My Mom was born in the “country” — (very) small town, rural America. Everybody had some “property,” used outhouses and water pumps and had a few animals — everybody, that is, except the ones with more property and “real” farms. Animals, seasons and the earth were the substance of life.
After getting up early Sunday to milk cows and check on the rest of their livestock, they’d make their way to church. When the pastor retold biblical stories with images of animals and shepherds, the connection was quick and clear. Heads would nod. They still had the smell of animals on their shirts and, more so, caked to their boots.
As a child some fifty years ago, I visited a few of those farms and family members. I milked a cow or two, ate vegetables, chicken or rabbit that the family had raised. But that’s about it. I soon returned to my suburban home and life. The farms are long gone and my memories are vague.
I’ve read the books and heard the sermons. Passionate efforts to help me get it, to understand what Jesus was saying and to somehow better understand Him, to get the depth of value there is in seeing Jesus as a shepherd. But it generally leads to a disconnected understanding that is little more than intellectual information. This seems so far from the intent.
Jesus was living with people; he was sharing stories and lessons with the people he lived with. It was common ground on all levels. They lived in the same place, at the same time; they had a shared economy and job market. They ate the same food and tried to avoid the same scorching sun. They shared the desperation for water when the rain was too long absent. They were frustrated with the same government and told the same jokes. To connect the stories to life was easy.
Now we try to take the stories, fueled with images of a moment and place we can little understand and force them into our stories, or force our stories into them. Either way it comes up lacking.
Years ago I heard that in the 1800s, missionary movements were floundering in Alaska. Then some bright priest in the Orthodox Church got an idea. Somehow he figured out, These people have no concept of what the Lamb of God is. They had never seen or heard of lambs until we got here. I don’t know if it was a serendipitous moment of awareness or a long process of discovery (I’m betting and praying it wasn’t the work of a committee) but an idea became a reality.
The idea was to reshape the story of Jesus. Jesus became the whale of God. And the Native Alaskans understood. The whale was the source of life, food, work, clothing, heat, medicine and more. The connection was clear, quick and deep. Orthodox churches spread across Alaska and still can be found in many communities.
I have to admit I have struggled with my inability to find a similar connection for retelling the story in my setting. But I refuse to settle for forcing the old trappings on others and myself. I believe it is about entering into the essence of the life and teachings of Jesus. If the shepherd image is helpful, great. If not, keep searching. And if you find something better for this twenty-first century, post-modern(?), urban/suburban, technology/information driven, affluent society in an economic downturn, please, please let me know.