Why God is my Shepherd
Psalm 23 is one of the first vivid memories I have of being a follower of Christ and my relationship with the church. To this day, when I hear the Psalm I am instantly transported back into the basement of my childhood church and reciting this Psalm in a room full of other children. But this week I had the opportunity not just to recite this from memory, but to think about what this Psalm and Gospel mean to me in my life today.
Psalm 23 is one that many Christians know by heart, and I think that is because of how personal it is. There are no references to "we" or "us" but only "I" and "You." As I sit and think, why it is that this Psalm speaks so deeply not only to myself but to many others I can't help but think it is because we are so assuredly stating our beliefs in our Good Shepherd leading us on our journey through life.
The first line reads “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” Although we live our lives wanting for a great deal of things, we are at a rare moment in time that we may be finding ourselves wanting for things we may have taken for granted in the past- our jobs, our old way of life, our favorite margarita, a birthday party, a wedding. But the Psalm is not saying we will never want for monetary items, human connection, or other worldly possessions, but that we will never be left wanting in our relationship with God. Our relationship with God and the love and guidance of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, provide us with what, at the end of the day, we really need, a relationship with God.
The next line reads “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” The journey to green pastures and still waters is often treacherous. You will suffer and be challenged but after a long difficult journey, you will be met with peace, solace, and refuge. I have confidence that I can make a difficult journey following Christ because I know that there will be still waters where He leads me. Once there He will “revive my soul and guide me along the right path.”
Looking at the Gospel reading, I began thinking about who is the thief that the gospel is talking about. I realized that in different seasons of life, the thief takes on many different identities. I know in my youth, the thief was often cloaked as comparison, peer pressure, grudges, self-doubt, all working to steal and destroy my self-esteem, self-worth, relationships with others, and even my relationship with God. It can be hard to distinguish Jesus’s voice through all the noise. As I moved on through life to college, grad school, new careers, and marriage I realized the thief is always there, again not always wearing the same cloak, but trying to lead me astray. In John 10 it states "A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy". When I reflect on my current season of life, I realize that in many ways this global pandemic is exactly that: a thief. If you listen to the noise, the coronavirus is being seen as the thief of happiness, the thief of safety, familiarity, consistency, financial stability, mental health, and community.
I am one of the “lucky” ones you could say. Still fully employed, getting to interact with my students each week, getting to be a part of this church community, no children at home, the ability to hike, facetime, go out for essentials as needed. But the thief is there nonetheless. One constant in my life has been my battle with anxiety, one of the great “thieves” in my life, and the truth is that this global crisis has allowed the thief to climb over the fence. He is trying to have me follow his voice to the constant fear and worry about my own health and the health of my loved ones. To the ugly face of anxiety that is telling me how badly this will all end. But instead of choosing to focus my attention on the thief, I instead try to look for the shepherd. The job of the shepherd was to lead, protect, and feed the sheep. Do the sheep always know where they are being led too? I don’t know for sure, but I am assuming no. And perhaps trusting in Jesus, our good shepherd, is even more important while we navigate new and difficult terrain.
This brings us back to Psalm 23. To read Psalm 23 is to know that God knows you and you know him. When I read it I am reminded of all the ways I have experienced God, heard His voice, and followed His lead in times of joy and sorrow, in times of security and crisis. This becomes clear when we say “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” I think that life is a constant journey through valleys and pastures. The valley of sickness, the pasture of health. The valley of loneliness, the pasture of family and friends. The valley of pain and suffering, the pasture of healing. We are in a valley right now, as a community, as a nation, and as a world, and it is oftentimes in the deep points of crisis in life something deep happens between yourself and God. One of the first true moments I experienced God was the day I learned my grandfather was on the verge of death. I dropped to my knees so instinctually praying to God for my grandpa, my grandma, my family, and myself. And I heard God. Not that he would take the pain away, not that he would perform a medical miracle, but that He would lead me through this pain, and be by my side through the journey. How many valleys have you been through in the past? How many times have you been brought to those still waters and trusted in God's protection and guidance all the way as if they were a physical rod and staff. We must now, more than ever trust that He knows the way through this valley and will see us through safely. We must believe that He has good reasons for taking this route, even though it is hard and unfamiliar and holds on to the truth that there is something better waiting on the other side of this valley.
Philip Keller is an Australian shepherd who wrote a book titled “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23”. He writes "The shepherd knows from past experience that predators like coyotes, bears, wolves, or cougars can take cover in these broken cliffs and from their vantage point prey on his flock. He knows these valleys can be subject to sudden storms and flash floods that send walls of water rampaging down the slopes. There could be rockslides, mud, or . . . a dozen other natural disasters that would destroy or injure his sheep. But in spite of such hazards he also knows that this is still the best way to take his flock to the high country. He spares himself no pains or trouble or time to keep an eye out for any danger that might develop."
We know God is always there, but a part of me thinks that God may be just that much closer at times of crisis. Just like a shepherd is closer to his sheep on dangerous journeys. Knowing a journey is going to begin and feeling that you are on your own may lead you to despair, but with a strong shepherd, you will find green pastures and still waters. When faced with our current thief, coronavirus, an unfamiliar and daunting valley of illness, death, recovery, financial and relationship strains, anxiety, and isolation we are being led through this valley for reasons not yet known to us. But rest assured, He is taking us to the high country, where the sun is warm and the grass is lush.