Monday, March 23, 2015

The Smell of the Sheep

Pope Francis, it would seem, can do no wrong.  This morning, as CNN is covering the latest wave of young successful professionals signing up for involvement with ISIS, they are also featuring a recent possible real life miracle by Pope Francis.  According to recent reports, while visiting the city of Naples recently, and after being given a vial of dried blood to kiss, which came from a long lost Saint (St. Gennaro - who was martyred in the 4th century), the blood is purported to have partially liquified.  According to the Catholic Herald, a newspaper which covers such miraculous occurrences, it is the first time the blood has become liquified since a previous papal visit in 1848 (Pope Pius IX).  I must admit a certain level of incredulity about the occurrence or the relevance of this miracle.  But who am I to judge.

However, no one can refute the basic goodness and wisdom of our recent pope.  Of particular interest to me is Pope Francis' heart for reaching people who are far from any kind of involvement or connection to a church.  I love the pope's desire to reach people who are far from a church pew, but not far from the heart of God.  To this end, Francis recently gave a speech in which he called pastors to be more involved in the day to day lives of their communities.  Francis talked about the need for church leaders to, "get their hands more dirty" when it comes to connection with the world.  In his own inimical words;

"Priests should be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep."

The Smell of the Sheep

While I do not know for sure, I believe that Francis' brilliant formulation is actually a derivation of an old Beduin axiom:  "Ye may dress the shepherd in silken robes, but he will still smell of the sheep."

What do sheep smell like?  Well, never having spent much time with sheep, but having had a great uncle who was a shepherd in Scotland, I imagine that the scent of a sheep is an odorous blend of wool, dirt, grass and excrement.  Sheep wool that is wet smells like…well wet wool.  A sheep's breath just stinks to high heaven.  Sheep don't smell good.  And neither, according to Francis, should pastors smell good.  To smell like a sheep, I imagine that a shepherd would have to live right with the sheep.  He/She would have to sleep on the ground with the sheep, carry a sheep that is in trouble, rescue a sheep that is caught in barbed wire.  The bad smells that develop on a sheep must somehow rub-off on a pastor.

The Smell of the Sheep

I know a Youth Pastor who works with kids in downtown Ventura who have dropped out of school.  This pastor finds his congregation not in a building but out in skateboard parks.  Not long ago this pastor told me that he recently conducted a beach baptism where a hundred kids gathered at an ocean park in one of the worse parts of town.  Most of the kids were smoking during the baptism.  My friend smelled of cigarette smoke as he recounted how powerful it was to see this kid give his life to Christ.

The Smell of the Sheep

Many years ago, while I served as a hospital chaplain in New York City, I had the occasion to visit with and pray with many family members of loved ones that had passed away.  As I entered the hospital room, I would always see a cadaver that was covered with a sheet, and the smell of formaldehyde would be heavy in the air.  I would always have my prayer book with me and would read a text from the Bible to a grieving family as laid my hand upon the dead person's head to pray for them ("Blessed are the dead who die in the Spirit, says the Lord, for they shall rest from their labors and their deeds will be remembered.")  My prayer book, to this day smells like formaldehyde.

The Smell of the Sheep

The problem is that many church leaders, pastors, and shepherds (priests) smell of different things than the sheep.  Some pastors smell of the books that they study throughout the day.  Other church leaders smell of the antiseptic ink found on papers in board rooms where they haggle over the financial problems in their church.  Other pastors smell of the clerical robes that they wear.  My own robes are a combination of a velvety, dusty smell of years hanging in my closet.

But the Sheep are what we are supposed to smell like!

All For Now,

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