Psalm 23 – I Have Everything I Need

Psalm 23 by John August Swanson, 2010

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have everything I need.
He lets me rest in fields of green grass
    and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water.
He gives me new strength.
He guides me in the right paths,
    as he has promised.
Even if I go through the deepest darkness,
    I will not be afraid, Lord,
    for you are with me.
Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me.

You prepare a banquet for me,
    where all my enemies can see me;
you welcome me as an honored guest
    and fill my cup to the brim.
I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life;
    and your house will be my home as long as I live. (Good News Translation)

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.

Sheep get a bad rap, in my opinion. I have often heard others refer to them as stupid. Having grown up on a farm, 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 – they are prone to being afraid. Sheep get spooked and upset easily. And, when they are skittish and scared, sheep 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.

Jesus the Good Shepherd by Solomon Raj

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. But when Art showed up, he didn’t have to say a word. I could feel and observe the flock collectively relaxing.

God Pastors

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. This, then, brings a settled conviction of calm and comfort. Whenever that sense is absent, 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 Holy 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.

To know and feel God’s presence watching over us and giving generously to us is the very balm we need. It melts our fear in the face of adversity and opposition; it helps us relax in tough economic times; and it 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 with compassionate and competent care.

God Provides

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. 

The Lord is My Shepherd by David Hinds

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.

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; I have everything I need. 

Troubled times will always be with us, this side of heaven. Fear can grab hold and prevent us from living with settled intentions and reasonable plans 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.

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 points back. Smack 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. God does not cause us to avoid difficult 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.

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 aren’t going to experience the leading we want apart from embracing the uncomfortable in the confidence that God provides and protects through the trouble, and not apart from it.

Coptic Church icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

God Protects

Even with enemies 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.

God refreshes, encourages, and restores. There are abundant blessings – 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.

It’s 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.

Experientially knowing God brings contentment and confidence. The radical nature of Psalm 23 is that peace is realized while chaos and uncertainty is all around. Establishing spiritual practices that reinforce our sense of security can aid us through difficulty and hardship.

With a 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. 

Amen.

Psalm 31:9-16 – Lord, Have Mercy

Christ in Gethsemane by Michael O’Brien

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress.
    Tears blur my eyes.
    My body and soul are withering away.
I am dying from grief;
    my years are shortened by sadness.
Sin has drained my strength;
    I am wasting away from within.
I am scorned by all my enemies
    and despised by my neighbors—
    even my friends are afraid to come near me.
When they see me on the street,
    they run the other way.
I am ignored as if I were dead,
    as if I were a broken pot.
I have heard the many rumors about me,
    and I am surrounded by terror.
My enemies conspire against me,
    plotting to take my life.

But I am trusting you, O Lord,
    saying, “You are my God!”
My future is in your hands.
    Rescue me from those who hunt me down relentlessly.
Let your favor shine on your servant.
    In your unfailing love, rescue me. (New Living Translation)

One of my parishioners from years ago had seen hard combat in Italy during World War II. He saw his best friend killed, right next to him. I still remember his story and what he said in conclusion to it, in his own sage way: “In my experience, war is a very poor way of dealing with problems.”

And yet, we sometimes find ourselves embedded in circumstances we neither wanted nor asked for. Just ask the Ukrainians. No one puts their name on a sign-up sheet for suffering. Yet not a one of us can avoid it. 

Pain comes in all kinds of forms. Maybe the worst kind of suffering is the wound inflicted from others looking down at you when you’re already experiencing trouble and damaged emotions. 

Whether it is an ethnic or racial group of people facing ridicule, anger, and even beatings or death; or whether it is refugees trying to survive the ravages of war, the physical effects of pain can oftentimes be secondary to the primary hurt experienced within the spirit. 

“Suffering is part of the human condition, and it comes to us all. The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to Him in trust and confidence.”

Billy Graham

The Old Testament character, David, knew first-hand about suffering through hard circumstances. There were times when he felt completely overwhelmed by the evil machinations of people trying to take his life. If we could put ourselves in David’s sandals, we can understand why he was worn-out to the point of not sleeping, not eating well, even with a hint of paranoia. 

David responded to his seemingly impossible situation by entrusting himself to God. He truly believed he was in the Lord’s hands – and that fact was David’s go-to truth. 

Crossing over into the New Testament Gospels, Jesus uttered his last words on the cruel cross from this today’s psalm: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). 

