Goodness and Love Will Follow Me

(This is the final post in my series this week on the six verses of the 23rd Psalm . . . you can start at the beginning with Verse One here.)

Psalm 23:6: Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Wait, I thought it was “goodness and mercy.”

It is . . . in many English translations of this verse.

But it is also, as in the NIV above, “goodness and love.”

Not just that!  Also, “goodness and grace, glory, hope, kindness, steadfast love, loyalty, favor, devotion, righteousness, rejoicing, compassion, etc.”

How can one word mean all those things?

When it is the  Hebrew word Chesed (or Hesed; the “H” sound is gutteral like the end of “Bach”), one word can mean all those wonderful things!

Chesed is one of the most awesome words in the Bible, right up there with the Greek Agape – sacrificial love in action – from the New Testament. Chesed is in fact similar to agape, but not exactly.

Both can be translated “love.” Both mean so much more.

I don’t want this post to become a Hebrew lesson, but look back at that list of English translations for chesed. So much is encompassed in the Psalmist’s declaration that God’s “goodness and chesed” will follow him. His life – our lives – is and are infused with chesed, filled to overflowing so the grace, glory, hope, loyalty, compassion, and so on that  God pours out in us transforms our relationships with others.

And yet, it gets better still. 

Bear with me for one more brief Hebrew digression. The word translated “follows” in most of our English Bibles more exactly means “pursues.” That small difference changes the entire nature of God’s relationship with us, and illuminates our picture of God’s chesed.

God doesn’t just follow me around attempting to shine a little love on my life (ELO shoutout).

No! God pursues me with goodness and chesed.

Most of you reading this blog know there was a significant chunk of my adult life when I actively resisted God’s pursuit. I denied not just God’s goodness but God’s very existence. But God never let go of me, never paused the pursuit.

Too often God is depicted as pursuing us in order to mete out punishment and to smite those who deserve it.

How much more wonderful is our God, who pursues us not with furious anger, but with “goodness and chesed.”

Even though what we really deserve is the smiting.

Becoming one of us was God’s ultimate pursuit of humanity.

He pursued us all the way to the cross.

The night before he died, Jesus gathered with his disciples one last time. He told them he was going to prepare a place for them – and for us. A dwelling place – an eternal home. Then he said he would come back and take them to be with him where he was.

He would take them home.

He will take us home.

Home to the house of the Lord where we will dwell . . .

Forever.

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A Table in the Presence of My Enemies

(I’m blogging on one of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm each day this week . . . you can start at the beginning with Verse One here.)

Psalm 23:5: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Ridiculous!

Sitting down to the table for a meal with my enemies all around. My head may be anointed with oil, my cup may be overflowing, but what is to stop my enemies from blowing me away as I defenselessly dine?

Shouldn’t I take care of my enemies, either fight them or build a wall to keep them out – and to keep me safe – before I eat? How can I enjoy my meal in the presence of my enemies? It is at best simply not good for my digestion.

How are we to interpret this verse?

First, it is important to recognize the shift in the Psalmist’s metaphor. For the first four verses, the Psalmist was a sheep and God was his shepherd. Now, God is a gracious host and the Psalmist is God’s guest.

Hospitality was perhaps the most valued attribute in the time and place the Psalm was composed. That certainly makes sense when there might be some distance between arable land. A traveler depended upon the gracious generosity of the inhabitants encountered along the way.

As Abraham provided for his mysterious visitor in Genesis 18, the host in verse four waits upon – even serves – the guest with food on the table and beverages that overflow their cups.

What a picture!  God as host. God as servant.

“(J)ust as the Son of Man came to serve not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

So what about these enemies?

Is this verse about the host’s – God’s – protection from our enemies? Is our enjoyment of God’s provision in the midst of our enemies meant to be both an act of faith and also a sort of taunting of those who would mean us harm?

Perhaps.

But there is a more radical picture that I believe to be more consistent with the Gospel’s depiction of God’s outrageously inclusive love.

