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Plumbline Author: Ethan Brue
Date: March 25, 2004
Topic: Sheep Thoughts

In terms of the reformed confessions, I have to admit I am not particularly fond of the Canons of Dordt. Now don’t misunderstand me. I don’t disagree with the scriptural principals developed in the document, I simply dislike the scientific approach it uses to teach us about God. Let me use an analogy. To understand a frog a person has at least two options. You can sit for hours along the side of the pond and listen to the song and watch the play of this marvelous creature. You have learned about the frog. You can also kill the amphibian, soak it in formaldehyde, and piece by piece extract slimy organs until you have identified every inch of the creature. You have learned about the frog. Either way could be argued as a viable way to “know a frog”. However, the choice of “knowing” has an exclusive sense to it. You either experience it in all it’s wholeness and miss some of the important details, or you dissect it and miss out on the mysterious wholeness. But you can’t do some of both. Recognizing that there is a danger in each approach, I have to admit, that I have always preferred to experience the truth from the edge of pond or pasture rather than dig in with a scalpel when it comes to understanding concepts such as irresistible grace. Let me explain.

It’s spring break. Some head south for the sun, some head south for service, I head west to help shear sheep. While not a destination likely to find its way onto a spring break destination top-ten-list, as a means of getting a much-needed break from my studies, it sufficed. There is nothing glamorous about the job, or about shepherding in general. From Bethlehem fields to the first gravel to your left after the Peterson blacktop, sheep farmers have always been the outcasts. Shepherds make too little, work too hard, and smell too strange for most people. Since most people have never been on a sheep farm, they opt for the pristine and idyllic view of the shepherd on the back of last year’s Christmas card. And while this is far from the truth, I suppose this false picture of shepherding at least points to the true image of the “good shepherd” leading in pleasant pastures that border quiet waters. So maybe the myth is at least more useful than truth in this case. However, as I wrestled ewe #307 from the on deck pen into shearing position, my aching wrist and pounding back wondered if the Psalmist had conveniently gone on a real spring break every time shearing season rolled around. My picture of shepherding was less than idyllic.

To get a sheep to the shearing board, the shepherd has to use the right technique. You can’t force a sheep either forward or backward. It just doesn’t happen. Whatever way you pull, the stubborn animal will pull against you. To move a sheep, a wis e shepherd sticks his thumb into the sheep’s mouth behind the last set of molars, with the rest of the fingers tightly gripped under the chin, the shepherd twists the sheep’s head around 180 degrees so that it is looking down its own backbone (don’t worry it doesn’t hurt the sheep). While the sheep is still trying to sort out which way is front and which way is back, the shepherd grabs the wool on the top of the back and pulls down swift and hard, toppling the dumbfounded wooly mammal into shearing position. The sheep, still looking dazed and helpless, gets what it needed most, but not necessarily by choice.
I don’t want to shatter your tender shepherd image of Christ. It is a good one. There is such a thing as obediently following to pleasant pastures. I’ve occasionally tasted them. However, I have to admit that I more often see myself in ewe #307. There is no way I’m going to let this shepherd move me. I know what I want. He pushes me forward. I lean back. He pushes me back. I lean forward. Finally, he sticks his thumb down my throat, twists my neck, and makes me look down my backbone. Before I know what’s hit me I’ve got what I needed most, even though I can’t say it was what I wanted most. Grace.

Doesn’t it seem that life’s valleys of discouragement and disappointment always bring a sense of disorientation or lostness? Our first inclination is that the shepherd is a long way off. But maybe, just maybe, we could learn a lesson from sheep shearing. Could it be that our disorientation is due to the very active presence of the wrestling shepherd? He knows what we need and it isn’t always what we want. That’s Grace; the kind you aren’t given a chance to resist…even before you know what hit you, you get what you need.

For Plumbline, this is Ethan Brue, Assistant Professor of Engineering, Dordt College