Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Just What We Need

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

In the Valley of Elah a forty day stalemate remained unbroken. On one hill the army of Israel had taken position and lined up for battle. On the opposite hill the army of the Philistines was in battle formation. Between them lay the valley floor, a wide empty space (1 Sam. 17:1-3).

It is often the distant threats that disturb us most. The threat that ambushes us and confronts us with imminent harm calls for immediate action. We must either fight or flee, but inaction is not an option. But the enemy we see from afar, the danger that awaits us, the confrontation that loiters in our future – that’s what keeps us up at night. Those wide open spaces are gaps to which our fears run. Such was the Valley of Elah for the army of Israel.

The fears of Israel were stoked morning and evening by the presence of a Philistine giant. Goliath came out every day and went through the same routine. With the rising sun, Goliath’s taunts filled the valley space. And as the sun sank low and threw shadows across the valley floor, he repeated his vulgar mocking of Israel and Israel’s God. “On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified” (1 Sam. 17:11).

One day Jesse sent David to the battle lines to deliver bread and cheese to his enlisted brothers. As he fulfilled the errand his father had assigned him, David heard Goliath’s taunts and the challenge he proposed: “Choose a man and have him come down to me.” To David’s amazement, no one moved. No one stepped up. The God of Israel was being mocked and the army of Israel dismissed, and nothing was being done about it. So David raised his hand before King Saul. “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him” (1 Sam. 17:32).

Saul objected. David persisted. David won. And in an effort to help David, Saul gave him his armor and sword and placed his helmet upon David’s head. It was a kind gesture, a nice thought, but totally useless as far as David was concerned. David could barely walk around under the weight of the armor. Thanks but no thanks. David returned the armor and the helmet and the sword. He took instead his shepherd’s staff and his slingshot. At a nearby stream he found five smooth stones. And then he made his way toward Goliath (1 Sam. 17:38-40).

David went to the fight knowing that he had just what he needed. He did not want. He did not anxiously try to stockpile another weapon or shield himself with someone else’s armor. David had exactly what he needed. He knew exactly who he was. And more importantly he knew who God was – and that was enough.

The words “I shall not want” will not be spoken truthfully by the anxious and fearful. They are words of deep confidence and they reflect a profound courage. In our fears we are constantly wanting, never sure that we have what we need, never at peace with the sufficiency of grace.

“I shall not want” is first of all an expression of confidence in God. That was truly at the core of David’s life and it shaped his approach to the defining battle of his early career. David knew that God was able to deliver him. He had learned it in other smaller battles: battles with enemies that threatened his flock. David the shepherd had fought for his sheep. He knew that God would do the same for him and his people Israel.

From this confidence in God flows our sense of satisfaction with this day. It is a satisfaction born of God’s abundance. Because God is sufficient, we know that we have what we need for whatever we face at any given time. Just as the stones and the sling were adequate for David, you too have what you need to walk boldly to the fight.

The kind of satisfaction that does not “want” shows itself in a deeply grounded and confident life. You can live that way today. Stop trying to walk around in borrowed armor, securing your own life with someone else’s plans for you. You have what you need by God’s grace, and God is sufficient for the day.

You, O Lord, are our shepherd, and we have just what we need. We give you thanks for your faithfulness and for your sufficiency in all things. Grant us grace to live confidently today, firmly grounded in your power to deliver us and sustain us in whatever this day may bring. W will be satisfied, knowing that you are able, knowing that you are good. Amen.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Satisfied, not Settling

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

A segment on Monday morning’s Today Show featured an interview with Robert Pattinson, one of the stars of the insanely popular Twilight movie series based on Stephanie Meyers’ equally popular novels. The interviewer asked Pattinson if he ever thought about settling down and getting married – a question that undoubtedly burdens the mind of the American public.

Pattinson’s response was interesting. He answered by saying that he hoped that getting married wouldn’t necessarily mean settling down. Fortunately, he was able to acknowledge that marriage and monogamy inevitably involve a kind of “settling” – but the general drift of his answer suggested that “settling down” was somehow negative, something to be avoided, a kind of lifelessness.

