June 16, 2008

Black Sheep
by Pastor George Van Alstine

I have in my library a few books that were once owned by my Aunt Dora. Looking for some new ideas, I took one of these from the shelf to browse, entitled Modern American Poetry (1919). I found it intriguing that Aunt Dora had put check marks indicating some of her favorite poems, and one in particular caught my attention: “Black Sheep,â€? by Richard Burton (not Richard Burton).

To understand why this interested me you have to know a bit about my Aunt Dora. She was the oldest of four children of Bertha Van Alstine, who was a solid Christian woman, but quite legalistic and harsh in the way she tried to impart the faith to her children. Aunt Dora adopted much of what she was taught, as I have learned from reading notes she left in her personal Bible. However, when she had the chance to go to college, she saw this as an escape route. She embraced all the modern ideas that were current in a liberal college during the Roaring Twenties and flaunted her liberation before her mother by smoking, drinking beer, playing cards and making fun of Christian ideas. Aunt Dora never married, and after my grandfather died, Bertha moved in with her rebel daughter. Their relationship continued to be a battleground as long as they were both alive.

So Aunt Dora, evidently, found something to identify with in this poem:
Black Sheep

From their folded mates they wander far,
Their ways seem harsh and wild;
They follow the beck of a baleful star,
Their paths are dream-beguilded.

Yet haply they sought but a wider range,
Some loftier mountain-slope,
And little recked of the country strange
Beyond the gates of hope.

And haply a bell with a luring call
Summoned their feet to tread
Midst the cruel rocks, where the deep pitfall
And the lurking snare are spread.

Maybe, in spite of their tameless days
Of outcast liberty,
They’re sick at heart for the homely ways
Where their gathered brothers be.

And oft at night, when the plains fall dark
And the hills loom large and dim,
For the Shepherd’s voice they mutely hark,
And their souls go out to him.

Meanwhile, “Black sheep! Black sheep!â€? we cry,
Safe in the inner fold;
And maybe they hear, and wonder why,
And marvel, out in the cold.

I am imagining that Aunt Dora had some of these nostalgic impulses, feeling “sick at heart for the homely ways.â€? And I wonder, as she read this, if she saw herself in the words
“And oft at night . . . .
For the Shepherd’s voice they mutely hark,
And their souls go out to him.�
Did her soul go out to the Shepherd? “Mutely,â€? without ever expressing it?

Meanwhile, what did she hear from the sheep who remained inside the fold? “Black sheep! Black sheep!â€? Daily, through the disapproving looks of her mother, she was reminded, yet to her death, remained “out in the cold.â€?

In honor of Aunt Dora’s memory, I will not be one who reminds people how far they are from the Shepherd, but one who asks them to look over their shoulder and see how near he is to embracing them.