Watching Dogs in the Cold—Musings on the Widow’s Mite

This past Thursday through Sunday (November 1-4), Connie and I hosted our latest dog clinic, with Gordon Watt presiding as trainer and teacher.

I’m certain some people driving by on Airport Road on Sunday, spotted our little crowd of people, sitting in lawn chairs in a wind-driven cold rain, and wondered to themselves, “What the hell are they doing there?”

Screws loose?

In fact, as for me and my house, it was our way of going “all in.”

This coming Sunday a reading in church will be from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is nearing the end of his life, when he will go “all in” himself. He will give his life for all of us. Just before he does he has a sit down at the Temple, across from the treasury and the place where people deposit their offerings. He spies all sorts of people who have become trapped in play acting their faith for the sake of others. Honor is everything to them, as it is in many cultures, including our own. So, very possibly they started out in their faith journey with all sincerely, but soon became self-conscious about how much spiritual honor they were accruing for themselves—self-conscious thinking about how their piety might look on camera. It had the effect of poisoning their lives so that nothing of it had the ring of truth anymore. Before long all that they could give was pretend and pretense. Nothing was “all in.”

But then Jesus saw a poor widow who put into the offering all she had—her widow’s mite. If a host of cell phone cameras had been there they would have recorded nothing but chump change. But Jesus wisely noted that she gave most of all. She gave completely and honestly of herself.

A couple of weeks ago the reading was about Jesus’ healing of Blind Bartimaeus. Disciples James and John had asked Jesus for the prime seats next to Jesus in his glory. Bartimaeus asked only to see. And when Jesus healed him, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak—most likely the only thing he owned in the world, and followed Jesus, whose next stop was the cross.

Bartimaeus too went all in. He and the widow hungered for the honor of giving of themselves to others.

Of course any school child can see the logical conundrum of going “all in” if it is thought of in a crass materialistic way. If we give away all we have, the people we give to are enriched. Then they, if they are to join us in our sacrificial living, must give away what they just received from us. What a wacky circle that would be!

But the authentic widows and blind beggars of life know something of the secret of faithful living. To enjoy it we must be free from the idea of sacrifice, and we must be “all in.” It doesn’t mean losing, but gaining. Giving and receiving become one thing.  Our honor is not in what others think of us, but in what we both give and use to be a blessing to others.

It is a joy for Connie and me to look out on the green pastures, the grazing sheep, the galloping dogs, the beautiful sunsets and even the glowering clouds, wind and rain. But when we go “all in” and open our farm to others, it means infinitely more. We get it all back a hundredfold, as the Lord says.

We could make these clinics more of a business proposition. We could certainly charge more money. We barely cover our expenses. We could keep people outside or in the garage, and avoid messing up our kitchen and living room. But the joy that we get from sharing everything we have with others turns them from customers to dearest friends. The joy we get from farming and from our miraculous dogs is amplified 100-fold as we share it all so that strangers become family.

This spring we will have to sit down with our accountant. He will ask us if we have been trying to make a profit with this farm. That is an important concept for the Internal Revenue Service codes, I know. But the profit we realize is not one that can be calculated or easily explained to the authorities. Nonetheless, I believe Jesus sees us all, shivering in the cold there, with smiles on our faces–and He understands.

Handlers enjoy the crisp autumn day and each other--all prior to the cold rain and wind of the next day. Photo by John.

Handlers enjoy the crisp autumn day and each other–all prior to the cold rain and wind of the next day. Photo by John.

November 1-4 Gordon Watt Clinic

Gordon Watt, champion sheepdog handler and popular trainer of other handlers, has been an important part of life at Heatherhope for many years. Gordon is a lifelong shepherd and dog handler, following in his father’s footsteps, so his experience and understanding run deep. He has won singles and brace championships in Ireland, England, and the World Trials. He was US Reserve Champion on his first outing. So we are delighted to host his clinics here at the farm.

