Four Requirements to MAKE a Sheep Lie Down

I tend cattle. Therefore, I have a mandate from God to care for His creation and see to it they flourish. I fancy the word cowherd as my job description because it connects me to the rich heritage of scriptural metaphor for shepherd. Sure, there are subtle differences between sheep and cow behavior. But, the similarities abound. I think they’re worth shouting about.

On the Barnyard of Heaven, I get a close-up, personal perspective on the relationship between a cow and a cowherd, hence a sheep and a shepherd. I hope my stories help you connect the dots and lead you to ah-ha moments in your relationship to our Good Shepherd.

Psalm 23:2 says, “He MAKES me lie down in green pastures.”

This ain’t easy. Phillip Keller highlights this in his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23:

“The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met:

  1. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear.
  2. Because of their social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.
  3. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax.
  4. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.

The unique aspect of the picture is that it is only the sheepman himself who can provide release from these anxieties…It is actually he who makes it possible for them to lie down, to rest, to relax, to be content and quiet and flourishing.

A flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and disturbed never does well.”

“And the same is true of people.”

This framework sets me up to explore how my Good Shepherd pours Himself into the task of providing for me, to end that I can lack nothing. His mandate is to cause you and me to flourish. To MAKE us lie down.

It cost him his life.

Take A Deep Breath of Remember: I invite you to join me on a discovery tour into the four requirements needed to MAKE a sheep lie down. Check back for future blogs on this series.

Prayer: O Good Shepherd of our souls, put us at ease as nothing or no one else can do. Amen.

Photo Credit: Herdsman with Cows, in the Distance, a Village, Johann Friedrich Voltz, 19th century

 

Feeling Frazzled? Frenzied? Stick This in the Back Pocket of Your Wrangler’s.

My grandpa was too old, and I was too young

To buck hay bales in the hot July sun,

So we sat by the truck in a puddle of shade,

And he taught me to weave the balin’ twine braid.

Welcome to my front porch. Campfire coffee’s perking over coals. Prop your feet up and join me gazing at the two hawks soaring in a cloudless, powder blue sky, circling in sync over the freshly planted Spring barley field. They’re in no particular hurry. Neither are we. If Eugene Peterson was with us, he’d say:

“Rescue us from a life in which the wonder has leaked out.”

We both take a Deep Breath of Remember, then swap stories ‘bout things that help us grow in our relationship with the Triune God we both love and serve. Here’s mine:

The balin’ twine braid is simple. You take three strands of baling twine, tie a knot in one end and start weaving the strands by crossing the outside one over the middle one, first left over middle, then right over middle, repeat.

Girls grasp this early as they braid their hair for beauty and practicality. For me, growing up without sisters, it took some training. But by age 12, with this simple routine passed down by my Grandpa Fred, I was creating lassoes, climbing ropes, bridles and halters for my horse, and a myriad of other cool farm-boy stuff.

It’s my go-to activity for remembering. Remembering is the crux of my faith. Ever notice how prominent remembering is on the pages of scripture? David rehearses the wonders and acts of God on behalf of His people repeatedly. So does Jesus. How marvelous it is that God remembers His covenant with us and acts accordingly to save, protect, and lead us through the trials and joys of life as He ushers in His kingdom!

There’s something intimate about remembering. Remembering slows us down. Weaving the balin’ twine braid creates a rhythm that breaks through the seductive pull of frenetic, heart-numbing activity.

We both take a few minutes to braid a foot-long strand of rope and tuck it in our back pocket.

Later, we pull out the intertwined rope, fondly notice wrap by wrap, and practice the healing rhythm called remember. Remember where we really need to go for affirmation. We see our Father wrapping Himself around us, calling us His own, telling us He loves us. We see Jesus wrapping Himself around us, smiling, pouring grace into our wounds like balm. We notice the Holy Spirit delighting in us, talking with us, listening to us, understanding us, and never leaving.

There’s another place to encounter this beautiful rhythm. At the end of each church service, our pastor sends us out with a benediction. We, the congregation, extend our hands to receive a blessing from God. It’s the final movement of God’s liturgy. God Commissions Us.

The benediction varies, but here’s an example:

“May the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always.”

A good thing to tuck into your back pocket. Maybe your purse. Or, better yet, your heart.

Photo by Ron Silflow
Here’s another perspective on the Balin’ Twine Braid.

