Breaking It Down With The Shepherd

*** This post is a part 1 of a two part post.  The second half will be published next week.  I didn’t want you to be here half the night reading.

Psalm 23
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

When I was a child I was taught to memorize Scripture verses. It was considered some sort of virtue to be able to spew out words of Scripture at will or on command.  Memorizing the Bible was held in such high esteem that our church brought a guest to visit with our Sunday School classes; the gentleman had committed the entire Bible to memory.  We were invited to ask him to quote any verse of any book in the Bible. We kids took turns yelling out the most obscure verses we could think of while we readied our Bibles in the hopes of proving this gentlemen wrong.

One of us yelled out Timothy 4:13.

He responded “Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching.”

Another yelled “Nehemiah 5:16!”

He responded “Indeed, I devoted myself to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work.”

“Isaiah 59:4!”

“No one brings suit justly,
no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity.”

This went on, back and forth, for a good ten to fifteen minutes and I have to admit I was impressed with his ability to accurately memorize such a large book.  But even then, as a child, it disturbed me to think of someone memorizing the Bible mostly so they could regurgitate it verbatim for others.  What was the purpose of that?  I felt like our guest had reduced the Bible to a parlor trick. I kept wondering if he really knew the Bible, not just for recitation, but as something deeper than that, as a source of light and love and guidance.  I have to admit, however, that a certain part of me was jealous that he could manage to memorize any portion of the Word at all.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not seem to expand my knowledge beyond John 3:16-17.

And then, as a young teen, I decided that I needed to memorize Psalm 23. I don’t know what brought me to such a decision, or why I specifically chose Psalm 23.  I just knew that it was time for me to begin knowing more of the Bible by heart and so I set out to memorize Psalm 23.  I spent several days working on committing the Psalm to memory, and I was very proud of myself when I could recite it without pausing or having to be prompted by my parents.  Psalm 23 is a beautiful Psalm and certain one of the best known passages of the Bible. Having it tucked away in my memory surely had to be a good thing…yes? But sadly, much like I had suspected when I was much smaller, simply memorizing Scripture did not do much to advance my knowledge of God.

In order for the Scriptures to gain much meaning for me, I had to grow up and become an adult.  I had to get to the point where I needed Scripture before having certain passages squirrelled away in my heart, committed to memory, became meaningful and even necessary.  I still don’t memorize Bible verses as a matter of habit…yet there are a number of verses or passages that I can recite from memory simply because of how desperately I have clung and continue to cling to them in times of trouble, sorrow, and confusion.  Psalm 23 is one such piece of Scripture.

I had a friend who taught me to meditate on Psalm 46:10 in the following way:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know.

Be still.

I tried reversing this technique with Psalm 23 and found myself meditating on wonderful things.

The Lord is my shepherd.”

I am led by a God who understands that I am rather much like a sheep: potentially productive but simple, unwise, needing to be taken care of, and incapable of doing that for myself. Despite my neediness, the Lord Himself has chosen to be my shepherd. Maybe I should let Him do that job without so much interference from me.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

My God is not unaware of all that I need, but somehow I am find myself anxious to make sure that I have enough.  It makes me buy more than I need, and hold onto things that I should let go of, and strive far harder than I really ought or need to.  Again: I am much like a sheep, incapable of fully taking care of myself.  I need to be led and fed and kept safe, and God is the One who will be doing that for me.   If I could do it for myself, I wouldn’t be so doggone anxious all the time.  Perhaps my anxiety is proof that I need God?

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down…

Too many times I don’t know when to stop working. I don’t know when to say no, enough, I have too much on my plate.  And so God makes me lie down.  I think this verse is a reflection of “Be still and know that I am God” because another translation of that verse is “Stop striving and know that I am God.”  I strive too much for my own good, and so my shepherd makes me lie down. Once or twice, the “makes” part of ‘He makes me lie down’ felt very real, when my health became the thing that made me have to slow down and start saying no to some of my tasks and commitments.  I have learned when this happens that it is very helpful to recognize how God uses our infirmities to lead us to rely on Him and listen to Him. I decided to try something crazy and I even praised God for my pain; I discovered that I found peace and joy that persisted despite the pain and disability that it brought me. I found that I could hate being in pain while loving all that the pain could teach me.  Weird, I know.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters.

God is not content that we simply rest. My shepherd makes me lie down in the soft, green grass next to the still waters.  Why still water? Because still water is safe water. Remember Isaiah 43:2? “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”  Every time I read that passage I think of the many times in life that I was so overwhelmed that I thought I would drown!  I sometimes get to the point when life’s demands make me feel like I can’t keep up, can’t take a deep breath, and will never be able to get it all done.  God’s answer to that is to lead us to a soft place to fall, a safe place to fall apart. God is interested in more than granting us a good night’s sleep.  Green pastures and still waters are a safe place to play.  It isn’t enough to simply rest so that we can get back to work: God wants us to be able to let go of all our worries and simply be. With God in control we are safe.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides still waters. He restores my soul.

I remember leading the Junior High Convention for the local Methodist conference.  Tons of tweeners gathered for two days, all of them wanting to be entertained and led in an experience of God’s presence that would keep them on the right track in a culture that wanted to lead them all astray. Creating that shouldn’t be stressful, it should be a joy, right? NO!  I was so anxious that I was coming unglued!  Under the auspices of practicing my sermon for that night’s worship I slipped away for some time alone with God and found myself calmed to the core.  God filled me with His Spirit and I was renewed and restored.  The best part of it was that later that evening I got to share everything that God gave me with over a hundred youth who needed that same calming, restoring Spirit.  I went to the source and the Shepherd filled me to full and overflowing so that I could share what I had been given.

***  Join me next week for Part II of this post.  God bless!

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