A couple of weeks ago Jay, our mail carrier, delivered a package to our porch. It was wrapped in brown paper and addressed to my daughter Lillian. Inside were two books from her godmother—a novel for Lily and a picture book for Lucia. But like all good books that enter our house, they were really gifts for the whole family.
The picture book was called The Keeper of Wild Words. It is the story of a girl whose grandmother teaches her the language of the given world through words like brook and wren. As the author’s note in the back explained, the book was inspired by the decision of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to remove over a hundred natural words from its pages. These words, the editors decided, were no longer relevant to most children’s lives. Now included in their place were new terms such as analog, chatroom, and database.
Words for the wild world may not make sense in a world dominated by screens and the utilitarian calculus of employment. But if we hunger to learn the truth of the given world beyond the passing fads of the present then wild words are indispensable. Such words are not our tools but rather our teachers—they help open us to the creation of which we are members whether we like it or not.
I have long watched for such words. And as we celebrated yet another Earth Day this past week I was reminded of how important it is to keep the language that brings us into belonging with the creation, rather than removing us by making the world as a mere resource. I came across such a word recently in James Rebanks’ beautiful memoir The Shepherd’s Life.
Rebanks’ story is about growing up in a family of shepherds in the Lake District of England. His family and most of those in his community have been keeping sheep in this place for millennia, and though some aspects of that life has changed, the fundamental rhythms of shepherding have not. As he writes, “You could bring a Viking man to stand on our [hill] with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year…Things are driven by the seasons and necessity, but not our will.”
At the opening of the book Rebanks offers the word that serves as the running metaphor throughout: heft. As he explains, heft could be used as a noun, meaning a piece of upland pasture. It could also work as a verb, referring to a sheep’s becoming hefted to a place—getting attached to a particular piece of land. It can also be an adjective, describing a sheep’s attachment to a particular pasture. It is a word, Rebanks tells us, that is derived from the Old Norse for tradition.
Though it is not a biblical term, the people of the bible would have understood hefting. They belonged to a place and lived in a tradition that was rooted to the ground, and when Jesus came, he joined in that long abiding. Jesus was not some abstract messiah who dropped in from the heavens. As Peter refers to him in our reading from Acts, he’s Jesus Christ of Nazareth—he’s a person from somewhere.
That somewhere was a place dominated by sheep, and even carpenters knew what being a good shepherd was all about. Everyone in Galilee, shepherd or not, would have a had the scent of lanolin on their skin. So it is that Jesus, as he often does, picks up an illustration from the close-by world to say who he is: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
He then offers a definition in contrast—the good shepherd vs. the hired hand. Its here that the language begins to seem a bit odd, at least to those of us trained in the mercenary ways of the market. The good shepherd, Jesus tells us, is one who will lay down his life for the sheep. This is strange because sheep are, obviously, the shepherd’s livelihood; why, if sheep are your business, would you sacrifice your life to save them? And this gets exactly to Jesus’ point. For the good shepherd, the sheep are not simply a product. The good shepherd is not providing, as the multinational corporation Cargill puts it, “meat solutions” for consumer market. The Good Shepherd belongs to the sheep just as the sheep belong to the good shepherd—they are hefted together, they abide as John puts it, and the bond of that abiding is love.
We speak a great deal of love these days. But the sort of love that endures, the kind of love that enables the care the world needs, or the salvation through sacrifice that Jesus accomplished, is one that dwells in the particular. As Willie James Jennings writes in The Christian imagination, the problem lies in how we’ve viewed the the world; the kinds of words and images we’ve used to understand and describe it. Jennings writes that “A Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, and of divine and human interaction.” He goes on to say that “Christianity is in need of a place to be fully Christian,” and that our “segregated mentality” is bound to “the loss of a world where people were bound to the land.” Our problem, whether it is racism or ecological catastrophe, in Jennings’ analysis, is that we aren’t hefted. We’ve come to see the world as a fungible, an exchangeable abstraction on which we can play out our economies of salvation without any real incarnation, without any real presence with the particulars of a people or a place. We’ve adopted the religion of the hired hand.
If instead we want to be joined to the life of the Good Shepherd, belonging to him, belonging to the incarnate particulars of his presence, then we must be hefted to a place that is also a person. This is what Jennings says is our only hope for overcoming the colonialist mind, the hired-hand religion that turns bodies and the land into interchangeable commodities. Jennings writes that, “If Christian existence stands on nothing greater than the body of one person, then it could be that the only way for Christian communities to move beyond cultural fragmentation and segregated mentalities is to find a place that is also a person, a new person that each of us and all of us together can enter into and, possibly, can become.”
The task then is one of abiding, of knowing this place that is a person in the way that Rebanks’ inhabits the land of his Lake District farm and knows not only each particular sheep, but their lineage and habits, their bleeting that answers to his call. We must be hefted, following the weight of the incarnation, so that we can belong here, joining with this place and these people where we discover Christ’s presence dwelling in the particular. Christianity, if it wants to be freed of the religion of the hired-hand—the logics of racism and the economies ecological exploitation—must be joined to the ground, the dirt, to landscapes and animals, and find itself, as Jennings says, in a life that is “collaborative with the rhythms of God’s other creatures” and animated by “imagining a joining to other people exactly in and through joining their lives on the ground.”
To do this work of imagination we need metaphors that have roots and words that are wild. We would do well to look to people like Rebanks who went to Oxford and yet returned to shepherding because he was hefted, and he knew that the world, no matter the economics, could offer him no better life than to belong with his sheep. It is from them that we can learn again what the life of a good shepherd means and distinguish it from the commodity religion of the hired hand. The time of exploitation and colonialist theologies has past. We need new ways of imagining our faith. To do so we also need to learn the wild words of a grounded life—words like heft and abide—that resist being domesticated into the tools our ambitions, but will instead teach us how to be here in the landscapes of the Incarnation. That place is a sacred one formed of holy ground and rooted peoples, the whole chorus of creation, all answering the call of the Good Shepherd whose voice speaks from the abiding that makes love possible. Amen.