 

She’s In Deep Muck. I Call Her Buttercup.

A shudder jolted through my chest. My pupils shrank. Heartbeat raced. “What was that?!”

A black mass surged up through the crusty layer of the pond-sized manure lagoon, then disappeared. I stared in disbelief. I waited. Nothing.

The manure lagoon is the collection reservoir for a year’s worth of barn cleaning. An old tractor tire fashioned into a plow and mounted on a skid-steer enables me to push manure, daily, from the alleyways of the elevated cow-shed to the lagoon 100-feet below.

Muck, manure is a valuable, recyclable commodity for a dairy farm. In the Fall, the liquefied compost is pumped through pipelines and injected into the soil of the surrounding fields, capturing hundreds of thousands of gallons of fertilizer for this sustainable agricultural practice.

Minutes later, after fumbling for my phone to alert my boss to the urgent situation, three more desperate lurches of panic confirmed that it was a 700-pound yearling Holstein heifer struggling for the embankment, thirty feet away.

She’s in deep muck. I call her Buttercup. The effort exhausted her. She sank.

Lush green pasture surrounds the lagoon during early spring days like this one. Buttercup should have been laying in the deep green grass, barely visible, chewing her cud. Instead, she waits, submerged, except for her air gulping muzzle, in a horrible pit, fatigued and hypothermic, needing rescue.

Take A Deep Breath of Remember. Do you, like me, feel a shockwave go through your chest, your gut, when you realize it’s not just Buttercup that gets herself into a horrible pit? Listen to the words of the Psalmist who understood our condition:

I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3, KJV)

My boss and his son liberated Buttercup. It’s a gospel-like story. A father sent his son out to the end of the appendage of the arm of a backhoe extended out over the lagoon, to place a halter on Buttercup and pluck her to the safety of solid ground. She shall flourish.

So, too, shall we. Once again, God’s top-down rhythm, drawing us to daily repentance, breaks into the Barnyard of Heaven. God Cleanses Us.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, so many times you have brought me out of a horrible pit. Thank you for sending Your Son, Jesus, to rescue me, save me repeatedly, and set my feet on a rock. I sing a new song to You. I sing my praises to my Savior. Amen.

Photo Credit: Mire and Clay

 

A Sinner Walks into a Pit – Eyeball to Udder

In a brief sacred moment, on the 100-yard commute to work, I both notice God’s Presence and hear Him speak intimate words to my soul. The first element of my Barnyard Rhythms, God Calls Us, is well underway. Such a beautiful rhythm, mirroring a church service, to launch into my labors. I step down into the milking-parlor pit.

What could possibly go wrong?

Eyeball to udder. I spend six early morning hours of my work day in a 3-foot deep pit. It’s efficient, but mundane. At this level, I can sanitize teats, wipe them dry, hook up milking machines and finally, dip each teat in skin softeners containing protective anti-bacterial iodine.

The pit is half sacred place, half crucible.

It’s where I’m at my best. It’s where I pray, read Psalms out loud, add my feeble praises to the birdsong of the sparrow choir, and care for God’s creatures. I notice and absorb beautiful rhythms of creation, secretly expressed during the night hours, vigorously glorifying God and flourishing. Inviting me to join in. Inviting me to make drudgery divine.

It’s also where I’m at my worst.

In the pit, I am vulnerable. It’s frigid in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Newly freshened heifers, entering the milking-string for the first time, kick, scrape and bruise my hands and arms. A few savvy cows knock off my glasses with an accurate, intentional tail swat. Throughout the milking shift, I get splattered a ’plenty by cow pies a ‘plenty.

The crucible heats up. God begins to shape me. He reveals my idols, my counterfeit gods I look to instead of Him. Soul-sifting thoughts drip like venom from my wretched sinner’s heart. I nurse relational wounds, flash with anger at blocked goals, simmer with envy, resentment, inadequacy, arrogance, folly.

Time for the second element of my Barnyard Rhythms-God Cleanses Us. I desperately need remedy. I urgently need repentance, forgiveness. The good, daily kind of repentance where I acknowledge the dross that’s risen to the surface. I pull the church bulletin from my hip pocket and rehearse the scriptures from Sunday’s Prayer of Confession:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
(Psalm 51:1-3, 10-12, NIV)

God breaks into the Barnyard of Heaven as I hear His Promise of Forgiveness:

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:26-28, NIV)

Prayer: Dear Father, my self-efforts nor self-righteous works can’t cleanse me. But You can and do. Thank you for redeeming me and keeping me coming back for You. Amen.

