When I was young, driving through the barren country of central Wyoming, I often saw lone sheep wagons perched on the tops of distant hills and surrounded by acres and acres of empty land. These were tiny (about 6.5’ by 9’) wood and canvas dwellings on wheels, always sporting a stove pipe. They were the homes of the Basque sheepherders.
I would see the herders sometimes, a man and a dog or two, late in the day or early in the morning, silhouetted against the huge sky. They weren’t popular. The cattle ranchers hated the sheep because they cropped the grass more closely than cattle did, which, in the ranchers’ opinion, ruined the range land. By extension they hated the Basque, who were immigrants trying to save up to bring their families to America and who only spoke their strange dialect of Spanish.
If Jesus had lived in Wyoming in the 1950s and ’60s and told his followers that he was The Good Sheepherder, they would have been repulsed. And I’ve heard that in first century Palestine it wasn’t much different. The prejudice was that sheep were dumb, and their shepherds not much better. So it makes me wonder if calling himself a shepherd wasn’t a bit of a joke for Jesus – a bit crass and shocking. And we’ve gone and made it all precious.
Still, there is that magic thing between herders and their sheep. A teenager who was raising a couple of sheep as a Four H project once told me she would go out to the barn at night and read from her textbooks so that the sheep would know her voice. And it worked. It also worked for the Basque, who had to keep herds of more than a thousand sheep in line with just the help of a dog or two. I imagine them pulling their wagons slowly across the prairie with horses and calling to the sheep to follow them.
And there is also still that other thing – Jesus calling himself the gate for the sheep. What a deeply resonant feminine portrayal. It reminds me of Julian of Norwich with her vision of Mother Jesus. In her revelation, all of humankind dwells in the wound in Jesus’ side. We never emerge from that sheltered place. We never stop belonging.
“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture,” says Jesus. We have that home in him, that place of safety from the wolves and mountain lions. We are sheltered as we forage.
I am reminded again by all this that it is not my intellect that brings me to my faith, it is my heart. Within me is a place where I know and recognize the Voice of the Christ. If I just trundle after it like a sheep following her grubby sheepherder, I’ll be okay.
This takes a certain humility, which I’m coming with age to embrace. I really get it these days that I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where safety lies. I don’t know how to measure success in my life and how to recognize failure.
But, if I listen with the ear of my heart, I do know the sound of the scruffy shepherd’s voice. Beyond reason, thought, and understanding, I know when I’m following it.