What if “in the presence of my enemies” means that our enemies are also invited to the feast?

What if our very enjoyment of God’s feast is meant not to be a rebuke to our enemies, but rather an invitation?

Whether we are talking about food and drink as God’s daily provision, or as the Eucharist meal shared in worship, or as the great never-ending feast of eternity, God’s desire is the same. God – the Most Hospitable Host – yearns for all to gather and share the table.

So perhaps verse five of this great Psalm is not just an invitation to appreciate God’s abundant provision.

Perhaps this verse is also an invitation to . . . invite. For it is you and I who have the privilege of sharing the Good News that God’s sustaining food and overflowing drink are available to all.

Even our “enemies.”

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For You Are With Me . . .

(I’m blogging on one of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm each day this week . . . you can start at the beginning with Verse One here.)

Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

I majored in English in college, so I wrote a lot of papers on poems and novels and short stories and so on. Vital to the analysis of a literary work was determining the “Central Idea,” the main theme or message the author was trying to convey. Sometimes that was difficult to determine and subject to debate.

Not in the 23rd Psalm. The Psalmist puts the Central Idea right in the . . . center.

In the original Hebrew, writes Luther Seminary Professor Kathryn Schifferdecker, there are 26 words before and 26 words after the Central Idea of Psalm 23:

FOR YOU ARE WITH ME

When my daughter was a little girl, she used to wake up in the middle of the night and cry out for someone to “Rub my back!” Her back may have been a little itchy, but her primary need was for someone to be with her. She did not want to endure the night shadows and sounds on her own. To have her back rubbed was to have someone with her. And not just any someone, but a parent who she knew loved and trusted her. Thus fortified, she could drift back to sleep (but woe to the parent who stopped rubbing and tried to sneak out before she was asleep!)

“Even though I lie in the darkest bedroom, I fear no monsters and ghosts, FOR YOU ARE WITH ME, your hands and your voice, they comfort me.”

Most of us have outgrown our fears of goblins jumping out of the closet or from under the bed. Our adult fears are more real . . . terrifyingly real. We fear financial failure and broken relationships. We fear incapacitating illness and especially the finality of death. We fear not just for ourselves, but for those we love. We fear our own helplessness, our impotence in the face of situations and circumstances beyond our control.

The world is a scary place. Dark valleys abound.

The Psalm’s picture of a dark valley springs from the shepherd and sheep metaphor. Picture a flock of sheep with their caretaking shepherd bedding down for the evening. They are in the same green pasture which before had been so inviting, perhaps surrounded by rocky hills. As the sun sets behind those ridges, light and vision fade. Predators may prowl in the gloom. Hungry animals as well as humans with nefarious designs strike under the cover of darkness. Death itself lurks there in the shadows.

But the flock is protected by the shepherd who is right there with them. He carries a rod, a weapon. It is not for clouting unruly sheep, but for fending off those who might do those sheep harm. And he carries a staff that guides the flock to safety and is a physical sign of his presence and his nurturing authority.

There is something else about that staff . . . It is shaped like the letter “J,” with a hook at the end. Sometimes despite the shepherd’s best efforts those silly sheep sometimes fall into holes. The hook allows the shepherd to pull them out, gently lifting them back onto the right path.

How much like those silly sheep are you and I? We fall into holes . . . sometimes through absolutely no fault of our own, sometimes into holes of our own making. But God keeps pulling us up and pulling us out. Over and over, we never really learn, at least not fully, to avoid the holes. But God never gives up on us and never stops lifting us up and out.

There is an honesty to the 23rd Psalm, an honesty that pervades the Bible. I told my congregation in a sermon a couple of weeks ago that this honesty is one of the reasons I keep believing that the Gospel is true.

This Psalm – and the Bible – describe the real world, the world as it really is.

Scripture does not paint a picture of a fairy-wonderland where everything works out and nothing bad ever happens to God’s people.  No.

