Snowstorms, shepherds and saints

PACEMAKER BELFAST 01/03/2018: Schools closed and travel disruption amid heavy Northern Ireland snowfall.'Heavy overnight snow is set to cause more disruption across Northern Ireland on Thursday. Road users have been advised to allow extra time for their journeys due to snow and ice. The weather conditions have led to difficult driving conditions. Sheep pictured sheltering from the snow in Carryduff, Co Down.'Picture By: Arthur Allison/ Pacemaker.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 01/03/2018: Schools closed and travel disruption amid heavy Northern Ireland snowfall.'Heavy overnight snow is set to cause more disruption across Northern Ireland on Thursday. Road users have been advised to allow extra time for their journeys due to snow and ice. The weather conditions have led to difficult driving conditions. Sheep pictured sheltering from the snow in Carryduff, Co Down.'Picture By: Arthur Allison/ Pacemaker.

Every fortnight people from a farming background, or who have a heart for the countryside, offer a personal reflection on faith and rural life. They hope that you will be encouraged by it.

In recent weeks the talk of the country has been about the weather - snow and freezing temperatures, when spring flowers should be all in bloom and lambs running playfully about the fields.

Frost and snow have caused massive disruption and endless work to keep livestock safe, fed and watered.

Hard-pressed fodder supplies have been further stretched and put under even more pressure, while lambing - especially on hill farms - has been hard. In an age where we think we can control so much, the weather reminds us all of our weakness and vulnerability.

When I first visited my future in-law’s home farm outside Broughshane, many years ago, I was awestruck by their stunning and uninterrupted view of Slemish.

Usually well-clad in grass and speckled with sheep, but with the untimely return of winter recently I was struck again to see the whole of Slemish blanketed in thick snow - in March!

The sheep that roam its slopes are hardy, but we all know that they need good care too. Feeding is vital, their feet need care and their fleeces need looked after as well - all the job of the shepherd. Looking at Slemish I couldn’t help but think about one of its most famous historic characters: Patrick, Ireland’s Patron Saint.

Tradition has it that he was seized and brought here as a slave to tend sheep for an Irish farmer on this very hill. What Patrick knew of sheep, or farming before coming to Ireland, was probably quite limited – but he learned what must be our most common type of farming still.

Patrick came from a place whose name is now unknown - either on the Scottish or Welsh coasts. The son of a well-to-do family he was enslaved as a teenager by traders and brought to Ireland to be a shepherd. Life was hard and Patrick tells us so in his writings, but he escaped and returned home - yet he never forgot us here.

After years of study to become a missionary, Patrick had a very vivid dream in which he heard a voice saying, “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.” Returning to Ireland, he became our most famous missionary and eventually our Patron Saint, travelling all over the island sharing his Christian faith.

Legends abound, like the driving out of all Irish snakes, of such we may be sceptical. But in his Confessions, he tells us that on an Irish hill he found God to be his Good Shepherd, “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful…the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God…” (Confession’s of St Patrick, translated by Ludwig Bieler).

In Psalm 23, King David, another former shepherd, writes so beautifully and reassuringly about how he found God to be his shepherd. Just like sheep farmers today, he probably knew that sheep were prone to getting lost. The Bible tells us in Isaiah 53:6 that we too “...like sheep have gone astray...” Just as Patrick discovered, that’s why we all need the Good Shepherd – Our Lord Jesus Christ - to save us and guide us. Happy St Patrick’s Day!

Ian was brought up on a dairy farm near Limavady. He was a minister in Ballyroney and Drumlee congregations in south Down, and latterly Moneydig Presbyterian Church in County Londonderry. Due to a serious cancer diagnosis, Ian has had to retire from active ministry and now provides counselling and support to others with cancer.

If you would like to talk to someone about any of the subjects raised in this article, please email Rev. Kenny Hanna at khanna@presbyterianireland.org or call him on 028 9753 1234.