|Pen and Ink Reflections||
What do sheep and shepherds mean to you? They are very much part of my story but I often struggle with them theologically in my context today. This photo is from Forest-in-Teesdale, near where I was born. Indeed, the farm in the centre is one I knew years ago, working with local farmers on pressing issues of rural stress and suicide, social and economic survival, and other faith and environmental issues. For sheep and good shepherding, literally and spiritually, is crucial to the Durham Dales. High on the roof of England, though we once had the greatest silver mine in the world, even subsistence mining of many important minerals is now near impossible. The great hunting lodges of bishops and kings have gone, disappearing with the remaining tree cover swept from the fells. Only occasional rich people’s grouse shooting really accompanies sheep today, together with the ambiguous harvest of tourists sampling one of England’s last wildernesses. Shepherds, particularly on the highest ground, therefore remain heroic figures to me: extraordinarily resilient, weathering so many vicissitudes; and, above all, deeply, intimately, connected to their/my land and its communities. No wonder Cuthbert, the greatest saint of the North, began life as a shepherd. Sheep, and good shepherding, are part of the lifeblood of my native people. What however of other peoples? In these lands now called Australia colonial society was notoriously built ‘on the sheep’s back’. Whilst that was lifeblood for some, for others it meant the blood of death and dispossession. For in the pioneering work of John Macarthur and others, the sheep was arguably a weapon of mass destruction, and shepherds key players in frontier warfare. So what kind of shepherd do we value today?...
On this Ocean Sunday in the Season of Creation, let me speak about three things: about how the Gospel calls us to ocean-like risks; about how Pacific Islanders are leading us to a deeper understanding of God as ocean; and, on this Fathers Day, about how one son remembers his father best when he is close to the ocean. First however, let me rework an old story.
The story goes that Prophet Mohammed, the Buddha, and Jesus all return together and go sailing on the ocean in a boat. A storm blows up and breaks the sail, sweeping the oars and other implements away. Marooned some distance from land, what are they to do? Well, Prophet Mohammed ponders for a moment and then takes action. Relying on his physical prowess and trust in God, he leaps into the still tumultuous waves and, at the cost of much exertion and constant vocal prayer, swims his way back to shore. The Buddha is next. Remaining typically calm in the face of all the changing circumstances, he sits attentively for some time and then, picking up a piece of driftwood, slides on to it. Catching the next great wave, with profound skill and attention, he also eventually surfs his way back to shore. So, what of Jesus? Well, Jesus seems to spend far less time and effort. He simply steps out of the boat and walks easily and comfortably back to shore. Immediately, social media goes mad, making sense of these startling events. So what is the main meme, or message, that is spread? It is obvious, really: Jesus, proclaims social media to the world, Jesus can neither swim nor surf – so what kind of a saviour is that?!...