 

A Guy Walks into a Barnyard

It’s 2 A.M. The cloudless, moonless firmament reveals a stellar view of constellations and, appropriately for a cowherd, a little galaxy we call the Milky Way.

My barnyard rhythms kick in. Those rhythms I noticed in a Sunday church service and I am now trying to intentionally weave into my mundane, workaday lifestyle.

Why? First, because we are what we love. Second, because there’s a serious gap between what we say we love and what we really love.[1]

First up, God Calls Us. I stop midway between my trailer and the barn, and gaze skyward until awe sinks in. That’s when I hear, with those ears of my soul, God’s Barnyard Call to Worship.

I hear Him say, “You’re Mine! You’re Mine! You’re Mine!”

Those words are crammed with meaning. My Covenant God[2], who knows me by name[3], thinks things about me too marvelous to absorb fully. Things like, I’m His beloved. I’m part of a royal people[4]. I’m His son.

Pretty deep stuff to ponder for a guy in Muck boots and Wrangler jeans, just stumbling out of bed, carrying a thermos of coffee to, eventually, sharpen my senses. But His words go to work in me. They are shaping something in me no less than my core identity. Carving truth in stone in my deep places. Like all good rhythms, whether encountered in a church service or a barnyard, it takes time and repetition for the shaping to work. I wish it would happen quickly, but transformation, in me, seems almost imperceptible. It usually takes a test or trial to reveal if it’s real.

Like me, I’m guessing you, too, love to recognize God’s Presence. To aid in this, have you considered the weather? The wind? Clouds? Hot? Cold? Storm? Calm?

Because I work outdoors for a portion of my days and nights. I noticed the negative impact weather has on my attitude. God can never seem to get it right. You know the feeling, “Snow, again? Too much, too little rain. The crops will suffer. Dang, the manure is so frozen, it’ll take me hours more to clean the barn. Or, it’s too hot/cold in this milking parlor.”

Farm-folk are notorious for complaining about the weather since it has such direct impact on their livelihood. But somewhere deep down, farm-folk get a grasp of God’s Sovereignty as they bend their trust toward Him.

I can point to a new shape, a new love growing in me, transforming my heart by drawing me towards God. One example involves wind. You and I know that His Spirit is wind, breath, life. His Spirit broods on us, lives in us, moves us, guides us, comforts us. Could my perception of something as common-place as wind become a fresh awareness of the Holy Spirit, the very Presence of God I long for?

Maybe you could try this at home. I discovered another little rhythm to incorporate into my trip to the barn and periodically throughout my work day. A rhythm well-suited to God’s Barnyard Call to Worship. I call it, “Where are You, wind?” I pause to notice. Okay, tonight under a sky crammed with stars, gentle breezes waft from the Southwest. I turn to face it. Then, I adjust my stance a few degrees left, then back right, one part of one degree until I know its direction precisely. I feel it on my beard.

I wanted to sense the Presence of God? There He is!

Take A Deep Breath of Remember: In a brief, sacred moment, on the way to work, I both noticed God’s Presence and hear Him speak intimate words to my soul. Such a beautiful rhythm, mirroring a church service, to launch into my labors. I step down into the milking-parlor pit. What could possibly go wrong?

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? (Psalms 139:5-7, NIV) 

Prayer: O my Creator, my abiding Holy Spirit, quicken me. Amen.

Photo Credit: The Old Homestead, Currier & Ives

[1] These thoughts provided by James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love-The Spiritual Power of Habit, 2016, BrazosPress

[2] For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. (Hebrews 9:15, NIV)

[3] The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10:3, NIV)

[4] But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9, NIV)

A Sinner Walks into a Church

I love God’s rhythms. Maybe seasonal rhythms, cow, or sparrow rhythms I notice around the Barnyard of Heaven. Or, especially, rhythms I participate in with others at a church service. The rhythms we take part in which shape our loves.

No need to tell me what you really love? Just show me your rhythms.

I can’t pinpoint when I fell in love with the ancient rhythms of a church service beautifully orchestrated by my pastors. It simply grew with repetition. Maybe it was the crescendo I felt moving me in a Gospel reenactment toward the climax – a meal with God.

