An integral part of my sabbatical exploration has been seeking to find other members of my different herds. Using the grand tool of connectivity, social media, I have done advanced planning to find and connect with birders, soccer fans, rock climbers and, of course, church folk.
I arrived in Omaha last Thursday and on Friday night I was picked up by Ryan and taken to Barrett’s Barleycorn where I was introduced to a wild bunch of soccer hooligans known as the Omaha chapter of the American Outlaws. We watched a thrilling last minute victory by the US over Jamaica. Though Ryan was a stranger when he picked me up and we talked only for the short time it took to get to the bar, we built a connection that should lead to chatting about things spiritual and religious when he gets back from Seattle. He went there to be with other members of the big soccer fan herd for the US vs Panama match, which I watched by returning to Barrett’s. When I arrived, the guy in the Yankees hat remembered not only that I had been wearing a Red Sox hat on Friday, but my name as well. That is not only proof that I had found my herd but that some feuds can be forgotten when overruled by other bonds.
That evening was followed by an early morning in the woods of Fontenelle Forest chasing the local birds. When I needed a ride from one spot to another, the only passport I needed was binoculars around my neck. In the “it’s a small world” category, the members of the birder herd giving me a lift turned out to be also part of the New England and church herds as Ruthie’s father had been a UCC pastor in the church where the Salem witch trials took place (nope, Danvers, look it up), a church I had been in numerous times during my time in ministry in Salem.
Then on Sunday morning, many members of the Darkwood Brew herd that had been only 2D became 3D friends during worship. And then I got to see behind the curtain at DWB itself, which was quite the trip (which is continuing this week as I get to participate in very fulfilling ways in this ministry that has been such a blessing to me).
Tuesday brought a trip to the climbing wall at U. of Nebraska at Omaha, where I was able to speak the language unique to the climber herd. It wasn’t long before a group of us were projecting a V3 bouldering problem giving each other beta and encouragement. A total stranger was genuinely sorry for me that I was leaving before sending the problem, but was glad to hear I would be back to work it again this week.
Oh, you didn’t understand some of that? Well, that’s exactly the way herds work, we gather together with those who share our passions and interests. When we do we not only learn how to communicate these particular interests in the jargon unique to the herd, but we grease the skids when it comes to welcoming the new person in simply by recognizing their membership in the herd. There is no secret handshake needed to find the extravagant welcome of the herd.
But why speak of these interest groups as herds? That comes from Frank Shaeffer’s riff this past week on the myth of individualism. During that time, he said, “just accept that you are a sheep and choose your herd.” What great insight that is. The wisdom of Ancient Greece is reflected in the word we use to speak of the opposite of wisdom, idiot. The etymological root is the Greek word idios, which means, “one’s own, distinct.” The idiot is the one who believes the myth of individualism and refuses to join the herd. The great invitation is that we can choose the herds we want to join. This is the antidote to last week’s consideration of how chosen-ness can lead to the “in” group becoming exclusive and excluding. When enough of us embrace our “sheep-ness,” recognizing our need for each other we can self-select inclusive and empowering herds. Of course, that is often not the connotation associated with being sheep. More often the rugged individualism of American culture warns about the gullible flocking of sheep mentality. In the echo chamber of daily media onslaught it certainly is easy to become a ditto-head. But that is not the same as embracing sheep-ness and it certainly does not reflect the intentionality that should go into choosing a herd.
There are so many choices when it comes to herds. Some will only impact us for brief, even transient times such as those incidental groups around sports during matches. Some will be avocational such as our chosen hobbies. But the ones that will matter most will be vocational in the truest sense, those that we feel called to. We all have our sweet spots where we are doing that which is most satisfying and when we find that spot we are at the top of our game, able to give our best to others. Imagine finding a group of others who either share that vocation and intentionally making that your herd. Better yet, imagine finding the herd that needs just what you most desire to offer. That is a truly wise and rewarding spiritual practice that lifts up the great gift of sheep-ness and herd thinking.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Brimfield, MA He blogs about the intersection of spirituality and society at CultureDove.blogspot.com and the intersection of spirituality and ornithology at https://birdparables.blogspot.com