Thursday, August 16, 2018

Rethinking Shepherds and Sheep

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of July 21-22, 2018.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

Today’s lessons from Jeremiah and Mark, as well as Psalm 23, are on the Good Shepherd with some passing inferences to sheep. When I met with the Word Team last week to discuss these texts, I learned that the faith formation students in our 5th to 8th grades were critical of this image as a metaphor for our relationship with God. I don’t blame them. Who wants to be compared to dumb sheep that get bossed around by a know-it-all shepherd that supposedly has our best interests in mind? More importantly, hats off to our young people for being critical thinkers and not passively accepting these ideas. That said, what I would like to do today is offer an alternative perspective on sheep and shepherds which might allow us to approach these readings differently.

So, first off, what about these dumb sheep? Are they really so dim witted? When I was younger, I enjoyed a comic strip by Gary Larson entitled the “Far Side.” One of the recurring themes in this strip was the inversion of humans and animals in the intellectual hierarchy, with the idea that animals might actually be much smarter than people thought them to be. Most farmers would concur that sheep really do need to be herded. But, as per Gary Larson, what if the sheep are just channeling their mental energy somewhere else than the everyday practicalities of life? They may look like mindless fluffy eating machines in a pasture, but what if they are really spending their time solving physics equations and can’t be bothered to think about where they are going?

As a quintessential absent-minded professor, I must confess that I have some sympathy for sheep. You may or may not know that I can be pretty spacey. I can get lost in thought and literally become oblivious to where I am and what I am doing. My wife claims that I fortunately found the one and only profession where such a talent is prized: academia. But such a tendency can put a strain on one’s marriage. While there are literally hundreds of family stories in our household about me doing spacey things, I will just share one particularly egregious vignette to illustrate the problem. In the mid-1990s, my wife, Julia, and I were living in Harare, Zimbabwe where we both worked for the international NGO Save the Children (UK) on a large hunger mapping project. We lived in a small, rented cottage behind the main house on a larger piece of property. The property was fenced and gated, which meant that you always had to open a gate before going up a very long drive to our cottage. One day, we were coming home from work and I happened to be driving. As we approached the entrance to our place, Julia got out to unlock and open the gate so that I could drive through. Now, on that particular day, I must have been thinking about something – trying to solve some sort of problem in my head. As such, and very unfortunately, after driving through the entrance I didn’t stop for Julia to get back in the car, but just kept on driving to the back of the property where our cottage was located. I pulled up to the cottage and I looked over to the passenger seat and I was thinking where did Jules go? I literally had absolutely no idea where she went. I got out of the car and started walking back down the driveway when I saw Jules trudging up the hill. I said, very honestly, where were you, where did you go?

Julia, fortunately, has stuck with me. And that’s a good thing. Not just because she keeps me on track with the practical aspects of life, but because she also nudges me in the right direction on so many other fronts. To wit, we recently met a young Ugandan man at Cabrini named James. James had introduced himself to the congregation at the end of the service. After mass we said hello, chatted during coffee hour, and then offered to drive him home. As we got in the car, Julia discretely said to me: why don’t we invite James home for lunch, isn’t that what someone in Africa would do? And to this, I am ashamed to say, I hesitated. I was probably thinking that I had some “really important” thing to do that afternoon. But we did invite James over for lunch and we had a wonderful conversation, learning that James was here for a month as a medical student at the U and that he had come to Minnesota via connections with an orphanage we serendipitously already knew about in Uganda called the Blue House. My point here is that Julia nudged me in the right direction in this particular moment as she has at many other times in our relationship.

Most people don’t like to be compared to sheep because the implication is that we are simple minded followers. But what if the sheep metaphor is just a way of acknowledging our human potential for waywardness? Whether we are pensive, distracted, or worried, we can wander off course and we need good shepherds in our lives to nudge us back in the right direction.

Just as we are re-imagining the meaning of the sheep metaphor, I would also like to examine our conception of the good shepherd. What I want to argue is that we come to our understanding of the good shepherd via our own cultural understandings of this idea.

