Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Sheep

Oddly enough, I know almost nothing about my namesake. Sometime during the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands in the 16th century, the invaders demanded Dutch folks take last names. Story has it that some of them simply looked around and used whatever word they saw—like “sheep.” Hence, schaap. I’m a sheep. But other than human “sheep,” I’ve never even been close to a real one.

Some of the old Navajos I’ve been talking to claim shepherding wasn’t the greatest experience of their lifetimes. Most all Navajos who’ve reached 75 or so remember tending sheep and goats, remember life in the hogan, remember a way of life that’s now pretty much gone.

And what I’ve learned from them is that sheep were immensely exasperating, in part because they’re simply not all that bright. “Stupid sheep,” one man kept saying when remembering his childhood, “stupid, stupid sheep.” Sometimes, of course, those kids were out on what was almost open range tending sheep at three or four or five. So much for childhood.

But there were times when watching the flock wasn’t bad, some claim. One man said tending sheep had its moments—as long as you could sit up on a hill and watch them forage beneath you, as long as they didn’t go out of their way to wander where they shouldn’t, as long as the weather was genial, there were moments of something close to pastoral bliss.

But then they’d wander off and they had to be chased back. “Stupid sheep—stupid, stupid sheep.”

Makes me want to change my name.

That the DinĂ©, the Navajo, often recite Psalm 23 makes understandable. It may well have been the first English poem that made a nickel’s worth of sense: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Its reassuring reality is fundamental to the way of life those folks lived throughout most of their childhoods.

I say all of that because, once more just now, I listened to the entire score of Handel’s Messiah. I don’t know that I could ever tire of it, from the opening lines of the overture to the final triumph of the Amen chorus. There’s so much that has meaning. I will never, ever hear “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” without thinking of my mother singing it at a small-town performance by local singers at which she was the soprano soloist. Old First Reformed church—I can see her yet—and hear her.

But the single selection that makes me put down everything I’m doing simply to observe its glorious uniqueness is “Worthy is the Lamb,” which sets the course for the final act of the drama. If I were a musician, I’m sure I could use the correct technical language, but that soaring tribute starts with single earth-shaking chord that erupts into a passage of sublime exposition, just a few short lines until all that solemnity is broken by riffs that seem to me to rumble, brook-like, down the register—textbook Handel.

And, then, once again, that single chord and the repetition: “Boom. Worthy is the lamb. . .” Hear it?

An old story says that, once he’d finished, Handel told people that in the white hot heat he must have lived in during the 24 days it took him to write the Messiah, he’d seen God. The evidence for that claim shines throughout, but if you want to hear what George Frederick Handel heard as he approached the throne, you simply have to listen to that volley of immense solemnity that opens the section of the oratorio he called himself “The Triumph of the Messiah.”

Boom. “Worthy is the Lamb.”

And it’s a sheep. Isn’t that something? It’s all about a lamb.

All of that majestic fanfare for a sheep, all of that transcendence for the Lamb of God, whose done nothing more or less than make himself the supreme sacrifice for all of us, whose taken the burden of sin on his back and buried them forever. For us, he’s become a sheep. He’s become the Lamb of God.

Somewhere in there is a goodly chunk of the whole story of Easter. Thanks be to God.

And then, of course, the Amen chorus.

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