As one for whom “settling down” has been a great way to do life, I was initially bothered by his answer – but not surprised. It reflects a certain kind of mindset that equates settling down with settling, and it’s the settling that frightens those who are drawn to zeal and the pursuit of excellence.

We hear the same kind of thing in business, particularly with a phrase like “good to great.” Good is the enemy of great. Good lulls us to sleep, allows us to settle. Why be good when you can be great? Americans love this kind of relentless quest for the next level. We admire it because it is in fact admirable. No one consciously aspires to “settle.”

But when we try to describe a life that rests in the shepherding love of God, we end up fumbling around for a positive description of what that life looks like. When we say “I shall not want,” what does that mean? Words like “satisfied” or “contentment” don’t stir our ambitions.

Various bible translations and paraphrases have attempted to bring out the meaning of the phrase: Eugene Peterson’s The Message says “Yahweh, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” The Jerusalem Bible says “I lack nothing.” The Living Bible says “I have everything I need.”

Translations help with the meaning of the phrase – but the question remains: What does a satisfied life look like and why should we regard such a life as a good life, and even a great life? Can we be satisfied without settling?

For the rest of this week we’ll look at three Old Testament texts, one from the life of David and two from the prophets, to explore some answers to that question. What we’ll discover is that a life that sis satisfied with God’s shepherding love is (a) firmly grounded (b) rightly ordered and (c) relentlessly hopeful. Such a life can hardly be described as “settled for.”

As for this day, don’t hesitate for one moment to pursue satisfaction. You’re not settling. You won’t miss a thing. The Psalmist prayed “satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). To be satisfied with God means to live with joy and gladness, not regret and sadness.

Maybe you’re reading this in the morning. Let Psalm 90:14 be your prayer today. Ask God to satisfy you with his love. Go into this day knowing that God’s unfailing love is sufficient for all you will face, for every demand that will claim your time and energy. Don’t move from your chair dreading what awaits you. Don’t lug around the baggage from yesterday. Be satisfied in this moment with God’s shepherding love – and enter the day gladly.

Satisfied isn’t settling.

Satisfy us in the morning, O God, with your unfailing love. Give us what we need right now to live every moment of his day with joy and gladness. We will not live in want, constantly looking over our shoulders for what we’ve missed. Grant the grace of contentment that shows itself in joy – just the way Jesus lived. We ask this in his name. Amen.

Monday, June 14, 2010

That Nagging Lack

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1).

At some point, as a young child, my mind messed up the syntax and meaning of the phrase that will hold our attention this week: “I shall not want.” Somehow I connected the idea of “not wanting” with the “the Lord” so that what the Psalm really said was “I shall not want the Lord to be my shepherd.” That didn’t make sense.

The main action word of the sentence, the act of wanting, seems to hang there at the end of the sentence with no point of reference. It is an aimless and vague wanting. Now, a good bit older, I think I get it. Not just the way the words work in the sentence and what the sentence means – but the way our wants can dictate so much about how we live. Wants have a way of hanging there aimlessly, vague in their direction and focus. We want but we don’t know what we want.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And yet we do. We seem to want all the time, even when we don’t know what.

As we step deeper into Psalm 23 this week we will want to tread carefully. We’re walking the terrain of our desires and the ground is treacherous – not because our desires are bad, but because desire can be a very good thing, a positive motivator of our actions and decisions.

Some of our wants are born on the broad daylight of hope. Desire takes the form of a dream in the mind and soul.

This is the kind of wanting that moves a person to seek counseling because there’s a desire for wholeness and healing in some area of life. This kind of wanting empowers a person to change careers because they deeply desire to do something with their life that makes a difference in someone else’s life. This is the kind of wanting that makes young people decide to get married and gets a young father to work every morning because he’s determined to get to of debt.

