Thursday, January 8, 2009

Psalms 23 redux

Paula - 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 guides me in the paths of righteousness, for His name sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will 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 love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (NIV) “For I know the plans I have for you, “ declares the Lord, “ plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me." Jer. 29: 11-14a Ok, so between loads of laundry I was trying to think of something to write for our newsletter and the 23rd Psalm popped into my head. I heard somewhere that it is one of the best known scriptures in the Bible. I think it was one of the first portions of scripture I memorized as a child, that and the Lord's prayer. I think it's fairly safe to say that there's a lot of people, not just church goers who can rattle it off with barely a thought. I'll admit that I'm one. I do get a little fuzzy toward the end -does the table in the presence of my enemies come before the rod and staff or vice versa? But all the components are there. But this time another thought occurred to me…when was the last time I actually slowed down and paid attention to what was being said. If you noticed, I changed the punctuation some when I typed it out. So I started thinking about it. I'm no great Bible scholar or teacher or whatever, but here are my thoughts. What does, "The Lord is my shepherd mean"? Well, first of all, " Lord" is a title. It took me a long time to realize that "THE LORD" was not a name. A lord is someone who was either born or elevated to a rank of nobility. Someone who commands and deserves respect. People look to a lord to lead them, whether he wants to lead them or not. That's what he does. He really has no choice in the matter; it's a responsibility that goes with the title. And when we add the word "THE" to the front of lord, and capitalize the "L" we're not talking about just any lord. We're talking about THE LORD. He's the one who's above all the other lords. He's the ultimate authority and leader. When he says jump, all the other lords ask how high. This is someone not to be trifled with. Yet it's a more casual title than saying The King or Sovereign (which He is) or emperor or using other titles of nobility; so it also implies a level of personal relationship and regular interaction, even friendship based on love and respect. That's an awesome thought. Then it gets ramped up even further in the second half of the sentence. For such a little word "IS" packs a wallop in this short sentence. "Is" implies a state of "Being" equal to "AM" as in "I AM". So THE LORD who is I AM IS. He's a real live person. He IS. Follow that up with the word "MY". We all learned in Elementary English, that the word "my" is a personal possessive. It means something that we own personally or that we intimately identify with, as in, " that's MY toothbrush" or "this is MY church. " In this case, the word "my" has both meanings. I can claim personal relationship with The Lord, as in He's my friend. But it also means that He has chosen to claim me; as in I belong to him. In times past, a lord would have his personal insignia or device that he would put on his shield, his banner, his tabard that he wore, his livestock, virtually any and every one or thing in his household that wasn’t nailed down and he claimed belonged to him personally. He did this so that others could know at a glance who he was and what or who belonged to him. A lord's reputation for good or evil was established and maintained by his servants, allies and associates. People would flock to a lord and want to be associated with him just on the merit of his reputation or conversely they might attempt to flee from a lord with a bad reputation. So our Lord wants us to be righteous, to bring glory and honor to himself. The ramifications can be missed on us since we don't live in a feudal society, but a lord's reputation and authority went with his insignia. A person had a good idea of what to expect of someone wearing the colors of any given lord. If the lord was noble then his servants and retainers could reasonably be expected to be noble. The same held true for an evil lord, his servants would be evil and vile. The closest we get to an understanding of this is in product labeling. If we've liked a certain company's products in the past then chances are we'll like new products coming from that company in the future or vice versa: if we detested a company's products in the past we'll probably be reluctant to buy anything new from that company. So, THE LORD (not just anybody), IS (I AM), MY( personal) SHEPHERD. What's a shepherd? He's the person who leads and guides the sheep. He makes certain they're fed and taken care of, if they're hurt or sick. He protects them even at the cost of his own life. He trains them to follow him. A shepherd does not lead his sheep from a distance. He is slogging through the mud and crud with them. They rub and push up against him and he pats their heads or kicks their butts whichever is needed. I personally, have had very little experience with sheep beyond feeding a bottle of milk to lambs and watching a lambing or two as a child, but I have been around other livestock and one thing I've noticed; when you work closely with animals, you tend to start smelling like them yourself. That's how close our shepherd is to us. So close that he gets dirty and starts to smell like whatever our lives smell like. Think about it. THE Lord (the big guy) is (the great I AM) my (very personal) Shepherd (the leader who guides and trains me to follow his voice. He gets his hands dirty with my everyday life and has given his life for me.) WOW. Now after that huge five-word statement comes another four-word statement. I shall not want. You can't get any plainer than that. But there's alot said here, too. The word "I" is so simple and yet very complex. That one letter encompasses the whole person, who they are, their hopes, their dreams, their past, their future and very existence. I signifies personal awareness, and being. I think, therefore I am, is one of the classic foundations of Philosophy. I'm not even going to go there. But I is one word that human beings have