The cross was an obvious place of extreme bodily pain. That wretched pain, however, was dwarfed by the great spiritual pain of holding the entire world’s hurts and their curse of separation. The stress of both body and soul must have been crushing for Jesus. 

Yet, there was a strength of assurance, for Jesus, in the eye of that pain – the confidence of knowing he was in good hands, just like David’s confidence a millennium before.

There are times in life when we all struggle with why particular afflictions happen to us, in whatever form they might take in us. 

It is in the situation of being forgotten by others that we are most remembered by God.

It is within the crucible of trouble that God is the expert in deliverance.

It is when others revile us, say terrible things about us, and talk behind our backs that God comes alongside and whispers words of grace and steadfast love to us. 

It is whenever life is downright hard that we see a soft-hearted God standing to help us and hold us. 

While we are feeling our awful suffering, God is carefully crafting within us resilience through the rejection, empathy in our loneliness, purpose because of the trauma, forgiveness out of the shame, courage from having been failed, and self-awareness in the wake of emotional devastation. 

The biblical psalms are the consummate place to go when we are most in need. They provide the means to lift heartfelt prayers whenever our own words fail us. 

The psalms give us structure and meaning when the world around us makes no sense. 

The psalms do not always give us answers to our most vexing questions; they do, however, point us to the God who is attentive to the least, the lost, and the lonely.

Together, as people sharing the human condition of suffering, we cry out, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on us and grant us your peace. Amen.” 

Psalm 20 – May the Lord Grant All Your Requests

Psalm 20:4-5, Common English Bible

May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
    may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
    and grant you support from Zion.
May he remember all your sacrifices
    and accept your burnt offerings.
May he give you the desire of your heart
    and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
    and lift up our banners in the name of our God.

May the Lord grant all your requests.

Now this I know:
    The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
    with the victorious power of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
    but we rise up and stand firm.
Lord, give victory to the king!
    Answer us when we call!
(New International Version)

There are times when a present situation seems nonsensical. It’s just downright confounding. There’s a disconnect between the contemporary present moment and the ancient biblical past. How do we pull ancient Scripture and the wisdom of the past into the here and now?

We look to the psalms and pray them, out loud, multiple times, every day.

In the crucible of life’s challenges and the struggles of daily living, we might too quickly neglect the grace, relevance, and truth of God’s Word to us. 

The psalms are both prayer and worship directed to God. Many of those prayers are for oneself. Others, like today’s psalm, are intercessions for others.

It is my sincere and ardent desire that you will experience a good life, even when that life has a bevy of challenges, stresses, and difficulties baked into it. And so:

May the Lord answer you in the stress of your life.

May the name of the ever-living, ever-present God protect you.

May the Lord send you help from the holy habitation, and give you support from heaven itself!

May God almighty remember all the ways you have given and served.

May the Lord be pleased with everything you have sacrificed on behalf of divine purposes and plans.

May God grant your heart’s deep longing and carry out every good plan you conceive.

May we together shout for joy when you overcome incredible pressure, and in the name of God throw a big ol’ party because of answered prayer!

May the Lord bring to fruition every one of your prayers.

I have supreme confidence that God’s people shall be delivered from trouble. The Lord will answer from heaven with the full force of saving power. Some put their ultimate trust in military might. Others place faith in financial security. But the people of God trust in the name of the Lord our God.

We may collapse and fall. There might be obstacles galore. Stress and pressure may be our constant companions. No matter. We get up and stand again with confidence. The Lord will save us. God will answer when we call.

For the Christian, all of God’s good promises are realized in Jesus. Ultimate help and deliverance come from Christ. Even more, Jesus came to give victory to all people everywhere….

Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 15:57-58, CEB)

Everyone who has been born from God has won the victory over the world. Our faith is what wins the victory over the world. Who wins the victory over the world? Isn’t it the person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:4-5, GW)

The Lord wants to grant our requests. God is on our side. There is help from heaven. It is available to us – if we but ask….

 “Continue to ask, and God will give to you. Continue to search, and you will find. Continue to knock, and the door will open for you.” (Matthew 7:7, ERV)

“From now on, whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I am doing, I’ll do it. That’s how the Father will be seen for who he is in the Son. I mean it. Whatever you request in this way, I’ll do.” (John 14:13-14, MSG)

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

G.K. Chesterton

Perseverance in prayer is needed. Lifting a request to God isn’t a one-time event. It is okay, even encouraged, to persist in prayer….