November and April have been good months for us with nice cool weather and lots of learning. We have a great group of regulars, but each year we gladly welcome newcomer to our group.

This November we will have Gordon back Thursday through Sunday, November 1-4. As we put up this post the working slots for the clinic have already filled up. In fact they filled extremely quickly this go-round. But we can put people on the wait list and we ALWAYS have room for people to audit–that is watch and learn as others work their dogs with Gordon.

The clinic goes through just about all of the daylight hours. We get out to the field soon after sun-up and work till just about dusk. Between the wireless microphone that we try to get Gordon to turn on as often as possible, and the debriefing time after each dog works, everyone learns a great deal–even the auditors.

If you are interested in attending this clinic, or any in the future (See our posting for the April, 2019 clinic.),  please write John at heatherhopefarm@gmail.com, or phone us at 1-815-895-9736. We are sure you will enjoy the learning, the good food, and the good laughs and conversation among friends.

Gordon Watt helps dogs, sheep and handlers work together better. Photo by John

Gordon Watt helps dogs, sheep and handlers work together better. Photo by John

April 25-28, 2019 Gordon Watt Clinic

Gordon Watt will return to Heatherhope Farm for a four day, all ability level, sheepdog clinic Thursday through Sunday, April 25-28, 2019.

Gordon has been coming to Heatherhope since 2007, and we have heard nothing but praise for the great improvements he facilitates with each dog and each handler.

Kathy Farkos works with Gordon Watt. Photo by John

Kathy Farkos works with Gordon Watt. Photo by John

 

 

There will be 10 working slots each day–each working slot affords you two times out with Gordon, either with the same dog each time or with different dogs. You can sign up for any number of days you wish to be here, but we cannot guarantee your spot until you get a check in to us. That way we can be the most fair to all who want to enter. Please write to us at heatherhopefarm@gmail.com for all the details.

In Memory of Cap

In Memoriam

Cap ABCA 240965

Born 12/25/2003

Died 7/11/2018

By John Seraphine

As this is being written there is a newly empty kennel at Heatherhope. Our remaining six Border Collies, Bilbo the guard dog, and Connie and I salute our beloved Cap as we pass that empty space and remember the magnificent partner, family member, and progenitor who occupied it.

I write this and share it on our Heatherhope website for the sake of our many friends who knew Cap and who share our love of him and all dogs.

Cap turns reluctant ewes. Photo by Sandi Scott

Cap turns reluctant ewes. Photo by Sandi Scott

Cap was part of a litter bred by Wally Yoder. I bought that litter’s sire, Mirk (ISDS 236175), from a wonderful shepherd-breeder-trainer, Bill Elliot in the Borders of Scotland, and Wally Yoder bought Cap’s dam, Liz (ISDS 243853) from the same gentleman. This was 2002 as the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 continued and these fine dogs didn’t have much work as stock movements had ground to a halt. From the outset, Wally and I planned to breed these two dogs that had both done quite well in Scottish nursery trials up to the time they were halted due to the disease outbreak. Once home we bred them as soon as Liz came into season. Wally’s Liz was too shy for natural breeding so we brought Cap’s parents to our veterinarian who got the two of them together in his offices, collected fresh semen from Mirk, and immediately inserted it into Liz.

The litter was born on Christmas Day, 2003. Ever since I brought Cap home Wally has reminded me, tongue-in-cheek, that I got the wrong pup. You see, Cap’s blaze had gotten much smaller in the interval between my choosing him and picking him up. I thought perhaps Wally had handed over a different pup. He thought there was a chance I thought he was pulling over a fast one on me, but actually there was so little difference between the pups my only concern was to wind up with a male. But Wally will forever remind me that I got the “wrong pup.”

Of course, Cap, his whole life through, was always the “right pup” and the “right dog” for Connie and me and Heatherhope Farm.