been spending thousands of years trying to figure out. I don't know about you but whenever I hear "shall not" I get the mental image of Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Don't ask, it's just what pops into my head and it just doesn't seem to carry any weight for some reason. But that is not what “Shall not” is. It is; will not, cannot, won't,. Basically, it's a mind-set. I will not, won't, can not, SHALL NOT, ain't no way, no how, I'm going to do what I shall not. It is a mindset that takes a conscious act of the will to change. It is also a command as in Thou shall not. To do otherwise is to go against God’s law. So what is it that we Shall not? Want. What is want? To desire or have need of something. On one hand there are good things we should want- I want to know the Lord more, I want my kids to grow up to be good christians and healthy and prosperous and the list goes on…I've always read it as the Lord will provide all my needs. Which he will. But I think there is the danger of interpreting it as the Lord will give us everything we desire, often in the area of material goods. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think this is exactly what's being said here. As I said before I'm not a Theologian or scholar who can parse every nuance of the Greek and Hebrew text to death. I'm just offering my thoughts on the subject. Anyway, what I think it's saying here is that we shouldn't worry about our provision. The Lord knows what we need better than we know it ourselves and we should be content with what He provides. We should not envy other people's things and get distracted by what we don't have. We just have to trust our shepherd to take care of us. After all, he leads us beside still waters and makes us to lie down in green pastures. The grass is not always greener in someone else's field. In fact, the grass in another pasture may kill us. Our shepherd knows what's good for us and leads us to those things and keeps us away from harmful things. But people truly are like livestock and if given half a chance they'll hop the fence and founder themselves without giving any heed to the dangers. That's why we are told, "You shall not want." The Lord said in Jerimiah that He knows the plans he has for us; plans for our good and not harm. So why are we always trying to mess with His plans? You'd think that the One who created the universe and knows and sees all things from beginning to end would have a better idea of what we should do than we do. He says, "Trust me. I know what I'm doing." Because He's our shepherd we can call on Him and he will listen. I don't know about you but just knowing that God, the Great I Am, Yahweh, THE LORD will actually listen to me about anything I want to talk to him about , for as long as I want to talk about it, is really just awesome. Especially in today's busy society where people can barely spare a moment or two to exchange pleasantries before running off to do whatever or they make an appointment and pay a therapist to listen if they need to talk in depth about something. Nothing against therapists or anything but why do friends and families have to set up appointments with each other just to make sure they have each other's attention? We don't have to make an appointment with the most important and powerful person in the universe, God. Any time day or night we can call out to Him and He listens. But the other half of truly listening is getting feedback. It's what makes a relationship. So if we expect God to listen to us then doesn't it stand to reason that He might expect us to listen to Him as well? He does expect us to listen. That's the hard part. Sheep don't speak the same language as the Shepherd. The shepherd might be giving all sorts of warnings and instruction to the sheep, but until the sheep learns to listen to the shepherd's voice and to recognize what certain signals mean, it will continue doing whatever it is doing at that moment, even if it's something dangerous. But as we learn to listen and recognize His signals then we will be guided in the paths of righteousness… For His name's sake? What's that supposed to mean? It's for his glory. A shepherd's reputation is only as good as his flock. If the sheep are of poor quality and are sick and weak, then the shepherd isn't very good, and nobody is going to want anything to do with him or his flock. However, if the sheep are fat and healthy and of a high quality people will want his sheep in their flocks and they will try to emulate him and learn from him. It goes back to him being our Lord. Since we are his, he will teach us what he expects of us so that we become more and more an accurate reflection of him. He is trusting us with his reputation. Yikes! That's a big responsibility. To think that God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Alpha and Omega, the…fill in the blank with another title of greatness, is trusting little ol' us with his reputation is mind boggling. But then you do kind have to smile about it too. I mean it just goes to show how truly great He is. He doesn't need us, His reputation and worth is not diminished in the least if we fail Him. But it pleases Him to let us carry His reputation with us. He gets a kick out of us. Not in a bad way, but the same way a parent gets a kick out of their child when the child boasts about his or her parent to other children. