I’ve told this story a number of times before, each a therapeutic catharsis. Since my healing from the PTSD initiated by this event improves with each writing and every reading, if you care at all about my emotional well-being, please read this and tell me you did.
I had seen a live Nativity scene at another church and thought it was a great idea. We too could have live Joseph, Mary, shepherds, real animals – the whole deal. We didn’t have our own church facility, the Lutherans were gracious enough to share, so with their permission we’d use their grounds for this simple yuletide scene. A couple of the men built a small barn-like structure (even though Jesus was probably born in a cave), we made up the cast from church members, and the only animals we could get to the scene that first year were a few sheep from the local 4-H Club.
The problem was, we were all pretty suburban, and knew little-to-nothing about sheep. Someone built a pen for them. These were full grown animals (at least they looked full grown to my keen agrarian eye), plump as could be. The pen seemed sufficient to all of us, about three and half feet high.
On the first night of the production I came to the scene. Everything was in place, ready to go, except for the sheep. The pen was empty and my key person, Michael, was missing. I inquired about him and the sheep, and I was told they (the sheep) had easily hopped out of the pen and Michael went after them. I was amazed at two things. First, that those fat animals could jump so high was totally unexpected. The sheep I always imagined and counted jumping over fences were so much skinnier. Secondly, I was shocked that it was Michael who went after them. He wasn’t really a farmer/rancher/animal-lover type. Michael was always well-dressed, never dirty, a more into malls than meadows kind of guy.
I asked which way they’d gone and went after them. Now, I too know nothing about sheep other than what I had read for sermons about them (they show up quite a bit in the Bible). I’m sure you’re seeing the irony of this – the shepherds out looking for their lost sheep. Yet another thing they didn’t prepare us for in Bible College! Jeff had also joined the sheep hunt, all of us with ropes in our possession. How else do you capture sheep? We were fresh out of sheep dogs. After trudging through a muddy hillside we found them. There they were, huddled together in someone’s back yard. And then we did it. We slipped ropes around their necks, tied knots that were certainly not the knot you’d use to rope a sheep. But since we didn’t know the official sheep knot, we did what we could. I’m not sure what the other guys imagined, but in my mind, these fat, yet nimble creatures were just going to obey the subtle tugs on the ropes and follow us home. That’s not exactly what happened.
Apparently, sheep don’t respond well to roping. At least these didn’t. (By the way, we never told this story to the 4-H people, so keep this quiet will you?) Their response was to heartily resist, and then to lie down with all four legs spread out. The more we pulled on the ropes, the more they objected, and the tighter the ropes around their necks became. That’s right. We put the ropes around their necks. Where would you have put them? Their stomachs were too large, and they don’t have but tiny tails. We had them by the throat, so to speak. But they didn’t seem to understand that it would be to their benefit to just go with us quietly – a nice loosely fitting noose is always better than a tight one. But what do sheep know? I’d been told they were dumb. Now I know it. The problem was I didn’t know what to do about it. I guess that makes me as dumb, or dumber, than they. (Way beyond irony – this is a parable of an ignorant shepherd taking stubborn sheep where they don’t want to go in a way that they don’t want to be taken! Sound like Church to you?)
Spiritual lessons aside, we still had to get the animals back to our serene nativity scene for show-and-tell. We were pulling, they were refusing, their eyes beginning to bug out. Since sheep don’t seem to make much noise (they weren’t growling or hissing or barking or anything), the only noise we could hear was them gasping for air as our ropes choked them. I thought at one point my sheep (the one I was tugging on) stopped breathing! I’m begging you, please don’t tell the 4-H, the SPCA, or any farmer-types about this. None of the animals died or were permanently damaged, other than a little post-traumatic stress. Plus, I think the statute of limitations has passed, and we are no longer in jeopardy of prosecution.
We also learned that sheep don’t respond to reasoning, yelling, or cussing. I think I heard one of the other guys say a bad word. I myself only thought bad words, We pulled, we pushed, and we prayed. Inch by inch we made our way back to the site where the baby Jesus was waiting for his farm animals. We were filthy and the animals were exhausted. I think I heard one child ask his mother why the sheep looked sick. We added height to the pen (about another six feet). Now it looked more like a jail than a sheep pen. Everyone took their places. Serenity was restored and Jesus had animals at his birthday.
Thank you. I feel better already.
BTW, if on your list of resolutions for the New Year you’re including something about sharing Jesus with people, keep your eyes peeled for my new book on that very topic, called Reaching Rahab. It should be available sometime next month.
Merry Christmas to you all!
Oh, does anyone know who, besides God, set up the first live nativity scene?