Almost everything of worth that we pursue in this life is born of desire. The desire shapes a dream. We see ourselves and our world differently than it is right now and we want what we see. These desires answer God’s beckoning, an invitation to become who God created us to be. This is desire bent heaven-ward, and it is good.

But some of our wants are born in the darkness of fear. This wanting does not live within us as a dream. Rather, we carry it as a kind weight. It is a nagging sense of lack. This kind of want is the discomfort of an empty place and we are certain we can fill it ourselves. This is the “want” of Psalm 23. It is a craving that pulls us away from the shepherd in an attempt to secure our own well being.

I don’t need to rehearse the ways this wanting shows itself in our living. We’re all acquainted with it. Whether it’s the acquisition of things or money or the attainment of a new position in the company or a word of praise and affirmation for something you did. Psalm 23 is telling us that we need not live our days driven by that nagging lack. We don’t have to keep looking for the next thing that will fix us or make things right.

The Rolling Stones sang with an almost angry passion, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Not a bad song, except for one thing. It’s not true. For those who have a shepherd in Jesus, there is satisfaction. Not a lazy and complacent kind of satisfaction, but a deep trust in the God who shepherds us.

So what do you want today? Think about it. What’s ahead of you, pulling you into the day? What’s behind you, pushing toward your life? Are your wants heaven-bent dreams, or is there a nagging lack – and can you tell the difference?

Plant within us, O God, desires that become dreams and move us toward your will for us. And in those places of fear, the nagging lack where we try to secure our own well being, teach us to trust you as our shepherd. Grant to us today the satisfaction of being loved by one who wills our good and is sufficient for all that we need. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Say So . . . With Assurance

The Lord is my shepherd . . . (Psalm 23:1)

There are 150 poem-songs in the book of Psalms. The Hebrew title of the book is literally “Praises.” Somehow the Hebrew morphs to Latin and finally to the English “Psalms.”

That these songs are called “praises” is interesting since many of the Psalms hardly sound praise-like. The Psalmists argue with God, question God and sometimes come quite close to accusing God. But somehow even these anguished utterances are praise when the one who speaks is determined to move toward God in all things. God is praised in shouts of hallelujah as well as in cries of lament.

Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, 73 of them are designated with a prescript that connects the Psalm with the life of David. The prescripts were added as the Psalms found their place in the worship of Israel. Liturgical notes are characteristic of the Psalms, indicative of the fact that we’re reading a hymn book.

The prescripts that connect 73 Psalms with David sometimes provide a very detailed context for the words of the Psalm: “Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech” (Ps. 34). At other times we get a very simple line: “A Psalm of David.” Such is the case with Psalm 23. The meaning of this isn’t entirely clear. It might mean a Psalm by David. It might mean the Psalm is about David or was composed for or to David.

Of the 73 Psalms connected with David we can most easily believe that the much loved 23rd Psalm came from David’s own hand. In the mid 1850s the London preacher Charles Spurgeon said that the opening line had a sense of melody in it because it came from David’s heart. “David spake of what he had verified all his life long.” Spurgeon was probably right – but one has to wonder exactly how David came to know this.

And more to the point, how do we come to know the same thing? How do we come to affirm with conviction that “The Lord is my shepherd?”

The most commonly proposed answer to that question is that David himself was a shepherd. He knew what it meant to tend a flock and lead them to water and guide them with rod and staff. No doubt, the days of tending flocks shaped David as both a leader and a poet. But perhaps there’s something more, something deeper that speaks to our own lives and allows us to say exactly what David said with the same deep assurance.

Many years after his days in the fields, not long after he had been anointed as Israel’s king by Samuel, David secured the throne and consolidated power over the unruly twelve tribes. Saul, his benefactor turned nemesis, was dead. David was settled in his palace and at peace from all his enemies. Savoring the sweetness of success and power, David planned to construct a dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant. The prophet Nathan blessed the plan. “Do whatever seems right to you. The Lord is with you.”

