Friday, July 16, 2010

A Stark Satisfaction

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

To say or to pray the first line of Psalm 23 is fairly easy for those whose basic needs are met. While true poverty does exist in this country, “I shall not want” isn’t a stretch for most of us.

Our closets hold more clothes and shoes than we can wear; our kitchens are stocked with everything from prime rib to peanut butter; our homes are comfortable and some of us even manage to secure a second home for the weekends that’s every bit as comfortable as one we live during the week.

To be sure, we have our fantasies. Some call them dreams. I may enjoy thinking about a mountain house but I don’t “want” for one. You may see a car or a miter saw that you’d like to have, but you don’t feel deprivation in not having it. Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we shall not want. When we turn the lights out at night we do so knowing that we have what we need.

So here’s the question that leaves me uneasy: what if all of that were gone? Not merely reduced or downsized. Gone. Would we still pray the 23rd Psalm? Could we take the words “I shall not want” to our lips and speak them from the heart. The question confronts me when I eavesdrop on the prayer of another obscure prophet by the name of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk – little known and not often read. The book in our Bibles that bears his name is made up of three chapters. You can read it easily in one sitting (go ahead and do it now and find out for yourself). His name is thought to mean something like “house plant.” Not too impressive – but what a powerful messenger of God this man was.

Again, some background and context.

Habakkuk spoke for God at a time that preceded the drama we read about yesterday. His words were spoken to the people of Judah before the Babylonians showed up and made a mess of the nation and the temple in Jerusalem.

What seems to have been difficult for this prophet and for the people to whom he spoke was the fact that he saw what was coming. God gave Habakkuk a preview of where history was headed. Habakkuk lived in a time when the people of God were totally disinterested in God and defiant of God’s laws – his way for life. Habakkuk complained to God and questioned how long this miserable state of affairs would last. God’s answer was not encouraging. Things would get much worse before they got better.

To the prophet’s astonishment God was actively raising up the Babylonians. The exile of 587 B.C. was not history gone awry. It was the redemptive and purposeful work of God. A bitter pill, but good medicine. Once God lets Habakkuk in on how the story will unfold, the prophet prays – and he ends his prayer with these amazing words:

Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vine,
Though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
Though there are no sheep in the pen, and no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my savior (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Essentially Habakkuk is saying “I shall not want.” And his prayer is all the more noteworthy because he prays those words from stark barrenness. When a person who has things prays “I shall not want” the words sound nice. But when a person who is truly destitute prays “I shall not want” it is staggering. Is such a prayer really possible?

Such a prayer, as strange as it sounds, is possible for us. It is possible because it is grounded in God. The opening phrases of Psalm 23 are integrally connected. We shall not want because God is our shepherd. The not wanting is not the result of already having. Not wanting is the consequence of God’s shepherding love.

And an element of not wanting, of a satisfied and contented life, is joy. Like Habakkuk, we will be joyful in God – when the market is down, when unemployment figures rise, when bills begin to overwhelm, when no one seems to be able to stop the oil gushing from the floor of the gulf, even then.

We have a good shepherd. We shall not want. Thanks be to God.

This is the day that you have made, O Lord. We will rejoice and be glad in it. In all that it brings, in all that we experience, grant that we might be a joyful people. We would look to you as our joy and satisfaction – not the food in the kitchen or the clothes in the closet. With the prophet we pray the words "even though . . .” By your grace, we shall not want. Amen.