"Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord's angel stood before them, the Lord's glory shone around them, and they were terrified." (Luke 2:8-9, Common English Bible)
Each Christmas Eve when he hears the familiar account of the shepherds' angelic visit, Glen Fisher has good reason to sit up a little straighter in his pew.
The United Methodist has herded sheep for more than 30 years on his ranch near Sonora in southwest Texas, and he is a respected leader in his profession. In January, Fisher will complete his two-year term as president of the American Sheep Industry Association, the national organization that represents the 82,000 sheep producers in the United States.
Sheep remain an integral part of U.S. agriculture. Farm flocks are raised in all 50 states, providing wool for mills as far away as China and meat for dinner tables closer to home. Fisher's home state of Texas has the nation's largest share of the industry, with more than 10 percent of the nation's sheep producers and some 830,000 sheep and lambs as of this past January.
But Fisher takes special delight in being part of a profession referenced throughout the Bible and knowing that shepherds like him were among the first to hear the good news of Christ's birth.
"I'm quite proud that even today all the Christians in the world know about shepherds and their sheep," he says.
"The angel said, 'Don't be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you — wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David's city. He is Christ the Lord.'" (Luke 2:10-11)
Fisher's work does not quite fit the standard Christmas greeting-card image of shepherds calmly caring for flocks with a shepherd's crook and staff as their only tools.
These days, Fisher tends his flock of 1,800 ewes and about 60 rams with a big blue Ford pickup, a feed buggy and the help of two ranch-hands.
He mainly checks to make sure his livestock, which also includes cattle and goats, have enough water and feed in their concrete troughs. It is dusty and time-intensive work. Even with the feed buggy, it takes a man two days to feed all the livestock on his property. The feed troughs typically need refilling every 10 days.
He also checks the condition of the pasture, sees if any fences need mending and looks for the tracks and droppings of any potential predators.
Many people characterize sheep as dumb, but Fisher says that's not entirely true. He has seen sheep fight off coyotes to protect their young. Ewes can always identify their lambs by the sound of their "bahs."
"They are pretty smart animals," he explains. "But there are times when they can try your religion. When you are trying to get them into a pen and they just stare at you, you get mad and say the words you shouldn't."
His big worry, for now, is the drought that has parched his community since late September 2010. December is Fisher's lambing season, and seeing the lambs play and climb is usually his favorite part of the job. However, he now has more mouths to feed and thirsts to quench. The dry weather means he has to spend more money on feed.
So, lately, he has spent a lot of his time praying for relief. "I try to remind the Lord every day if he wants me to be a good shepherd, I need a little help here with a little rain," he says.
He does not watch his flocks by night. He has metal pens to help keep the sheep safe. Still, he can identify with the frightened shepherds of Luke.
"They cared for their sheep because the sheep took care of them," he says.
Fisher speculates that maybe God chose the shepherds for the special birth announcement to show that God cares for people just as much as a shepherd cares for his sheep.
"Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 'Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.'" (Luke 2:13-14)
In Jesus' day, shepherds were not generally on the guest list to see a newborn king.
Their work, however, was essential. Sheep were important sources of milk, meat and wool, and were also an essential part of Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, shepherding itself was a dirty and at times lonely job, United Methodist scholars point out. Shepherds were peasants who could not support themselves from the land and had to work as hired hands.
"In fact, many would have regarded shepherds as ritually unclean, especially if they were involved not only in wool gathering, but in slaughtering animals and tanning hides," says the Rev. Ben Witherington III, a blogger at Beliefnet.com and New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.
"Bethlehem was the ancient equivalent of the stockyards in Kansas City. It was where the sheep were raised and kept to be sent off to slaughter six miles up the road in Jerusalem."
The angels' annunciation to humble shepherds is very much in keeping with Mary's pronouncement earlier in Luke that God has lifted up the lowly, says the Rev. Richard Hays, the dean of Duke Divinity School and a New Testament professor.
One of the themes of Luke's Gospel is divine reversal. "Luke is showing that no person is considered beneath the Messiah's dignity, and all should celebrate his coming for as Luke says — he is the savior of the world," Witherington adds.
"They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them." (Luke 2: 16-18)
Fisher has never felt disparaged for his line of work, and indeed it has long been a fruitful livelihood for his family.
His wife Linda's family has been sheep ranching in southwest Texas since the 1880s, and his son recently began tending his own flock at a ranch inherited from a cousin.
Sheep ranching has been particularly important to the members of Fisher's congregation, First United Methodist Church in Sonora. The church's building, erected in 1928, was funded in part by the women of the church selling 50 sheep.
About 30 to 40 percent of the church's worshipers work in sheep ranching, says the Rev. Earl Ray Wells Jr., the church's pastor. And just about everyone in the church, which has a weekly attendance of 70, has some connection to the sheep industry.
A stained glass window in the church of Jesus as the good shepherd pays tribute to the church flock's lasting connection to flocks of a woolly sort.
Linda Fisher, who has been an administrator at the church for 15 years, says caring for sheep at times can make her feel closer to God.
"You know when you're in between big buildings and you can't even see the sunset, you have to remind yourself a little harder about God's gifts," she says. "I can be driving in from the ranch and see a sunset any day I want to, and I see what God has done for us."
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
Editor's note: UMNS profiled Glen Fisher, a modern-day shepherd, in 2010. This feature was updated November 24, 2014.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].
First published December 23, 2010.
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