“The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing…” (Psalm 23:1)
How many blacksmiths do you know?
Have you ever met a cartwright? (Note to baby boomers: I don’t mean Pa, Adam, Hoss, or Little Joe.)
Ever watched a glassblower? Conversed with a falconer? Longed to be a lamplighter?
Some professions no longer exist. If anyone enters “cartwright” on a 2015 IRS form, it’s likely they’re joking or employed by Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg. There, the bygone world of 18th century America is recreated for an adult entrance fee of $40.99. It wouldn’t surprise me if Williamsburg had someone on the payroll skilled at constructing a wagon!
Some professions barely exist. The two blacksmiths I’ve known mostly did horseshoeing. With the annual Kentucky Derby on the horizon, it’s obvious horses—for professional racing and the rodeo circuit, personal riding, herding cattle, and even for Hollywood westerns—are part of 21st century life. But once blacksmiths were more than farriers. Their skills in all forms of metal work were necessary for a thriving village. (Hey, how many blacksmiths are in your “village?”)
And what about shepherding? Know any shepherds?
As a kid, did you dream about becoming an astronaut, doctor, engineer, football star, lawyer, shepherd, supermodel, or teacher? Hmmm . . . a shepherd? By the way, I alphabetically ordered those careers so you wouldn’t think I felt a teacher was more or less important than a football star.
If prostitution is the so-called “oldest profession,” shepherding certainly ranks near the “ladies of the night” as a venerable pursuit. As long as human communities have had domesticated animals, there have been shepherds. In a recent NPR report on the California drought, I heard an interview with a shepherd. He was struggling to find good grazing land and was rightly worried about his flock’s future. So working as a full-time shepherd certainly exist today, but does herding sheep have any appeal for most people?
I have sat by bedsides and stood at gravesites and recited Psalm 23 with it’s iconic opening of “The Lord is my shepherd . . .” I have preached and taught about Jesus as the “good shepherd.” For Jews and Christians the image of the shepherd is central. As a Christian, aren’t I considered a lamb or sheep? Isn’t Jesus my shepherd? When someone is ill or dying, or perhaps at a memorial service, did the notion of God as the shepherd leading you by still waters bring comfort? I like to think so. Does trusting that Jesus is not some fly-by-night hired hand, but a shepherd forever ready to guard his flock bring comfort? I like to think so.
And yet how quaint!
I have talked with a few shepherds. I have seen sheep sheared. I’ve traversed fields where herds of sheep are grazing. And though my wooly experiences are limited, I suspect my literally sheepish encounters are way above average compared to most folks.
As I studied Psalm 23 this week, and also read the Gospel of John’s verses about Jesus being “the good shepherd” that “lays down his life for the sheep,” I thought about “Brokeback Mountain.” Inspired by an Annie Proulx short story, Ang Lee’s 2005 Oscar-winning film was set in 1963. But it was also relevant for 2005 (and for today and tomorrow) with its intimate plunge into a “forbidden” love between two men.
You may like or dislike the film. You may admire or despise the themes of the film. You may respect or dismiss Ms. Proulx’s intentions as a writer or Mr. Ang’s interpretations of the source material. But one of the key elements of the film that lingers, even ten years after first viewing the film, was the profession of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, the two lead characters. In early 1960s Wyoming, a land of cattle ranches, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties, these guys weren’t cowboys, they were . . .
Whatever you think about gay rights, “Brokeback Mountain” transformed the shepherd image into a dissonant, unexpected role. Proulx’s choice for her characters’ profession presents an important “twist” for discerning the faithful and dynamic ways of shepherding.
I’m confident the verses in Psalm 23 and John 10 were crafted to comfort believers. The original Jewish and Christian authors knew their contemporary readers grasped the necessary role of the shepherd. The image of God or Jesus as the guardian of the “flock” made perfect sense.
But there was more than comfort. The shepherd was not the king, not the banker, not the holier-than-thou religious authority, not the safe city-dweller, not the one with an eight-hour job or a call-in-sick option. The shepherd was a literal and metaphoric outsider. The shepherd and flock were interdependent. They were away from the world and part of the world. They were on their own, but not alone. The flock—here I speak for myself as a believer—can be stubborn and selfish. What saves the flock from its own worst ways is the trusting relationship with the shepherd.
When I faithfully read about the “good shepherd,” it’s an enduring image that underscores I’m not seeking a temporary, quaint, or out-of-date relationship with the Holy. I seek a real and timeless relationship that will always be unsettling. After all, it’s hard for this “sheep” to put my full trust in another, even God, even Jesus. I also seek a real and timeless relationship that will always be comforting. After all, on nearly every day, I feel lost or broken or anxious.
I may not know any cartwrights, but I’m grateful for trying to follow the good shepherd.