Cap after his work in the blowing snow and ice shows the beauty of blue collar dogs. Photo by John

Cap after his work in the blowing snow and ice shows the beauty of blue collar dogs. Photo by John

Cap, like his father, Mirk, had ample power to move sheep, along with an extreme reluctance to stop. While Mirk had been well trained by Bill Elliot, and tended to fetch and drive at a steady pace, I was the only one to ever handle Cap, and I couldn’t get that pace right, or the stops I wanted, or the proper shape to wider flanks. Cap’s hard driving style also made me so nervous that my mouth dried out so I often couldn’t manage to blow my whistle. So there was always murmuring around the handlers’ tent and well-intended advice about the virtues of quiet handling.

In spite of me, however, Cap picked up things fast. He could complete open courses by his first birthday, and we could at least attempt international shedding by his 16th month. We managed to wind up on the prize lists from time to time, and even to win a couple open trials. But what impressed me the most was the way he could manage to fetch mishandled sheep that had run back to the set-out pen—a task only the rarest dog is up to.

Cap on the job. Photo by Sandi Scott

Cap on the job. Photo by Sandi Scott

While I was pretty consistently frustrated by not being able to handle Cap better, I started to overhear people whispering that a certain top handler was telling people that he considered Cap to be one of the most promising stud dogs around. I thought I misheard, or it was a joke; but it must have been true, and it must have been picked up by enough good breeders so that Cap sired over 50 pups in eleven litters. There are a handful of his pups and grand-pups that are among the very top herding dogs in the nation today. And many, many others who are doing fantastic stock work and making fantastic companions for people from coast to coast.

So, on Cap’s last day in this life, we laid him out in the shade, waiting for our evening appointment at the veterinarians. He was panting, and he was fading; but he seemed at peace. I stroked him and reminded him that this was his domain—with the grass and the leaves blowing in the wind, and the sheep spread out in the pasture of Heatherhope—the only home he had ever known. He had always been a faithful and honest dog. He had been the most gentlemanly of stud dogs to the bitches brought to him—always waiting patiently until they were ready for him. He enjoyed our sip of Scotch on the couch on an evening, but never outstayed his welcome, soon going to the door to be let back out to his kennel. I thanked him for forgiving me for my ridiculous yelling at him, and all the wrong commands, and for being patient, and teaching me to be patient in return. I thanked him for teaching me trust. I thanked him for those successes and wins that we finally achieved together that convinced some that I had finally learned a thing or two about handling. I thanked the God of Creation for putting a spirit like this into a dog like this. I thanked God for bringing us together.

But most of all, on that grass beneath the Sugar Maple, and a final time as the doctor gave him the injection that allowed him to slip into that ultimate sleep, Connie and I assured our dear Cap that he wasn’t alone…and that we love him always.

What Does A Liar Sound Like?

Perhaps THE fundamental question today is, “How can I tell if someone is lying to me?” Are they trying to rip me off, manipulate me, sell me a bill of goods? Have they themselves been sucked into an entire movement built on lies, and are they unwittingly trying to seduce me into their house of cards? Are they giving me the truth, or “fake news?”

It’s really not rocket science. Here, as a public service, is a short list–a dirty dozen dependable ways to tell a liar–a set of tips that anyone can use in any situation, no matter which side of any political or cultural divide you find yourself on:

