Breaking It Down With the Shepherd (Part II)

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.

Last week I started breaking down Psalm 23 one piece at a time, and I am continuing with verse 3.  We didn’t get too far last week because I…talk a lot?  Actually, there was the opening and then…I talk a lot.  So let’s get down to business.

“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. He leads me in right paths for His name’s sake.”

I didn’t really understand the idea of God leading me for His name’s sake until I had my first experience of walking in “the valley of the shadow of death.”  In February 2007 my husband and I discovered that our oldest daughter was addicted to cocaine.  In November 2006 we had become aware of a program that helped troubled teens and their families through a family friend whose husband worked for the organization; in our desperation we turned to them for assistance. For the next eighteen months, God continued to be one step ahead of us, leading us to the next resource, counselor, or program we needed just before we discovered our need. We praised God loudly and to anyone who would listen for His guidance during that difficult period.  Literally God led us on the right paths for His name’s sake.

“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.

Walking the path of addiction and recovery with my daughter gave me my first experience of the dark valley we call “the valley of the shadow of death.”  I had never known despair that deep or fear that powerful until then. As my daughter went through treatment I would vacillate between peace and terror on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.  Only God seemed to be able to reel me in and hold me fixed on his path. And I have to be honest with you: I did have fear, every day. I feared the evil of drug addiction and the power it holds over people. I feared that my daughter would never forgive me for putting her in a long term rehab. I feared that my family would be stressed to the point of breaking.  I feared all those things, just not at the same time, and never for long.  I guess that I don’t really believe that we can be fully human and not feel fear.  It isn’t that I don’t love and trust God; it’s that I don’t believe that faith in God and love for God can eliminate fear entirely.  Why would God ever seek to eliminate an emotion that God Himself created?  That would seem to be unwise, since God created fear to tell us when to run away, or when to seek help.  Instead, I think that God’s presence chases away fear; we will still feel fear, just not for long.  We will still know fear, but we won’t get stuck there, unable to think of anything else.  For me, an honest version of this Psalm would say “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear evil only for a moment before I remember you are large and in charge. Of course, my fear will return again later, but as long as You are still large and in charge Lord, I’ll be fine.”

“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.

I need God to grab me occasionally with that staff and yank me back onto the path, to get out that rod and poke me until He has my attention.  God’s leading isn’t always pleasant but it is always the thing I need.  The funny thing is that God doesn’t just keep me in line with his rod and his staff…half of the time God is just trying to get me to pay attention to whatever is in front of me.  I can get so overwhelmed in the details of things, thinking that I am the one that has to make it all work out.  And then God comes along and pokes me three or four times until I look around and see His hand at work in my life; God pokes me until I lift my head up from the problem that has me occupied and I see the good that is surrounding me and the provision He has put in front of me.  It’s hard to be afraid and overwhelmed for long when God is making sure that you see His handiwork.

“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.”

Don’t you wish you didn’t have enemies? It would be great, but that’s not how life works.  We all have more enemies than we like to admit, really: frenemies; enemies within our family; enemies that compete with us at work; enemies that compete with us for work; enemies that oppose us politically and financially; enemies that oppose us so strongly they threaten war; enemies that oppose us so fervently they refuse to wait for war and simply attempt to annihilate us.  God’s work in all this is to richly bless us and provide for us, even while our enemies are watching and wishing evil on us.  It is important to remember, however, that this verse goes both ways. God will provide for us, but God will also provide for our enemies.  We may find ourselves watching as God prepares a table for them as well. It’s not as if God loves us but is going to let our enemy go hungry.  And what about this: what if God wants us to be the instruments of His provision?  If we really love God we may find helping set the table He provides for our enemy. The Lord is our shepherd, but He is also the shepherd of our enemy.  We are all merely sheep: simple, unwise, needing someone to care for us. The Islamic scriptures state that “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” If we want that table to be prepared for us, to be full and overflowing so that we have everything we need, we must also want it to be prepared to overflowing for our enemy.