But no sooner had the plan been announced than God spoke to the prophet and told him that David needed to scrub those plans. God wanted to make it clear that he had never needed or asked for a house. Rather than David undertaking to provide for God, God wanted David to understand that God was the one who provided for David. David’s entire life was a story of God’s provision, a story of sovereign grace. From days in the fields to the position of power in the palace – all of it was God’s doing (2 Samuel 7:1-12).

And thus we all know that “the Lord is my shepherd.” The life of each and every one of us has never been a story of our own accomplishment. We are not self-made. We take no credit for the successes and we do not shoulder the failures alone. God is actively guiding, providing, comforting in all of it. The Lord is indeed our shepherd.

After the prophet spoke this message to David, David prayed. “Who am I, O sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” (2 Sam. 7:18). Good question. How far has God’s sovereign grace brought you? And do you truly know that the Lord is your shepherd?

Gracious God, we would say with confidence that you are our shepherd. We don’t want to simply repeat familiar words. Give us eyes to see your sovereign grace in our lives, your providential care that has guided our steps when we least sensed your presence. You have brought us this far, and we give you thanks in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Needed: A Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd . . . (Psalm 23:1).

First, I’m defensive and a little bit angry. Then I feel foolish, as if I should have seen what someone else has so deftly pointed out. And then finally I step back and take an honest look at my own opinion and make an effort to evaluate the contrasting opinion based on its merits.

That’s what I hope I’m doing now – honestly evaluating, thinking things through. Since reading a nationally known pastor’s outright dismissal of the “shepherd” as a model for what pastors do, I’ve had to negotiate the angry, foolish, thoughtful cycle of idea grief. I’m still not sure I’m where I need to be with the whole thing.

The words that troubled me are in print, so I’m able to review them and listen to them over and over again, trying to make sure I’m hearing what was really said. This highly regarded teacher is someone who I greatly respect. I listen to his podcast. So when he said in an interview that the word “shepherd” was irrelevant, he got my attention. Here’s the quote, admittedly removed from context:

“That word [shepherd] needs to go away. Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to . . . I’ve never seen a flock. I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus but it’s not culturally relevant anymore.” (Leadership Journal, May 28, 2007).

I get that. I claim little to no experience with shepherds or flocks of livestock of any kind. In my first church in Oklahoma I knew that several of my members owned cows, but I never actually had interaction with their cattle. On my recent trip to the Holy Land – an ideal place for getting first-hand knowledge of biblical images and metaphors – the shepherds I saw were off at a distance. I do have a good picture from one of my fellow pilgrims of a shepherd with whom we had some up-close contact, but the picture is all I have of that experience.

Shepherds are not easily found in metro-Atlanta. But while I acknowledge the truth of what this fellow-pastor says, I just can’t reach his conclusion.

For one thing, his position elevates personal experience to an unworthy height while it sells people short. Meaningful knowledge cannot be tethered to what I myself have seen and done. It is entirely possible affirm as “true” something that is alien to my own life experience. My own story can never be an adequate measure of what is worthy and helpful. And it is also possible that intelligent people are capable of comprehending the meaning of a metaphor that is foreign to their own time and culture.

Jesus didn’t use the word “shepherd” because there was one in a field that he could see and point to. Jesus used “shepherd” because he had read Isaiah and the Psalms. The concept came to him from Israel’s history, not a Judean hillside.

But beyond that there is this practical matter. If you jettison the biblical image of a “shepherd” what will you replace it with? Is there anything that we can see and identify that offers a suitable and adequate substitute the Biblical image? What speaks most powerfully to the deepest needs of our life?

The Lord is . . . my adviser? We need far more than advice. The Lord is . . . my boss? That hardly stirs our affections. The Lord is . . . my CEO? These days that stirs nothing but disdain and distrust. The Lord is my . . . coach? That might get at what we need. Personal coaching is big these days. The Lord is my . . . counselor? Maybe – but good counselors pay close attention to boundaries. The shepherd risks his life for the sheep. Counselor is close, but not quite there.