  • First: Don’t be mentally lazy by simply siding with your allies. Liars can come at us from all sides. Your mom was right, people who look like good friends might just be forming a parade heading headlong into a murky lake or over an unhealthy-high cliff. Parades like that are thrilling for only a very brief moment.
  • Second: Don’t be mentally lazy and go with the flow. The best liars can easily line up a majority behind them. A whole world thought war was glory in August, 1917. Remember, that graffiti was right to warn, “Eat sh__! Ten million flies can’t be wrong.”
  • Third: If the person talking tries to win arguments with lots of personal attacks (what Latin lovers call ad hominem, or “aimed at the person rather than the idea,” then that person doesn’t have truth on his or her side. If they did they would use it. So consider them liars.
  • Fourth: Of course the giant, economy-sized personal attack is the lie of dehumanizing. If you hear someone talk in sweeping generalities about “those people” who are so bad that they can be thought of as worthless swamp creatures, that person is lying BIG TIME. Billions of people through the ages have been oppressed and even killed because someone wanting power or plenty spread the lie that “those people” don’t think or feel the way we do.” And other people believed it.
  • Fifth: The flip side of ad hominem is the liar whose main argument is, “I’m the only person you can trust.” This argument, of course, goes hand-in-hand with the generalizing dehumanization. “Those others” are the monsters, but I’m the messiah. If you hear any fast talker saying, “believe me, trust me, and follow me because all the people I disagree with made a terrible mess and I’m the one you can trust to fix things,” run. Run far and fast away from such a huckster, whether he or she is selling you a house or selling you a political idea, because the paradise they are selling will certainly turn out to be a graveyard.
  • Sixth: Keep questioning as you listen, “How do you know this to be true?” If the evidence offered is flimsy or non-existent–if it consists only of a few juicy stories or anecdotes, but no real evidence that provides a big picture, or demonstrates a genuine trend, then it’s just a lie. A murder in Chicago is tragic, but it might happen while the overall murder rate there is declining. A million dollars poorly spent sounds terrible until you learn that as a portion of the federal budget it amounts to barely a fraction of a percent.
  • Seventh: Keep questioning, “But what is the CAUSE?” Perhaps the most common thing that throws a monkey wrench into clear, correct thinking is the tendency to accept that since one thing follows another, it must be the cause. Again there is a fancy Latin phrase for this mistake: post hoc ergo propter hoc. Every single business day a pundit will tell you if the stock market went up or down. Then they will almost always throw in some simplistic idea about why share prices went up or down. Of course these are no better than guesses or they would all be billionaires buying low and selling high. Of course they would never last long predicting whether the market will be up or down tomorrow. There are as many reasons stocks sell high or low as there are traders and trading software programmers. But professional liars in any field will keep making up their own stories about cause and effect to sell you on something. They will keep over simplifying. They will keep twisting the facts to flatter themselves and their causes. So, if you hear the simple causes for the complex effects, know it is a liar you are listening to.
  • Eighth: Remember “there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.” Liars love to throw out numbers. Statistics tend to convince because they sound so irrefutable. But who gathered the statistics? Are those presenting them cherry picking the ones they love and ignoring the rest? Is a 25% rise in car thefts as alarming in a town that only had four last year as in an entire state or region where there are thousands? Statistics can be important only if the research is sound, unbiased, and only if we are not comparing apples with artificial apple flavoring.
  • Ninth: Liars work to get you to say “yes” as many times as possible, so that they can then slip you the fatal, false, forced alternative. Door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen used to ask you if you love your children, if you want to provide a good home, if you value education, etc. Then they would work you into a corner where if you didn’t agree to buy an expensive encyclopedia you felt like you were denying your children a future. So too all liars keep repeating feel-good slogans and build up to false alternatives: either you support my proposals or you hate freedom, security, the flag, motherhood, Western civilization and the sanctity of life.
  • Tenth: Liar’s soften us up with fear. The more fear the better. If we can be convinced ruin is around the corner we will fall for just about any garbage.
  • Eleventh: Liar’s do not go to the trouble of arguing against opposing ideas stated well. They argue against absurd, extreme caricatures of ideas.
  • Twelfth: Fluff or BS. The professional liar is a fast talker. She or he avoids specifics because specifics can be tested for accuracy and honesty. The liar instead piles on all sorts of warm and fuzzy “virtue words” such as freedom, security, prosperity, greatness, and extra value for lower cost and lower taxes. The liar takes us into the great blue beyond of etcetera but says nothing that we tell is a lie. Our heads are spinning and we get taken for a ride before the big crash.

