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Living in the Long Paddock

Australian Resevoir

Psalm 23 and John 10

Funerals are poignant times. People who don’t normally come, fill the church, grieving the death of a loved one, or a friend. As the minister, I see folks tune in and listen, and then tune out a little while, looking somewhere far away in their private grief. I do it too, if I’m not leading the service. There’s only so much we can bear, and sometimes the words all seem ... just words.

There’s one place where we all pay attention. As the coffin is lowered, at the last final, undeniable goodbye, we all watch. I usually recite Psalm 23 at that time, and it seems to speak to people more consistently than any other text I know.

even though I walk in the darkest valley

though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death

The Good Shepherd comes to us in our time of extremity... even when we are walking in the darkest valley.

That’s the first picture for today.

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This is the second picture I have for us: My next door neighbours come from India. They are great neighbours, the husband is a mean cook, and his wife has a delightful sense of humour. It’s made all the sweeter by her accented English, which has a blend of so very British, and yet so very Indian expressions. Sometimes I think she hams it up for us! We spend some good times together.

The trouble is, I work best if I get up at six in the morning. She works night shift, in a neo natal unit. We don’t see each other as much as neighbours should. So, when we meet it takes me a while to pick up the cadences of her voice again. I can’t hear properly, until I get used to her accent. I was half listening to the conversation the other evening, while playing with one of her children, and didn’t even realise she was talking to me!

We say, in one of the old hymns, O let me hear Thee speaking in accents clear and still... How sad, if we have been too busy to catch up with God lately, and we miss most of what God says to us in the funeral service, or some other time of pain and grief, because we have forgotten the clear accents of God!

That’s our second picture.

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For the third, let’s go back to the sheep of Jesus’ time. It was not a good time to be a sheep. Israel had wolves, and bears... and maybe still... even a few lions. And, like today, there were sheep stealers.

Shepherds had to be tough. They sometimes had to put their life on the line for the sheep. We are familiar with the image of the sheepfold, where the shepherd brought the sheep each night and fenced them in safely.

What I hadn’t realised was that several shepherds often shared the one fold. All the sheep were mixed up together each night! Now, as an old farmer, I can tell you that getting your sheep mixed up with your neighbour’s is no fun. You have to draft them out from each other, and for some reason, the sheep never really want to help that process.

I’m told—and it’s hard to believe when you’re an Aussie farmer—that the shepherds call out to their own sheep each morning and lead them off to good pastures for the day. “Here Gwen... come on Dennis... Mary. Is Liz back from overseas yet?  Come on John!” The sheep know the voice of their shepherd, and will not follow a stranger, said Jesus, because they do not know the voice of strangers.

Life is dangerous. We live in a world where someone has said they couldn’t   “believe in ... an all-loving, intending for creation's well-being, [kind of] God, because there are so many ways the universe is trying to kill us.” (Neil DeGrasse Tyson?) If it’s that kind of place—and it often does feel like that—you’d think we’d want to pay all the attention we can to God. And to make sure we knew his voice.

Do we?

I reckon we’re mostly like Aussie sheep. I am.  We’re inclined to keep as far away from the farmer as we can. If the farmer tries to drive us through a gate to good feed, we won’t go through. Or we’ll be like the mob of sheep my Dad and I had once. They ignored the open gate and the whole 200 hit the fence next to it, flat out, and got themselves tangled up and mangled in the wire, and brought down a hundred and fifty yards of fence. Not one of them went through the open gate!

And the number of times I’ve seen a fresh stubble paddock full of seed, and some fool sheep outside on the highway, risking the cars, so it can enjoy... a mouthful of Bathurst Burr...!

When the farmer feeds the sheep pure grain from the back of the ute during the summer, the sheep do come running... but they always hang back from the ute. Don’t get too close to the farmer, girls! And when you’ve got flies and maggots eating up your backside and he comes to help and heal you... run away!

Despite this,  we had one sheep who would run so close behind the ute, she almost rested her chin on the tailgate. She tried to swallow the grain before it hit the ground!

One of the shearers said one year, “That’s a good sheep, Mel; eight pound of wool in that fleece, and half a bushel of wheat!”

You see, this sheep “got down.” For some reason it was sick, and couldn’t stand up on its own. That’s the end for a sheep. When it “gets down,” it is attacked by carrion and ants. It can’t eat or drink. And it soon dies.

But my Dad found her. He took her back to the shed, made a sling out of old wheat bags and binder twine, and trussed her up like a baby in one of those bouncy things we use when they can’t walk yet. She hung up in the corner of the barn for days, while he brought water and grain. She recovered.

Forever after, while the other sheep ranged everywhere across the paddocks, this sheep did her best to break out, and come back to my Dad, and the barn. She knew where the good food was! She was in love with her  good shepherd. She was no longer afraid, or cautious, or distant.

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Now for the last point. It’s a question, really.

I used to hear about people who reckoned they were close to the Good Shepherd. I wanted that, too. Like our old sheep, I wanted to feel the presence of the Shepherd, and know I was loved.

I have to say that I began to feel that some of those people were just making it up—about being close to the Shepherd, I mean—because I couldn’t find that closeness.

But I noticed something while I was in theological college. They get you to read an incessant number of books, and some of them were so dry, I’d wonder why the person bothered writing them. Yet some were gripping, life changing, and inspiring.

Then I noticed that the stuff that spoke to me, was written by people “living on the edge.”  It was written by people who were leaving the nice safe sheep fold, and following after the Shepherd, and even getting into trouble because of it. And I began to wonder.

I wondered if the Shepherd seemed so far away, because, in a sense, he was! Not because he’d left me, but because I wouldn’t follow.

I wanted my safe life, with a high wage and a comfortable retirement, so I couldn’t leave it behind and follow him.

I wanted my pretty picture of the church where I called the shots, and owned the place, so I couldn’t leave it behind and follow him—not even to a new and better experience of church. And so he went on saving the world and left me behind in an emptying building, on my own.

Do you want me to give up all that theology I’ve worked out, God? Do you want me to let someone else have my church? Do you mean I can’t have a full time parish... I have to be poor?  You’re leading me into rough country here!

This has been a hard lesson for me. I’m not good at it. But... and you’ve heard me say this before... my little investment in following, has yielded a disproportionate harvest of grace. I feel closer to God. And... rough country or not... I feel safer than I have for a long time.

So let me ask you. Which paddock are you in; the lonely safe paddock away from the Shepherd, or the long paddock;  on the road, listening to his voice, trying to follow?    What do you think?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

(In Australia, the long paddock, is what we call the road when sheep are travelling along it with a drover; eg, here)

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