What is the stereotypical American understanding of the qualities of a good shepherd or herder? The US, as we know, is a majority urban/suburban nation. Increasingly there are very few Americans who have first-hand experience with animal husbandry and farming. As a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, I probably was first introduced to the idea of the good shepherd in faith formation. I also encountered shepherds and herders in children’s story books. My take-away was that shepherds were above all protectors, they guard the flock from bad things like wolves. In American folklore we also have the iconic cowboy whom, by the way, we often forget is a herder. In fact, cowboys have been so abstracted from their herding context that we tend to focus on their protector role above all us. They almost always carry guns. They are rugged individuals who know best, are only accountable to God, and they protect us from danger. These are the American ideas we often bring to the good shepherd metaphor in today’s readings. We need a good shepherd to protect us from bad things out there, the good shepherd is only accountable to God, and we are lost without such a protector.

My experiences in West Africa with herders shed a different light and interpretation on this metaphor. As you may now, my wife Julia and I met in the Peace Corps in the 1980s in Mali. I served in a small, rural farming community of 200 people in southern Mali. This farming village of Bambara people also had, at its outskirts, 3-4 hamlets of herders composed of another ethnic group called the Fulani. My social life outside of work largely consisted of hanging out in the evenings with young male village friends drinking tea and chatting. There was a Fulani herder man name Sadio who used to come and join us some evenings. Despite the fact that some of the farmers teased Sadio for always smelling like milk and cows, I gradually developed a friendship with him.

As I began to learn the Fulani language, I spent more time with Sadio and his family. I learned to milk cows by hand and even spent a couple of nights in the bush with the herders and the cows. Herding was not an easy life. During the rainy season, the young men would take the cows far away from the village so the animals wouldn’t get into people’s farm fields. The herders didn’t eat very well, consuming mostly milk and some grains. The mosquitos were rapacious in the evening and the social isolation was challenging for these young men in a society where human relations meant everything. These herders tended to the cows like their children, carefully removing ticks from them in the evenings so they would not catch diseases. Above all, however, I learned that the herders’ main job was not to protect the cows from predators because there are almost no big predators left in this part of West Africa. No, their main job was to keep the cows out of farm fields. This task could become very challenging in the fall when the rains stopped, grass cover declined, and the crops were still in the field before the harvest. Hungry cows that see green in a distant field can be extremely determined to get there and eat as much greenery as possible. Allowing cows to wander astray could lead to serious altercations with the farmers in the area - and a potential for conflict that could sometimes escalate to violence.

In sum, the West African view of a herder or shepherd is quite different than the American one. Here the cultural reading of the metaphor is not that of the great protector. Rather, it’s a humble, hardworking person who tends to the health of his or her animals and adroitly steers them away from trouble, even if the instincts of the herd are to satisfy their hunger by feasting on a farm field – an event which would undoubtedly lead to conflict.

I want to conclude by suggesting that we can potentially use these different understandings of shepherds and sheep to sift through today’s readings. After reading and re-readings today’s passage from Mark, I was struck by how Jesus led by example. He mostly taught/led/shepherded by the way he lived his life rather than didactically telling people what to do. In Mark, we see how his active compassion for the masses and the marginalized was a lesson to others. Jesus’ ideas about how to live differently were revolutionary for his time. His thoughts on living in community, loving thy neighbor as thyself, & welcoming the outcast constituted a new “way.” Jesus, to the chagrin of some of his followers, was no gun toting, ruggedly individualistic cowboy with righteousness on his side, riding in to save the day. Rather he, like the lowly West African herder, was trying to lovingly shepherd people along this path to longer term peace and happiness.

Lastly, what to make of the penultimate sentence where Mark writes that the people who came to see Jesus “were like sheep without a shepherd”? Yes, we can read this as simple-minded people who were lost. But we can also read this as people who were mature enough to recognize that they needed a little help getting back on track or staying on track. Furthermore, these people didn’t just flock to anyone. They had choices. There were plenty of other prophets around at the time exuding strength, who were quick to lay the blame at the feet of others, or who promised material wealth. No, they came to see Jesus and I am guessing they did so because they recognized in him a different kind of wisdom. Indeed, these lessons about thoughtful sheep and the good shepherd are helpful guidance for the long but important task of making heaven on earth.

