“The Lord is my shepherd. I have all that I need.” –Psalm 23:1 (NLT)
I once had a neighbor named Art. Art was a shepherd. He spent a good chunk of his day, every day, leading his sheep around his five acres of property across the road from me. On occasion, Art would politely ask if some of his sheep could come to my backyard and feed on some of the wild plants that were in abundance. I was amazed how “artfully” he cared for his sheep.
It seems to me that sheep get a bad rap. I typically hear them referred to as stupid. Having grown up in rural Iowa, I realize there are animals that are not so bright. Sheep aren’t one of them. Cows, however, are. I think when God created cows the raccoons came along and stole some of their brains. There’s a reason sheep possess the reputation of lacking smarts – sheep are prone to being afraid. They get spooked easily. And, when they get skittish and scared, they tend to panic. More than once I’ve seen a flock of sheep run full-steam head-first into a stone wall. If you don’t know much about sheep and come along and see this, they most certainly appear to be downright stupid. Yet, sheep are really, quite intelligent. It’s just when fear overcomes them, they can do some nonsensical things.
The presence of a faithful shepherd makes all the difference. Sheep become familiar with their shepherd and learn to depend on them. There were times that Art had to leave the sheep alone and I would do a sort of babysit with them. Around me the sheep were cautious and had their guard up. The presence of anxiety was clear. When Art showed up, he didn’t have to say a word. I could feel and observe the flock collectively relaxing.
God is the ultimate shepherd of the sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. When we sense the presence of God’s Spirit, there is faith, trust, and confidence which brings to us a settled conviction of calm and comfort. When that sense is not there, we do things like buy two pallets of toilet paper and try to bring it home in a compact car. It’s non-sense.
Psalm 23 is a beloved portion of Scripture for a reason; it helps us as sheep to settle down and trust, even in the middle of uncertainty and anxiety. God’s presence + God’s provision + God’s protection = God’s providential care.
God’s presence is constant, not sporadic; his provision is enough, not stingy; and, his protection is total, not partial.
Experiencing that God is present, that he watches over us and gives generously to us is the balm we need. It melts our fear in the face of pandemics and poverty; helps us relax in a deteriorating economic climate; and, inoculates us from believing the sky is falling. Our courage and confidence cannot be ginned-up through sheer willpower; it comes as we get to know the great shepherd of the sheep standing there watching over us.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” God is personal, not generic. God is the great “I AM,” the God who is. The Lord is my shepherd, not was, or will be – is. God is not just somebody else’s God and shepherd, but my shepherd. Shepherd is an apt term because a shepherd cares for the sheep – watches over them, is present with them, protects them, and provides whatever they need to both survive and thrive.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” God benevolently leads us; and, does not act outside of his character and attributes. If we believe this about the great “I AM,” then worry and anxiety begins to diminish. Too many of us suffer from the heebie-jeebies because we don’t see the shepherd standing in the field watching over us. The answer to our worry is not to keep telling ourselves to stop being anxious. With God on the job as shepherd I shall not be in want: period. We are presently in troubled times. Fear can grab hold and prevent us from living with settled and reasonable intention with a plan toward the future. Every day we see folks running headlong into a stone wall. It’s okay to be afraid; it is not okay to let fear rule our lives. The solution is to speak, despite your fear; to act, despite your worry; to live, knowing God has your back.
This present situation of many people spending time at home and away from others is a kind of forced monastic life. It is an opportunity to let our souls be restored. In this season of Lent, people in the Christian tradition focus on the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, fasting, prayer, and spiritual reading. The world is getting the chance to discover the spirituality that has always been within them. Perhaps, by the grace of a good God, there will be a great personal and systemic spiritual healing within the lives of millions – as our normal routines are upended and changed.
God Is Present
Within much of Hebrew poetry, the focus of the writing is found smack in the middle. Everything before it builds toward it; everything after it point back. And what is in the middle of Psalm 23 is that God is with us. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even though it may seem that everything is bleak and that all things are against me – God is with me, which is why I do not succumb to fear. We walk through the valley, not around it. That is, God is with us right smack in the middle of our trouble. God does not cause us to avoid unpleasant circumstances. Instead, God promises to be with us through them. The way to deliverance is to confront our fears and walk with God, rather than expecting God to take away everything unpleasant that we don’t like.
“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” My neighbor Art had a shepherd’s crook. He mostly used it as a walking stick. Yet, I did see times when he fended-off predators seeking to get to the sheep. More often, Art used his shepherd’s crook as a way of guiding the sheep where they could feed and be protected. The discovery of God’s guidance comes from movement and creativity. We experience the leading we want through embracing the uncomfortable in the confidence that God provides and protects through the trouble, and not apart from it.
“You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” Even with the enemy of disease, death, and disorder surrounding us, God’s presence is such that his protection and provision are providentially working to create blessing in the middle of trouble. Whereas fear and panic believe in a culture of scarcity, a culture of abundance discerns that there is plenty for all and will thus work toward equitable distribution and fostering an egalitarian spirit.
“You anoint my head with oil.” This is an act of refreshment, and of encouragement. It is necessary for me to be at least somewhat out and about these days because of what I do. I have witnessed many instances of basic human kindness and thoughtfulness – deeds done with the other in mind.
“My cup overflows.” This is the reality that the blessings are abundant – even within troubled times. God’s provision is right here, amidst the worst of circumstances. We don’t have to pick a fight with someone in the Costco parking lot who has what I want to get the things we need.
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” It is easy to believe that God’s goodness and love will follow me when my health is good, my income is solid, and I have plenty of friends around me. It is another thing to have an awareness of that goodness in dark days. Yet, God’s love and goodness hasn’t sequestered itself. God providentially uses each life situation and bends it to redemptive purposes.
Experiencing God’s presence, provision, and protection brings contentment and confidence. The radical nature of Psalm 23 is that peace is realized while chaos and uncertainty is all around us. Establishing spiritual practices that reinforce our sense of security can aid us through difficulty and hardship. With the settled conviction that God indeed has our backs and stands as the divine sentinel watching over the beloved sheep, we find the ability to relax and trust that all is well with my soul.
Lord, help me to relax.
Take from me the tension
that makes peace impossible.
Take from me the fears
that do not allow me to venture.
Take from me the worries
that blind my sight.
Take from me the distress
that hides your joy.
Help me to know
that I am with you,
that I am in your care,
that I am in your love,
that you and I are one,
Through the mighty name of Jesus,
In the power of the Holy Spirit.