Pentecost 8: What Does Greatness Look Like

What constitutes greatness? In this week’s gospel we see a study in contrasts that helps us understand. In Mark 10 Jesus teaches the disciples and the church in simple terms. Two millennia later we still have a long way to go to get it into our hearts.

Herod Antipas wanted to be known as a king, but was officially only a tetrarch of two patches of territory: Galilee and Perea. Mark goes to lengths to show that neither he nor Pilate not the Jewish authorities exercised any true greatness. They were intimidated by the mercurial currents of political pressure. They were victims of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called, in his work of the same name, “the crowd as untruth.”

Set side by side the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist and these key political leaders bring into sharp relief the difference between true and false and destructive greatness. Herod Antipas only appears to have power. In fact he is part of a vast dysfunctional family and caught in the grip of dizzying political intrigue. He can afford to throw a vast party to impress potential allies, but when he goes a single step too far to impress with a promise to Salome. So, the horrifying image of the head of a man on a platter is, on the surface, a show of brute force. But it signifies even more starkly the primal fears that move this so-called king.

A few chapters later two disciples of Jesus, who seem to have special place already–James and John, Sons of Zebedee–ask Jesus to do their bidding and to grant them positions of power when Jesus enters into his glory. Jesus replies that these two disciples do not understand that the necessary prelude to glory is drinking from a cup and being baptized. He is speaking, of course, in his self-sacrificial death.

Then Jesus adds this:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The words translated “lord it over” and “tyrannize” are rarely used words in Greek, but they do seem to strongly indicate brute force. But it is crystal clear what the opposite is–the ideal of Jesus and of his church: servanthood, and even an absolute form of servanthood called slavery to all others.

These qualities of greatness John the Baptist showed by speaking truth to power at the cost of his life, and Jesus shows and turns into the Sacraments by drinking of the cup and being baptized into the font of salvivic death.

Our current President has championed a vision of greatness he has summed up in the words “America first.” His method and message has consistently focused on claiming greatness for all his words and deeds. Do we wait in vain for him to demonstrate the true greatness that lives in self sacrifice and servanthood? To whom do we look for such authentic greatness?

Pentecost 6: Jesus' Victorious Poverty

These three lessons take us in different directions as we pray they may converge.

 

Because I am a wimp who has certainly been spared the suffering of life that deserves that name, I have experienced the pain of rehab from knee replacement surgery as a true test. There were times when I simply could not get comfortable enough to rest or sleep or think or contribute anything worthwhile to this world. So I felt lonely and almost hopeless.

 

The First Lesson, Lamentations 3:22-33, contains that famous defiant announcement of hope: “the Lord’s mercies are new every morning.” But this general blast of optimism comes surrounded by very specific cries of misery. Someone who had experienced years of siege, slaughter and starvation, while sitting next to the Temple, the supposed sure sign of God’s constant care, can say the Lord has shot arrows into his vitals and made him grind his teeth on gravel. Not exactly a Hallmark Card of happy thoughts.

 

There were plenty of times in my painful recovery from surgery, especially when I reacted poorly to prednisone and felt my thoughts had been well scrambled, that I wanted to throttle the next person who offered helpful advice or a cheery bromide. I wanted only to survive another moment and not lose my mind.

 

What stayed my hands from such violence was that I knew the mix of Lamentations. I knew the brutal, pure honesty with pain. But I also knew the need for defiant waiting. We never, ever know what a new mercy will look like. That is what makes it new. Yet it comes, somehow.

 

And for me the most powerful moments were when the pastor lifted the host high and repeated what I had heard a million times before, “Take and eat. This is my body, broken for you.” I could feel the brokenness. I knew the death. But I also felt my existence and identity woven into that promise. And I felt once again the hunger and thirst that comes from realizing that not nearly enough people know that blood and body are theirs.

