Farming has been a purposeful attempt by our family to find meaning and truth in our lives. It began simply as a quest to find safe and tasty food that we felt good about eating and has evolved into a reclamation of our family. Once a fractured collection of individuals through the labor of farming we have learned to rely on each other both physically and emotionally. I am a pretty ‘live and let live ‘ kind of guy that rarely likes to tell others what to do or how to live their lives and I don’t intend to change that with this letter to you. I do however wish to talk about my thoughts about Christmas. This time of year when most of the world is celebrating in one fashion or another the birth of Jesus, this shepherd has a very deep connection to the story and the implications. If for some reason you are not willing to let me bend your ear about what it is like to be a shepherd, father, son and christian at Christmas time, this is your off ramp. If you are willing to know me better and be more ‘with me’ then gitty up.
While I will gladly fess up here and admit I am not the best shepherd I know or could introduce you too, I will say that we spend a LOT of time with sheep. Especially this time of year, which is in the throws of our busy season called “lambing season”. Every shepherd throughout history has done this process and in so doing has endured sleepless nights, difficult deliveries, healthy lambs and sadly also has know the loss of newborns. We are basically on shifts with the very pregnant ewes close to us, awaiting their turn to deliver. The whole year rides on her ability to deliver easily, bond with and care for her newly delivered lambs. While she labors and nurses her lambs we do everything in our power to make sure all her needs are tended too. Both of them are very vulnerable to all kinds of difficulties including infection, weather, wetness, predation, parasites and even starvation for the lamb if the ewe rejects it. It is the time of year when it is the darkest, the coldest, the most danger is present and yet they require our best. Our best feed, our best attention, our best experience and our best knowledge will all be demanded during this time. There is no substitute at this time for the presence of the shepherd. The shepherd is the one with intimate knowledge of the flock AND know what to do when things go awry.
We find ourselves out beneath the cold texas night stars every night during the winter carefully keeping watch on our most vulnerable and loved sheep. For us they represent a very big part of our effort and income and quite frankly we cannot afford to be sloppy during winter lambing season. The consequence would be dire for us financially and final for weak lambs and vulnerable ewes. Today we delivered 3 new lambs in the span of about an hour. The last was born right into standing water that was near 60 degrees. Unable to stand it had no choice but to struggle to keep it’s head literally above water until the shepherd discovered it. When I found him and saw the scene I did what any one of us would have done. I took my shirt off, picked up the soaked shivering baby, wrapped him in it and held him close to my body as the ewe and I headed for the shelter of the barn. The lamb has value, is loved and worth freezing my own self to save him. Just to put you at ease, the lamb is fine and Seamus ran to the house for towels and a new shirt for dad so I didn’t have to stay cold for long. Without us taking quick action that lamb would have died of hypothermia very quickly. People often ask me questions about why we chose to be shepherds. There are many answers that include their benefit to our grasses and soil, to their value as providers of meat and their economic rewards for good shepherds but the ultimate reason is that we can do it together as a family. Other species that we could have chosen, we passed on because our kids couldn’t be right in the middle of the action while working with them. Cows, pigs, horses all have potential to be dangerous to them but the sheep even our youngest has duties expected of him. Our kids, vaccinate, ear tag, de worm, feed ,trim hooves, herd, give hay, move fences and can do most of that all on their own without fear of the sheep. We have discovered while working together that laboring together will knit a family tighter than ever before. There simply is no substitute for our presence with one another. When we are with them and rely on them our children respond in a uniquely loving and loyal way. They know real value from our ‘withness’.
The gospel of Luke in the new testament tells a story not too unlike what you just read. An angel appeared to shepherds who were tending their flocks by night. The angel to them “do not be afraid” I bring you words of joy that tonight your savior was born. Their response was to go and see what the angels foretold and found a baby lying in a manger wrapped in strips of cloth.
As a kid and even an adult I could recite that account from luke or Charlie Brown and it just rolled off my tongue to easily. I had not one single clue what any of that meant and it all felt a little like greeting card Christianity. How was a kid from the suburbs of Cleveland Ohio to have even relational knowledge to the lives of a shepherd, let alone angels and a baby in a manger. It was truly the stuff of fairy tales and while important in a religious boys upbringing didn’t stand a snowballs chance of sticking anywhere in my heart. Even as I got much older I frankly rejected the agrarian metaphors of the bible dismissing them as not for me and sought a more modern way to find the truth of who Jesus is. I was busy reading books like “the gospel according to Starbucks” instead of trying to see Jesus right in front of me. In the first century as Jesus taught his lessons he often used agriculture as a way to relate his message to people. Now those people were more often than not, illiterate and very closely involved in the agricultural activities he was describing. When he said I am the vine and you are the branches he was talking to people who worked vineyards or knew those that did. But what do vineyards, sheep, oil lamps have anything to do with me or my family? Not until I was in my early 30’s did the truth that had been there all along hit me across the face like an obvious right hook from a slow old man. Almost every story Jesus tells and even the story told of his own birth had two things in common. First, the audience for his time and words were almost always hard working, unimportant, poor, humble people. Secondly his stories have the same premise throughout each iteration and it is the story of incarnation or God with us. Jesus’s birth and teaching during his life can simply be summed up with this statement, ‘I am here with you, I missed you and it’s ok I have you’. This Christmas take just a moment of real reflection and imagine the creator of everything acting a little like your friends the shepherds. Imagine him spending cold nights with sheep in the barn. Imagine him taking off his shirt to dry and warm a lamb. Imagine him meeting the needs of protection and provision for a bunch of vulnerable lambs.
Now imagine yourself as the lamb.