Happenings

Texan shepherd relates to nativity

Dec 2011    

He does not watch his flocks by night, but he can identify with the frightened shepherds of Luke

His work does not quite fit the standard Christmas greeting-card image of shepherds calmly caring for flocks with a shepherd’s crook and staff as their only tools, but Glen Fisher takes special delight in being part of a profession referenced throughout the Bible and knowing that shepherds like him were among the first to hear the Good News of Christ’s birth.

NASHVILLE (Tennessee) – Each Christmas Eve when he hears the familiar account of the shepherds’ angelic visit, Glen Fisher has good reason to sit up a little straighter in his pew.

The United Methodist has herded sheep for more than 30 years on his ranch near Sonora in southwest Texas, and he is a respected leader in his profession.

Last year, he completed his two-year term as President of the American Sheep Industry Association, the national organisation which represents the 82,000 sheep producers in the United States.

Sheep remain an integral part of US agriculture. Farm flocks are raised in all 50 states, providing wool for mills as far away as China and meat for dinner tables closer to home.

Mr Fisher’s home state of Texas has the nation’s largest share of the industry, with more than 10 per cent of the nation’s sheep producers and some 830,000 sheep and lambs as of last January.

But Mr Fisher, 63, takes special delight in being part of a profession referenced throughout the Bible and knowing that shepherds like him were among the first to hear the Good News of Christ’s birth.

“I’m quite proud that even today all the Christians in the world know about shepherds and their sheep,” he said.

His work does not quite fit the standard Christmas greeting-card image of shepherds calmly caring for flocks with a shepherd’s crook and staff as their only tools.

These days, he tends his flock of 1,800 ewes and about 60 rams with a big blue Ford pickup, a feed buggy and the help of two ranch-hands.

He mainly checks to make sure his livestock, which also includes cattle and goats, have enough water and feed in their concrete troughs. It is dusty and time-intensive work. Even with the feed buggy, it takes a man two days to feed all the livestock on his property. e feed troughs typically need refilling every 10 days.

He also checks the condition of the pasture, sees if any fence needs mending and looks for the tracks and droppings of any potential predators.

Many people characterise sheep as dumb, but Mr Fisher says that is not entirely true. He has seen sheep fight off coyotes to protect their young. Ewes can always identify their lambs by the sound of their “bahs”. He said: “They are pretty smart animals.”

December is his lambing season, and seeing the lambs play and climb is usually his favourite part of the job.

He does not watch his flocks by night. He has metal pens to help keep the sheep safe. Still, he can identify with the frightened shepherds of Luke.

“They cared for their sheep because the sheep took care of them,” he said.

He speculates that maybe God chose the shepherds for the special birth announcement to show that He cares for people just as much as a shepherd cares for his sheep.

In Jesus’ day, shepherds were not generally on the guest list to see a newborn king. Their work, however, was essential. Sheep were important sources of milk, meat and wool, and were also an essential part of Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, shepherding itself was a dirty and at times lonely job, United Methodist scholars point out. Shepherds were peasants who could not support themselves from the land and had to work as hired hands.

The angels’ annunciation to humble shepherds is very much in keeping with Mary’s pronouncement earlier in Luke that God has lifted up the lowly, said the Rev Richard Hays, the Dean of Duke Divinity School and a New Testament professor.

Mr Fisher has never felt disparaged for his line of work, and indeed it has long been a fruitful livelihood for his family. His wife Linda’s family has been sheep ranching in southwest Texas since the 1880s, and his son recently began tending his own flock at a ranch inherited from a cousin.

Sheep ranching has been particularly important to the members of Mr Fisher’s congregation, First United Methodist Church in Sonora. The church’s building, erected in 1928, was funded in part by the women of the church selling 50 sheep.

About 30 to 40 per cent of the church’s worshippers work in sheep ranching, said the Rev Earl Ray Wells Jr, the church’s pastor. And just about everyone in the church, which has a weekly attendance of 70, has some connection to the sheep industry.

A stained glass window in the church of Jesus as the Good Shepherd pays tribute to the congregation’s lasting connection to flocks of a woolly sort.

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for the United Methodist News Service.

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