We live in Cumbria, a part of the United Kingdom that has been badly hit by foot and mouth disease. A farmer in our valley was in tears because his healthy sheep have had to be slaughtered and piled high until they were collected and removed. The unmistakable billowing of filthy smoke from animal pyres has been a regular sight on the horizon. Neighboring farmers have called out to us in despair as we've passed disinfected farm gateways. Farmers here are feeling that their future is uncertain.
Farther along our road, farmers and villagers who supplement slender incomes by camping barns and bed and breakfasts are finding bookings canceled. In an area that needs the income that tourism brings, visitors have been at an all-time low, as footpaths have been closed and we've been advised to drive only on major roads. Only now is this situation starting to change.
It's tempting to think there's nothing anyone can do about disasters like this. But the Bible says, "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16). This has comforted my husband and me as we've seen the distress in the community and when there seemed to be no visible let-up. Our prayers, along with the prayers of many others, have been and are availing much. So we've continued to pray and expect results from our prayers.
Prayer, as the Bible defines it, involves turning to a Supreme Being. Prayer involves God-based thinking, and this means understanding God - even in a small way. One way of knowing God that is helping me in this current situation is thinking about God as Shepherd. The first words of the 23rd Psalm are, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." The Psalmist's experiences shepherding helped him to explain God's nature to others.
The concept of God as Shepherd became more concrete to me when we were visiting an island off the African coast. Motoring through a desert region, we saw a goatherd and his herd of goats in a small area where there were some shaggy shrubs and occasional blades of grass poking through the sand. On this island it was traditional to keep goats rather than sheep. The goatherd was simply sitting on a boulder, his animals grazing around him, his whole attention and focus on caring for his herd. Those words of the Psalmist came to mind: "The Lord is my shepherd." This simple scene, similar to how it must have been for shepherds in the time the Psalm was written, brought me closer to under- standing what those words meant. I thought, God is right with us all, all the time, caring for us, watching over us - not as a personal shepherd but as infinite, shepherding Love.
Returning to the United Kingdom and the farming crisis, I've been comforted by what I learned from that desert scene about God's constant, shepherding love. I'm praying to see and feel more of this love right in this area - a love that includes families and livestock in hills, valleys, fells, towns, cities, and villages.
Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer of Christian Science and founder of this newspaper, gave an inspired interpretation of the 23rd Psalm. She substituted the word Love where the Psalm refers to God. So it reads: "[Divine love] is my shepherd; I shall not want.
"[Love] maketh me to lie down in green pastures: [love] leadeth me beside the still waters....
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for [love] is with me; [love's] rod and [love's] staff they comfort me....
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house [the consciousness] of [love] for ever" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 578).
An awareness of this shepherding love of Love and our inseparability from it brings hope in place of despair. This awareness has helped me pray more confidently for healing and revitalization in the affected communities as, very gently, people are thinking about what is the way forward and what is the next step.
I won't stop trusting that "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor