It is a question I get often enough to have some thoughts about it. It usually comes up in conversations with my Seattle congregation. “How are the sheep?”
Some folks ask it as soon as they see me. Others ask when there is a lull in our exchange. I have come to think of it as a kind of “Hi, how are you?” question for shepherds. It moves the conversation forward, but folks don’t really expect a detailed response. So I usually say, “Everyone was fine when I left them this morning. But I can’t speak for what they have been up to since then.”
And then, often, I find myself wondering how the sheep are doing at that moment. That ewe who has been sticking her head through the fence to eat the “greener grass” she wants on the other side, has she gotten stuck again? That little lamb who jumps up in the feeder to eat the sweetest alfalfa from the top down, was he able to get back out again once he had eaten his fill? And if it is lambing season, is any sheep out there in trouble while I am in Seattle?
I have actually come to enjoy this question, which I can use as an opportunity to reflect on my life as a shepherd. It gives me a chance to pause and feel gratitude for my full life. For just a moment, I imagine myself on the farm, surveying the flock.
It also takes me to a deeper, longer-to-answer question: How are my sheep really doing? Do they have what they need to thrive? Are they safe from the coyotes I hear out in the woods almost every night? Are they lying down in green-enough pastures and enjoying still waters?
If I have the time for even more reflection, I start thinking of the people who are part of my congregation, or the person right in front of me. When I ask the surface-skimming question, “How are you?” have I made enough space in the conversation to get to a deeper response? Can they tell me if they are struggling with heavy burdens? If they have gotten themselves stuck in something and don’t know a way out? If they are hungry or thirsty for spiritual nourishment? Do they have what they need to thrive?
So the next time we talk and I ask you “How’s it going?,” know that you don’t have to say only, “I’m fine.” We can go deeper- if not right at that moment, then at a time when we can both make room for it.
In the meantime, if you ask me “How are the sheep?” I will probably still answer, “They were fine when I last saw them.” But now you will know you have given me a brief time of reflection, both about my Whidbey flock and my Seattle congregation. And maybe, if we have time, I’ll tell you a story.
Like how last night when I got back to the farm that old, stubborn ewe had indeed gotten her head stuck in the fence again. It was the third time in the last month. When I have the time, I will have to replace that old stretch of fence. But for now, instead of just putting the sheep in the barn at the end of a long day, I went up to the house, found my wire cutters (I have moved them to a more convenient place in the tool bag), and went back down to set her free.