We’re given a warts-and-all picture of the world and especially of humanity. There are dark valleys and plenty of evil. There is no promise or program for avoiding turmoil and strife. Trouble will come to us in this sin-scarred world filled with sin-stained people (people like us!).

God doesn’t promise perfection. Our promise is God’s presence.

FOR YOU ARE WITH ME

The greatest gift of God’s presence is of course Jesus Christ, God as one of us, God with us.

We have Jesus’ no-matter-what promise to be with us always. “Even until the end of the age.”

There is no valley we will ever walk through that will be too dark, no evil we will ever confront that will be too diabolical, that we will not be able to know and to proclaim . . .

FOR YOU ARE WITH ME

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He Guides Me Along Right Paths . . .

(I’m blogging on one of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm each day this week . . . you can start at the beginning with Verse One here.)

Psalm 23:3:  “. . .he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”

A questionable translation of this verse provided perhaps my greatest epiphany when I prepared to preach this Psalm last week.

Usually I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s earthy, fresh rendering of Scripture in The Message.  But in the portion of verse three typically translated “He guides me along right paths,” Peterson chose, “You . . . send me in the right direction.”

The subtle difference between guiding and sending opens up the central message of the Psalm.

Years ago I worked as a retail manager. At the record store I managed, I trained employees to be guides, not senders. When a customer entered the store and asked where they could find the Cure’s latest album, Disintegration (like I said, it was years ago . . . but wasn’t the music great!), staff members were not supposed to point in the general direction of the New Wave section. They were not supposed to send them in the right direction.

Instead, employees escorted customers to the music they were looking for. They guided them along, uh, right paths. (The metaphor does break down a little, but stick with me.) Therefore the Cure-seeking customer would feel a glimmer of happiness before descending into the dreary abyss of Robert Smith’s compositions. (I maybe should have saved The Cure for “dark valleys” in tomorrows verse. But I digress . . .)

Of course in the record store we guided rather than sent folks because they bought more stuff when they felt welcome. A friendly escort is certainly more hospitable than impersonal pointing.

Which is why the more precise translation of verse three where God is a guide is superior to The Message’s sending shepherd.

It’s an amazing thing, really, that God is our guide, with us and in us.  God even became one of us.

For many Christians, the Bible is unfortunately misperceived as primarily a book of rules and regulations. God gives us the guidebook for living, and if we follow it God will love us and let us into heaven.

The Bible most certainly contains much about how to live as God’s people in the world. But more than that, and more central than that, is the Good News that we don’t experience life’s journey on our own. God doesn’t give us directions and send us on our way.

No, God walks with us, guiding us every step of the way.

When we get off the “right pathways,” God promises to always bring us back, over and over again.

Like the Lost Sheep in Jesus’ John 15 parable. (The link is to The Message version of the parable . . . I still love you Eugene Peterson!) The Good Shepherd brings back the one lost sheep even though he has 99 others.  When the Shepherd finds the sheep, he doesn’t gesture toward the flock and say, “That way, sheep!”

No! The Shepherd puts the sheep across his shoulders and carries that wayward woolly ungulate back to the right path.

In that way He “restores my soul.” (Did you think I was going to forget the first part of the verse?) The original Hebrew more exactly means “restores my life,” or “restores my being.”  Everything that I am is renewed and restored and even resurrected by my relationship with the Good Shepherd.

Or, perhaps more pointedly, I am restored to who I was created to be.

No matter how I have screwed things up, no matter how far I have strayed from the right path, no matter how messed up I have become, the Good Shepherd never gives up on me and continually guides me back on the “right path” toward living out my call as a child of God in the world.

I am restored even – perhaps especially – when I walk through the dark valleys of life . . . But that’s tomorrow’s verse . . .

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He Makes Me Lie Down in Green Pastures . . .

(I’m blogging on one of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm each day this week . . . you can read the post on Verse One here.)

Psalm 23:2: “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,”

Little tiger did not like going to bed.
Every night when mommy tiger said,
“Bedtime!”
Little tiger would say,
“But I don’t want to go to bed!”