Maybe what we need is exactly what Psalm 23 says. We need a shepherd.

How do you see it? Why does it matter that Jesus is a “good shepherd?” Could he meet you in the details of your life as something else?

Lord Jesus, you called yourself a good shepherd. While the image is strange to us, we know you in what you do with us – the way you guide us and seek us out when lost and lead us to what will sustain us and give us life. We will not fight over words. We only seek to follow you as you do your work among us by your Holy Spirit. Do that work today, we pray. Amen.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Learning to Mean What We Pray

“The Lord is my shepherd . . .” (Psalm 23:1).

I had no idea what I was in for. I can’t recall now if I had purchased popcorn and a big Coke. If I had it seems to me I wasted my money. You can’t watch the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan and snack on popcorn. There’s just something wrong, almost irreverent about it.

Yesterday, June 6th, 2010, was the 66th anniversary of the allied forces invasion of the beaches of Normandy, known since that time as D-Day. I’ve never been to Normandy, but I’d like to go someday. For now, as lame as it sounds, my knowledge of D-Day has come entirely from books and documentaries. The most intense experience came from a movie. I sat in a cushioned chair and watched a recreation of the event on a screen.

Maybe that’s what D-Day made possible. A kid born in 1962 would sit a comfy dark theater in 1998 watching a movie about the hell some other kids walked into in 1944. And were it not for the bravery and the sacrifice and horror of what happened in 1944, the 1998 popcorn and movie experience might not have ever happened.

I only saw the movie once, and it’s been awhile. Snapshots of the gruesome opening scene have stayed with me: Crowded amphibious assault vessels approaching Omaha Beach, ocean spray raining down on solemn faces, the absence of frivolity, the presence of courage and fear. Just enough courage to do what the day demanded. Just enough fear to appreciate the gravity of what was being done.

I haven’t researched this and I can’t prove it, but I have to believe that on those boats there was someone, perhaps many, maybe hundreds, who knew and prayed the 23rd Psalm. As the fog parted to reveal a distant shore, as the beaches came closer, as doors dropped and bullets ripped the damp air, surely someone had repeated again and again, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

On June 6, 1944 the valley of the shadow of death took more substance than a mere shadow. Many of the men who walked into that valley didn’t walk out of it. And this begs the question: what does it mean to say “the Lord is my shepherd?” If even one person prayed those words and believed them only to die moments later on the beach, how are we to understand the shepherding presence of God in our lives? What does it look like? What does it mean for us to say “the Lord is my shepherd?” How do we say it and mean it?

In the weeks ahead we’ll be taking a leisurely look at the shepherding work of God by walking through each line of the 23rd Psalm. In his commentary on the Psalms, Old Testament scholar James L. Mays maintains that the entire 23rd Psalm is an exposition of the very first line – “the Lord is my shepherd.” Our reflections in the weeks ahead will seek to give shape and texture to how God shepherds your life.

Most of us who undertake to pray the words of the 23rd Psalm will never face anything like the horror of D-Day. Rather, we seek to affirm the shepherding presence of God in far more ordinary circumstances of life. We claim God as our shepherd as we make career decisions and navigate morning traffic. We claim God as our shepherd as we exercise parental wisdom and prepare a budget. We claim God as our shepherd when we plan vacations and then travel to enjoy what we’ve planned.

In every aspect of life, God is indeed a shepherd to us. The death on Normandy’s beaches did not negate the shepherding love of God for us. The loss of a job and the bad results of a biopsy do not render the shepherding presence of God null and void. The tensions in your marriage and the fluctuations of the market do not make the familiar words meaningless.

“The Lord is my shepherd.”

In the coming weeks we will seek to pray these words and learn what they mean. And along the way, by God’s grace, we may also learn to mean what we pray.

We give you thanks, O God, for your shepherding presence in our lives. Throughout this day meet us in ordinary events and routines and teach us what it means to live in the confidence of your shepherding love. We claim it boldly now in the name of Jesus, the good shepherd. Amen.