Spring Sheep Herding

We sure enjoyed some spectacular weather over the weekend. Homeschooled Farm Girl and I got out for good rides on Saturday (55 miles) and Sunday (34 miles), and then for another 22 or so miles yesterday. In addition, HFG has been taking the lead on getting the garden worked up for planting; between doing all that work with hand tools, and logging all those long miles on the road, she’s probably going to be able to ride circles around me at Calvin’s Challenge this coming weekend.

The pasture is almost ready to turn the animals out on … but not quite. We want the grass to get some good growth before the sheep and goats begin munching it down. Problem is, they can see all that nice grass just on the other side of their fence. They know it’s there. And they’re sick of hay. And we’d sure like to save some of that hay for next winter. What’s a farmer to do?

The answer was literally right in our back yard. This weekend, the lawn behind the house was getting quite long, and definitely in need of trimming. I’d gotten the lawn tractor out of mothballs, fired it up, and was going to have the 13-year-old begin mowing.

And then I wondered … why should we let all that good grass go to waste? Why not turn the sheep loose on it? The only danger was them getting into the front yard, and eating Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s shrubs. So, they had to be supervised. No biggie. I parked a couple of our cars sideways across the driveway, to discourage them from even thinking about heading toward the front of the house. I got a couple of kids to help with the supervision. And then I opened the gate.

The whole flock came charging out, bellowing at the tops of their lungs. The 23 lambs didn’t know quite what to make of it; most stayed close to their mothers, some danced all over the place, and all of them made a lot of noise.

The kids and I positioned ourselves at strategic points in the yard, to prevent the sheep from going where they shouldn’t. That turned out not to be necessary. They were so busy with the fresh grass, they barely looked up.

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This time of  year, when dandelions are emerging in full bloom, I’m always amused by the people walking around their yards and hitting each yellow flower with a shot of herbicide. Who needs Round Up when you have a flock of sheep? Besides, one person’s weed is another person’s sheep food. Within minutes, we didn’t have a single dandelion anywhere in our back yard. The sheep absolutely love those tender greens, and the flowers.

Did supervising the sheep take time? Sure. But I actually kind of enjoyed watching them. It’s unbeatable entertainment. And the boys started tossing a Frisbee around as they helped. It was time well spent.

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As yesterday was a work day, however, I didn’t have a lot of extra time to tend sheep. The flock was no less hungry for fresh green stuff, though; the grazing experience had definitely whetted their appetites. Every time they spotted me through the gate, they would bellow and complain.

The solution: our power push-mower. Every time I needed a little break from work, I fired the thing up. Using the grass catcher, it didn’t take much time to collect a nice load of clippings. The grass (and dandelions!) on the garden pathways were getting especially long, so I focused on those first. I positioned some large tubs just over the garden fence, in the livestock area, so it was easy to dump the grass clippings straight into their feeders. I got some for the sheep, and some for the goats. When at one point I had to walk through the sheep area, they absolutely mobbed me trying to get at the stuff in the grass catcher.

On my various breaks from work, I began chipping away at other places where we couldn’t turn the flock loose. The edges of the hay field are especially good for mowing this way. We can’t harvest hay that’s too close to the fence — but we can certainly cut it with the lawn mower. Having this nicely-mowed strip along the fence also makes it easier to access the hay field later in the spring, when the grass in the field gets really high.

When you live in the Midwest, and you’re enjoying a a 78-degree April afternoon, you have a pretty good idea what might be rolling in that evening. Sure enough, the thunder began rumbling around 9 or 10pm, just as forecast. The sheep are really good about coming in to the barn (from their fenced enclosure right behind the barn) when it rains, so I didn’t worry about them. By 11pm, when I was getting ready for bed, it had begun raining pretty hard. I knew I should make one last check of the animals, and secure the barn doors, just in case.

I sprinted through the driving rain, lightning flashing on the horizon (fortunately, the most intense part of the cell passed to our north). All appeared normal in the sheep part of the barn, so I closed and latched the door. However, the more I looked, the more something didn’t seem quite right. I called and called, but there was no sign of the little runty lamb we’ve been bottle-feeding. Usually, when a human enters the sheep area, she comes running. Ditto a second little lamb, that we’ve also had to bottle-feed.

