Monday, May 25, 2015

"Beyond the Shepherd" (Psalm 23)

“…and then I remembered this basic religious principle that God isn’t there to take away our suffering or our pain but to fill it with his or her presence…”
(Annie Lamott, Traveling Mercies:  Some Thoughts on Faith)

In her book Claiming Ground, Laura Bell describes the three years she spent herding sheep in Wyoming’s Big Horn basin—how she lived in a sheep wagon—how she followed the herd all over northwest Wyoming, from the suspended top of the Big Horns in the summer to the lower range in the winter where there was more dirt than grass, but where the slanting sun would give the sheep a brief reprieve from the bitter air.

Laura writes, “I’ve been watching the storm simmer in the western sky; gray closing in over Heart Mountain.  The sheep are loud with complaint now and moving off the water and out into the hills, away, as if there is shelter within reach.  I call the dogs into to the wagon and feed them each a big finger of peanut butter from the jar.  When the storm hits us, the temperature plummets and sheets of rain and hair blast the wagon.  Within moments the gullies are running water.  The sheep are running.  The storm’s moving fast, and when it passes, I saddle up and slog through the mud to look for the sheep (1000 of them) and bring them home.  From the cliff, I can see the sheep below and one dead ewe, struck by lightning.  Out of this silence I give a whoop to turn back the lead sheep.  I’d never been so scared, and wondered if herders get killed by lightening…”   

Laura Bell is the only shepherd I’ve ever known (a Kentucky girl turned Wyoming shepherd, the daughter of Disciple pastor and former LTS President Wayne Bell), and I only get a glimpse of what a shepherd is like through her telling of her story: bold, generous, loyal, and vulnerable.  They know where the best pastures are.  They know their sheep and stick by them come rain or come shine.  They confront the sheep’s enemies.  They have enemies of their own—outside and inside.

We have sheep farms in Carbon County, only the shepherds have an interesting profile.  They tower above the sheep and hold their own with the horses.  What I am talking about are llamas, GUARD llamas.
In the Andes and plains of southern South America llamas are better known as a pack animal and a source of meat.  In Montana, they are the sheep’s fleecy shepherd.  If a coyote approaches the herd the llama stand straight up, lets out a cry of alarm and charges the threat, legs kicking—inserting itself between the sheep and the predator.
Were the author of Psalm 23 writing from Carbon County, Montana, the beginning two lines might have just as easily read, “The LORD is my llama, I have everything I need.”

I took the opportunity to rewrite Psalm 23.  Even though I live in Carbon County instead of Yellowstone County, I refrained from agricultural metaphors for God because I am not real familiar with the ins and outs of ranching. 
What I am familiar with is life with God, like you are familiar with life with God—God’s mercy, God’s leniency though guilty.  And God’s generosity—I am amazed by the gifts from the grandchildren to the ability to discern the divine in the world to the wisdom.  Not to mention God’s loyalty.  My heart says horrible things to God some days—to my knowledge, God has never quit on me.

When it comes to the 23rd Psalm, some of the best stuff is in the middle.  Here’s my version:

Psalm 23:The Divine Shepherd A Psalm of David (and Dana).
The Source of my life guides me, I am content.
She surprises me with an oasis of opportunities in which to discover Her;
She introduces me to contemplation (inner stillness);
She helps me see the unity of all things—people, places, things.
She surprises me with mentors in the spiritual journey
Being true to Her I-Am-Ness.
Even though I discover the limitations of my personal power
and parts of my personality that trouble me,
I experience no anxiety.
For you are within me;
Your steady arms of support and correction
Envelope me like sweater.
You offer me the gift of divine life
In spite of my inner turmoil;
You support my mind with scripture and my heart with love;
My soul is consumed with your generosity.
I am certain that acts of kindness and forgiveness
will flow from You to me
As long as I live,
And I will be aware of your eternal presence all of my days.
Did you
Did you notice how I named the
green pastures,
the still waters,
the meal prepared for us in the presence of enemies,
what’s following me in my life,
the hope God’s presence brings?

Did you know that in verse 6 where the NRSV version of the Psalm writes “surely your goodness and mercy will follow me” that the word for follow is hesed, which means pursue?  God is coming after the psalmist?  This makes us wonder if the ending of the psalm is about all of the reasons the psalmist would like to be caught?

If you were to take the time to rewrite the 23rd Psalm, how would you describe the green pastures, the still waters, the enemies, the overflowing cup, and the hope?  How is God loyal to you, generous to you…how has God not only led you but also pursued you?  Do you trust God?

Here’s another version.  It’s written by Norman Fischer in the style of Zen (Zen (Buddhism) is very simple… What are you?  In this whole world everyone searches for happiness outside, but nobody understands their true self inside.)  Fischer writes: 
You ARE MY SHEPHERD, I am content
You lead me to rest in the sweet grasses
To lie down by the quiet waters
And I am refreshed
You lead me down the right path
The path that unwinds in the pattern of your name
And even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of
I will not fear
For you are with me
Comforting me with your rod and your staff
Showing me each step
You prepare a table for me
In the midst of my adversity
And moisten my head with oil
Surely my cup is overflowing
And goodness and kindness will follow me
All the days of my life
And in the long days beyond
I will always live within your house.

Here’s a version with a bit more humor:

Psalm 23 for Today
Chris Gnanakan

Psalm 23 (For the Work Place)
The Lord is my real boss, and I shall not want.
He gives me peace, when chaos is all around me.
He gently reminds me to pray and do all things without
murmuring and complaining.

He reminds me that He is my source and not my job.
He restores my sanity everyday and guides my decisions
that I might honor Him in all that I do.

Even though I face absurd amounts of e-mails, system
crashes, unrealistic deadlines, budget cutbacks, gossiping
co-workers, discriminating supervisors and an aging body
that doesn’t cooperate every morning, I still will not stop—
for He is with me! His presence, His peace, and His power
will see me through.

He raises me up, even when they fail to promote me.
He claims me as His own, even when the company threatens
to let me go. His Faithfulness and love is better than any bonus check.

His retirement plan beats any 401k there is!
When it’s all said and done, I’ll be working for Him
a whole lot longer and for that, I bless His name!

The 23rd Psalm is most often read at funerals, but it is so much bigger than that—the author is communicating that God is concerned about how we live---connected to the Spirit, confident even when threatened, hopeful; trusting!!! 

The 23rd Psalm asks us if God’s presence makes a difference in how we live.  What do we make of God’s trustworthiness?
Some years ago a delightful man attended a Bible study I lead on a regular basis. He quoted the first couple of sentences of the 23rd Psalm quite frequently.   “The LORD is my shepherd, what more do I need?” he’d say with a smile and a twinkle in his eye before he’d add, “Isn’t that great?” 

I met this man towards the end of his life when he resided in a little apartment in his sister’s home.  This man had spent most of his life as a medical doctor, but he was most excited about the opportunity he had to build a medical school in Thailand—and the son he adopted there, and then the son’s family. “That’s why I don’t have any money,” he told me one day, “I gave it all away.  It’s been a wonderful life!  The LORD is my shepherd, what more do I need?” 

Prayer:  May you be enough for us, Loving God, may you be enough.  Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana.)

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