Helen Jesty: March 2016
A Lake District Psalm
I have met many women as well as men, while I have been in Alton, who know a thing or two about sheep. Often when we think together about what hymns to chose at mid week Communion in the Care Homes someone suggests The Lord is my Shepherd.' James Rebanks messed about at school and couldn't write by hand but still managed eventually to secure a place at Oxford and to write a wonderful book called The Shepherd's Life. Waterstones in Alton are featuring it in their window this month. It is a book that moved me deeply and I would like to share some passages with you.
It has a simple structure ( always the best! ) with four chapters : Spring, Summer, Autumn and I have quoted below an extract from the chapter on Winter. It speaks to me of what Jesus did for you and me on the cross.
James writes: I feel the lightness of a snowflake...like the snow god had placed it on my tongue for Holy Communion. 'I don't like this snow, it's layering up in drifts very fast. I decided to get the sheep lower down to some shelter and I need to hurry but they wanted to go back. The best ewe follows me in the trodden path I am making. She is canny and street wise. She has bred me great sons and daughters. She knows they are being led away from danger.
We reach a gateway deep with snow, up to my waist, and getting worse as the wind drives more snow in.
Beyond this point the ewes will be safer but I can't leave them in the lane. I crunch through almost up to my chest. I wonder if this is a good idea but already the old ewe is following in my footsteps.
The others look at her, unsure whether to follow. But then one of her daughters comes and they all bunch up at the beginning of the little white gully I have created. And then I am through the drift.
I tumble over as I hit a stone and the old ewe walks over my legs, followed by eighty others, all of which are now on a mission. They trek away down the fields to where the snow is less deep and where I go and feed them hay. Whatever happens now the fell sheep, the Herdwicks, can endure it. They are safe here, out of the drifting winds.
Imagine eighty sheep walking over a Shepherd who should be striding on ahead. Yet in forging the way, tripping up, he ended up literally laying his life down for the sheep. What a good picture of what Jesus accomplished for us. By allowing all the sheep to trample over him, so that they would not be buried alive in deep snow, the shepherd was their salvation.
James has a strong attachment to the Lake District where his family had lived for generations. He writes ' many stories are of people trying hard to leave a place. This is the story of someone trying hard to stay.' Those who have lived in Alton for 50/60 years or more and those of you who have uprooted from a beloved place elsewhere, will understand this sense of Place, of Belonging. James' grandfather bought the run-down farm in the 1960's. He christened the relationship he had with his grandson: 'us two old men' and add 'we need to stop for our pipe' even although neither of them smoked! The shepherd writes, 'we are all built out of stories..' Generations of the family kept sheep in the Lake District. 'We shaped this landscape', writes James, 'and in turn are shaped by it'
With his sheep dogs, Floss and Tan, James tends the flock as the seasons come and go: sending sheep to the fells in summer, making the hay while the sun shines, 'making good hay is like a commandment from God up here' he writes, replenishing the flocks at the autumn fairs, keeping the sheep alive through the long gruelling days of winter before the lightheadedness of spring as lambs are born. Then the sheep wait to be taken back up to the fells where they belong, as the days stretch into summer.'
To 'be hefted' is a phrase used to describe sheep attached to a particular area of upland pasture. The sheep walk up paths worn down by countless past generations before them until they find the place where they belong. They are 'hefted' — taught their sense of belonging — by their mothers. Many of us too learned the sense of belonging to Christ from our mothers and grandmothers. To belong in God's family is a gift indeed for which we can praise God. His is a family with arms open wide and we are called to encourage others in. Each of us can sing, ' The Lord is my Shepherd, I'll not want' and trust that 'goodness and mercy all my life shall surely follow me' both now and for ever more.
From: The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks, with reflections from Helen Jesty
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