Every once in a while I get into a conversation with friends about our high school mascots. You know, the Cougars or the Bears or the Troopers or such. The names of sports teams has been the matter of quite a bit of national attention. Some of the mascots have been found to be offensive and have been changed. When we pastored and lived in Hettinger, North Dakota the school mascot was the Black Devils. The basketball team was having a few banner years in those days and even won the state championship during the time we lived there. There was a little bit of chatter in those days about changing the team name. One pastor of a fundamentalist church made quite a statement about devil worship and the chants used by the cheerleaders. When asked about my option, I said, “If getting rid of evil in the lives of our students were as easy as changing the name of the mascot, it would have been done years ago. Changing the name won’t affect teenage drinking or the presence of drugs in our school. Maybe we should tackle some of those problems first.”
These days the number of us who can remember the Black Devils and the cartoon image of the school mascot are getting fewer and fewer. The Hettinger High School Night Hawks have blue and black as their colors. Maybe looking at the school records is a bit like watching old movies. Back in the days of black and white we had a different mascot. Now that we have color, we’re the Night Hawks. I don’t live there anymore and haven’t lived their for more than 30 years. I don’t know if they’ve gotten rid of all of the evil in the high school these days. They haven’t won a state championship since those days.
In the conversations about high school mascots, I usually end up telling about the high school I attended. Our mascot was the Sheepherder. It is portrayed by a sketch of a scruffy man with a beard smoking a pipe. His hair is clearly on his collar, a point we noticed during our high school years when length of hair was a big issue and boys were suspended for having their hair long enough to touch their collar. The fact that the mascot is smoking a pipe was also an object of a lot of jokes and teasing. The school has kept the mascot to this day.
For years my friends would agree that I had a pretty strange high school mascot. Then I met a friend who had attended Orofino High School in Idaho. Orofino was the location of the Idaho State Hospital for the Insane. The high school mascot is the Maniacs, complete with a cartoon character that is screaming and throwing a tantrum. I have to admit that I’d rather be a Sheepherder than a Maniac.
In fact, over the years, I’ve take a bit of pride in being a Sheepherder from Big Timber, Montana. I was seventeen when I left Big Timber and except for summer breaks from school, I haven’t lived their since. And I haven’t earned my living in agriculture. I don’t know the sheep business any better than anyone else.
I can remember, however, the days when both the Jarrett Brothers and Teddy Thompson would trail their sheep up into the mountains each spring and return them to the ranch in the fall. If you happened to be driving up the valley when they were moving sheep, you needed to be prepared to take a lot of time to slowly work your way through the bands of sheep. They worked the sheep with dogs and there’d be a four-wheel drive vehicle pulling the sheep wagon at the rear of the band. Most of the sheepherders had horses, but a few of them walked all the way up the valley with the sheep.
As such, I claim a small about of expertise whenever the subject of sheep comes up in church, which is surprisingly often. Jesus is known both as the lamb of God and as the good shepherd. Most people know the Christmas Story and the basic story of Easter. Those are stories that we tell every year, without fail. Many Christians will tell you that their favorite Psalm is Psalm 23. It shows up two Sundays every year - more than the birth narrative or the Easter story. Many of us memorized it as a child and know it by heart. I’ve recited Psalm 23 when visiting people in the hospital or hospice house. Even if they appear to be unconscious, their lips will often move with the words as I decide the Psalm. It is familiar, comforting, and brings hope in difficult situations.
So, I get to fall back on Sheepherder stories from time to time. I can remember the big wool bags and the feel of the soft fleeces during sheering time. I know the sounds (and the smells) of sheep and am comfortable around the critters. I’ve held the bottles to feed bum lambs and remember how quickly they grow.
But my stories come from memories.
My sister, on the other hand, raises a few lambs every spring. There are always sheep in the country that need to be fed by hand and raised by humans. The ewes will occasionally have triplets and be unable to raise all three. Other lambs are orphaned by events that happen during their birth. Sometimes a lamb will become a bit sick and have trouble eating aggressively enough to keep growing. Those lambs that need special nurture and attention are called bums and are separated from the others to be hand raised. My sister has an enclosure with a shed that has a warming light and a rack to hold bottles that approximates the height of an ewe. Some of the lambs need to be held and bottled individually. She gets to know them as she mixes the formula and feed them. Her Australian shepherd, Cody, gets to feel like a real working dog even though those lambs don’t ever separate once they are in the pen. Before long the sheep will grow and be ready to move back to the main ranch.
Its good for a preacher to have a sister who is still a sheepherder to remind me why stories of sheep and shepherds are so deeply ingrained in the history of our faith.