I walk past, humming Silent Night and picturing my Savior born on a pristine winter’s night. Snow falling softly and stars glistening brightly. The air smells of fresh, sweet hay. The stable is inexplicably warm and comforting. It is beautiful and peaceful… just how I want to imagine my Jesus’ entrance into the world would be.

But I have learned stables don’t smell like fresh, sweet hay. They smell like dirty sheep. And I’m starting to think that this is perhaps a better picture of the Incarnation.

It’s shocking, I know. And it hurts to look at it. Perhaps it has even offended you a little. But let’s be honest… for God-made-flesh, wouldn’t birth into a stable feel more like this than our romanticized and sanitized Hallmark-inspired figurines delicately arranged on our mantels and under our trees lead us to believe? Let’s take it a little further… wouldn’t any incarnation look like this, even if He’d been born into the Ritz-Carleton instead of joining our world in a stable?

There’s no way around the fact that incarnation means coming to a fetid and filthy world. Jesus came into a world where babies are born and left on street corners or in dumpsters. Young girls and boys are sold into prostitution. Refugees spend their lives waiting in squalid camps. It’s a world with wars and rumors of war. Dirty water and dirty air. Disease. Sickness. Death. Destruction. Sorrow… unending sorrow. Flies and vultures buzz over little ones with swollen bellies.  Stench and sludge freeze solid and become a playground for bare-foot children.

It is too dirty, and yet He came near.

He came near to “mess around in our mud and our muck.”

Emmanuel, God With Us… right here in our squalor. In the brothels and the slums.  In the orphanages and the crack houses.  In the refugee camps and the prisons.  In the pristine suburban houses hiding behind-closed-doors-screaming-yelling-fights.  He’s with us… in the room of a child who just learned mom and dad can’t make it work, crying himself to sleep into his pillow.  In the bathroom with the girl who has her finger down her throat.  He’s God With Us… with the teenagers who are cutting and the ones who are using.  With the dads who are cheating and the moms who are flirting.

He’s with us in all of our brokenness.  We can’t clean up our grime and dirt. We can’t get rid of our stench. Yet He’s not asking us to try. He’s not waiting for us to make room for Him in the inns of our lives. He just comes into our filthy stables, when we’re ashamed and naked in a fallen garden, telling us that He is “like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day.” (Ezekiel 34:12)

This is one of the beautiful mysteries of the incarnation…  He didn’t wait for us to clean up our own messes, but instead entered into our messes; always, always with us.  He put on human skin, turning a God-forsaken place into His holy temple by entering into this world, laying aside His own rights, and willingly becoming a shepherd for a bunch of dirty sheep.

I see the dirty sheep and pity the shepherd.  He sees the dirty sheep and becomes a shepherd.

I want my heart to look more like His.

This is part of some incarnational thoughts I want to share between now and Christmas.  Earlier I posted about our Preposition Problems, and there will be more to come.

I really want this to be a conversation, so I have an idea.  For those who feel so inclined, please find a picture — however unorthodox it might be — that you think represents the Incarnation.  You can write something about why you’re seeing Jesus in this new light, and share a link to your post with me.  I realize this is stretching, and that most of us feel more comfortable with conventional pictures of Jesus… you know, the kind on Christmas cards… but I’ve found this new image to be especially challenging, and I hope you’ll find and share some pictures of your own.  I know I have a lot more to learn about Jesus, and seeing Him through your eyes can help… 

This picture was first shown to me at a retreat for leaders of various NGOs and non-profits that focus on serving the lost, forgotten, broken and discarded members of society.  Maybe because we see so much pain and suffering, a picture of this kind of Jesus is actually comforting in some way.  I don’t know where it first came from, so I can’t give proper credit.

16 thoughts on “Dirty Sheep: Incarnational Thoughts

  1. Wow Carrie,

    The depths of your writings never cease to amaze me… you are a very gifted writer and I always enjoy reading your profound thoughts. This new picture has definitely given new light to the picture I have 'chosen' to have engraved in my mind…a a far cry from the nativity I have currently on display in our family room. I look forward to hearing more perspectives from others, as well. I think you are very close… and likely this IS a much more realistic picture of our Christ's entrance into this 'filthy' world. PTL that He is with us, will never abandon us, will never leave us, and will never forsake us! He is GOOD!! <>< Blessings,


  2. Carrie, this is by far my favorite blog post of yours EVER! Seriously, you should go public with it…have it published somewhere other than your blog where only a few hundred will read it. This needs to go out to the masses! I have never seen the Gospel message stated so eloquently outside the pages of Scripture.


  3. Yes, Carrie. This really should be published somewhere…PERHAPS THE FRONT PAGE OF EVERY NEWSPAPER IN THE WORLD! But, seriously, it really should be published.

    Thank you for drawing this picture for my 'Halllmark” self…I never thought of Jesus's birth and the squalor he came to…willingly. I've always had that warm and cozy stable picture in my mind…even to the point that I thought being born in a barn wasn't so bad. :0(

    The unconventional picture I would like to submit is one you already have there at the foster home. It's the one of Evan…so very, very sick, probably during his admission assessment to New Day. He's partially naked and lying on the blue blanket. It's posted with his 'amazing story.' That picture was (is) very difficult to look at, even before I became his mom. I like the reminder of it, and I'm glad it's part of his story…because it's reality. It's what you guys see. Non sugar coated and that is important.