“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.

Anointing the head was an ancient means of conveying honor, dignity, and respect.  Kings and prophets were anointed to their roles.  We call Jesus the messiah, which means the “Annointed One”.   When the Psalm says that God anoints our head with oil, it declares that God gives us honor, dignity, and respect. We are worthy in God’s eyes, beyond worthy—we are chosen. God has chosen us just as He chose the kings and prophets of the Old Testament: one at a time, with knowledge and forethought as to our exact purpose, and with a deep desire to work with us and for us to create the Kingdom of God.

I was in seminary for three years before I ran into someone who discriminated against women in ministry.  I was stunned: here was this professor—someone I respected, someone who had power over my grades—and he was disrespectful and dismissive of women in class.  No matter how many women raised their hand to speak in class, he wouldn’t call on us.  We were allowed to sit in the class, listen, and learn…but that was all.  It was a horrible situation and I didn’t know what to do about it.  On the way home from class one afternoon I ended up sitting in one of the prayer gardens pouring out my heart to God. I explained the situation and then complained to God that I felt disrespected…and then immediately felt foolish because really, with all the people in the world who were suffering, did I really need to complain to God that someone disrespected me?  God is dealing with genocide in Rwanda and I’m whining about my professor. I felt like an idiot and immediately apologized to God for whining about something so insignificant and undeserving of His attention.

And then I felt God nudging me.  Do I disrespect you?

“No Father, of course not.  You have never disrespected me.”

And then it hit me: if God Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth, did not ever disrespect me, who did this man think he was?  In fact, how dare any of us fail to respect another person, when God, who can do whatever He wants does not ever disrespect the people He created.

“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.

Shepherds cannot afford to leave their sheep.  Sheep like to wander…they tend to go where the food is and then wander all the way to where the food isn’t.  If no one is there to keep them safe, sheep will wander right into trouble.  God is our shepherd and that means we are never alone; God’s watchful eye is always on us.  But what does that have to do with goodness and mercy?

I have wandered, my friends.  I have seriously wandered.  And bringing me back was an act of goodness and mercy that exceeded anything I ever expected.

Right around the time my oldest daughter was born, I had no faith—or maybe I should say I have no interest in having faith.  I knew there was a God, but God and I were estranged. We didn’t talk and if God tried to talk I steadfastly refused to listen.  In my mind, God had pulled a fast and dirty one on me and I was not amused.

I could take a few pages to detail the whole deal but I’ll just sum it up this way: I had suppressed memories of childhood sexual abuse that surfaced while I was pregnant.  I got some therapy and started dealing with the whole mess, but it takes a while to deal with anything that devastating.  Recovery from sexual abuse is not a quick thing, nor is it something that happens all at once.  My biggest problem is that I was angry with God: first I got to suffer through the abuse and its effect of my childhood and then I got to remember the abuse and suffer through all the emotional upheaval and pain it caused.  I couldn’t understand how God could be so cruel as to hide my memory from me all those years (preventing me from getting help when my parents could have and would have intervened) only to dump those same memories on me years later when I was supposed to be enjoying the birth of my first child.  I felt cheated and screwed.  I was furious with God for letting it happen and for making me remember.  I know NOW that my feelings were a bit ridiculous but that anger separated me from God for quite a while.

God, however, was not willing to be dismissed from my life by my anger.  After giving me a year or two to process my anger and get over myself, God began pursuing me.  Don’t get me wrong: God didn’t abandon me for those first two years, He just didn’t go all out trying to get me back.  He gave me my space, so to speak, and then He stopped giving me space, big time!  Every time I turned around someone was talking to me about God.  Every sermon in church seemed to be pointed directly at me.  Songs on the radio took on an unreasonable amount of religious meaning, especially when you consider that I listened to pop radio!  Most fascinating to me were the number of people who spoke identical words to me; people who I knew for certain had never met each other. People who had no reason to speak these words to me except that God was leading them.  The pastor at my church spoke the exact same sentence as my coworker in the IT department: “If you feel like your faith has died, it’s because God wants something else to grow in its place; something better than what you had before.”  It gets creepy when God starts speaking to you from every corner, out of every mouth, through every possible venue.  I swear that if I had been eating PopTarts for breakfast during that period of time, God would popped out of my toaster one morning in place of my PopTart in the hopes of getting my attention.  God’s pursuit of me was that pervasive and that intense.