So begins one of my daughter’s favorite bedtime books, aptly named I Don’t Want To Go To Bed! by Julie Sykes and Tim Warnes.

Many of us are like little tiger. We don’t want to take a break. We may not resist going to bed exactly, but that is only because we are so exhausted from our breakneck schedules. Busyness fills our days and we struggle to cram one more thing into our already overloaded calendars.

Peer pressure prods us onward. “You won’t believe how busy I am!”

I didn’t even have time to eat!”

I haven’t taken a vacation in 5 years!”

We don’t want to stop.
We don’t know how to stop.

Thank goodness God sometimes makes us lie down.

I had missed the significance of that verb. But last week on Facebook I posted an invitation for folks to share what the 23rd Psalm means to them. Tim, a pastor colleague, replied, “I always appreciate that the Lord *makes* me lie down beside still waters. Because on my own I don’t make the time. So the Shepherd has to make us sometimes, because she knows we’re headed for a dark valley.”

Lest we get the wrong idea, a shepherd does not “make” his or her sheep rest by bonking them on the head with a stick or a rock. No, the shepherd leads the sheep to a place with green grass to eat and quiet water to drink. It is a sanctuary from hunger, thirst, and predators. There, the sheep can be refreshed and rest. The shepherd may even lie down with the sheep.

This verse is about God’s provision of sustenance, security, and serenity.

In the first verse, we acknowledged that the Shepherd gives us everything we need.

In this second verse, we are reminded that rest is one of those things we need.

The third (or fourth, depending on how you number them) of God’s Top Ten Commandments is “Remember the Sabbath.”  The Hebrew word for Sabbath is rooted in a word that means “stop” or “cease” . . . rest. “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” the commandment says.

Rest is holy.

Of course, if we keep going without resting, our bodies will eventually make us take a break. In that children’s book, I Don’t Want to Go To Bed!, mommy tiger allows little tiger to stay up until he finally ends up sleepy and where he needs to be, safe at home in bed.

The same thing happens to us. Without rest we will wear out physically, mentally, and spiritually. The question is, as IT folks ask, is that a bug or is it a feature? Is it a flaw in the way we are put together that we can’t keep going and going? Or is that the way God intended?

I think it might just be a feature.

To stop and rest allows us not only to recharge physically, but also to make space to experience God’s presence and provision. We need to rest – to stop – in order to be freed from the distractions of our busyness that interfere with our apprehension of God’s steadfast love.

We need a break.

We need a break, not just for our body’s sake but for the sake of our relationship with God.

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The Lord Is My Shepherd, I Lack Nothing

(On Sunday, June 18, I preached about the 23rd Psalm. As I lived with the Psalm in preparation for the sermon, I experienced depth and richness far beyond what I could share in a single sermon. So this week I’ll be blogging on one verse of the Psalm each day.

As I said in the sermon, sometimes we become so familiar with a recitation – the Lord’s Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, this Psalm – that we miss the meaning of what we are saying. I invite you to slow down this week as we dig into the verses of this well-known – in some ways perhaps too-well-known – psalm.

I’ll be using the NIV translation. You can find other translations here.)

Psalm 23:1: “The Lord is My Shepherd, I lack nothing.”

How about the audacity of the author[1] of the 23rd Psalm? He claims the Lord – the Great I Am, who is and was and will be, who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt – as his personal shepherd. The Psalmist is most likely an Israelite, one of the Lord’s people, but to say “The Lord is my shepherd” rather than “The Lord is our shepherd” seems at least presumptuous.

But the singular pronoun reflects the intensity of the Psalmist’s relationship with God. This psalm is a proclamation not just of God’s nature but also a confession of the Psalmist’s experience of – and with – God. His God is not a mighty but unknowable mystical being off in heaven somewhere perhaps feeling sorry for the Psalmist when things are tough, but rather a personal presence whose love and care abide through the hilltops and valleys of his life.

