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This is Prince.
This is the Prince of Peace, or rather a painting of him as the Good Shepherd.
This is a contemporary shepherd in the Palestinian West Bank.
These are sheep.
Another shepherd and more sheep.
And a few more sheep, plus a few goats.
This is also a shepherd.
Prince is my dog. And while he looks rather regal sitting in that chair, he’s really a big lovable goof, a 72-pound goober of a lap dog, and one of the finest friends a person could have. The early years of his life were not so pleasant. I’ve been told, that he began his puppy years with a drug dealer in a crack house in Kingston, in upstate New York. Meant to be a tough watchdog, he was abused to harden up. But he never did. Fortunately, he was eventually rescued and adopted by a loving family. Unfortunately, after just a few years, they had to relocate and couldn’t bring a dog of his size with them. He was fostered for a while and eventually wound up with me. He turned twelve years old this past January, which makes him an elder for his Weimaraner breed, and has only recently begun to betray his age.
There are a few wooden steps that lead up into our church offices from the fellowship hall. Was a time when Prince would think nothing of racing up and down those steps, but now—perhaps from wisdom or caution, or maybe anxiety—he paces about the bottom of them and waits for me to walk up them beside him. He does them on his own; I don’t need to guide, carry, or cajole him, just walk beside him. After which he commences a quick smell-about the office, greets whomever may be there, and then lounges in “his” chair.
The painting of the Good Shepherd is in the front of our sanctuary just behind the organ console. Originally it hung in our church building on Avenue B in the East Village of Manhattan. Avenue B was once considered to be New York’s “German Broadway”, the commercial heart of the German immigrant community. But by the turn of the 19th Century into the 20th, much of the German community was moving either uptown to Yorkville or out to Brooklyn and Ridgewood. Thus, the Avenue B Church eventually merged with St. Petri Evangelische Kirche in the east Williamsburg/Bushwick section of Brooklyn and became the Trinity Reformed Church of Brooklyn and they built a new church building in the growing German neighborhood of Ridgewood (Brooklyn and Queens). The two merging congregations brought reminders of their previous church edifices—brass bells from St. Petri’s and the Good Shepherd painting from Avenue B. The Good Shepherd looms prominently in our worship space.
Admittedly, the image of a too-white looking Jesus in a billowy clean robe doesn’t square well in my mind of what the actual Jesus looked like, or an actual shepherd for that matter. And on Good Shepherd Sunday a few weeks ago, I pointed out in the sermon how Jesus undoubtedly had a much darker complexion than many of us who have German backgrounds. Nonetheless, a white Jesus has sort of grown on me. All the many problems that entails aside—and there are many—I appreciate how God comes to us as one of us. Now Trinity Reformed is made up of folks from Asian and Latino heritage, even Middle Eastern backgrounds, as well as our German and other European-background folks, a full spectrum of skin colours. But the turn of the century congregation, these immigrants from Germany and Austria and other parts of Central Europe, that Good Shepherd image must of meant something for them. And I can appreciate that! Although, it is not the image I have of the Good Shepherd.
I think now especially, when hearing Psalm 23 my mind readily jumps to the West Bank and the Hebron Hill. I picture the Palestinian shepherds out among their sheep, leading them to fresh meadows, protecting them from harm—too often from the hands of illegal Israel settlers. I picture the men and boys who work so in sync with their sheep. The sheep really do know their voices and respond to their commands. But I don’t just picture the people who shepherd the sheep; I picture the dogs who also shepherd. These dogs are not like my lap dog Prince who is a pet and companion. No, these dogs are working dogs, they are shepherds. They work in sync with their people to keep watch over the flocks.
All this to say that words are one thing, but the images they connote can be another. NPR’s Morning Edition had report this morning about language and brain function and images. Very appropriate. I certainly grew up with an image of the Good Shepherd much like that which is in our sanctuary. While not completely accurate, I’m sure it was helpful at times. But now that image is expanded. Jesus looks different. God “looks” different.
Some years ago around Christmas time a friend and colleague shared with me about a book they were reading which focused on the shepherd to whom the angels announced the birth of Christ. I forget the book or the author. But the gist of it was an imaginative rethinking of that Lukan story where the angels sang and proclaimed the joyous news first not simply to human shepherds, but to dog shepherds. And thus the dog shepherds were some of the first to go and see this thing that has taken place and adore the newborn king. No need to alter the original story, but I like that image. I picture the men and boys and dogs—all the shepherds—who went to Bethlehem that evening.
Which brings me back to my Prince. He is now of the age where I have to shepherd him around differently, including the step into my office. But in so many ways, he also shepherds me. The unconditional love and presence of “man’s best friend” is like that of the real Good Shepherd. I mean absolutely no disrespect to the historical Jesus, but if we can picture a fair skin man in flowing robes journeying with us in green pastures and dark valleys, I think its can be fitting to imagine God with four paws and an undying affection for his beloved.