Obviously, I quit running and allowed God to catch me. There came a point when I just couldn’t resist God’s full court press to get me to come home.  God wasn’t particularly interested in me repenting my anger as much as God was interested in me finally receiving all the comfort and rest that He’d been trying to send me all along.  My anger over the sexual abuse slowly died and I began to see how God was using my memories and the therapy for the abuse and the process of grieving to create new compassion within me.  I found God calling me out of my IT job and into new areas of service to the Kingdom…and here I am, clergy and mental health counselor.

I don’t believe that God causes terrible things to happen so that God can teach us stuff or grow us into stronger Christians.  That seems abusive and sick to me and I cannot imagine a loving God who would do such a terrible thing.  On the other hand, I have come to believe that when life backs up the dump truck of crap and filth and drops its load on your head, knocking you flat…that God looks down in compassion and says “I know what that is! It’s FERTILIZER!”  And then God gets busy, planting a garden in what seems to us to be the evidence that God doesn’t love us at all and that life is meant to destroy us.  Being human, we sit our mound of filth and rage and cry…and who would blame us after what just happened?  But God is at work and so new life starts growing up all around us…new life and beautiful things planted in the midst of the filth and destruction that life heaped onto our heads.  I believe in the God restoration and all things made new, of things done that were meant for evil but were used by God to create blessing (Genesis 50:20).  It took a while before I could sense God’s healing at work, and I will never minimize the pain of my journey, but I am telling you that the Good Shepherd not only brought me back to the flock but brought about amazing things in me and in my life that could never have existed otherwise.  This sheep wandered because she was in terrible pain and God not only set out to find me and bring me home, but He transformed my pain into the very seat of my counseling ministry, the home of my compassion for the abused…and even for their abusers.  If that isn’t goodness and mercy at work, then I don’t know what is!

“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.”

I remember being in seminary and hearing my New Testament professor remind us that we could not possibly have a longer life.  His point was that we are eternal beings, our souls pre-existed our bodies and those same souls will return to the God who created them after the death of our body.  If this is what I believe, then there is never a time when I was outside of God’s loving watchful eye or separated from His presence…and I have always dwelled with Him and always will.  This is a great comfort to me now that I am old enough to have several friends who have already died and several more who are in the process of journeying to their death.  I know that many Christians do not believe that non-Christians will join us in God’s Heaven…and I am not here to argue that point today.  What I want to say is that life has taught me things are not as cut and dried, not as black and white as would like to believe them and that my experience of God tells me that we will all dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long… whether we choose to know or admit that is another thing entirely.  As for me and my house? We will choose to dwell in the house of the Lord!

 

Last week I began this post by talking about being encouraged as a child to memorize passages of Scripture.  I didn’t find much use for it then, and to be honest I still don’t.  I don’t really memorize Scripture as much as I burn it into the walls of my heart.  The passages of Scripture that I can recite from memory are there in my mind because I lean on them to live and breathe and find my way in a difficult world.  I use them to remind me of everything I have learned along the way, and most of those things have been learned the hard way.

Thank you for breaking it down with me.  Sometimes this is the only way I know how to burn the Scriptures into the walls of my heart, and I hope it works for you as well as it works for me.

And now may goodness and mercy follow you…under the pile of filth that life dumps onto you, and into the darkness of the Valley of the Shadow, and into the harsh light of truth you don’t want to hear…may goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life!

Oh heck, may goodness and mercy follow you into the bathroom if that’s what you really need!

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