The author may be contacted at or may be found on twitter at

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lessons in Power, Humility & Collective Learning

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of January 20-21, 2018.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

I would like to start with a brief story that was shared by the New York Times columnist David Brooks when he gave a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. In that talk, Brooks tells a story about President Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was fighting the Civil War, one of his early general-in-chiefs was General George McClellan. President Lincoln sought to see McClellan because he wanted him to fight a little harder, so Lincoln invited McClellan to the White House. But McClellan wouldn’t come, so Lincoln went to McClellan’s house. Lincoln arrives at McClellan’s house and the butler indicated that McClellan was out. Lincoln said that this was okay, he would wait. I little while later, McClellan came in the back door and went up the stairs. Lincoln waited for another 45 mins and the butler came down and said I’m sorry but General McClellan’s is too tired to see you. So this is the president of the United States sitting in the living room. He is with his assistant John Hay who says this is an outrage, he is insulting you. And Lincoln says it’s okay, I will sit here all day if I can get him to fight harder. Now Brooks’ point in telling this story is that it illustrates a man who is at peace, patient and persistent. Lincoln, the president and arguably most powerful man in his country, had no problem putting aside his ego for a higher cause, in this case unifying his country and putting an end to the horrendous practice of slavery.

What I am going to suggest today is that our readings have a lot to say about power, and more specifically, the insights and knowledge that is generated when power is inverted and humility is practiced. For that matter, I would argue that a significant portion of the gospel readings are actually radical and unconventional lessons for those who hold power and privilege. This seems more important than ever given the current #metoo movement, aimed at exposing abuses of power, and the temperament of some of our current leaders who lack sufficient peace to practice a Lincolnesque or gospel story approach to power.

In today’s Gospel reading from Mark, we learn about Jesus’ early ministry, a time when Jesus is assembling his disciples. More specifically, Jesus is walking along the sea of Galilea and he encounters several fishermen. In each case, he calls to them, midstream in their work, to stop what they are doing and follow him. And, remarkably, they do. They stop casting or mending their nets and follow him.

My initial instinct when reflecting on this Gospel reading was to focus on the disciples. How did they process this call and respond so quickly? But this is not where I am going with my reflection today, because I was drawn back to Jesus and his simple act of walking along the shore and recruiting followers. There is a certain humility involved in having to recruit one’s own followers. In my mind at least, great teachers don’t have to actively recruit because their reputations precede them - and followers or students just go to them. In fact, this is what happened in last week’s Gospel reading from John. In this instance, two disciples of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask where he is staying. These disciples took the initiative and wanted to be with Jesus.

But while last week’s story featured a regal and wise Jesus – to whom followers flocked, the Jesus in today’s readings is much more humble, a guy who chooses to pound the pavement in order to attract followers and develop a community. This version of Jesus is also fairly consistent with many of the other stories passed down to us in the gospels.

From day one, Jesus’ very existence seems to be an exercise in humility. For starters, the gospel stories are about an almighty and all powerful God who decides to lurk among us in human form. If you were impressed by Lincoln’s ability to patiently wait in General McClellan’s living room, then what about God stepping down from her heavenly thrown to be among us, and with us, in our often crazy world. From there forward, Jesus’ life and comments - as shared in the gospel stories - are often unconventional lessons in how to practice leadership. In fact, Jesus often frustrates his followers by not exercising authority in the traditional way or fawning before conventional power.

While we traditionally think of Jesus as transcendent, all knowing and wise, I want you to imagine for a moment that perhaps Jesus, the teacher or rabbi, was a co-learner with his disciples. In other words, maybe his disciples were less followers or students in the traditional sense, and more members of an active learning community facilitated by Jesus. As such, perhaps divine insight or the divine itself is co-produced and among us – rather than an external force.

This idea is a hard thing to wrap one’s head around, the notion we are part and parcel of the divine. In today’s Old Testament reading from Jonah, we learn how Jonah wrestles with this in his own comical way. Jonah, after spending three days in a whale or giant fish, gets burped up on a beach after he agrees with God to go to the city of Ninevah. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is to tell the people of Nineveh to repent or they and their city will be destroyed. Amazingly, the people listen to Jonah, change their ways and God does not destroy the city. But, ironically, Jonah is disappointed that God does not destroy the city because he thinks it makes him look bad because he foretold the end of the city and then it did not happen. Jonah can’t get his head around the fact that he was part of the divine process – people listened to him and they changed. Jonah can’t get beyond this me-centric idea that he is an autonomous actor that exists outside of the divine, rather than an active participant in the process.