I opened the door back up, and waited for lightning to flash. When it lit up the outside enclosure, I looked carefully. No sign of either lamb. Another flash. Still couldn’t see either one.

I couldn’t go to bed not knowing where they were. I sprinted back inside, again getting drenched. I grabbed a flashlight, and sprinted back to the barn. “Little lamb!” I called, as I walked around the outdoor enclosure. At last, I could hear a BLEAT in reply. “Little lamb!” I called again. Another bleat. It took me a moment to figure out where it was coming from: she’d crawled inside an empty, tipped-over, rubber trash can. She now stood in the opening, bleating at me. I jogged to the can, and found both lambs inside. Both were dry, but not real happy. I hugged them both, and hustled them into the barn with the rest of the flock. Only then did I go inside, dry off, and call it a night.

It’s funny how, soon after we began our farming adventure, both Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I made the same observation: the agricultural images and parables in the Bible make so much more sense to us now. Now we understand a lot better why Jesus used examples such as the parable of the Lost Sheep. Any of his listeners would have identified with it. When you have a flock, and the littlest and most vulnerable one or ones is missing, you don’t hesitate. You put everything else on hold, and you go searching — because you can’t rest until you’ve found the missing one. That’s such a great image of the love that God has for each one of us. Each of us is, at some point in our lives, that pathetic little lamb that can’t even find his or her way fifty feet back into the barn. But God doesn’t give up on us, any more than a good shepherd would give up and go to bed without doing everything he could to track down what was lost. When you have a flock, it’s just what you do.

I’m glad we got that grass cut yesterday; it’s far too wet to mow today. Looks like we’ll be feeding hay for a little bit longer. Hopefully soon we can get the flock turned out to pasture for the rest of the spring. We’ll just have to make sure every single one of them makes it safely back to the barn each night.

Excellent Holy Week Viewing

Holy Week is now upon us. These are the final days of Lent, during which we prepare for the great paschal mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The best preparation, of course, is to attend the sacred liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and (finally) Easter. Prayer, and traditional devotions such as the Stations of the Cross, are also essential. However, as you make your preparation for Easter, there are a few television programs that I also highly recommend.

The first is Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. No, it’s not for the faint-hearted; it’s one of the bloodiest movies I’ve ever seen. But none of that blood, or violence, is gratuitous. It all really happened (and was probably even worse in real life). I’ve seen it a number of times now, and get something new out of it every time. It’s impossible to watch this film and not come away with a profound sense of sorrow for your sins, and for a renewed appreciation for what it cost to redeem us from our sins.

In addition to the usual sources (such as Netflix and Amazon), a couple of different cable networks will be showing it several times this week (all times Eastern).

TBN will be showing it on:

  • Monday at 1am
  • Wednesday at 5pm
  • Holy Thursday at 10pm
  • Good Friday at 4:30pm

UP network will be showing it on:

  • Good Friday at 11pm
  • Holy Saturday at 9pm

A few years back, the History Channel put together a fascinating documentary called The Real Face of Jesus? It’s a scientific investigation of the Shroud of Turin, which is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus. A team of graphic experts uses 3D software to bring the image on the shroud to life. It’s a really remarkable undertaking, which shows how faith can work together with science and technology to give us a better understanding of who Jesus is. History Channel is airing it on Holy Saturday (March 26th) at 10am. Or, you can watch it on YouTube:

My final video recommendation might seem a bit odd: The Star of Bethlehem. Yes, the primary focus is on the Christmas star which the Magi followed. But the scientific, astrological investigation goes far beyond that. Rick Larson realized that modern software allows us to plug in any geographical location, along with any date in human history, and produce an accurate map of how the various stars and constellations were aligned on that particular day. Larson shows the peculiar alignment and motions of stars around the time of Christ’s birth, and why the Magi would have interpreted these signs the way they did.

Larson then “fast forwards” to the original Good Friday. He explains how he identified Good Friday, shows what the stars and constellations looked like on that day (including the eclipse recorded in the Gospels), and makes some fascinating observations about how these “signs in the heavens” connect with what was playing out on Calvary. I came away from it with a much deeper appreciation not only for the events of Christmas, but also for the events of Good Friday. Again, this is a really excellent example of science working together with faith to deepen our understanding of Christ’s life and death.