 

The Second Reading from 2 Corinthians 8 is most rich and complex. Paul’s focus is on a collection from Greek gentiles on behalf of Palestinian Jewish/Christians who are suffering gravely because of persecution of the whole Jewish population and also probably because of a famine in that part of the world. But Paul’s worldview is much deeper than our own. He knows that poverty and wealth are much more than the amount of stuff we have. It is about being oppressed or  in charge of stuff. In other words, do things and circumstances enslave us, or do we have the inner (call it “spiritual”) power that God can give that can enable us to fight off those who want to use us – to manipulate us – to exploit us for the sake of lies and brutality and death?

 

For Paul there is only one power in this world that upends and unmasks and undoes the power of things over us. Jesus Christ disarms himself and empties himself of every power of exploitation, and thereby he comes to free us. Paul knew that more important than the weight of the silver he could collect in Corinth was the power of the enthusiasm of generosity. A broken world of Jew and Gentile could be made whole by this enthusiasm. Here is the passage that he saw as the key: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

 

It was after Jesus’ life, and after it became the core of the proclamation of the early church, that believers started to chronicle how it happened. Jesus became poor. This is the unusual way the miracle stories are told to us. Jesus is not the wonder worker who wows the world with his great power. His power flows out of him and we become rich. A climactic miracle in Mark is when a nameless woman who has been let down by every single human in her life, and who is losing her very life-force, her blood, is caught up in a crowd and brushes up against Jesus. He turns and says, “Woman, your faith has made you well.” This isn’t about his wonder working. It is about his making himself poor in order to make her rich.

 

I feel better today. Just a little better than yesterday. I have less grinding pain in my knee. I can fall asleep. I will never be able to bound up stairs as I used to. I will never have the energy to give to others that I used to have. But a little of Jesus’ poverty has passed to me. Just enough to make me rich.

What Binds Us?

Do words bind us, or something deeper than words?

The lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday include the account from Acts 2:1-21, of the mighty wind and the tongues of fire coming down on the Jesus believers; and the account by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:22-27, of the Spirit groaning within us and within a creation in labor pains.

 

The Jesus believers waited in Jerusalem for the Spirit to come to them, and it did in a dramatic fashion, in fulfillment of a prophecy of the prophet Joel, and as indicated by the Apostle Peter. And the believers, touched in this way by the Spirit, spoke so that people from all over the Jewish Diaspora–all over the world–understood.

 

And Paul describes another connection that is too deep for words. As the believer groans along with the suffering creation, God understands.

 

We all want unity. Like Rodney King in the midst of the Los Angeles riots that followed his horrendous beating by police, we cry out, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

 

And one of the ways we imagine this might happen is if we speak in propositions, with such eloquence and obvious correctness, that others will be persuaded to come over to our side. We will agree and then we will all be happy together.

 

But it never happens that way. What usually happens is that the more we refine our thoughts and the more we define the boundaries between truth and error, the more upset we get with others. We define them more and more as defective or just plain “other.” And then we begin to see that they do not deserve the benefit of our morality. We can love and gladly break bread with those who are still within our boundaries, but what in heaven’s name can we do with those others?

 

In my 40 plus years in the ministry I was buoyed up by fellowship with a succession of groupings of pastors. In each place I ministered I found a Bible study fellowship with pastors. Most often it was ecumenical. Sometimes it was mostly Lutheran. But looking back, I believe what bound each group of us–what made us feel we were, like the Jesus believers in that Pentecost experience, “all together in one place,” was not a common creed. It was something deeper than words. It was awe-filled trembling before the Word of God. It was love of the people we served, and inner groaning for some way to feed and heal them. It was a trust in an unseen force that opened us to trust one another enough to be honest and ready to learn and grow.

 

Fellow DeKalb pastor, Janet Hunt, shared at today’s pastor’s Bible gathering, that she would preach these lessons plus the story of the Spirit giving life in the valley of dry bones from Ezekiel 37:1-14. She said, and the rest of us there agreed, the idea is that the Spirit is a mighty wind that blasts through boundaries and always has the effect of surprising us, or even blowing our minds.

