Revelations about the Good Shepherd from a Sheep Farm

Revelations about the Good Shepherd from a Sheep Farm

Revelations about the Good Shepherd from a Sheep Farm

Questions about the 23rd Psalm

Good Shepherd Sunday sends me down memory lane. They made us memorize the 23rd Psalm in confirmation class, but the whole thing seemed ridiculous. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Wait? We’re not supposed to want to follow God? He MAKETH me lie down. Makes me? What happened to all that free-will business? Valley of the shadow of death. What happened to the green pastures and still waters? What kind of shepherd leads the sheep through the valley of death? No wonder you don’t want him. Oil poured on my head? How about a little gel to hold the cowlick down instead? A table in the presence of my enemies? Am I just supposed to sit there eating dinner while my enemy comes up and stabs me? How about a sword instead?

Sheep shearing opportunity.

In my first year of college in Iowa, people knew I was hard up for money. Someone from the college said I could make money helping a guy shear sheep. “I’m a city kid. I don’t know anything about sheep shearing.”

“You don’t have to. There’s a farmer with a bad back; he needs some help. He’ll teach you everything you need.”

“How much?”

“Minimum wage $3.10/hour.”

“Well, okay.”

Bright and early the next morning, I drove to the farm, and I was met by a scrawny farmer in bib overalls and work boots. I couldn’t guess how old he was. When you’re 18, everybody with gray hair is just old. I got out of my car, and he looked me over. A red polo shirt with an upturned collar, jeans, white leather Nike tennies with the red stripe, and photo-grey glasses that turned dark in the sun gave me the appearance of a kid trying to look cool but not quite pulling it off. He clicked his tongue, shook his head, and said his name was Arthur.

He explained that he needed me to round up the sheep and get them on their backs so he could run the shears. “I’m supposed to tackle sheep?” A practical use for my skills as a former high school linebacker! It turns out that you just stand beside them, reach under, and pull them by their opposite legs, and they flip right over.

Sheep shearing revelations.

Spending time with sheep over the next few days dispelled all my illusions about sheep being sweet, cuddly creatures. During one of our Pepsi breaks, I told Arthur that when the Bible calls us sheep, maybe it wasn’t a compliment. They’re kind of dumb. They will walk in lines following a leader, and then one will suddenly go in a different direction, and they will all turn and follow that one instead, never getting anywhere because they keep splitting off. It’s kind of like people.

Arthur said they would figure out how to turn their heads to look out the fence but not be able to figure out how to turn their heads back to get their heads out from the posts. I suppose people are like that, too, always getting stuck and needing help getting free.

And they can be territorial and mean. If you aren’t looking, the rams will run up behind you and butt you with their heads to knock you over. One sheep named Brutus looked as big as a polar bear, and they had him tied up by himself. After shearing the other sheep, Arthur instructed me to get Brutus. I don’t mind admitting that I was terrified of a sheep. “Not for $3.10 an hour!”

He smiled. “No one should handle him alone. Some friends are coming over to help.”

It took a team to get him down. It was not a pleasant experience.

A deeper look at the 23rd Psalm.

Later, I wrote my first biblical research paper on the 23rd Psalm. And I discovered that “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” which means I shall not be in want–God provides for our needs. God doesn’t make us do things but provides green pastures of opportunity. Sheep are skittish and drink only from still water, not moving streams. Certain passageways were dangerous, and sometimes the sheep would get stuck, so the shepherd needed to pull them out of crevices and scare away predators with their staves. When sheep got gashed, the shepherd used oil to salve their wounds. They led sheep to higher plateaus where they could watch out for the sheep and protect them from predators while they ate. They were beautiful metaphors about God’s care for us, because sometimes we can be as dumb as sheep.

My takeaway from it all was closing the chapter on the sheep thing.

Called to Shepherd.

Never say never. Did you know the Latin word for shepherd? Pastor. Ugg.

Some months later, I got a call. A small country church hired students thinking about going into ministry to be their pastor. “I only have one year of college; I don’t know anything about being a pastor. Why would they want me?”

“You’ll have a mentor to talk with every week. He’ll show you what to do.”

I drove out to the country church my first Sunday morning and got out of the car, and the first person I saw in the parking lot was a scrawny older man with meat-hook hands. Arthur! I looked down at my suit, hoping I was more appropriately dressed for this occasion.

Arthur greeted me and promised to help me with anything I needed.

The origin of the Come Holy Spirit prayer.

I was so nervous to give that first sermon. I felt like I was in so far over my head. To stall and get my wits about me, I prayed a prayer my last pastor had said before every sermon. The Come, Holy Spirit prayer. I’m not even sure I said it right. While speaking the prayer, in my heart, I was praying, “O God, help! Help me get through this and help someone get something out of it.”

It just became part of my ritual to say the prayer before sermons, but one Sunday, I prayed something different.

Arthur’s wife, Martha, got colon cancer. I went to the hospital to pray with her before surgery. And instead of talking about the terrible prognosis, she turned the conversation toward the prayer. She was mad that I said a different prayer.

“I always feel something when you pray that prayer. Promise me that you will always use it.”

“But it’s not even mine. I got it from Rev. Bardole, who adapted it from an old Methodist prayer.”

“I don’t care. It’s yours now. It’s powerful.”

I’ve been using that prayer for 39 years now. It’s been a good companion on the journey.

The subtext has always been, “O God. Help. What I have to say feels so inadequate. Help someone get something out of it anyway.” I’ve often felt I should switch it up. Instead of praying for the Spirit to come, maybe we should be praying that we become more aware of the Spirit, who is always near. Convict, convert, and consecrate can come across as wrong. It’s not intuitive that we are praying for ourselves, not someone else, to be more converted to the ways of Jesus.

Many people have asked for a copy over the years. One guy even put it to music, so I’ve always kept it. Surely Martha would understand if I switched it up after 39 years.

A sheep farmer reciting the 23rd Psalm.

Martha died a few months after that surgery. On my last Sunday at that church, Arthur was the scripture reader for the 23rd Psalm. Of course, he had it memorized. It was so beautiful and heartfelt, not because he had all the biblical knowledge about what it meant, but because he knew what it was to be cared for by a good shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Me maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I
will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.