What Bighorn Sheep can Show Us: Vision, Leadership, and Brooming

This past summer, our family got to visit Colorado National Monument.  At one of the visitor centers, a ranger talked about the different animals in the park and showed us a skull of a Bighorn Sheep.  He pointed out how the horns curved around the skull, but were broken off at the end.  The ranger described how the horns tend to curl around, passing directly into the rams line of sight. So, to keep safe from predators and not let horns get in the way of its vision, the Bighorn sheep will stick the tip of the horn in a crevice of a rock and break it off and then rub it on a sandstone rock to round off the rough edges. This practice is called brooming.

This surprised my wife and I because, honestly, that seems like very intelligent behavior for a sheep!

It made me think about the way horns serve as symbols of power, authority and leadership where we lived in Mozambique, Africa as well as in Scripture (for example, Psalm 18:2 and Jeremiah 48:25).

Maybe these sheep have something to teach us about the ways that horns/authority can obscure a leader’s vision.  They remind us that when we let authority go to our heads(!) we become more susceptible to predators.  Leaders need to be intentional about not letting their power and influence impede their vision.  That’s true for individual leaders and for institutions, as well.  We need to be deliberate about making sure that authority and tradition don’t grow so large that we actually do lose sight of what’s around us.  For bighorn sheep, without proper brooming, these horns could be dooming them to an early death, blinding them to dangers and threats.

To live out a 2020 vision effectively will require us, as leaders, to take stock of our own authority and influence to make sure it has not obscured our sight.  That doesn’t mean that we reject the use of power and influence, instead it means using authority and leadership properly.  One of my favorite resources on this topic is Andy Crouch’s book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  May we have the courage to practice brooming, keeping leadership and authority in its proper place.

May we as fellow sheep, join the Chief Shepherd in leading the flock well, awake to the ways that power, influence and authority have the potential for good as well as the ways that they can impede our vision. 

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  1. As evolution deniers, I should think that members of the Churches of Christ should find themselves treading very thin ice indeed, when it comes to drawing this sort of Aesop-like lesson from nature. Given the Church of Christ claim of special creation, why did God create Bighorn sheep with horns that would grow in such a way as to occlude their vision, necessitating the extra behavior of brooming? Why wouldn’t God create the Bighorn sheep with horns that grow only so far, and no further?

    It is said that in medieval thought, lice were thought to be a virtuous bestowal upon humanity because the threat of a lice infestation is a powerful inducement to cleanliness, and that weeds were good because it’s so good for our spirits to have to pull them up. But presumably, Bighorn sheep have no character to mold, no soul to save. So why would God do double duty, programming their horns to develop indefinitely, laying on Himself the added chore of programming in brooming behavior?

    Bighorn sheep and human beings and every other living creature on this planet have evolution written all over us. With every terrestrial vertebrate, including the Bighorn sheep, we share the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which loops from the brainstem, down under the aortic arch, and back up again to the larynx. In the giraffe, this is a detour of fifteen feet. Throughout its unnecessary added length, the recurrent laryngeal nerve. This is a bequest from our fishy ancestors, whose hearts and aortic arches were right up near the structure which is in fish homologous to the larynx in the terrestrial vertebrates which evolved from them. Exactly the sort of thing we should expect, if evolution happens (and it does), and exactly the thing one would not expect if each species were individually designed, as the Churches of Christ and other sects of Christian fundamentalism assert.

    For “the sake of consistency,” as one Church of Christ elder said in kicking a youth off the role of communion service because the young man was wearing a sweater and not a coat and tie, one would at least think that the Churches of Christ might get their story straight. Why cherry-pick a lesson from the world of science, when the whole of the movement is based on denying the whole of science and all who work within that framework, such as the humble National Monument ranger of the story?

    For almost thirty years, I have been a volunteer with the Cave Research Foundation, charged with exploring and surveying caves underneath federal lands, including the Mammoth Cave System within Mammoth Cave National Park in south-central Kentucky. This is close-in work with very special and very ancient parts of nature. It is clear from geology, radiochemistry, paleontology, comparative anatomy, and archeology that the cave that I love so much was visited by humans up to six thousand years ago, further back than the time when Bishop Usher’s chronology says that the earth was created. The cave itself is up to ten million years old, and the limestone plateau that it is dissolved out of is a coral reef, the deepest parts of which (in the case of Mammoth Cave’s deepest known present extent) can be dated beyond question to 400 million years before the present.

    Yet the churches of Christ would have us believe the “Omphalos hypothesis”, that all this grandeur, much of it yet unseen by human eyes, was spoken into existence only six thousand years ago, “with the appearance of age”, as a Church of Christ minister of Murray, Kentucky would have us believe.

    I myself have seen some twenty to thirty miles of Mammoth Cave on an inch by inch basis. On many occasions I have been the first being ever to shine light into the amazing and wonderful complexity of until then unknown passages there, often placing my own life at (managed) risk to do so. There are 12 inches to a foot and 5,280 feet to a mile. What God would go to such lengths to deceive his human children as to the great antiquity of the earth, and the Universe in which it is embedded? It’s not just a simple cartoon job. If the earth is not ancient, if the creatures that swarm in and upon it do not share a common ancestor, then this is the greatest fabrication ever foisted upon the minds of human beings.

    What loving God would go to such lengths to conceal a six-day creation under such an impossibly detailed simulacrum of antiquity? I cannot conceive of such a creator. But as to the question of what sort men would continue for more than 200 years of the history of the Churches of Christ to lie to their own children regarding what science has revealed of our world, threatening those children with corporeal punishment and disfellowshipping in this world, and eternal punishment in the next, should they take proper stock of the evidence before their very eyes, I have ample evidence. It is the men, the living fossils, if you will, of the Restoration Movement.

    My advice would be to keep away from science in your sermonizing. It doesn’t do credit to either you, or your agenda, to invoke the name of science to make a theological point, when you spend the rest of your lives decrying science and its practitioners as hell-bound, or at best, deceived by a trickster God who, if that’s the way He is, proves nothing but that He’s not worthy of any act of respect or worship.