It was too beautiful a day for something to die. But it did. There was nothing I could do about it.
It was the summer before I started master-of-divinity studies at Calvin Seminary, and my folks were in Montana visiting my older sister and her family. I was busy with chores on our dairy farm. There were cows to feed, machinery to fix, crops to harvest. It was also the Fourth of July weekend, so as the warm afternoon faded I hoped to make it to the nearby small town of Falmouth, Mich., to watch the fireworks. The whole community turns out for a hymn sing before pyrotechnics light up evening sky.
I never made it.
My last chore was to feed the group of “dry” cows out on the back pasture who were waiting to give birth. Twice a day, morning and evening, I’d head down the dusty lane and feed them grain and water. If any were ready to calve, I’d walk them back to the farm with me. But this time I was too late.
I spotted it easily enough. Surrounded by a circle of sniffing muzzles, a tell-tale small patch of white and black lay among the rustling green meadow grass of the pasture.
Calves born in pasture are notoriously wild. Even a few hours after birth they are coordinated enough to run from you. This one never did.
As I approached the newborn under a reddening sky, I could see that something wasn’t right. Seeing me, it let out a plaintive bawl and tried to get up to run. It couldn’t. One of its rear legs was badly broken, its bone protruding where its mother’s misplaced step had snapped it in two. I knew instantly that there would be no saving the leg—or the calf.
In the midst of beauty and celebration, I suddenly found myself confronted with death. Tears welling in my eyes, I knelt beside the calf, gently placing one hand below the reddened wound and the other above to immobilize it. Having radioed my brother to call the vet, I could do nothing more. I began to weep deeply. I cried over the pain of this calf. I cried over the brokenness of this world. I cried at my weakness as the sky darkened and the first flashes of fireworks lit up the horizon.
Now I am graduating from Calvin Seminary. By virtue of ordination, I will soon be called a “pastor”—a shepherd to God’s people. I’ve been trained in theology by capable professors. I’ve struggled through biblical languages with servant-hearted peers. I’ve learned much from God’s church. Even so, as I look to the future, I am reminded of that lesson in shepherding taught in a pasture on a July afternoon. I am weak. Yet I am learning that God is strong.
Kneeling beside that dying calf, through my tears, I found my heart moved to song—praising God for a Lamb that was slain. I could not help but thank him that death does not get the final word in creation. Life does.
With my peers, I enter ministry in that hope. Like fireworks in the night, the gospel flares with light that amazes. And with the throng of creation, we cry with oohs and ahs: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
About the Author
Rev. John Lee is pastor of Bethel CRC in Sioux Center, Iowa. He grew up on a dairy farm outside McBain, Mich., where he attended Northern Michigan Christian School.