As someone who’s ADD, I cannot for the life of me imagine a worse vocation than shepherd: Sitting in a field all day, burning in the sun, deliriously bored. Breaking the monotony by counting sheep, trying to stay awake through a task that other people use to fall asleep. Your whole life is spent watching these mindless, defenseless creatures, knowing you’re all that prevents them from falling in a hole somewhere or being carted off by something or someone (I’m assuming there’s such a thing as “sheep rustler”, which, to me, sounds way more exciting than “shepherd”). Hours of drudgery interspersed with moments of sheer terror as you fight off a wolf, or a bear, or whatever else it is that eat sheep.
Because your job is so monotonous, there’s no one in the world who actually wants to be you- heck, you don’t even want to be you! The sheep smell better than you do, you’re not paid well, probably in sheep, and you’re considered the lowest of the low. And yet, you spend hours on end, pondering the series of events that led you down this dubious career path. Now, imagine doing all that in the first century, without running water, Coppertone, Oakley’s, or Beats by Dre. Raw deal.
And yet, when the time comes for God to reveal Himself, He comes first to the shepherds. WHAT? These guys bring nothing to the table, right? What can they possibly offer the Savior of the Universe, the Giver of every breath in creation? Nothing whatsoever…except…
Shepherds are contemplative. Those hours of sitting in the fields “doing nothing” gives one time to think, to pray. Have you ever thought about the fact that the great Psalms that we speak and sing, that give us such solace when our hearts break, such voice when they soar, would never have come into being had a little shepherd boy not had what seemed to him an eternity in a pasture somewhere, just he and His God and a lyre?
“Pish posh”, we say. “Too much to do, not enough time, who has time to reflect?” That’s why we’re not shepherds. Loretta Ross-Gotta puts it well, “what matters in the deep experience of contemplation is not the doing and accomplishing. What matters is relationship, the being with. We create holy ground and give birth to Christ in our time not by doing but by believing and by loving the mysterious Infinite One who stirs within.”
Shepherds are other-centered. When Jesus asked, “which of you who is missing one sheep would not leave the 99 behind, to find the one?” Our answer is probably “not me; if they can’t keep up, that’s not my problem. I’ve got more important things to worry about. I’m on a tight schedule, you know.” The shepherd’s answer? “It’s a no-brainer-any of us would leave all that we had for the sake of the one.” David’s chief qualification for fighting Goliath was that he would routinely risk his own life to fight off bears and lions to save his helpless sheep. Even the shepherds of Luke 2 were foregoing sleep, watching over their sheep by night, in order to protect their sheep. Even when the “others” are sheep, shepherds care more about the others they are pledged to protect and provide for than their own needs or safety. Christ’s command to Peter, and to us, is simple: “If you love me, feed my sheep.” How are we doing with that?
Finally, shepherds understand that life is supposed to be hard. It’s what gives them the heart to be other-centered, to be contemplative and focused on their King. After all, only after decades of watching sheep in a hardscrabble backwater did a spoiled, arrogant, angry fugitive-killer prince of Egypt develop the readiness necessary to lead God’s people from Egypt to freedom. Only after watching sheep throughout his childhood was a last, forgotten son sufficiently humbled to be Israel’s greatest poet-warrior-king. Shepherds understand the upside down Kingdom; they realize that the comfort and security we so desperately seek is the illusion, as make-believe as hobbits and unicorns. They get that God actually wants them “uncomfortable” and “unsafe,” where they can rely upon and trust in the goodness only He can provide.
Delp, again: “Here is the message of Advent: faced with Him who is the Last, the world will begin to shake. Only when we do not cling to false securities will our eyes be able to see this Last One and get to the bottom of things. Only then will we be able to guard our life from the frights and terrors into which God the Lord has let the world sink to teach us, so that we may awaken from sleep, as Paul says, and see that it is time to repent, time to change things.”
Contemplative toward God. Other-centered. Seeing the world as it really is, with a readiness to repent and to change things. Maybe shepherding is a pretty good gig, after all.
Jay Ferguson, PhD, writes regularly on his blog, The Head and The Heart.