It is Lent, and Lent on the farm is shearing time. This casting off of last year’s ragged wool is the perfect Lenten image of simplifying, and letting go. If you could go into the field and ask my sheep, “What are you giving up for Lent?” each one would know how to answer. “This heavy coat that I have been growing for a year.”
So yesterday there we were in the barn again, with the shearer Eifion setting up his gates and chutes and his young assistant Rhodri preparing the pen.
Rhodri is famous as the guy who caught three rams at once during last year’s shearing. Those three young sheep were wily and wild, and did not want their haircuts. They managed to slip by us every time we thought we had them. Then they got themselves in a corner, and tried to make a run for it, right by Rhodri. He grabbed the first one as it dodged left and the second one as it went right. The third one, seeing its mates caught, tried to run straight down the middle. Eifion and I thought Rhodri would go down, or at least let go, and all three sheep would escape again. But the charging ram tried to duck between Rhodri’s legs, and still holding fast to the other two, Rhodri simply closed his legs around the third one’s neck and held on. One man, catching and holding three rams. Legendary.
This year there was no drama. I lured the rams into a tight little pen by using alfalfa, their favorite. Once they all went through the open gate and had their heads down in the feeder, Meighan and I swiftly swung the gate shut and there was nowhere for them to go but to the shearing chute. No Rodri heroics needed.
In less than an hour my sheep were all sheared. But my sheep are not just giving something up for Lent. They are taking something on as well. While we were shearing, we also gave each sheep a tetanus and clostridium booster shot and a drench of wormer, just for good measure. This morning they all trotted out to the field cleaner inside and out, and ready for spring. From what we could tell, four of them will be lambing in about a month.
While we were shearing on Whidbey Island, back in Seattle it was announced that we will not be gathering as a whole congregation for worship this Sunday. King County is at the center of the current Coronavirus outbreak in this country, and the health department is recommending against gathering in groups larger than ten. The officials are also suggesting that those in high risk categories, over 60, or with underlying health or immune system issues, avoid being out in public as much as possible.
Early yesterday morning, before Eifion and Rhodri had arrived on the farm, I was part of a conference call with the other leadership staff at my church and we were talking over the decision to “cancel church.” I say that knowing, of course, that one cannot cancel church. Jesus is the one who said, “Wherever two or three are gathered, I am there in the midst of them.” Church is everywhere and is as much a verb as it is a noun. Church happens wherever and whenever we connect.
But my Seattle flock is used to a specific Sunday connection, in a specific place and at a specific time. We sing, pray, hear a sermon, are enveloped in beautiful music, and offer blessings and peace to one another. We have a rhythm to worshipping together that sustains us from week to week.
This coming Sunday, we decided yesterday, we will not gather in that way. Instead, we will find a way to be together “virtually,” with on-line options and the possibility of meeting in very small groups to eat and pray together.
We are not the only ones making these adjustments, of course. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other spiritual communities across Puget Sound are all considering how they will honor the health professionals’ advice and still maintain that important weekly communion of faith. The values that guide us are clear. We are caring for the most vulnerable among us. We are participating in a cooperative community-wide effort to slow the spread of this virus. We are affirming our connections with one another by acknowledging our need to be apart for awhile.
So this Sunday we will find our weekly nourishment in new ways. I will not be traveling to Seattle. Instead I will be on the island, watching over my freshly shorn flock while participating with my Seattle flock, in whatever virtual way we find to connect. I will be praying as I do each Sunday for those who are ill and for those grieving losses. I will be praying for those who are isolated and alone in this time, for those feeling anxious and vulnerable. I will be praying as well for the joys that continue all around us, and for those discovering new life as spring unfolds. I will be praying for us all, still in the middle of Lent, that our “letting go” and our “taking on” might always be with an eye not only to our own welfare, but for the common good. And I will remember that wherever two or three are gathered, or even if I am all alone, Christ is right here.