 

Our words–even our most precious words in the form of our doctrines about God–do not have the power to bring us “all together in one place.” Only the movement of the Spirit can do that, and that by groans and other motives too deep for words.

 

Springtime Sprouts

Life has been happening fast at and around Heatherhope these days. Back in the hay field the alfalfa and grass that Chauncey II and III (or is it III and IV?) planted a couple of weeks ago are just minutely popping their little sprouts above the ground. We are eager for the rain that the forecast says will come overnight Wednesday. We have heard that great oaks from little acorns do grow, but it’s true for all the life that sprouts–it flows from the hand of God.

 

As we wait and watch and expect great things, here are some insights and blessings that have come in waves very recently.

 

  • “Why would anyone herd sheep?” That was what one woman asked during our sheep herding demonstrations at Kline Creek Farm the weekend before last. It is a delight for Connie and I to offer these events, and questions like that make it obvious just how far removed from food production most people live. There is an essential economy apart from smart phone apps and algorithms. Sheep and goats have kept major swaths of the world’s population going for at least 15,000 years; and still do. And without herding dogs such husbandry would be impossible in most places where these animals are essential. We hope we were able to cause some insights to sprout in people’s minds. And we certainly gained a deeper insight into the need to bridge the huge vacuum of understanding of agriculture that there is out there.

    Participants in the April, 2018 sheepdog clinic with Gordon Watt soak up the sheepdog savvy. Photo by John

    Participants in the April, 2018 sheepdog clinic with Gordon Watt soak up the sheepdog savvy. Photo by John

  • “Thanks for making me feel welcome.” That’s something that Mary Beth said as she left for home from our Gordon Watt Clinic. I’ve heard that expressed many times in the past, and it makes me feel so good about the sense of community that has grown up around the sheepdog clinics that we have hosted at Heatherhope for many years now. Many things contribute to this spirit of belonging. A major ingredient is our mealtimes together. Wife Connie, of course, works hard to put out coffee, tea, fruit, and sweet breads in the mornings; more hot beverages and snacks all day; and grand luncheons at mid-day. And, of, course, the sheer fact of throwing doors open to everyone, and breaking bread together, is a sacramental thing–inviting God to glue people together–signaling without words that all are welcome and all are valued.
  • “That dog is a great big sponge.” Gordon said that about one particular dog, owned by Sharon. But it genuinely applies as well to all the dogs at the clinic and beyond. He was noting that this particular dog was natural at its flanks and pace and all the essentials of herding. But that meant that those things came easy to it and so any little thing that Sharon would do, such as stopping its outrun or calling it back, or an unconscious gesture with the hand would be inadvertently learned as a rule by the dog. This is one reason why it is so important to watch Gordon’s choreography with dogs and sheep. He is amazingly spare with his body language and use of training tools like leads and sticks and slaps of a hat on the leg. That’s because all dogs noticing things–soaking up things. And the biggest problem we mortals have in training dogs is that we throw out heaps of unintended signals through the flailing of arms, swishing of sticks, and spewing of commands and other sounds that the dogs then must assign meanings–most of the time without our even noticing that it is happening. Come to think of it, people are sponges too. Every word or gesture carries meaning. And if we do things well, those around us feel encouraged. When we are careless the opposite can happen, even though we never intended it.
  • “What did you get?” vs. “What a Miracle!” Our dinner conversation on the Saturday night of the clinic revolved around the point of sheepdog competitions. Kathy, Priscilla, Connie and I agreed that competition itself surely whets the appetite and is thrilling. And it spurs us all to measure the skills of ourselves and our dogs so that we can see better where we need to improve. But there is also an immaturity in fixating on the opinion of others in the form of the judges scores and the whispers of others back in the handlers’ tent. It’s much like back in school when all that matters to some is the test score and the final grade. And when the report card or the exam grades come out and students anxiously ask, “Wudya get?” it signals that they have lost sight of the real purpose of school: to learn. It’s time then to remember what learning machines herding dogs are. They ARE sponges. They have amazing minds. They are always far more capable of understanding sheep, and far more driven to work for us than we can ever fully appreciate. So, it seems to me, the point of competition or of clinics, is to deepen the appreciation for the miracle right in front of us. When we do that it will free us of our anxieties, free us to get much better and more effective as trainers and teammates with our dogs, and free us to think to encourage our fellow competitors.
  • “I’m at the point in my life when I’m searching.” I’m not sure my friend at the dog clinic used just those words, but he was asking big questions. The atmosphere of encouragement at the clinic, and the wealth of time we had, and the miracle of listening allowed us to do a good deal of exploring of mysteries. One of the mysteries we explored was how and why God’s gift of dogs touched us both so deeply. It was a rare and satisfying conversation we shared.
    Ten days before putting our ewes and lambs on pasture we contended with snow. Photo by John