The video is available at Amazon, on Netflix, or you can stream it on YouTube:

Having Need

Who are your favorite minor characters in the Bible? The gospels, in particular, introduce a number of intriguing people we never hear much more about. This weekend, at the beginning of the Palm Sunday liturgy, we will be hearing from one of my favorite minor characters. He isn’t named, and you might miss him altogether if you’re not paying attention. But he’s an interesting guy, and I’ve learned some important lessons from him. Can you spot him?

Jesus proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem.
As he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany
at the place called the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples.
He said, “Go into the village opposite you,
and as you enter it you will find a colt tethered
on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
And if anyone should ask you,
‘Why are you untying it?’
you will answer,
‘The Master has need of it.’”
So those who had been sent went off
and found everything just as he had told them.
And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them,
“Why are you untying this colt?”
They answered,
“The Master has need of it.”
So they brought it to Jesus,
threw their cloaks over the colt,
and helped Jesus to mount.
As he rode along,
the people were spreading their cloaks on the road;
and now as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives,
the whole multitude of his disciples
began to praise God aloud with joy
for all the mighty deeds they had seen.
They proclaimed:
“Blessed is the king who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest.”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him,
“Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”
He said in reply,
“I tell you, if they keep silent,
the stones will cry out!”

— Luke 19: 28-40

Amidst all the action of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, it’s easy to miss one of the people who made the event possible: the owner of the colt. We may even wonder why St. Luke bothered to include the owner of the colt. How is this small detail important to the Palm Sunday events?

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I think it’s a good reminder that Jesus doesn’t usually act, or even work miracles, using thin air. He often requires others to supply the raw material that he will work with or transform. Think about the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes; without the boy who voluntarily gives up his lunch, the miracle doesn’t happen. Likewise the the wedding at Cana; the servers have to fill the stone jars with water before Jesus turns it into wine. He doesn’t wave his hand and summon the wine from nothing. If the servers don’t follow Mary’s admonition to “do whatever he tells you,” there is no wine. We have to do our part, and contribute our portion. He takes that little offering, and uses it as the basis for his miracle.

Which brings us back to the owner of the colt. It seems he must’ve been familiar with Jesus, and supportive of his ministry, because he lets the colt go without further questioning the disciples. What I find most interesting, though, is the way the request is framed. It’s not really even a request. It’s a statement of fact: “The master has need of it.” Jesus Christ, omnipotent God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, has need of something. He can’t — or doesn’t want — to do everything himself. He counts on our cooperation. Otherwise there is no wine at Cana, no loaves and fishes for the crowd, and no triumphant entry to Jerusalem.

I wonder if what Jesus has most “need” of isn’t so much the physical material itself, but rather our generous giving up of that physical material? And our willingness to deprive ourselves of the use of that physical material, along with our faith that he will do something even better with it?

Lent is an especially good time to think about the physical goods from which we can sever our disordered attachments. For us to reach our full potential of holiness, Jesus “has need” that we detach ourselves from certain physical goods. It might be the selfish use of our free time, or excessive time spent with television, or too much casual use of some treat like alcohol or candy, or something else. Whatever we’ve chosen to give up this Lent, as we enter Holy Week we can renew and further super-naturalize our motives for giving it up.

Looking elsewhere in the New Testament, it seems that the voluntary giving up of material goods isn’t the only thing Jesus “needs,” especially after his death and resurrection. St. Paul tells us, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Col. 1:24). Christ’s physical redemptive suffering took place at one particular time; what is “lacking” is the extension of his redemptive suffering beyond that particular time. That’s where you and I come in. Following Paul’s example, each of us can offer up his or her own sufferings for the good of the church and others in our own time.

Thus, with this openness to every human suffering, Christ has accomplished the world’s Redemption through his own suffering. For, at the same time, this Redemption, even though it was completely achieved by Christ’s suffering, lives on and in its own special way develops in the history of man. It lives and develops as the body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ. It completes that suffering just as the Church completes the redemptive work of Christ. The mystery of the Church—that body which completes in itself also Christ’s crucified and risen body—indicates at the same time the space or context in which human sufferings complete the sufferings of Christ. Only within this radius and dimension of the Church as the Body of Christ, which continually develops in space and time, can one think and speak of “what is lacking” in the sufferings of Christ. The Apostle, in fact, makes this clear when he writes of “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church”.

