We are sitting on the porch at Seabeck. It is late Thursday night and I am heading for bed. But if you know that porch in front of the Inn, and you know the rocking chairs there, then you know how hard it is to walk on by when people are rocking and talking.
Our teacher for the week, Dr. Ali Mian, is there in one of the rocking chairs. I have loved the sessions I have been able to get to this week. Granted, they have not been many. I have split my time between church at camp and church in Seattle. But every time I have been able to sit and listen to Ali, I have been deeply moved. This Muslim, with a PhD in Islamic studies, is teaching my Christian congregation about his faith.
Through the week, Ali and I have found some areas of commonality. We both spent time in Louisville, Kentucky. True, he was not born yet when I was there, but we could still name the same streets and picture the same spaces. So tonight, with the opportunity to talk a little bit more on this last night of camp, I stopped.
“I hear you are a shepherd,” Ali says to me. “Mohammed was a shepherd too.“
“I didn’t know that,” I tell Ali. I have always thought of Mohammed as a merchant as well as a prophet. I had never heard that he tended sheep.
Ali goes on to tell me that Mohamed made a point of regularly circling back to shepherding duties, even after receiving the Koran and all that meant. In the midst of all else that he did and that he was, he kept caring for sheep too.
There on that porch, at the end of the day and close to the end of the week, I am surprised at how this simple statement so quickly touches my heart and deepens my sense of connection, first to Ali, then to the ancient Shepherd Prophet.
Ali says that Mohammed considered his shepherding time as a way of practicing humility and compassion.
“Yes,” I say, enthusiastically, and realize I am in danger of veering into sheep nerd mode. I pause as I reflect. I know what the groundedness of shepherding has taught me about spirituality. The daily nature of our needs blends with my prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” My absolute connection with the seasons- spring lambing and fall planting, summer heat and winter freeze- blends with the teaching of God’s presence in all seasons. Seeing what water means to a thirsty animal blends with Jesus’ promise of the gift of living water.
This moment of sharing has opened something in my heart. The next morning, as we finish our Seabeck time together, I will find myself still thinking about the Prophet as Shepard. I will tell Ali how much this moment meant to me, and ask if he thinks it would be OK for me to write about it.“Yes,” he will say. “Please do.”
I will find one source which suggested that from an Islamic perspective, all prophets were also shepherds, and that a “shepherds term” is ten years. By that measure, I have served two terms as shepherd.
But all of that is still ahead. Back on the porch, on Thursday evening, I am simply aware that this is one of the deepest interfaith moments I have experienced this week. Maybe it is the simple human connection of what it means to share a common experience. Sheep do not care about the stories that shaped our spirituality. They care about the good shepherd.
Finally I say again to Ali, “Yes.” Then I add, “There is something deeply sacred about caring for sheep. It keeps me connected to the earth, to a realistic sense of life. In what can become a heady world of spiritual talk where I often dwell, my sheep, with their simple, insistent needs keep me grounded. I think it is almost beyond words.”
I want to talk more, but it is late. I am sleepy. And perhaps this brief moment of connection is enough. I thank Ali for the story he just shared with me, and for the gracious way he has been with this congregation all week. I say good night.