Sheepdogs and Angels
(Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1Pet.2:20b-25; Jn.10:1-10)
Have you ever seen a sheepdog trial?
These trials began in New Zealand in the 1860s, and today competitions are held all over the world. They test the ability of shepherds and their dogs to guide a flock of sheep through a maze of obstacles in just fifteen minutes. The way they work together is extraordinary.
Why do shepherds need sheepdogs? It’s because guiding, guarding and raising unruly sheep can be hard work.
We city-dwellers don’t often see shepherds, but they are all through the Bible. In fact, they’re mentioned over 90 times in the Old Testament, often in reference to the early kings and rulers of Israel who were meant to shepherd their people. But too often they failed at this, preferring to kill and steal instead (cf. Ezek.34).
So, God promised that one day he would shepherd the people himself, and that’s why Jesus is our Good Shepherd today.
When a flock is big, shepherds always need help. Jesus started with twelve disciples. Moses had Caleb and Joshua to help him lead his flock out of Egypt. And Paul had Timothy, Barnabas and Silas to help him in his ministry.
So, looking back into history, there have long been shepherds, and good sheepdogs, too. The Book of Job, one of the oldest books of the Bible, mentions sheepdogs in Chapter 30. And interestingly, ‘Caleb’ means faithful and even sheepdog in Hebrew.
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), the British spiritual writer, loved observing the natural world, and often used nature to explain mystical truths.
In 1938, after visiting a sheep dog trial in rural England, she wrote to a friend about the way shepherds and sheepdogs work together. Sheepdogs, she noted, were very active and loved running around. And although the sheep could be unpredictable, the sheepdogs controlled them well by making sure that none escaped from the fold.
But one thing really impressed her. While the sheepdogs were always ready to work hard, they spent an astonishing amount of time just sitting still, watching the shepherd. They always waited for a sign before moving an inch.
She also noticed that the sheepdogs didn’t bark or make a fuss. They had transcended their ‘mere dogginess’ and become an extension of the shepherd. Their only interest was in obeying him and waiting for his signal.
The sheepdog’s relationship with the shepherd was the centre of his life, and despite the frustrations, his tail never stopped wagging. He enjoyed working with the sheep. He was the agent of the shepherd, working to a plan that was not his own and which he could not possibly have understood; and yet that was the source of his joy. It was also the discipline with which he worked. [i]
When Jesus returned to Heaven, his mission didn’t stop. Rather, the sheep that had become his sheepdogs then became his shepherds, and they devoted their lives to searching for strays and returning them safely to his flock.
Someone who did this recently was Don Ritchie, a former insurance salesman and navy veteran. In 1964, he bought a house in Watson’s Bay, in Sydney, only 50 metres from a dangerous seaside cliff known as The Gap – a popular spot for suicides. [ii]
Ritchie soon found himself rescuing suicidal strangers from the clifftop.
In the beginning, he tried restraining them, while his wife called the police, and he even earned a bravery medal. But then he began taking a gentler approach, by approaching them with a smile and asking, ‘Is there something I can do to help you?’ Or inviting them into his home for drink. [iii]
On one occasion, he lay down on his stomach, talking to a terrified man just over the edge and threatening to jump. He gently encouraged him to return to safety.
Don Ritchie wasn’t always successful, but he came to be known as the Angel of the Gap. When he died in 2012, aged 85, his family said that he had saved some 500 people, although the official count is 160.
Perhaps Don’s greatest satisfaction, they said, was the gifts, Christmas cards and letters he received from those he’d saved, sometimes a decade or two after the attempted suicide.[iv]
Like a devoted sheepdog, for almost fifty years Don Ritchie kept one eye on the Good Shepherd and one eye on the sheep, and he made a real difference.
This, then, is our challenge: to keep our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus, listening carefully for his word, while helping his sheep when they are in trouble.
We, too, can make a difference.
[i] Carol Poston (Ed.) The Making of a Mystic: New and Selected Letters of Evelyn Underhill, HarperCollins, 1993:381.
[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, Death of the Angel of The Gap: the man who saved the suicidal from themselves, May 14, 2012, https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/death-of-the-angel-of-the-gap-the-man-who-saved-the-suicidal-from-themselves-20120514-1ymle.html