Maybe it was the discovery that God was working inside the rhythms, top-down, to transform my heart. A worship service wasn’t a place for me to explore creative new ways to express myself to God, though I did. It was more like a dance between lovers where neither partner feels compelled to impress each other. But oh, the intimacy flowing between us!

After hundreds of repetitions, I’m still stunned by the order of the first two elements of the ancient rhythms passed down by our spiritual fathers. First element: God Calls Us. Second element: God Cleanses Us.

What?!

Shouldn’t these elements be reversed? God knows, and I know, that I’m dragging myself into church a sinner, poor and wretched, weak and weary, sick and sore. But that’s okay. I join my fellow worshippers with a greeting of peace, recite together a Psalm, pray, sing a song and hymn of praise.

Then, God cleanses us as we confess our sins corporately and individually, punctuated by a scriptural reminder of God’s promise of forgiveness.

Gone are the days of trying to perform, behave ourselves, or pretend we’re not filthy. He wants us. He wants to hear our praise. But leave the cleansing ‘til later. He’ll get to it. He’ll be the one to do it. He’ll take a basin and towel and wash our dirty hearts. Whoa!

When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Mark 2:17, KJV)

Prayer: My beautiful, dynamic, loving, Triune God. I hear Your call to worship. Your acceptance of me is astounding. You call be by name. I respond to that call with praise. Thank you for cleansing and healing my body and soul. Amen.

Photo Credit: Pharisee and publican

“Big Mama gets a Fitbit.” or “Why So Restless?”

Big Mama’s back on her feet after recovery from milk fever, back in the milking-string.

So, Blossom got her a Fitbit for Mother’s Day.

She, and 250 other members of the “Sisterhood of Tail-Swishers” now sport the orange ultra-model with the chic design for cows who move to their own beat.

I love when my friends post their fitness activities on Facebook. Whether running, walking, biking, skateboarding, picking up milk from the grocery store (wink), or maybe a drop-in to the local Buff-n-Svelte athletic club, the technology-derived data fascinates me. Distance, activity, mph, calories burned. Cool! But my favorite part is the GPS map of the route. Sometimes it’s circuitous. Sometimes it’s not, and I wonder, “How’d you get home?”

Personally, I’m not sure I need a Fitbit yet. Not sure if it syncs with my flip-phone? The data I’d generate would be unimpressive. On the Barnyard of Heaven I travel several miles per day, but at the speed of Holstein. My route, feeding and fetching cows, might catch the GPS satellite’s attention, but when I’m in the milking pit, not so much. Twenty-four feet up, twenty-four feet back, repeat. After 6 hours of that routine, the satellite records a black dot.

Say, do you know your Rest:Restlessness ratio? That’s actually one of the main purposes of Big Mama’s Fitbit. It records how many steps she takes and the number of times she lays down each day. For Big Mama, the stats churned out by a computer flags restlessness. “Hey, cowherd, something’s wrong, go check out Big Mama! Is she resting and chewing her cud, ruminating, meditating on what she just ate? Did she eat?”

The only time restlessness is good is when Big Mama is in heat. If that’s the case, I’ll arrange a little rendezvous between Big Mama and one of the best Holstein bulls on the planet waiting for this moment in a small, plastic straw stored in a semen tank in liquid nitrogen at -3200F.

What about the restlessness you and I experience? Could it be a signal that something’s wrong, lacking, or maybe devoid in the depths of our soul? Is it a craving for something, someone, more desirable than our selfish, individualistic impulses? How do we go about fulfilling that holy longing?

St. Augustine captures the issue:

“… for you have made us for yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.”[1]

David provides a solution:

Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation;  he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. (Psalms 62:4-5, NIV)

Take A Deep Breath of Remember: I know for me, there’s a constant, often ignored restlessness or boredom roiling in my soul. It’s a two-edged sword. It can lead me to sinful decisions to dull the roar. Or, it can remind me that, though I live in a broken world, God may be wooing me to gaze on His beauty, to be satisfied and at rest, in Him and Him alone.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, as I sense the restless urges of a life that feels like wilderness, open my eyes, lift the veil, so I might see Your beauty. Open my ears to hear Your invitation to find my rest in You. Amen.

[1] St. Augustine, Confessions, pg. 3, 2007, Published by Barnes and Noble Books.

Photo Credit: S.A.E. Afikim AfiAct Pedometer Plus