In my last post, I shared with you excerpts from W. Phillip Keller’s book: A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 – my response to many of the gospel accounts of this week, including last Sunday, a day known as Good Shepherd Sunday on the Church calendar.
Most of us know many of the words of that psalm by heart, having heard it in many different venues through the years. I must say, however, I never really got it until 2 events occurred.
First, about 20 years ago, I went through a Life in the Spirit seminar. One evening, a gentleman who was part of the prayer community gave a beautiful talk on Psalm 23. It was the first time I really started to “get it, and I heard it differently from then on.
Second, this past summer, I read Keller’s book and it totally transformed my understanding and my prayer of the psalm. I cannot recommend it enough. So today, on the feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, one of the first followers of the Good Shepherd, I will share with you a few more choice excerpts in the hopes that they will deepen your ability to hear the voice of the Shepherd and your commitment to follow him.
I pray this blesses you as it did me.
Alleluia! Alleluia! He is Risen! Anne
“Even though I walk through the dark valley I fear no evil.” (Ps 23:4)
He (David) knew from firsthand experience about all the difficulties and dangers, as well as the delights, of the treks into high country. Again and agin he had gone up into the summer range with his sheep. He knew this wild but wonderful country like the palm of his own strong hand. Never did he take his flock where he had not already been before. Always he had gone ahead to look over the country with care.
All the dangers of rampaging rivers in flood, avalanches, rock slides, poisonous plants, the ravages of predators that raid the flock, or the awesome storms of sleet and hail and snow were familiar to him. He had handled his sheep and managed them with care under all these adverse conditions. Nothing took him by surprise. He was fully prepared to safeguard his flock and tend them with skill under every circumstance.
All of this is brought out in the beautiful simplicity of the last verses. Here is a grandeur, a quietness, an assurance that sets the soul at rest. “I fear no evil, for you are with me” – with me in every situation, in every dark trial, in every dismal disappointment, in every distressing dilemma. (p. 99-100)
“Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” (Ps 23:4)
In caring for his sheep, the good shepherd, the careful manager, will from time to time make a careful examination of each individual sheep. The picture is a very poignant one. As each animal comes out of the corral and through the gate, it is stopped by the shepherd’s outstretched rod. He opens the fleece with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see that all is well. This is a most searching process entailing every intimate detail. It is, too, a comfort to the sheep, for only in this way can its hidden problems be laid bare before the shepherd.
The skilled shepherd uses his rod to drive off predators like coyotes, wolves, cougars, or stray dogs. Often it is used to beat the brush, discouraging snakes and other creatures from disturbing the flock. In extreme cases, such as David recounted to Saul, the Psalmist no doubt used his rod to attack the lion and the bear that came to raid his flocks. (p. 116-117)
There are three areas of sheep management in which the staff plays a most significant role. The first of these lies in drawing sheep together into an intimate relationship. The shepherd will use his staff to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to its mother if they become separated. He does this because he does not wish to have the ewe reject her offspring if it bears the odor of his hand upon it. I have watched skilled shepherds moving swiftly with their staffs amongst thousands of ewes that were lambing simultaneously. With deft but gentle strokes the newborn lambs are lifted with the staff and placed side by side with their dams. It is a touching sight that can hold one spellbound for hours.
But in precisely the same way, the staff is used by the shepherd to reach out and catch individual sheep, young or old, and draw them close to himself for intimate examination. The staff is very useful this way for the shy and timid sheep that normally tend to keep at a distance from the shepherd.
The staff is also used for guiding sheep. Again and again I have seen a shepherd use his staff to guide his sheep gently into a new path or through some gate or along dangerous, difficult routes. He does not use it actually to beat the beast. Rather the tip of the long slender stick is laid gently against the animal’s side, and the pressure applied guides the sheep in the way the owner wants it to go. Thus the sheep is reassured of its proper path. (p. 120-121)
“You anoint my head with oil.” (Ps 23:5)
Sheep are especially troubled by the nose fly, or nasal fly, as it is sometimes called. These little flies buzz about the sheep’s head, attempting to deposit their eggs on the damp mucous membranes of the sheep’s nose. If they are successful, the eggs will hatch in a few days to form small, slender, worm-like larvae. They work their way up the nasal passages into the sheep’s head; they burrow into the flesh and there set up an intense irritation accompanied by severe inflammation.
For relief from this agonizing annoyance sheep will deliberately beat their heads against tress, rocks, posts, or brush. They will rub them in the soil and thrash around against woody growth. In extreme case of intense infestation a sheep may even kill itself in a frenzied endeavor to gain respite from the aggravation. Often advanced stages of infection from these flies will lead to blindness.
Because of all this, when the nose flies hover around the flock, some of the sheep become frantic with fear and panic in their attempt to escape their tormentors. They will stamp their feet erratically and race from place to place in the pasture trying desperately to elude the flies. Some may run so much they will drop from sheer exhaustion. Others may toss their heads up and down for hours. They will hide in any bush or woodland that offers shelter. On some occasions they may refuse to graze in the open at all. All this excitement and distraction has a devastating effect on the entire flock. Ewes and lambs rapidly lose condition and begin to drop in weight. The ewes will go off milking, and their lambs will stop growing gainfully. Some sheep will be injured in their headlong rushes of panic; others may be blinded and some even killed outright.
Only the strictest attention to the behavior of the sheep by the shepherd can forestall the difficulties of “fly time.” At the very first sign of flies among the flock he will apply an antidote to their heads. I always preferred to use a homemade remedy composed of linseed oil, sulfur, and tar which was smeared over the sheep’s nose and head as a protection against nose flies.
What an incredible transformation this would make among the sheep. Once the oil had been applied to the sheep’s head, there was an immediate change in behavior. Gone was the aggravation, gone the frenzy, gone the irritability and the restlessness. (p138-140)