Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cattle and the kingdom of God?

Preface: Initially I figured I'd write some reflections on the difference between "following Jesus" and "being a Christian." That's a topic that runs constantly under the surface of my life like the hum of an electrical current, and I'm constantly reminded of it in various contexts. So I was thinking about it again today, and planned to write about it ...

I got home from a moderately short (ten hour) workday, anticipating a 6 am start tomorrow, since the wind is supposed to go down and we should be able to spray all day, unlike the last couple days.

I'm going to take a shower quick before supper, I said when I got home. So I did.

Let's eat, they said. Supper was delicious.

I thought about retiring to my room, writing a blog post, and going to bed early, delightedly clean and good-smelling.

We're going to work the cattle, they said.

Oh. I said. Need help?

Yes, they said.

Plans change.

Now, let me hasten to say that my brother and his wife have a remarkable herd of Hereford cows and calves. They run a little less than 20 cows, and I don't think I've ever experienced a herd as well-tended or as carefully cared for as these cattle. My brother and his wife intentionally walk the pastures each evening, scratching and talking to as many of the animals as possible. They know each animal's individual personality. They intentionally handle the calves, interacting with them so they get used to humans in a positive way.

All this means that rather than your stereotypical images of a cowboy roping a calf either by the head or by the heels and dragging it over to a fire so it can be branded, "working" these cattle means being right down in the pen with them, in very close contact. We would select two or three or four of them, carefully move them into a smaller holding pen, and most often down into a chute too narrow for the cows, and challenging for the calves, to turn around. Then (I am not making this up) my job was to take a rag soaked in an oil-based insecticide and rubbed it first up the length of their spines, then down each leg (ever been kicked by a cow? I have -- multiple times. I remembered those times vividly tonight. But none of these cows even tried to kick me) and then across their face and around their eyes. Though not every one of the animals really enjoyed this process, and some protested significantly, this was not so challenging on the cows, who have mostly been through this process a few times over the years. But it was significantly more challenging with the calves, who sometimes get nervous and might just jump over your head or try. Fortunately none of them made serious attempts at that tonight, though it was close a couple times. My favorite moment of the whole evening was me, hip-checking a calf who is very nervous and wanting to turn around, holding one hand over the top of his head to keep him from getting the idea he can climb over me, starting to rub down his spine with my rag, when he decided to shift position significantly, and my glasses came off. I caught my glasses in the same hand that was keeping his head down and held them there while laying down across his back to reach his front hooves, then his back hooves, holding him immobile the whole time in the chute. Then I put my glasses back on, wiped my rag once across his face, and let him go.

So we wiped down each of these animals, including the herd bull. While I was doing that, my brother inserted an ear tag that helps keep flies off the animal. So all of this is helping these cattle live more comfortably and healthy through the summer.

It was a workout. Here are a few pictures:

Above you get a little idea just how closely we're working with these animals. One of the things I love about Herefords is that in general terms, they're more docile than a lot of other breeds. At this distance, that is important. 

Here you see my brother Darin in the chute, keeping a calf in place with one hip. In the next few seconds after this picture was taken, I eased in next to Darin (personal space, anyone?) and rubbed the oily insecticide on key parts of this calf that are especially vulnerable to flies and other insects. This includes laying down across the calf's back and reaching in turn down each leg all the way to the hoof, since flies love to bite cattle legs. Remember that shower I took? Yeah. Didn't last long.

Can you find Stacey in this picture? She's working in among the cows and calves trying to move those that haven't yet been treated down past where I'm standing, toward the holding pen and chute. 

After the last of the cattle were treated and tagged, including the smallest calf that was born just a month ago who was napping on the hillside and we (again, I am not making this up) walked up to the napping calf, sat down next to it and gently rubbed it with an oily rag with some bug preventative incorporated into the oil while it languorously woke from its nap. And this little calf just loved it, a little like a favorite dog that loves a good rubdown. 

Then we turned the cattle out into a new pasture where the grass is belly deep down along the creek bottom. They were incredibly excited (oh, yes, cows get excited) to get into that pasture. They wandered up and down, sampling the grass and exploring their new digs. We had to spend some time walking fencelines and making sure everything would hold them in place. Here are a couple shots of Calli (a favorite dog who loves a good rubdown) and her idea of farm work:

So after making sure the fence would keep the cattle contained, I came back to the house and washed up again. It's a long time since I worked cattle on anything like a regular basis, and it seems that every time I get to work with them, whether it's feeding them in -20 degree weather last winter for another brother while he was out of town, or what we did tonight, I love it. I love the connection with my roots, of course, but there's more to it than that. 

In some ways, it ties back into what I've been thinking about following Jesus. I just recently finished reading N.T. Wright's excellent book, The Day The Revolution Began. Wright makes the argument in this book and elsewhere that Christians have mistaken Jesus' main message. We've made Jesus all about "how can I get to heaven when I die" -- we think that in fact is what Christianity is all about, that and an agenda that each of us should be morally good and respectable -- and that doesn't seem to have even been on Jesus' radar, if you read the gospels. What Jesus talked about in great detail was the kingdom of God. That seems to be the theme he was really excited about, and he almost never talked about how you can go to heaven when you die. 

Are we missing something? 

What Jesus seems to have meant by the "kingdom of God" is that in every area of our lives, and of our world, God is King. So to understand what it looks like that God would be King, we can look at a few different images from the Bible. The garden of Eden is a good place to start. Adam and Eve are given a significant amount of authority to manage the garden as servants of God, to "till the garden and keep it." Of course, they botch it up, but wait. Have you noticed how the Bible again and again talks about a new creation? New heavens and a new earth. Peter uses a phrase I just love to describe this new creation, saying it will be "a land in which righteousness is at home." There are significant signs that Jesus was trying to communicate exactly this sense of humanity's role on this earth -- that we are entrusted by God to manage his creation, to be his "image-bearers" so that every area of our lives -- relationships, work, play, worship, and more -- reflects his identity, his love, his goodness. That theme is all over through the Bible!

So maybe, just maybe working the cattle tonight gives me a vivid image of what following Jesus looks like. What would it look like for someone who bears the image of God to keep cattle? Would they tend and care for them with diligence and affection? Would they make sure that these cattle are well loved in appropriate ways as part of a good, God-reflecting creation? I think so. And if you are a Jesus follower who is called to keep cows, I suggest that this is the kind of thing you have to think about. 

So as we finished mending fences, and I turned to walk through the lush creek bottom pasture, I looked back westward over my shoulder and saw this view -- the moon coming out over the fields and the cottonwoods. If you look close, Darin is in the picture, taking a moment off from fixing fence to talk on the phone to another cattleman who called up to tap his wisdom about how best to manage his herd. 

There's a little bit of the garden of Eden in this sweaty, stinky, oily evening, in spite of the fact that every stitch of clothing I wore as I shot this picture went immediately into the hamper when I got home. Life is messy. Even reflecting the image of God, working for his kingdom, is messy. Jesus' life may have been the messiest of all. But that's fodder for another post. 

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