    Ten days before putting our ewes and lambs on pasture we contended with snow. Photo by John

    Ewe with triplets chill out on the first day of pasture. The great AAAAHHHHH! Photo by John

    Ewe with triplets chill out on the first day of pasture. The great AAAAHHHHH! Photo by John

  • “The great aaahhh at the end of lambing.” This year’s lambing was tough. Good friends Graham and Margaret shared that their lambs also found many ways of dying, yet there was much good. We ourselves had many a sleep-deprived day and anxious hour dealing with freezing rain, snow, high winds, more snow, our first full-fledged prolapse, and watching and worrying and wrestling with the labor and delivery of big lambs. But today we finally put the mothers and lambs out on pasture. We take it slow and steady, moving them out of the barn and from one side of the feedlot to the other, then through the unfenced no-man’s land between the barn and pasture, and finally into the new grass. Moms chow down eagerly on the sweet grass along the way. Babies seem to bounce from this direction to that. Moms chortle while lambs call out. The youngest lamb of all, whose leg was broken and splinted a week ago, got the royal treatment by being carried by Connie. It led the way with its mom following its plaintive bleats and the rest of the flock following its super-concerned mother. But then we made it, without much fuss, to the pasture, closed the gate, and that was that. Mothers, lambs, all spreading out to enjoy the wide spaces and luscious new growth of grass. All the food they could possibly want spread out before them. The welcoming table of the Lord. The word “aah” in its correct spelling, certainly doesn’t have nearly enough of the letters “a” or “h” to satisfy. Watching those ewes and lambs contentedly grazing? Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!

Triplets Born As First Lambs of 2018

As I write this there is still a dusting of snow on the ground, but spring and new life are heralding the Easter season. The purple finch is singing it’s boisterous song just outside the window. And we are in the full swing of lambing season. First triplets 2018

We had no births the last two lambing seasons due to my shoulder surgery in 2016 when we didn’t breed, and a dud ram in 2017. As Judi Elliot, our shepherd’s wife friend from the Borders of Scotland said several years ago, though lambing is lots of work, “it is LIFE!” It is life indeed.

Our first lambs this year were a set of triplets born the day after Easter Day in the late evening. We had to forcibly evict #248 from trying to pinch the first lamb (a ram) of that set, but the true mother was determined and calm, and birthed the two ewe-lambs in the lambing jug or pen. She is still a trooper, and all three lambs are content to share mom’s ample milk.

Since #248 and others seemed ready to “pop,” I took a quick sleep till about 3:45 a.m. that night, and visited the ewes to see if anything else was happening. All was settled, so I went back to the house. Knowing Connie would be a bit restless, I gently stirred her and whispered, “four o’clock and all is well.” As I poured myself and sipped a wee dram of Scotch whisky to get back to sleep, I thought of those old town criers who called out something like that ages ago. I thought it must have helped our ancestors sleep much easier knowing no thieves were about and no houses were on fire.

The call of the purple finch does the same for my heart now.