— John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, #24

When I encounter some kind of setback, or life throws an unexpected curve ball or suffering my way, I like to think: the master has need of it. His church, which is his body living on today, has need of it. Whatever this difficulty is, I can offer it up as a sacrifice along with my prayers.  This suffering, this affliction, this difficulty … the master has need for me to offer it for the building up of the church.

I may not own a colt, but I can still profit from and follow the example of one man who — many years ago — did own one, but gave it up because the master had need of it.

Head Count

It was chaos in the sheep area when I went out to close it up for the night. Of the eight lambs we’ve had born so far, six are almost entirely black and a seventh is mostly black. Only one is mostly white. All the black lambs are about the same age and size. The challenge is trying to get an accurate head count while all these little guys are swarming and weaving in and out among the various adults.

Over and over I counted, and I kept coming up with seven. I could’ve sworn we’d had eight lambs born so far, but it’s becoming a blur. Maybe it was only seven. Or was it eight? As I secured the barn, I began composing an update to the previous blog post in my head. It was going to start out, “Okay. So, I can’t add.”

But what if I was wrong about being wrong? What if it really was eight? Why was I only coming up with seven? I stopped, stepped away from the chaos, and calmly reviewed what I knew to be true. Conundrum, Bianca and Maybelle each had a single. Three. Licorice had triplets. Six. And we had twins born today. Eight. Eight. But I can only find seven lambs!

I jogged into the house and retrieved my big pistol grip spotlight. (As noted last summer, this is a truly essential tool when living in the country.) I ran back to the fenced-in area outside the sheep area, and swept the spotlight across the whole thing.

And, within seconds, I spotted him. Number Eight. He was pure black, and had curled up in an old rubber feed bowl for the night. I never would’ve seen him with just the light coming from the barn. As I lit him up, he lifted his head and looked at me, but didn’t make a sound. It took just a few more seconds to run to him, lift him into my arms, and carry him back around to barn’s main entrance (I’d of course already secured the sheep door from the inside).

And that was that. The parable of the Lost Sheep, come to life. Lots to think about and contemplate; even if I might sometimes lose count and get confused from time to time, the Good Shepherd never will. And that Good Shepherd is infinitely more concerned about my welfare and security, and is prepared to go much farther to bring me back to safety, than I ever could for a member of my own little flock.

Without a Trace

Farming is an ever-continuing reminder that “the Lord gives, and the Lord takes.” Life is a miracle, and a mystery. And we are not the master of it.

We’ve had several entertaining weeks of watching our intrepid hen raising her chicks. She only lost one of the seven (when Scooter got a little enthusiastic about herding the chicks for her), and the remaining six were fully feathered. She insisted on sleeping outside with them, every night, regardless of weather. At least two different times, she allowed herself to be soaked by thunderstorms…but the chicks remained cozy under her wings. Really inspiring, actually.

I got to where I looked for her every morning when I came out to do the chores; she had a couple of favorite places she’d take the chicks to begin foraging at first light. Then, during the day, I’d sometimes watch the whole brood go past my office window.

Anyway, I came out this morning…and there’s now no sign of her or the chicks whatsoever. None. No dead bodies. No pile of feathers. But no hen, and no chicks. (The two co-brooding hens are also sleeping outside, in a different place from where the original hen hung out, but they still have all eleven of their little chicks.)

I hope she’s just lost in the hay field or something, and soon finds her way out. But I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I doubt we’ll see her again.

And yet, as upset as I am about her disappearence and losing those chicks, I can’t stop thinking about this

And the Lord said: Thou art grieved for the ivy, for which thou hast not laboured, nor made it to grow, which in one night came up, and in one night perished.

… and being grateful that all the human members of our family are safe, healthy, and accounted for. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what matters. Each of us is worth more than every hen and every chick ever hatched. And being watched over accordingly.

Worth reflecting on today, I think.

Real Face

A quick post with a strong recommendation: the History Channel has put together an excellent documentary program called “The Real Face of Jesus.” It’s a two hour scientific investigation of the Shroud of Turin, led by an American research team.

These researchers are graphic experts, and their goal was fascinating: decode the 3D data embedded in the 2D image of the Shroud, and use their 3D imaging software to create a true-to-life image of the Man the Shroud wrapped. We’ve never seen anything like this. The end result is a stunning likeness.