So how does inverting power, practicing humility and co-producing the divine potentially play out in our own lives? Let me share a brief story with a couple of caveats. First, this is not to suggest that I have it figured out, but to imply that even very flawed people like myself can engage in such a process. Second, I realize that I am blessed with extreme privilege given my race, gender, economic status and education. As such, I likely can pursue ways of inverting power differently than those with less privilege.

My story dates from the time when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa in the mid-1980s. I was stationed as an agricultural volunteer for two years in a small community of 200 people. I was the first volunteer to live in the community and they welcomed me with open arms. I suspect, however, that they also had a lot of ideas about me and how I would pursue development. I was white, from the United States, the richest country on the planet at that time, and presumed to possess a lot of relevant technical knowledge. Some aspects of my life were perplexing to my village, including my desire to live with a local family, eat local food , wear local clothing, and learn the local language (all of which were part of the Peace Corps approach and philosophy at that time). But other aspects of my life were completely consistent with their expectations for an American, including some of my possessions, such as a short wave radio and a motorcycle given to us for work. Early in my Peace Corps tenure I used the motorcycle a fair bit to get around. The young men in my village really liked the fact that I had this motorcycle. It was relatively small by American standards, but actually quite large, flashy (painted red) and substantial compared to the local mopeds. I believe they liked the bike because it conformed to set of expectations for young males or machismo.

Early on in my tenure as a volunteer, an unfortunate incident occurred which even further endeared me to my young, male, village friends. One lazy Saturday afternoon, I was in my courtyard doing periodic maintenance on my motorcycle (I think I was cleaning the carburetor). After completing this task, I wanted to merely start the engine to see how it sounded – not to drive anywhere. Well, for reasons that I have never been quite able to figure out, the motorcycle immediately began to rev at full speed, and engaged, with me on top of it. I then proceeded to literally race, at a terrifyingly high speed, in the wheelie position, straight through the middle of town. The miracle is that I didn’t injure myself or anyone else, somehow managed to hit the kill switch, and the motorcycle decelerated, and turned off three quarters of the way though my small village. I then got off the bike and walked back to my house, trembling after what had just happened. Back at my house all of my young male friends were clapping and cheering. I was one cool cucumber for that fleeting moment. In their minds, I was like the Sylvester Stallone’s character Rambo and I had come to live in their village.

The problem was that the motorcycle represented power and wealth – and it put distance between myself and members of the community, especially older people and women of all ages. So after a few months, I made the decision to park the motorcycle. I would use it once every few months to go to the capital city some three hours away, but the rest of the time I would walk or ride a bicycle. Of course, this was deeply disappointing to my young male friends. If I had this symbol of power and wealth, why not flaunt it? However, over time, this decision yielded tremendous results, especially when combined with my insistence that I was a facilitator rather than a development expert who had all of the answers. I just became Mambi (which was my local name). I was the American guy who lived in the community, spoke the local language, hung out in the evenings drinking tea with his village friends, and who liked to talk to old people and work on gardening projects. I proactively decided to let go of the trappings of power and it enabled me to do better work by learning from my village friends. This led to tremendous personal growth and to shared development efforts rather than imposed ones.

Let me end with a couple of thoughts. First, while there is a lot in the Christian tradition about justice for the poor, marginalized and disenfranchised, Jesus had just as much to say about the exercise of power. In fact, Jesus’ life is a lesson in how to lead differently by building a community of learners and leaders, rather than exercising top down control.

Second, places like Cabrini can and do model different approaches to power when they engage in learning and spiritual growth as a shared exercise. When we hear someone on this podium share a reflection, this person often imparts the thoughts of an army of people behind them. Our liturgist feeds us relevant background information, we hash out our ideas with the Word Team, we talk it over with our spouses, and they critique our rough drafts. While I am the messenger when I share reflections, and take full responsibility for any poor word choice or potentially offensive comments, anything of value that I have to offer almost always comes from this community that helps me shape a reflection.

Lastly, let us just imagine that Jesus operated in a similar fashion. Perhaps his pearls of wisdom, handed down to us as his parables and stories, were the result of a collective and shared process of co-learning with his disciples. This makes his stories our stories. These are stories which offer insights born of unconventional leadership, the inversion of power, humility, and the embrace of the wisdom of everyone. Indeed, we are all people of God. Thank you.

The author may be contacted at or may be found on twitter at