Post-Sheep-Handling Thoughts on Olympian Spirit

The great 19th century Danish-Lutheran philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote scathingly of a certain bishop who was called a “faithful witness of the truth” at his funeral. Kierkegaard thought that faithful witnesses, or, what he would also call “knights of faith,” were people who suffered gravely for simply standing as individuals against the crowd–for standing up for God’s gracious Truth against human pretenses of power.

Every four years, during the Olympics, I have thoughts that might be related. During the coverage of the Games we hear time and again how wonderful and courageous it is for athletes to sacrifice all else to single-mindedly train to reach the top of their given sporting disciplines. They sometimes leave family and pets and any semblance of a normal life behind to devote themselves to eight, ten or twelve hours of grueling exercise and preparation each day in order to someday bring home the gold.

We often hear that such people give 110% in their efforts.

But as a pastor I have spent much time with people who have been much more heroic. These are people who must struggle to learn how to walk or talk again after a stroke, or people whose entire lives have been turned upside down by the untimely death or disease of a loved one. They have to pick up the pieces and carry on. Sometimes it is a mind-numbing struggle to simply swallow food or to stick to a severe diet or to sleep through the night or cope with the visitation of yet more night terrors.

While Olympic athletes are admired, celebrated and often richly rewarded there are many more invisible heroes who are truly oppressed by the ravages of life and must struggle on with no one to understand or encourage them.

In my youth I competed in a number of sports, including football, basketball, handball and judo. I devoted most time of all at track and distance running. As a high school freshman I injured myself broad jumping and was plagued by visitations of chronic knee pain afterwards. Since coaches habitually told me I should learn to “play hurt,” it was not until I was 34 years old that I felt I couldn’t take the pain anymore and insisted a doctor take my injury seriously. I had “invasive” surgery (too much pathology for arthroscopic, I was told) and was sent home after a quick lesson on exercises. I wasn’t doing them very well and my leg muscles atrophied a great deal in the ensuing two weeks. During that time the leg lifts I was doing felt about the same as pounding my own head with a hammer. And getting up and down the stairs or moving about on crutches was not going so well either. One morning the Boston Marathon was on television. As I watched it I started reminiscing about my own competitive days and wondered if I would ever be able to walk normally, much less run. I had an urge to go to the bathroom and fumbled with my crutches to the point that I fell down a flight of stairs—a pathetic heap of self-pity.

To get up I had to give myself a sermon. I decided it took much more courage and spiritual strength to do things like recover from surgery, cope with chronic ill-health or love people who couldn’t love back than it does to win the Boston Marathon or an Olympic medal. For the latter you are pushing a healthy body to new heights and you can count on the admiration of many. For the former you must slog on alone just to do something that most people don’t give a second thought to.


Yesterday we handled sheep here on the farm, and I doubt whether an athlete alive has given 110% the way we did.

Handling sheep is easy in theory. If sheep were those cuddly things you see in cartoons, being counted as people try to get to sleep, it would be easy. But sheep can be impossible.

The task was simple enough in theory. Someone was coming to buy ten of our ewe lambs from our main flock, as well as retrieve 11 of her own sheep that we had been renting for training sheepdogs at our spring clinic and on through the summer.

To facilitate this Connie and I had to run our flock of 100 ewes with their ram and ewe lambs through our sorting system. We would there give each of the lambs a dose of worming medicine, since they have shown some signs of a worm load, mark the ewe lambs we wanted to keep and sort them off, and then put all the ewe lambs together so that our buyer could pick out the ones she wanted.

Simple task,  but lambs are lambs. And our North Country Cheviot lambs are quite a bit above average in the amount of fight in them. We would open the gate and allow about six or so ewes and lambs in the chute at a time. Only ewes that had mucky butts would get a drenching of worming medicine, but all of the lambs would. I would ask Connie to check  a list of the ewe lambs to note the ones we definitely wanted to keep in our flock.

For each of the lambs I would have to drop the top section of the chute down so I could straddle the side and get both of my legs behind the lamb, then hold its chin up high to control it so I could put the automatic drencher nozzle into its mouth for a drench of worming medicine. This was the tricky part as just about every ewe lamb bolted and bucked, or perhaps ducked its head under the body of the sheep in front of it. They often managed to turn themselves around in the narrow passage of the handling chute—in fact, they almost always were heading the wrong way. Most lambs also bit at the drencher and knocked it out of whack. After each lamb was dosed I would mark it on the head with a red mark so we would be sure not to miss any and not to give any a double dose. The ewe lambs we wanted to keep would be marked with a blue mark as well. Then Connie would use the swinging sort gate to let the ewes and ram lambs into our big round pen and the ewe lambs into a separate alleyway.

We started all this work about 7:00 a.m. and by 9:15 or so we had completed worming, marking and sorting the first half of the flock. By this time the sun was higher, the temperature hotter and more humid, and I was drenched with sweat. I mean DRENCHED—both my t-shirt and my jeans were soaking wet, and I felt quite a few times that I was about to pass out. The past few years my resting heart rate, even with a high dosage of pills to keep it down, is never lower than the 90’s. But in hot weather, I suppose, the medicine keeps my heart rate suppressed, and it can’t pump enough blood to my brain to cool it. So I feel a bit dizzy and more. I used to hear about marathoners “hitting a wall.” I’ve run a couple marathons, but never hit a wall till I wrestled sheep in the sun or stacked hay with this bad heart.