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So, what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” (Luke 18:1-8, MSG)

Giving voice to our needs and wants to God is the first step toward having our sincere requests answered. And the psalms can help us realize it.

Lord Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As I go through the trials of life, help me to realize that you are with me at all times and in all things; that I have no secrets from you; and that your loving grace enfolds me for eternity. In the security of your embrace, I pray. Amen.

Psalm 27 – Wait…

Psalm 27:4 painting by Marguerite Moreau McCarthy

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
    they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
    yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
    be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, do I seek.
    Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
    you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
    O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord! (New Revised Standard Version)

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

Arnold H. Glasow

The Christian season of Lent is a time of waiting…. Believers patiently wait for Easter and the resurrection of the Lord. But there must be a crucifixion before there is a resurrection. There must be suffering before there is glory. Truncating the process of spiritual development, including the hard circumstances of life, will stunt our growth.

So, we need to wait for the Lord….

But, dang it, waiting is hard! Patience is especially difficult whenever we are experiencing hardship and difficulty. We already know that praying for patience is problematic; we end up getting plenty of opportunities to exercise patience and may feel like we’re worse off than before. So, what do we do?

The way to wait patiently is through hope. And hope is a reality which needs to be continually fortified.

Whatever we long to see realized…

the return of a wayward son or daughter…

revitalization and revival within the church…

courage to face the high wall of adversity…

protection and deliverance from mean-spirited people…

an end to pandemic…

freedom from racism and injustice…

healing from chronic pain…

enough finances to make our budget budge…

whatever the situation we long for, patience is to be our breakfast every morning to help us through each day, living one day at a time, putting one foot forward.

Apart from patience, faith, and hope in God, we will lose our spiritual zeal and settle for a mediocre existence with tepid relationships and lukewarm engagement of the world. 

God desires more for us…

than simply having a marriage in which two people only exist under the same roof…

for church to be more than buildings, budgets, and butts in the pews…

for our work to be more than a necessary evil to make a living…

for our lives to be more than fear, worry, and anxiety…

for much more than broken dreams, messed up relationships, and situations gone sideways.

The confident expectation of hope neither eliminates trouble from our lives nor magically makes everything better.

Deep faith, like the psalmist expressed, does not change or alter reality – but it does change us.

The way in which we view and handle our troubles is understood differently through the filter of faith and the lens of hope.

The mammoth adversity in our lives is no longer feared because of settled trust in God; the danger which lurks about has no teeth to hold us when we are secure in the Lord.

The actions believers take toward God amidst the fallen nature of this world are to wait and hope, to be strong and take courage. It is precisely when we are totally discombobulated that faith and confident expectation kick in and take effect.

Our faith leads us to confess:

I believe the Lord is the Light which keeps me safe and illumines my path.

I believe the Lord is my Fortress, a castle to protect me.

I believe the Lord is an Army surrounding me, defending my life.

I believe the Lord is the Rock of my salvation, keeping me secure.

I believe the Lord is a Parent who holds me close and does not let go.

I believe the Lord is the right and good Judge, always extending grace and mercy to me.

I believe the Lord is Healer, oftentimes healing me from the need to be healed.

Therefore:

I have confidence and courage to engage the world, knowing God has my back.

I have confidence God will handle malevolent persons, systemic evil, and sinister forces on my behalf.

I have confidence I can approach God, since God’s character is always gracious and loving.

I have confidence to pray with authority, understanding God is the Sovereign of the universe.

I have confidence better days are ahead, that the Christ is soon coming.

I have confidence God bends to attentively listen to me praying.

I have confidence God is neither angry at me nor hidden from me.

I have confidence God shall lead me, guide me, and teach me in the way I ought to go.

I have confidence knowing that God has my best interests in mind.

Rather than losing heart, we can be strengthened with solid theology. Making daily affirmations of faith, persevering in hope, and performing small acts of love are our daily tasks while we wait and watch….

Almighty and everlasting God, the One who sees, knows, and protects, by the power of your Holy Spirit, you are refining us, purifying our discipleship, pulling us into following Jesus in this scary new world of uncertainty. Grant us mercy and grace to trust you more deeply, for the only secure place is with you, our light and our salvation, the stronghold of our life. We pray in the name of Jesus, the first-born of your new creation, and our hope, our life. Amen.