Like a . . . shepherd.

Shepherds were ubiquitous in the place and time this Psalm was composed. Perhaps the writer himself worked as a shepherd. He would have known from observation or experience the devotion of a shepherd to his flock. According to Wikipedia, sheep live 10-12 years with some breeds approaching 20 years of life. Because sheep were raised not for premature execution for the sake of mutton stew but rather for their wool, they would live out that life span in the care of their shepherds.  Those shepherds would undoubtedly come to intimately know and maybe even become attached to members of their flock.  Each of those sheep depended fully on the shepherd for food and water and protection.

Sheep are quite helpless on their own.

Our judgment of the Psalmist’s audacity will be tempered when we realize the logical extension of his metaphor.

If God is his shepherd, then he must be a sheep.

One of the most popular and enduring Christian summer camp songs is “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep.” The profound lyrics of the chorus proclaim:

I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa.

The verses declare things I don’t wanna be – a Pharisee (they’re not fair you see), a Sadducee (they’re so sad, you see) before returning to the enthusiastic affirmation of the desire to be a sheep.

Inspiring!

Except, who really wants to be a sheep?

Sheep are stupid.  A sheep will put its head down in pursuit of tasty green grass and get separated from the herd. On their own, they end up lost, injured, and finally eaten. Better to be predator than prey, right?

Who wants to be helpless and vulnerable and . . . worst of all, dependent! We live in a pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps culture. “I don’t need anybody” is a declaration to be admired like the so-called self-made man (or woman) on the pedestal who utters it.  “Needy” is a pejorative for both those who are impoverished and those who could use a shoulder to cry on.

Like Herbie the Elf and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer  in the classic Christmas special, we want to be in-de-pen-dent.

The 23rd Psalm is a Declaration of Dependence. The Lord is my shepherd. I am a sheep.

I can’t make it on my own.

Not only does the Psalmist profess total reliance on the Lord, but there is also an implicit confession of community. The apparent singularity of “The Lord is my shepherd” is repudiated by the social character of the flock.

God gives me everything I need. “I lack nothing.” In the context of the shepherd/sheep metaphor, that includes community.

The Psalmist makes it clear that “I lack nothing” because the Lord is my shepherd. Everything I have, everything I am, is a result of God’s loving care.

“I lack nothing,” or in more the more traditional rendering, “I shall not want,” does not imply or promise that I have everything I want. God is a shepherd, not a genie in a lamp. We struggle to separate our wants from our needs. We stress and strive for the things we believe will make us happy. Just one more purchase or experience and we’ll be there.

Acquisitiveness only leaves us ensnared in a consumerist version of Zeno’s paradoxes, never reaching our desired destination of satisfaction.

“I lack nothing” is not an encouragement of the “gimme, gimme, gimme” nature we all possess, but rather an appeal for us to move from greed to gratitude. It is an invitation to shift from wanting more and more to being thankful for what we have. And, most importantly, “I lack nothing” challenges us to transform our perception of the things and opportunities we receive from what we deserve and earn to gifts of God to be used and shared for the sake of God’s name.

“I lack nothing” could be perverted by a prosperity preacher into promised plenteousness, but that is patently not the poet’s point.

As we shall see as we journey through the Psalm, the Psalmist lives and expresses the real world in which there are unfulfilled desires and disappointments and even death. Dark valleys and evil and enemies abound, but the shepherd is with us in the midst of these terrors. We have everything we need.

We have the shepherd. We have the other sheep.

We have God. We have each other.

——————-

[1] The 23rd Psalm is traditionally attributed to David, but like many Bible authorship issues, that is far from settled among scholars. I’ll primarily be using “the Psalmist” to refer to the poet who composed this psalm. And although we can’t say for sure whether the author was male or female, I will be using masculine pronouns consistently.