    To me it captures a part of why Jesus came to this earth, and why he chose the cross. He was sent here to save the 'fat' kings in lofty castles attempting to remove themselves from their worries and problems by band-aid shopping, over-eating and pretending pictures like Evan's don't exist.

    For me personally, this picture is me without Christ. Starving and weak. Near death, destitute and orphaned.

    I love seeing pictures of Evan now! (my life after Christ!) Healthy, running, smiling, clapping, a sincere JOY in his eyes, and CHOSEN.


  4. I am humbled….. I am shocked…. I must confess that I didn't even realize that I too had fixed the “Hallmark” image in my mind… it was peaceful, serene, comforting, holy….. I am now making the journey to Bethlehem in my mind, heart and spirit and I will find that it was indeed holy… but it is only beautiful because of Jesus… The true beauty we find is in His perfect love for us…
    Thank you…. thank you for writing one of the most profound and beautiful posts I have ever read… it is heartbreaking, it is beautiful… Heartbreaking in the truth of what our fallen world is and the pain, suffering and sin that is in it and us. Beautiful in the love of our God… our beautiful, gracious and merciful Savior.
    Merry Christmas,
    I hope it is ok but I want to link to this post. I would love for the entire world to read it. It is the true meaning of Christmas…


  5. “I see the dirty sheep and pity the shepherd. He sees the dirty sheep and becomes a shepherd.”
    It leaves me speechless…There are no words to express my grateful heart that HE CAME TO US.
    Beautifully said, Carrie…I can tell it is from God's heart to mine.


  6. I have to echo what Laine said… your words leave me speechless.
    Beautifully said seems to be the understatement of the year, but it's all I got 😉
    Thank you for sharing what He obviously put on your heart!


  7. That picture reminds me of how we are all wallowing in our sins, rolling in the dirt. To think that God came as a man is difficult enough to understand, but to expose His Son to the degradation…

    Beautifully written and I agree with the others – this needs to be published! Thank you for making this Christmas season as real as it gets.


  8. Beautiful post indeed–difficult to internalize because of how humbling it is that our Creator God, maker of all the universe would do that for us…for me. Very difficult to accept that really. And, difficult further to know that we…I…so often choose to remain in the mess and walk around aimlessly with no protection, no shepherd when He is right there laying His life down for me. I need the gospel–not once, but daily.

    Our church has their women's Christmas gathering today. We had a few women sharing testimonies there–“clean” testimonies about family traditions, things that have helped remind them of the meaning of Christmas, etc. One of the women just now emailed me to say she was sick and cannot come. Oh no! Who should I ask last minute to take her place? Who could come up with something quickly to share? Then, I felt the Holy Spirit tug on my heart…read Carrie's blog post there. So, that is what I'm doing. I printed it out and will go there today and read your words. So, it may not be printed on the front page of every newspaper. But, it will be shared with more women today to point them to their God, show them more clearly what it means that God came near to us. I know it will be used to bless them as it has blessed your readers here.


  9. Carrie,

    Thank you. I definitely can relate to the deep dark disgusting muck. Thank you for that new image to pin up in my mind.

    I came home from China with my 7 year old daughter and the rest of our kids and knew that my vision had not just changed, but deepened. I am so thankful that you were able to voice what has been roiling around in my mind since we've come home.

    Our family is in the midst of the muck right now. Somehow many want to paint the pretty side of adoption almost extra pretty especially at Christmastime, but here we are working it all through.

    My little girl's heart is journeying still – kind of stradling two worlds and walking her through it definitely brings out the reality of the muck that we've been saved *from*, but as you said in your last post, also what we were saved *for*.

    You are a deep soul. Thanks for giving my heart some words. I'll be sharing this with others.



  10. Hi Carrie,
    My wife Chris and I are on Layers of Life and I loved your piece Dirty Sheep. I'm the Head Administrator at Wisconsin Valley Lutheran High School and I am going to use your thoughts regarding the Birth of Christ. Of course, I will give you the credit. You are an amazing writer and you really made me stop and think and then deeply pray. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  11. Thank you for these words and thoughts Carrie … I had a moment of truth when we were doing our recreation of the manger scene last weekend — The donkey peed all over the area we were standing and Isaac said “Mom – it REEKS right here like animals” — and it hit me – not only was it a bleak manger … but it smelled awful and there was not much about it that felt clean and fresh and lovely to look at … we pray your Christmas will bring peace in your hearts and we thank you for your deep thinking and way of challenging us all!


  12. Its an amazing post, very artful, very vivid. The only problem is that even though it is meant to paint the other half of the picture that we never see, it fails to at least elude to the brighter (though, perhaps, more realistic) half. Not everything can be seen as so black and white. Yes we are dirty and we sin, but even of the darkest of darks there shines a ray of hope.

    Once again your writing is beautiful and, though I criticize it, I appreciate the new perspective.


  13. Throme, respectfully,I must disagree with you. I think you simply missed seeing the “ray of hope, the brighter half” — “I see the dirty sheep and pity the shepherd. He sees the dirty sheep and becomes a shepherd.” — this not only is a “ray of hope”, but it IS OUR HOPE — Jesus, the Light of the World is our light, our hope, our salvation, Emmanuel.
    Thank you Carrie — someone I do not know — for sharing your excellent writing.


  14. I really enjoyed reading this post of yours, thank you for sharing your deep thoughts on this subject, you are so talented when expressing your thoughts, you should publish your thoughts in a book!


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