Keep My Sheep

  Occasionally I get a letter (imagine that!) or an email so evocative that I can’t stop thinking about it, like the one I’m about to tell you about concerning sheep. The only thing I know about sheep is that my horse refuses to step one hoof into a  pasture that contains these white, strange-smelling aliens that dash nervously away, ears pricked and tails twitching, as they scramble into the safety of their flock, bumping deeper into the middle at sight of my threatening horse.

   Or I think of the Bible, both the Hebrew and the New Testament with its images that we are the sheep of a loving God. Who does not love the 23rd psalm, in which the shepherd leads his flock into green pastures beside still waters and even safely through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, guiding them with his shepherd’s rod?  I used to sit in church, even as a child, comforted by this image of myself, the lovable lamb.  In the National Cathedral in Washington, my favorite Chapel of the Good Shepherd is so small that it can hold only two or three people; and it’s best if you are all alone in a one-person pew to gaze at the stone carving of Jesus cradling a lamb in his arms,  looking down at it, loving it. 

    It’s metaphor for how we, too, are loved and cared for by the Shepherd. Until we remember that the lamb will be slaughtered in the springtime, as was the Lamb of God, His Son, Jesus.  A tremor runs through me, therefore, considering sheep and my associations with lamb chops and butchery.  So it was a pleasure to receive the following letter, inspired by my blog, which the writer has kindly given me permission to reprint.  I had no idea that being with sheep, like therapy horses, helps heal the traumatized and lost. I had no idea that sheep were affectionate, or smart.  You see I’ve never known a sheep. There’s so much I don’t know.  

    I too, have loved an Arabian horse, thank you so much for your (as usual) lucid, helpful writing. Although I am not a very good rider (My husband is the horseman–we had won him in a raffle and trained him as a young colt, then a gelding, then sold him to a family who would love and appreciate him because we lost our nearby boarding stable.) Blowing air gently back and forth and the grooming, leading, talking, feeding, formed a strong attachment and I still think of him nearly 30 years later, long after he died. For this past 10 years we have bred and shown Shetland Sheep. They are every bit as smart and loving as horses. It is a scientifically proven fact that herd animals have larger brains relative to their body size than animals that are not as social. The theory is that they need more brain to store and use all the social cues to function in a flock or a herd.

     Our sheep adopted us into their flock. They come to us voluntarily and they talk with us in the same gentle chortlings that lambs and ewes only use for each other during their bonding process. As we age and grow too sore in body, we must downsize and quit keeping rams and quit breeding and showing. We have young granddaughters miles and miles away in San Francisco and older grand children in Colorado and Wyoming whose lives we need to be part of, too. So we are very carefully downsizing the flock, trying to make sure at least two go together and that they go to loving homes that will give them good care. Dispersing a flock of sheep is a huge responsibility, at least in order to do it well, in a way that the sheep will thrive–they cannot be healthy without being part of a flock. For us as well, as adopted members of their flock, it is very hard emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, to part with them. 

     Friends sometimes bring us loved ones who are in a streak of bad luck or illness, just so they can spend time with the sheep. They report that their loved ones spend a huge amount of time talking excitedly on the way home about how good, how healing, it was to be with the sheep.    

     So, we have pretty much decided to just stop breeding them, not to keep rams, and to keep the sweetest older ewes around for pets and therapy. Recently some of our sheep have won some big, competitive shows; we show to learn and to make sure we are in compliance with the breed standard. Although my husband is competitive and enjoys handling them and winning shows immensely, I consider my greatest achievement as a Shepherd was being smart enough to sell a ewe lamb and donate another to a ranch in Western Wisconsin, near the Twin Cities, that keeps Therapy animals of all types. Kids from the Inner City as well as disabled people come to visit them and the sheep are among their favorites. We have tried to tame and halter-train most of our lambs before they go to their new homes, because one never knows who they will end up helping. A friend of ours, another Shetland Sheep breeder, had grand-daughters who raised an orphaned Shetland bottle lamb in the house in diapers.  Now they dress her in a tutu and take her to nearby nursing homes, where the sheep loves being petted and socializing. Most commonly asked question when their now grown-up but still small ewe in her tutu first meets someone is, “What kind of dog is THAT?”

    Her letter shifts my distrust.  I remember the comfort I’ve always taken from the psalms, and from the words Christ spoke in the Gospel of John, “Keep my sheep,” he admonished Peter before leaving his gang for the last time. “Feed my sheep.” Meaning us. Meaning me. Meaning all of us who need to be loved so much. Meaning become the shepherd, all of us sheep. 

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