When you’re in the highlands, you may live in a village with houses clustered together, or your home may be tucked into a hillside at the end of a cart-track. Whichever the case, your nearest neighbors are bound to be hundreds of sheep. These neighbors can be found gamboling down the road next to (or in front of) your car. They camouflage with boulders on the hillsides, making you think: “I could have sworn that was a rock, but it just moved!” In rain or sun, high wind or gentle breeze, they seem to be forever grazing, head down, munching and roaming and munching again. If no sheep is within view at the moment, just listen. You’ll hear the “maaa” carrying across from a loch or hill behind you. After visiting the highlands, I now understand why streets in Edinburgh are lined with shops advertising Harris Tweed, lamb’s wool scarves, cashmere sweaters, and haggis. In a land of rocks, boulders, and turf (where even houses, walls, and barns are built from those very materials) farming sheep is both a way of life and a necessity.
Having grown up in the church, I’ve long been familiar with passages comparing humanity to sheep. Jesus grew up in a land like Scotland, with rough, rocky terrain well-suited to sheep-farming. I grew up in the wilds of Naperville, where soybeans and sod farms are pushed aside by shopping centers. Sheep are scarce, if non-existent. If you pause and listen, you’ll hear the rumble of a semi-truck, not the bleating of lambs. So, while Jesus’ listeners could easily relate to his parables about sheep, I’ve had to use my imagination. Visiting the highlands has breathed fresh life into the realities of his comparison.
This Sunday my family visited a church in Carloway (Isle of Lewis), where the pastor was preaching on Matthew 18:1-14 & 19:13-15. The passages focus on Jesus’ interactions with children and how we must become like children (as regards faith) in order to enter God’s kingdom. Pastor Davis talked about how children don’t know what they need, but they know who they need. A baby may refuse to eat because she’s gotten so worked up about being hungry. In her anger, she doesn’t realize that what she needs is being offered to her. Yet, from her earliest weeks she knows her mother and father’s voices (she’s been listening to them for 9 months in the womb). So, even if she’s too upset to know what she needs, she knows who to go to for comfort and provision. Pastor said that as adults, we have a pretty good idea of what we need. But we don’t know where to look or who to go to for provision. Instead of going to our heavenly Father (who knows and has what we truly need) we look for fulfillment in relationships, success, binges, etc. I confess I’m guilty of looking/searching for the next ____________ (fill in the blank) of life…the next stage (marriage/family), the next success, or the next book publisher. I often feel God tapping me on the shoulder, saying, “Mollie, slow down. What’s right in front of you – what I’ve provided – is all you need for now. Enjoy it! Be still in the midst of it. Stop searching for more when you’re not even sure what ‘more’ implies.”
In the midst of Jesus’ teaching on childlike faith, he interweaves a comparison to sheep (18:12-14). This comparison got me thinking about the similarities between sheep and children. Children implicitly trust the parent who loves them. Sheep implicitly trust the shepherd who cares for them. Children wander off, need guidelines/boundaries to feel safe, and sometimes need rescuing from foolish mistakes. Sheep are the same way. Children can identify their parents from across a crowded store, simply by hearing mom or dad cough. A sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and will ignore or run away from a stranger’s voice (John 10:4-5). This last comparison has gained new meaning for me here in Scotland. I’ve always heard that sheep run from a stranger’s voice. Yet, I will stand with my camera on the hills of Skye and call out to a sheep…trying to get it to look up from its munching so that I can take a good photo. I’ve even tried talking the sheep’s language (not Gaelic but “maaa”…and, yes, I’ve seen tourists from Germany and China doing the same thing). Inevitably, the sheep ignores me. If I approach her, she shows me her backside and walks away. That sheep knows I care little for her, beyond a photo opportunity. On the flip-side, I met a shepherdess last week. When I asked Linda if she would be sheering any sheep in the next day or so, she replied that the weather was awful and “the girls wouldn’t like it.” Linda knows her sheep. She loves, protects, provides for each one. Just as a trusting child, those sheep could identify her voice in any crowd.
In wrapping up his sermon, Pastor Davis concluded: as we approach God, our mindset must be that of a child. We should approach Him in humility, understanding our inability to supply our own needs. We should approach with a trusting heart, as children run with open arms to their parents’ protective embrace. We should seek to obey our Father’s voice as children who understand that rules aren’t about constriction but simply provide safety. And we should honor our heavenly Father as a child would brag about the strength of his dad. May I have the childlike (and sheeplike) faith to always trust that voice I know so well. May I always remember who to look to, even when I think I know what I need.
This Saturday’s to-do list included laundry and should have included balancing my checkbook. But checkbook balancing can happen any old day. Rain clouds and wet grass meant no yard work for the afternoon. Sooo…I decided to paint!…no big surprise. I needed a gift idea for a friend, but hadn’t been happy with anything I’d thought of yet. Then I remembered that she’d taken a trip to South Africa with her family last summer. She’d posted pictures on Facebook. Going back to that album, I found a handful of shots with potential for painting. I didn’t really want to paint the typical safari scene. Instead, I was attracted to a photo of sheep on her grandparents’ farm. The dusty grey color palette reminded me of a quote by Andrew Wyeth (Pennsylvania-based painter from the mid 1900’s; son of N.C. Wyeth). Wyeth said, “I’ve been blamed for the fact that my pictures are colorless, but the color I use is so much like the country I live in.” We think of African art as bold, vibrant, colorful. And, yes, the people, the fabrics, the sunsets in Africa are vibrant. But the landscape itself is rather muted…sandy yellows, cream, beige, browns, muted greens. As Wyeth saw the beauty of this color-range in his Pennsylvania surroundings, I wanted to capture the beauty of rural Africa. A sheep pen constructed from tree limbs, with a makeshift gate and tangled wire mesh…using the natural and man-made resources on-hand to make do. This is the art and ingenuity of so many cultures; something we rarely see in urban/suburban America. Besides subject-matter and color scheme, I liked the framing of this particular photo. Fence-post, gate, and roof perfectly frame the sheep, whose interest in her feeding trough has been distracted by the viewer’s camera. Design-wise I could work almost directly from the original photo, without having to make major changes to image or cropping.
My palette for this piece consisted of: yellow ochre, violet, grey, with rusty-red thrown in as an accent color. I wanted to build up the surface (creating both real and implied texture) before painting. Not having any modeling paste around, I improvised with spackling. Yes, the stuff you use to fill holes in your wall can also be used to build texture on a painting! Apply it to the canvas/board with a palette knife or fingers and allow an hour for drying-time before you paint. When working with acrylics, adding modeling paste (or spackle) gives a 3D surface-quality that mimics impasto oil-painting techniques. In the close-up shown here, you can see what I mean.
My friend was thrilled with the gift, and recognized her grandparents’ farm at once. So, it was a worthwhile rainy day of painting! Perhaps I’ll balance the checkbook tomorrow.