Each Sunday now for almost eleven months, my congregation has begun our virtual worship service by watching the release of the sheep. I stand at the barn door and smile. Then I turn the latch and move the little metal panel that provides extra protection through the night. The door swings open and the flock runs out to the hay waiting for them in the pasture. I have said many times how much I love this Release
When the ritual first began, I was naïvely optimistic about how long we would be away from each other. Now I see that it will continue to be a while before we can gather in person again. And so the Release of the Sheep will continue to continue. What I didn’t realize at the beginning was the way this ritual would bring the congregation into the cycle of life in my Whidbey flock. In the spring, we waited for lambs. We rejoiced when they joined the flock in the Release. Through the summer we watched the babies get bigger. In the fall we noticed the wool, sheared in the spring, growing back in preparation for the cold to come.
Now it’s winter. Now the congregation is watching the flock get smaller. One of the lambs has gone off to a new home. Here on the farm we just called him “Little boy.” He was one of the twins, the ones we waited for so long in May. Now he has a new home and a new name, “Coco Puff.” I am happy for his good fortune. He will be well loved. And also in December, we lost Junior.
Junior was my old wether, a shepherd’s term for a neutered ram. He was born on the farm more than a decade ago. Of all the lambs that have been born and raised here, Junior is the only real bottle baby I have had. I have sometimes supplemented a ewe’s milk with some extra feedings, but every other time the sheep mom was eventually able to take over full feeding duties. Not so for Junior’s mom. And because she was unable to raise him, I became the one taking his many-times-a-day feedings to him in a bottle.
It doesn’t take long at all for a lamb to know where his meals come from, and so it didn’t take long for Junior to come running whenever he saw me, and to follow me around on the farm whenever he could. On one of those afternoons when he was still tiny and not yet named I was walking up from the barn to my house and listening to the Mariners on the radio, with the lamb at my heals as usual. Ken Griffey Jr. was playing for the team at the time and when he hit a home run, Dave Neuhaus celebrated. “Junior!” he exclaimed. I looked down at the little guy frolicking at my feet and instantly he had been named.
Not every lamb born on my farm gets a name, but when they do, it usually means they are going to stick around. With his name and his comfort around people, Junior became a wonderful addition to the flock. As he grew, he became a mellow, low profile leader. He was the sheep the children could walk right up to when they came to visit. He was the sheep the other sheep would follow when they wandered around the pasture looking for the best grass. And he was the sheep, when the Release of the Sheep became a part of our church’s liturgy, who would be pushing on the door to get out. Most of the time when the latch was turned he wouldn’t even wait for me to swing the door open. He would just push on it and then jump out. You could always spot him because he was always in the front.
But Junior was also getting old. Sheep can live for 10-12 years or even longer. Last spring Junior turned 11. He had a good summer, but began slowing down in the fall. In the last few Releases of November, he was not pushing on the door, and not the first one out. In the final Release where Junior appears, he is one of the last to make it to the field.
Finally the day came when Junior did not leave the barn at all. I made him comfortable where he lay, bringing him hay just like I brought him a bottle so many years ago. Sheep will keep eating for as long as they can, and Junior did keep nibbling what I brought him. But then even his appetite failed. Sometime that night, he died. I found him in the back of the barn the next morning.
Now no one pushes at the barn door to get out. Without their leader, the flock is not sure about leaving. You can still see their hesitation when you watch the Release these days.
I know a new flock leader will emerge, and the little ones will continue to grow, and the flock will be renewed, But today I want to say thank you to Junior for his presence on the farm all these years.
I write this post about the loss of a sheep in the context of a devastating pandemic. This week we were led by our new President and Vice-President in a time of national mourning for over 400,000 lives lost. I am grateful for such a time to name our grief, and for a national call to continue to do all we can to bring this pandemic to an end.
I am also deeply aware of how much our University UCC flock has changed in these last eleven months. We have lost so many precious members. We have not been able to gather to say goodbye, or to comfort one another in our losses. My heart is full of all that sorrow. You all are in my prayers as I know I am in yours.
In this cycle of life, so visible in a simple ritual at the beginning of worship, I also know that one day we will be together again. When we are all released from this isolation, we will note how the little ones have grown, and we will remember those we have lost. We will bless one another and offer thanks, we will comfort one another and grieve together, and we will shout for joy the we have been released at last.