Last March, while we were shearing sheep, I lost my most useful shepherd’s staff. I was out in the ram pen trying to catch a particularly wild boy, and in the process fell backward into the mud. Filthy as I was from that adventure, I was proud to have caught him. I wrote about it in a post called “How to Catch a Wild Ram,”, and if you look closely at this picture, you will see my useful staff. That is also the last I saw of the staff for six months. He was the last fellow we had to shear, and I went up to the house right after that and took a long, warm shower. By the time I went back for my staff, it was nowhere to be found. I figured maybe someone else had picked it up and put it in the barn, or perhaps the disgruntled ram had hidden it. In any case, I thought it would show up.
But it didn’t. My searches for it were unsuccessful all summer, and I ended up catching all my lambs by hand. Then, about a month and a half ago, I found it. The grass around the fence had finally died back, and there it was. The wood shaft was warped and cracked, but the strong metal hook was fine, and so once I have repaired it, the staff will be a useful shepherd’s tool.
There could not be more of a contrast between that hard working shepherd’s staff and the shepherd’s crook I brought home from Scotland two years ago. The Scottish crook was hand made by a “stickmaker” from the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, who told me, as I admired his work, that he had once made a crook for Prince Charles. The shaft is a lovely polished hickory, and the hook is from the horn of a Jacob’s ram. I purchased it with an anonymous gift someone gave me just before I left for my sabbatical. I have never been able to thank that anonymous parishioner, so if you are reading this now, please know how grateful I am for that gift. I have always wanted to own such a beautiful crook, and I visited the craft tent at every sheepdog trial I attended, looking for just the right one. I finally found this one at the International Trial in Tain, in the Scottish highlands. It was the best of the bunch, in my opinion, and I bought it the first day. It stayed in the stickmaker’s booth until I could pick it up at the end of the trial, and he told me many people had come by and admired it in the meantime, sorry to discover it had already been sold.
However, for all its beauty and grace, the shepherd’s crook I bought in Scotland is “for decorative purposes only.” It can be a nice walking stick. It looks lovely in my office at church. I could even walk to the handler’s post with it in a sheepdog trial, if I ever get there. But this crook will never be used in a mucky ram pen to snag a sheep that is trying to dodge his haircut. I’m sure if I tried to use it for that, the stick would lose and the ram would win.
When Luke told of shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night, he had in mind the muddy kind with the useful, battered staffs. They no doubt had their share of reluctant rams and upendings, with no quick retreat to a shower. Angles appearing to these shepherds definitely included dealing with the dirty.
That difference between our images of Christmas, and the story Luke tells is highlighted in the story of these two sticks. Both of them are beautiful in their own way, and each has deep value. I do love all my Christmas decorations, the pretty images of porcelan shepherds and pristine sheep. Even the Joseph in my creche on the piano carries a lovely little bent medal staff. But Christmas is not intended to be for decorative purposes only. Living out the deepest meaning of this season might mean I get a little less decorative and a little more useful.