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Celebrating Grace – Excerpt from Ten Year Ordination Anniversary Sermon

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Pastor Dave and Karen

I can identify with Paul’s anger.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul was angry at anything – or anyone – that contradicted or got in the way of the message of Grace he was called to preach.

Paul had experienced bondage to the law and to sin and death, and he had experienced the joy of freedom that comes with faith in Christ.

He had experienced the walls built between insiders and outsiders, and he wanted the church to experience – and to demonstrate – the awesome inclusiveness of God’s grace.

Yes, I can identify with Paul’s anger.

That is because I can identify with Paul’s experience.

Although I didn’t throw Christians into jail like Paul before I became one myself at 33 years old, I did reject their attempts to tell me about their faith. I made fun of that faith and of them.

I believed, as I have said before, that I was Too Smart for God.

God was for weak, stupid people.

Most of you know the story of how I ended up in church. Karen told me that if I wanted to date her I would have to go to church with her.

She was certainly worth what I considered a wasted hour each week.

You know about how God’s Word worked on me and in me as I sat there with my arms crossed each week.

And you know how, months later, I realized . . .

I believe this stuff!

I did not choose to believe Jesus is for the world – and for me – exactly who he claims to be.

I couldn’t have chosen it.

I WOULDN’T have chosen it.

Why would I want to go back on everything I had said and believed I was? Why would I want to be one of THOSE Christians?

But I could no more choose not to believe in God than I could choose to disbelieve the Law of Gravity.

I experienced faith as a gift.

I experienced GRACE.

Like Paul, I encountered the resurrected Christ. I wasn’t blinded by a bright light. I didn’t hear the voice of Jesus . . .

Except I did . . .

I head the voice of Jesus in God’s Word as it was read and preached. I heard the voice of Jesus in the people of the congregation who welcomed me in spite of my doubts and even my downright disbelief.

And once God created this faith in me, I couldn’t help but (eventually) share it.

Today we celebrate ten years of ordained ministry.

When I first found out this was happening I didn’t like the idea at all.

To be honest, I’m not feeling that great about my ministry right now. I feel I have let the congregation down by being out two months for medical leave, two months when I was not available to you. Now that I am back, I am still only partly here. I know logically that the illness that caused my absence is not my fault, but I’m still working through some guilt that perhaps some of you understand who have been through a serious illness. I am working on that.

But there’s a deeper reason I was at least uncomfortable with today’s celebration.

In the same way being a Christian was not my idea or my doing, neither was being a pastor. No one is more surprised than me that I am here doing this.

Sometimes when people ask me why I wear a clerical collar when many pastors do not, I tell them it’s so when I look in the mirror I can remember that I’m a pastor. (I’m only half-kidding.)

It feels weird being celebrated for something that is not my doing. Neither is anything that’s been accomplished through me during these ten years of ordained ministry my doing.

Anything good I have done or preached is the Holy Spirit working through me.

But perhaps that is the point.

It is not me we are celebrating, but rather God’s grace that has been poured out in me and that I have been called to share with others.

That is something to celebrate. That is a celebration I can get behind.

We celebrate today God’s amazing Grace and the privilege I have of sharing it as an ordained minister in this church.

Like Paul, I get angry when folks try to water down God’s Grace or add requirements for our salvation to it. You know I haven’t been shy in sermons and Bible Studies and conversations about calling out those preachers and Christian leaders who would dilute God’s grace by telling folks what they need to do so God will love them or worse, the types of people God does not love and accept.

But it’s on our sign out front . . .

GOD LOVES EVERYONE
NO EXCEPTIONS

You see, like Paul, I have experienced the freedom of God’s Grace and have done my best to share and proclaim it for ten years. Today I get to celebrate with you what God has done in my life and through me in the lives of others.

I get to recommit to that message of love and freedom.

Sometimes folks have said this to me as kind of a complaint. But it is actually the best compliment I can get . . .

“Pastor Dave,
You always talk about Grace!”

Yep!
For ten years and counting.

AMEN

(You can hear the entire sermon on the church website.)

 

 

 

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