Until I became a shepherd, I wasn’t sure what King David meant about leading his sheep beside the still waters. Now I’ve learned that drinking completely still water will make a sheep sick. Quietly rippling water is best. So we lead them beside still water, not to it. We make them lie down after a meal, to let their food digest. If they get hurt we clean and oil their wounds. You have to guard them like little children.
So, we run off wolves with our rods, which are poles with knobs on the end. We make rods from a limb about four inches through, then carve away the handle, leaving about a six-inch knob on one end. If you practice enough with a rod, you can master a wolf. You poke him in the eyes with the small end, then put a knot on his head with the big end.
We also carry a staff, which some shepherds call a “crook.” We make our staff by soaking a limb in water for several days, then we bend the limb into a crook over a fire, then tie the recurve in place with a vine until the limb dries, and keeps its shape. The crook on the end of the staff gives us the long reach we need to pull a frightened sheep out of a crevice when we can’t reach them with our hands. It does not hurt them.
We graze our sheep all day, except for a rest at noon. And we put them in a pen at night. If we are ever in Bethlehem, we keep our sheep in a cave. It has no stone. To shut the sheep in with a stone would scare them. When we get them herded in — to our cave, or to a pen — one of us lies down across the entrance. That way if one of our sheep tries to get out, it has to cross over us. A shepherd can never get into a deep sleep, even if it’s not his night to be the human gate, and must train himself to be so sensitive that he knows if even an insect lights on his body. So, should one of our sheep try to get out, he’ll be grabbed by the first leg that touches that human gate. We’ve never had one escape yet.
We keep our sheep for wool. After we shear them in the spring, we take the wool to Jerusalem, but we never take our sheep. Being taken to Jerusalem would scare them, because almost every sheep taken there is sacrificed in the temple. They could read the fear in the faces of the sheep waiting near the Sheep Gate. I could never scare my sheep that way.
Shepherds don’t have a good reputation in Jerusalem, anyway, so somebody might accuse us of stealing our own flock. We are thought to be criminals because we always work in the fields and never go to the temple or the synagogue. People are afraid of us, because we look unkempt, and we don’t mingle with other people much. To them we look like we might sneak up and steal from them, or we might just march right up to them and threaten them with our rods. That thinking is the reason that even the shepherds who bring their sheep to Jerusalem for sacrifice are not allowed in the temple service.
All our sheep are white, so an outsider can’t tell which one belongs to who, but the sheep know — and so do we. Once we decided to test our sheep to see whether they were rustler proof.
Tom pretended to call his animals. But Joe actually spoke, lying on the ground. Tom’s sheep did not pay any attention when Joe called, “Shee-eep Shee-eep.” Joe’s sheep recognized his voice, and came to the voice they knew. Tom’s animals stayed put. The sheep passed the test.
The sheep know our voices, but we know our sheep. An average person thinks all sheep look the same, but that’s not true. With any two sheep, you can tell they are different by looking at their heads — the same way you tell the difference between people.
When I got my flock, I named my first sheep Nose, because her smeller was really small; and I named my second one Joe, because he looked like my brother.
You need to know your sheep by looks so you can call them by name. Sheep are happier when you call them by name; they need to know you care about them, because they depend on you for their peace. If you are upset about something they can read it — they get nervous and show it by running off. A good shepherd’s job is to keep his sheep at peace.
Now some sheep only know peace as not being attacked by wolves, and not falling into a crevice. But there is a better kind of peace. We call it shalom. This better peace means feeling safe, being without hunger and thirst, and enjoying scampering around, with no fear whatsoever. That’s what we want for our sheep, even if we don’t have it much.
But I did feel that kind of peace once, the night the angels came. Tom, Joe and I, like others from Bethlehem, have been looking for a new king like David as long as we have been alive. As we talked about the coming of the Anointed One, we called all our sheep into the pen. Then Joe lay across the entrance to the pen, and Tom and I stretched out nearby. We all kept our rods and staves ready.
But when lightning streaked and the entire sky stayed lit up, we were scared. When that angel appeared, we were paralyzed. The Angel of the Lord, did not usually bring good news.
“Fear not,” was the first thing he said. “For I bring you good tidings of great joy…”
We looked around, but saw no one. He must have been talking to us.
“…which shall be to all people. For unto you…is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord.”
He continued. “You shall find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
We relaxed a little when we realized the angel was not here to take our lives. But then the sky filled up with the heavenly army.
Here are the words we heard the angels singing:
Glory to God in the highest
and on earth, Peace
to men of good will.
When all the angels left and it got dark again, we checked to see if we had all seen and heard the same thing. We had. So we decided to go see the Anointed One for ourselves. Somebody had to stay behind with the sheep; Tom got the short straw. So he stayed while Joe and I walked in the dark to Bethlehem.
We found the baby snuggled up in his swaddling clothes sleeping like a lamb. In that sheepfold, we finally felt the peace the angels promised — it vibrated all through that cave. We told Mary and Joseph about the angel and the heavenly army, then stayed and soaked up the shalom as long as we could. Then, just before time for Mary to feed the baby, we all sang the angels’ song then Joe and I went out. I was touched that Mary and Joseph knew it already.
When we got back to the pen, we told Tom about the shalom, and then we began to wonder about the way we heard about it. The lines had not been “peace, good will to men.” Instead we heard “peace to men of good will.”
There is a world of difference between these two phrases. We think “peace to men of good will” is better because these words hold the key to shalom.
Somehow the Lord called us as men of good will — though everyone but He and our sheep thought us to be unloved and unworthy. Then He sent us by angels to see his son, the one who grew up to call himself the Good Shepherd, and who went to Jerusalem to give up his own life so peace on earth to men of good will could come to all of us.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.