12.23.2006

Shepherd me, O God!

Shepherd me, O God,
beyond my wants,
beyone my fears,
from death into life!
I first sang Marty Haugen's elegant paraphrase of Psalm 23 years ago, at the funeral of a dear pastor friend. I loved, and continue to cling to its spirit of defiance, its assertion that all the things that attack us -- the things we truly lack and the unmet desires that annoy, the uncertainty that scares us senseless, even death, the only real power this world has -- ultimately bow to Christ the Good Shepherd, the One who leads us to life abundant. To this day, I find it hard to get through this refrain without feeling the tears well up.

I've long had a problem with the image of Christ followers as sheep, of Church as flock. Sheep are stupid and dirty. Can't do much of anything on their own, except wander away and get into trouble. We are smarter than that, right? God has given us brains and hearts and abilities that take us far out of the company of sheep. We're not just fed and watered, we are invited to participate in God's mission.

Yet this makes sense only in terms of the world we can see. We may know what to do with money, or wisdom, or organizational skills in this world. But when it comes to reality -- to the upside down, unexpected kingdom of God -- we are like sheep. We are not able to see the scope of God's action, the intensity of his hope, the depths of his mercy. Sure, we are smart enough to look back and see signs of the kingdom, but can we comprehend enough to think we know what a God who responds to the cries of those at the margins and pushes those at the center off their pedestals will do in the situations we're involved in? Glimmers, if we're lucky, like peering through a dark glass, as Paul said.

In the kingdom, we are sheep. We do not know the path. We cannot go our own way. We do not have the strength or wits to fend off our enemy. All we can do is recognize our Good Shepherd's voice, and follow him.

This is wonderful comfort, especially in these moments when we don't know what the next step is even in this life. Having a shepherd means we don't have to be in control. Like John the Baptist, we are not the one. We can rest knowing the Shepherd is in charge:
God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction. - Psalm 23:1-3, The Message
Sometimes, when frantic activity sends us running only in circles, or moving backwards, catching our breath is exactly what we need. And we can trust that Christ will watch over us as we rest and heal, and -- when we are ready -- he will send us off in the right direction.

The psalmist is clear: The shepherd knows there are dark valleys, and he will lead us through. He knows we have enemies -- around us and within us -- and he spites them by feeding us richly in their presence. He knows we seek our own way, and he uses his rod and staff to close some roads to us and to pull us out of the brambles when we stray. He knows we will get discouraged, and when our heads droop he gently lifts them up, and anoints them with sweet oils.

The shepherd's kingdom is good, and it is so strange and inscrutable that we can't fathom it -- but we can follow him into it. Its enemies seek to distract and discourage us -- destroy us, even. But in the end, they have no power. Writing about Satan's minions, Martin Luther summed it up defiantly (and I find this hard to sing without tears, as well):
Were they to take our house --
goods, honor, child or spouse --
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The kingdom's ours -- forever!
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

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