They had to address all kinds of issues in being able to lift the 3D data, which are all described in the program. Our family learned much more about the Shroud (and the science of imaging) than we’d ever thought possible. Although the History Channel producers don’t officially take a side as to the authenticity of the Shroud (which the same position of the Catholic Church, BTW), the evidence presented is overwhelming. Also, as an aside, the level of detail as to the wounds Christ suffered in the Passion is remarkable in itself. Lots of food for meditation on Good Friday.

My only criticism is a few sections where they talk about the Gnostics in the early Church, and their conceptions of reality. These passages are totally unnecessary, and paint the gnostics as way-ahead-of-their-time-intellectual-victims-of-know-nothing persecution. Seemed almost lifted from unused portions of The DaVinci Code.

But if you can put up with some of that nonsense, I highly recommend this program. It’s slated to air again tomorrow (Holy Saturday) at 8pm, Midnight on Easter Sunday morning, and next Saturday (April 10th) at 5pm.  All times Eastern. Check your local listings, and set your DVR. It’s worth it.

A very blessed Good Friday to all. Hope everyone has a good end to Lent, and a blessed Easter.

Keeping Christmas

One of the Yeoman Farm Children’s favorite stories of all time is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. They’ve not only read it multiple times, but also watched nearly every movie version (and can explain the differences between those versions).

At the very end of the story, we find this wonderful passage:

[Scrooge] had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

A question that has been on my mind of late has been What does it mean to “keep Christmas well”? For our family, a big part of “keeping Chrstmas well” has meant appreciating that Christmas is a season rather than a single day — and remembering that that season does not begin until the evening of December 24th, and continues until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (January 10th this time).

We do everything possible to avoid Christmas music and celebrations during the four weeks of Advent, and I am grateful to Mrs Yeoman Farmer for insisting on this tradition. Although our trip to adopt Yeoman Farm Baby complicated things somewhat this year, we have a number of traditions to emphasize Advent as a time of joyful expectation that is different from Christmas. In addition to an Advent Calendar, we keep an Advent wreath on the dining room table. Each evening, when we sit down to eat, we light the candles and sing a stanzia from ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ before saying grace.

We don’t even buy our Christmas tree until a day or two before the big day. (Back in Illinois, I used to wait until December 24th and was always able to get a fairly decent tree for almost nothing, but here in Michigan many places totally sell out — and the remaining vendors don’t cut their prices below twenty bucks.) The last two years, I’ve taken a different kid with me in our 4×4 truck to get a freshly cut tree from a local farm; that in itself has become a wonderful custom of its own.

The tree sits in exile on the front porch until the evening of December 24th. Then, after dinner, we put Christmas music on the stereo, set the tree up in the living room, and decorate it. Now, and only now, has the Christmas season actually begun.

As we were driving someplace this Sunday, MYF and I observed that it was sad that so many people were already taking all their Christmas decorations down. Indeed, I made an interesting observation of my own: scanning the radio dial while driving around town on Saturday (the 26th), I didn’t pick up a single Christmas song. The closest I got was “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” which isn’t really about Christmas. What’s maddening is that this year the radio stations began playing Christmas music during the first week of November. I kid you not — I had to do a very long interstate drive that week, so was scanning the radio dial in many media markets, and it was astonishing how much Christmas music was already being played in so many places. While I’m on this soapbox, I should mention that one station in a nearby town has billboards up proclaiming itself “Jackson’s Christmas Music Station”. Just for fun, I tried listening to that station while driving around today. Want to guess how much Christmas music I heard on Jackson’s Christmas Music Station on this, just the Fifth Day of Christmas? Zero.

So, we’ll keep on keeping Christmas on our own, playing Christmas music at home and celebrating this wonderful season for another couple of weeks — even if the rest of the world has moved on (and is probably already stocking the store shelves for Valentine’s Day). We try to take things especially easy during these eight days that comprise the Octave of Christmas…though I do need to get a move on and butcher a goose this afternoon. That goose (or, rather, gander) is going to be the centerpiece of our New Year’s feast. Yes, it’s a bit Dickensian…but what do you expect, given the YFCs taste in literature?

I hope all of you, my readers, are keeping the season well — no matter what your faith. All of you are in our family’s prayers at this special time of the year.