April 21, 2013
If you aren’t feeling vulnerable after this week, you are made of sterner stuff than me. From Boston to Waco…almost A to Z…the news was very grim. Even the sunniest of optimists would find it daunting to look upon the week’s events with anything other than dismay and discouragement. We are in a state of crisis as we confront the limits of government, civil authority, and first responders to keep us safe. It is simply no longer possible, if ever it was, to say that any public event or gathering can be secured from lunatics, terrorists, or garden variety evil people.
There are words from scripture that I have read a million times to people in crisis: “ I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” What does that help look like? On TV this week we saw SWAT teams, National Guard, city police, FBI, medical personnel, and fire departments helping the city of Boston. Heaven knows we need that kind of help and are grateful for the dedication and commitment of those professionals and would be lost without it.
In the wake of yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombings, many took to social media to comment on the tragedy. In terms of coping with the tragedy, one of the sentiments repeated again and again came from Mister Rogers.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
Rogers’ recounting of his mother’s advice dates back at least 30 years. In 1983 it appeared in his book Mister Rogers Talks With Parents, where he explains that his mother was prompted to tell her son about helpers after seeing disasters reported in newspapers and newsreels. So, yes, we had so many helping people. But I believe that those helpers are being led in that caring, and that there is a greater helper, a Good Shepherd, present in a disaster like this.
Psalm 23 details the kind of help that comes from the Lord. It really provides an inventory of resources. One thing that we are told to do in a crisis situation is to take stock of what is on hand…what can be utilized to assist us…as in a snow storm we would want food, water, radio, batteries, etc. Then there are crises when we need provisions of different nature. Psalm 23’s words suggest that the Good Shepherd has safely brought the psalmist through some kind of crisis; an illness or some sort of suffering. God’s provisions seem pretty basic: green pastures, still waters, right paths, rod, staff, table, cup, a home. Yet the suggestion is that those basic provisions are sufficient in even the most dire of circumstances.
I have a wonderful book on my shelf, A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23, by Phillip Keller. Keller provides an insightful look at the life of a shepherd, and relates it to the spiritual life. I share some of his insights here. Of any class of livestock, sheep need the most care. Because of their makeup, it is impossible for them to lay down unless they are free of fear, free of aggravation from other sheep, free from pests like flies, and free from hunger. That is a tall order, but that is exactly what a shepherd must deliver if the flock is to thrive. They need to know that the shepherd is nearby and alert. A flock that is restless, agitated, discontented, and hungry is doomed…and so are people. For a Christian, there is no substitute for the awareness that the Shepherd is nearby and able to provide the freedom that permits us to “lie down in green pastures.”
We live a most uncertain life. Would we rather experience anxiety and foreboding, or a sense of quiet rest? The knowledge that the Shepherd has things under control, even when the appearance of things is quite the opposite, changes the outlook of any situation. It is God’s gracious Spirit that brings this sense of peace. As when Jesus came into that locked Upper Room, and breathed his Spirit upon his frightened disciples and said, “peace be upon you.” That Spirit transformed those anxious, frightened sheep into bold leaders of the infant church.
“Still waters” brings to mind a quiet brook fed by a clean clear spring. When sheep are thirsty, if good water is not available, they will drink at polluted spots or ones infested with parasites. The shepherd must continually search for good drinking places if their thirst is to be slaked. Jesus said boldly, “if anyone thirst, let them come unto me and drink.” To Drink means to accept or to believe…thereby accepting the Life of Christ to the point where it becomes a part of us.
Of the sources of water available to the sheep, the dew on the morning grass is the most useful because it is the most common. Sheep, by nature, like to get up early and begin to feed. Morning dew is surprisingly useful. When the vegetation is wet with dew, sheep will get sufficient water by feeding just before and after dawn. That provides a wonderful image for a discipline of rising early for a time of devotions, our thirst quenched by the Word. There is an old hymn that says “The still waters of His Spirit can be dropped into my life and soul.” We too can be refreshed in mind and spirit by grazing with the Shepherd in the morning hours!
“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” The rod is used to protect the sheep from predators, while the staff is designed to guide and correct the wandering sheep. It can be extended down a rocky cliff to pull up a sheep that has fallen off the path. It can extricate a lamb that has become entangled in the briers. It can be used to pull a newborn close to its mother. The staff leads. Likewise, we are led on the right paths. A shepherd knows that sheep must be kept on the move, shifted from pasture to pasture and provides that leadership. The shepherd keeps a plan in mind, even though the sheep would prefer to stay right where they are.
We prefer our own ways, our own self-determination. We insist we know what is best for us, clinging to habits even as we see the ruinous results in the lives of other people. And into this confusion comes the Good Shepherd who says, if anyone will follow me, let him or her deny themselves daily and take up their cross and follow. If we really believe that the Lord has our best interests at heart, in all situations we can be led into a place of peace and contentment.
“He prepares a table before me, in the presence of my enemies.” Before flocks can feed a shepherd has to walk ahead of the sheep and search out areas where there might be poisonous weeds to be avoided or eliminated, and areas where predators cannot hide while the flock is feeding. Grassy areas lush enough to sustain the flock must be sought. It takes work and sacrifice to prepare a table for feeding. Wise sheep walk close by the shepherd, to get to this bountiful table. Christians walk closely to Christ, where he can protect us, and provide for us. When we come to the Lord’s Table, do we consider what it cost him to prepare that Table for us? God looked down upon struggling human creatures, and demonstrated what true Love and caring looks like in that table of sacrifice.
The cup that overflows is the same cup that in the Garden Jesus prayed might pass from him. And had that cup not overflowed with love for us, been poured out for us, we might all have perished by now.
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” That does not simply refer to heaven. The last provision mentioned in the psalm is the home we have in the Lord, today. We are part of a household, a community where we share in caring and love. It is from homes like this that the helpers come from.
We still hurt and struggle. But Psalm 23 reminds us that the Shepherd will never abandon us. Even though the valleys through which we walk are dark, there is someone walking with us.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a hymn whose old Irish lyrics people originally attributed to St. Patrick during his work in Ireland in the 400’s. It expresses something of Psalm 23’s sentiments: “I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me: God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me…” As it was, so it is. God’s provision for our care is as never ending as God’s love.