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Retired PC(USA) minister writes on honing pastoral presence


A little border collie theology can help explain the Good Shepherd

February 20, 2023

The Rev. Antonio (Tony) Juan Aja-Torréns

When someone loses a loved one, we often say things like, “God needed another angel.’’ Really? I don’t think God works that way. There are times when I don’t want theological nuance. All I want is feel-it-in-my-gut-assurance. I want to feel God in my innermost self.

I had the privilege to study under Dr. Wayne Oates, one of the best pastoral care professors around at the time. It was from him I learned how to be a pastoral presence, how to look the mourner in the eye, hold their hand and shut up. Don’t try to explain death, he told his seminary students. At times of suffering, people cannot listen to theological platitudes. They just need a shoulder to cry on.

If you have read books by Isabel Allende or Gabriel García Márquez, then you are familiar with “magical realism” — a literary genre that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, between the here and now, between the heavenly and the earthly. We usually call some of the stories in the Bible metaphor, allegory or simile, but I like magical realism better. I like to think that the ordinary and the extraordinary are held in divine tension. For me, it’s a wonderful way of understanding the unexplainable.

Patrick’s faithful companionship taught the author about the divine. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Juan Aja-Torréns)

I think Jesus was the first user of magical realism. The imagery of the Good Shepherd makes a lot of sense to me, even though I consider myself to be an urban kid and have never owned sheep. So, if you are anything like me, we may need help in understanding the metaphor (or magical realism) of this narrative. I think I can understand it well, though. Why? Because I once had a border collie named Patrick.

It’s been said that when working, the dogs will usually be seen in the crouched position, with their alert eyes fixed on the job at hand. The “hypnotic” eye characteristic is probably more defined in the border collie than any other breed, and it is this quality that makes them so superb in herding sheep, using their eyes to guide a herd without the need to nip or bark.

Here I find an unqualified promise that once we belong to God, we are in God’s hands forever. Listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Like a border collie, he rounds us up and protects us and looks at us with eyes of love and understanding and compassion. Let us rejoice in hearing Jesus speak our name. Absorb the grace we have received and experienced in our lives and share that grace with our communities, especially those who suffer not only because of death, but also because of injustice and oppression. Embrace them with your quiet love, look them in the eye and accompany them in their struggle.

The Rev. Dr. Antonio (Tony) Juan Aja-Torréns is an honorably retired Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister. He resides in Florida with his wife, Loyda, and Lucy, a collie mix and beloved companion.

Today’s Focus: Border Collie theology

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Elaine Shilstut, Cataloging & Metadata Librarian, Presbyterian Historical Society
Natalie Shilstut, Director, Programs & Services, Presbyterian Historical Society

Let us pray

Through the power of your Holy Spirit, loving God, may the ministries we offer in the name of our Christ lead to the transformation of our world, our churches and ourselves. Amen.