But we had to forge on to be ready for the woman coming at 10:00 a.m. to buy ten of our ewe lambs.

So, we then set up some bi-fold panels to help us push the ewe lambs that had been sorted off about 15 or 20 feet to the feed lot connected to the barn. The trouble here is that I had failed to mow a small section of grass in that pathway. That deterred the lambs who didn’t want to leave their mothers in that round pen anyway. We used our very strong pushing bitch, Abbie, to help us, but the lambs started squirting out in all directions and managed to knock down a couple of our panels. When lambs were all about I ran in to get Cap and Nell to help. They did their best, but ewes were bawling, and lambs were bawling, and lambs were running all over the place—back to the south pasture gate in one direction and all around the outside of the round pen fence in the other. When the three dogs and Connie and I managed to herd them almost to the feed lot where we wanted them, one, then two, then three or more would squirt out again.

After 15 or 20 minutes of chaos we had managed to get only 3 of the 15 or so ewe lambs into the right place, so I decided to let all the others rejoin the un-processed half of the flock, waiting and bawling in the south pasture, as we pushed them into the handling system. There was one ewe lamb that had gotten to the far side of the round pen and was bashing itself against the fencing there. This presented the horrible possibility of getting all the already processed ewes and ram lambs back with the unprocessed ones. I had to go and catch it and bring it back – carrying it about 100 feet or so in the process. By the time I got that ewe lamb in the feed lot I felt that my body was half rubber and half lead.

Connie and I went into the kitchen to cool off a bit with air conditioning and Gator Aide. I was fading fast, but I wanted to quickly get back out and finish the job. By this time our sheep buyer was quite late and I didn’t worry so much about inconveniencing her as I did about making the sheep suffer by being crowded and away from water in the hot sun.

We soon were back at it and managed almost to finish all the sorting by the time the buyer arrived. She got her trailer up to our alleyway and we rather easily got all 25 ewe lambs onto it. Then I backed her trailer near to our feed lot and the buyer got into the trailer and handed the lambs I wanted to keep and the few others she didn’t want till we got down to the ten that pleased her. That little job was enough to make me hit the wall again and I spent another ten minutes or so bending over to give my brain a chance to cool off. I wouldn’t be surprised if I wasn’t pushing things close to collapse or even death more than once.

Finally the buyer put her trailer into our north pasture. Her dog couldn’t quite manage to load the flock of 11 rental sheep onto the trailer.  They had only been on a trailer once before in their short lives, and were quite hard to convince. I then had her hold the ewe lambs in the trailer while I worked Abbie. This hard working bitch was able to both settle the sheep and put enough pressure on them to finally convince them to load up—this after having stubborn ones squirt out about six or seven times, making Abbie re-gather in the hot sun.

It was about 1 p.m., after about six hours of work, by the time our buyer was off and down the road. She wrote an e-mail to say she needed the rest of the day on the couch to recoup. My pulse is still 120 a day later, though it is on the way down.


So, what does all of this have to do with the Olympian spirit? Well, when athletes talk about not giving up, giving 110% and overcoming challenges, I will have to insist that there is nothing quite as challenging as sorting a flock of 100 sheep, dosing desperate lambs and separating sheep mothers from their babies. With my heart condition I ran up against that wall that distance runners talk about, not once but many times. And there is nothing more frustrating and at times impossible, as herding panicky lambs. I could see my dogs each deal with that frustration and impossibility in their own distinct ways. Nell sort of freezes, thinking this can’t be right. Cap pushes hard here, then moves over there, then backs away not knowing what to do. If I lose my cool and bark orders with too much anger in my voice, Abbie will just leave the scene altogether. She obeys commands but doesn’t deal with crazed gibberish.

But we regrouped. We didn’t quit. We came back at it. We used all the resources of our brains and our bodies. We fought off fatigue and downright exhaustion. We prevailed.


After Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Ashton Eaton there has been a lot of speculation as to who is the greatest athlete ever. I think Snoopy the dog, in a long-ago Peanuts cartoon, settled that argument when he insisted that border collies are indeed the greatest. Without them we wouldn’t be able to do what we did yesterday with our flock.

But all that heroic hard work and determination that we admire so much every four years in the Olympics, is surpassed when every-day people do what they simply must do. Not what they choose—but what they must do.

Martin Luther saw the cross that way. To take up our cross and follow Jesus isn’t a designer thing: “Oh I’ll do my suffering that way, with that sport or that lovely spiritual discipline—that sojourn in the desert, that fashionable cause.” No, the people we are given to love and to suffer for are given to us. God chooses them for us and sends them our way. We don’t choose the neighbor we are to love and suffer for. They are there. They bump into us. They, in fact, annoy us and are a regular nuisance. That’s what makes our hard work and determination so much harder at times. We didn’t choose it. It comes with the territory. We may even feel trapped by it in a way. Yet there is no other way of life we can imagine.

And no one  is there in the stands to wave flags and cheer for us—no light bulbs flashing. We don’t even have a coach.

We hit the wall, all too often, but keep on going. And, if those athletes give 110%, we must give more. We take up the cross that is ours—that is given to us—and we follow.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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