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. I'd always read this as being assurance that when it comes time for us to die or if we fall terminally ill or we're in danger that no evil will befall us. In other words, if we're right with the Lord when we die, we'll go to heaven but even better, in the mean time, we'll be delivered unscathed. No worries there, eh. But what if it means something different? There are other shadows in this world. How about the shadow of financial collapse, or the shadow of marital problems, or the shadow of depression. We all have our fears that we can name. Each one, if you think about it, is a type of death; death of security, death of family, death of the spirit, death of something we hold dear. So instead of listing all of the things that can drag us down from the heights and cast a shadow of fear and doubt over us, the Psalmist David just cut to the chase and named it for what it is, the shadow of death. But because our shepherd is with us we can walk through those tough times with confidence and hope. His rod and staff are comforting to us. I don't know about you but if I'm in a dark alley, I 'd feel a lot better knowing that there's a guy with a big stick backing me up. Our Lord and shepherd has two big sticks and He knows how to use them. He carries the rod and staff for our protection. He also uses them to guide (push) us into the paths of righteousness. Often whenever I try to imagine the life of a shepherd, I visualize a peaceful pastoral scene with lambs frolicing in the sunshine, chasing butterflies as the wisp of a shepherd boy sits on a rock playing his flute or harp. Nice. But even though no big deal is made of it in the Bible, David killed a lion and a bear with his slingshot and bare hands while guarding his sheep. He wasn't even a grown man when he did that! If David was a typical specimen of a shepherd, which I have no reason to doubt, then a shepherd was not someone to take lightly, especially when protecting his sheep. That's the kind of person I want beside me, carrying a big stick as we walk through scary times and places. So what kind of idiot sits down to a feast when his enemies are attacking? The kind who has the Lord with him, that's who. Imagine a battlefield, the enemy army is rushing forward, yelling, screaming brandishing their weapons and looking fierce. Now imagine the commander of the army being attacked calling his troops together and with a happy smile, reaches into his tent and starts handing out tables and chairs, linens, fine china and picnic baskets full of all kinds of delicacies, maybe even a few candles for ambiance. Once everything is laid out, the commander then invites his troops to take their ease and enjoy the bountiful feast he has provided. Can you imagine just how confusing and frustrating that would be to the enemy? If nothing else it would be a major insult. It would send the message that they weren't taken seriously enough to be viewed as a threat. And it would also plant seeds of doubt in the enemy's mind about his own strenth.That maybe at the word of the commander of the army being attacked the enemy, himself would be annihilated. It takes a lot of nerve and attitude to do that. Our Lord has all kinds of nerve and attitude and He wants us to be like Him. As if all of this were not enough, our Lord and shepherd anoints our heads with oil. I'm not too sure about oil being dumped on my head, but it's supposed to be a big blessing. I always imagined plain olive oil for this but maybe it's a fragrant oil, like rose or sandalwood or some other sweet smelling oil. I could handle that. It smells good and good smells make me relaxed and happy. I feel the stress and tension of day to day living melting away and remember that the one who anointed my head with this sweet smelling oil, loves me and is concerned for my well-being. But I wouldn't want to waste that good smelling oil on a dirty body, I'd rather it to be poured on me after I've had my shower. Warm oil is used to help soothe tired and aching muscles. It’s healing. I'd be the first in line for that. Oil has other significance. In Leviticus, I've been reading about the various offerings and sacrifices that God commanded Moses and the Israelites to bring. Nearly all of the grain offerings were to be mixed with oil to make them holy. All of the fat of the animals was to be burnt in the offerings "as an aroma pleasing to the Lord." When animal fat is heated and rendered down it makes grease or oil. It is the oil that gives foods their flavor and make it smell and taste good. So following that line of reasoning, the Lord doesn't like the smell of dirty sheep so to make them presentable to himself, He washes them and anoints them with oil. They smell good and are clean, happy and content. They have been made consecrated and holy. I guess that is a big blessing after all. So after feeding His sheep and cleaning them up the Shepherd gives them something to drink. Don't you just love it when you go to a restaurant and they have free re-fills on drinks? I do. I love southern iced tea with any meal, even breakfast. I don't know why the waiters don't just leave the pitcher on the table for me because I will keep them hopping bringing me re-fills. I've heard it said that in times past when a Lord or King invited someone to dine with him he would have their cup filled and when the cup was empty it was time for the guest to leave. But if the king was enjoying the company of the guest and wanted to show that that guest was favored the King would pour the wine himself and keep pouring until the guest's cup would overflow and spill onto the table. It was also a sign of the king's generosity toward the guest; that he so valued the guest's company that he was willing to waste expensive wine on him. Put bluntly, it was an invitation to the guest to be the king's drinking buddy. Ok so that isn't what we usually think of when we hear, “my cup overflows.” Really, not only are we blessed and made presentable to The King of all Kings but He invites us to His table and wants us to spend time with him. He wants us to throw out the formalities and really get to know Him for who He is. Joy is often symbolized by wine. When one is favored in such a manner, one is truly blessed and their cup does overflow with rivers of living water and joy. Not only are we invited to spend the evening visiting, but we are adopted into the family. If we're part of the family then He can lavish His love and goodness on us all the time and we get to live in The House of the Lord forever. Can you imagine what kind of house God lives in? I can't. Even with the descriptions of John and some of the other prophets, I can't picture it. It has to be the most beautiful place in the universe and we get to live there for all time and beyond. Isn’t it so wonderful that we go from being nasty dirty livestock living in the wilderness to holy and blessed favorite sons and daughters of the King, who get to live in the House of the Lord forever? WOW! This is what the Lord says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight." declares the Lord. Jer. 9: 23-24