The Power of the Psalms

Despite the fact that you will rarely hear a sermon on them, the Psalms are by far the most read book of the Bible within my denomination.  With a few exceptions, in the Daily Office, we read the Psalter through every seven weeks.  In the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalter is still marked for reading them in a thirty day cycle.  Almost every Sunday, a portion of the Psalter is appointed in the Lectionary.  It is a gift that we are able to borrow from our Jewish sisters and brothers their ancient songs of praise, lament, thanksgiving, and wisdom sharing.

As with any set of texts, some speak more to me than others.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Psalm 121 is a go-to for me in challenging times.  Psalms 1, 122, 133, and even the weighty Psalm 22 have all been important to me at times in my life.  Of course, there is Psalm 23, which has almost universally been used at the funerals over which I have presided in my decade plus of ordained ministry.   Psalm 23 has a tendency to show up just when I need it to.  It was there on the week of the Boston Marathon bombing.  There have been several experiencing where I was ministering to someone who was deep in the symptoms of Alzheimers and watched as they mouthed the words of the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm along with me.

This week, as we had to make the Closing the Porch to close our porches to overnight sleeping.  Through tears and hugs, last night we announced to the Cloister Community that it would be the final night they could find shelter in our shelter.  Our ministry with this community isn’t ending, but it is drastically changing, and as I grieve all that is lost in this transition – seeing folks daily, praying for them, sharing coffee and a breakfast – I’m holding on to these words of lament that are also words of hope.  In minutes that seem to last for days where I feel acutely the shadow of death, stuck as I am on Holy Saturday, but I know that in due time, blessings and mercy will find me, and that grace abounds.

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Take your cute lamb and stuff it.

Of course, the reality of grief is that if anyone says that to me right now, I will be hard-pressed not to throat-punch them theologically, but just as those souls wracked with dementia had the 23rd Psalm hard-wired into their bones, it is there, deep within me, sustaining me through what are some pretty painful days.

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Lessons from the Shepherd #2

I promise I’ll get to the Gospel lesson before the week is out, but as I continue on my quest to see something new in the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, my focus is once again on the comfortable, and comforting, 23rd Psalm.  Moving beyond the first verse, we come to the reason why it is read (in its King James form) at the vast majority of Episcopal funerals.

4 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.

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Thinking of God, and by extension Jesus the Good Shepherd, as being present with us, even in the depths of the valley of the shadow of death, is an important one.  It is part of why the cross is so important as well.  Without God having experienced the fullness of our human experience, highs and lows, joys and sorrows, excitements and fears, fellowship and isolation, the redemption that occurs through Christ is less than whole.  It is only in the cry of dereliction that the truth of Psalm 23:4 is made full.

God walks with us, not only in those times of happy, clappy fun, but even to the pits of hell – be it forced upon us, or, quite often, a hell of our own making.  The solace that comes in knowing that even in our darkest moments a) God has been there and b) God is there, is part of what makes the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd so appealing.  In those moments when it seems as though we have nothing left, when it feels like everyone has abandoned us, this image of Christ as the Good Shepherd helps to reinforce that even in those moments, God is there.  It assures us, as Jesus says in our Gospel lesson, that as a shepherd, Jesus is willing to go so far as to lay down his life for the sheep.  He will not abandon us.  He will never gonna give you up.  Never gonna let you down.  Never gonna run around a desert you.

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Sorry, not sorry

Lessons for the Shepherd #1

As I mentioned yesterday, the well worn image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd makes me uneasy as a preacher.  I have to work a little harder to overcome what feels like the easy options in preaching and look for something new or different.  I have to be willing to spend some extra time turning the crystal to see this image in a new way.  So, this week, I’m trying just that.  I’m not sure how successful I’ll be, but I know a sermon will be preached on Sunday, so I’ve got until then to come up with something to say.

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Today, my mind is drawn away from the Gospel lesson and toward the comfortable, and comforting, twenty-third Psalm.  Here, maybe more so than in the Johannine lesson, we get some unpacking about what it means to look at God as a shepherd.  Since I don’t know any shepherds, and the only people I know who carry a shepherd’s crook also wear pectoral crosses and purple shirts and usually do their roaming in the driver’s seat of a fuel-efficient SUV crossover, I need something to help me wrap my mind around this metaphor.

The Lord is my shepherd,*
I shall not be in want.

The first thing we learn from the psalmist is that the image of God as shepherd includes God as giver.  Sheep aren’t primarily raised as food.  As such, to bring it into the 21st century, the goal of the shepherd isn’t to plump up the sheep as quickly as possible to put a lean, dry cut of meat on your plate in as little time as possible and at the lowest cost.  Rather, sheep are raised for the long-haul.  They are raised to provide wool season after season.  The provision that the shepherd tries to give to the sheep, then, isn’t about immediate gratification, but about the quality of the final product.  It means that want is a term that requires some nuance.

To our 21st century American ears, not being in want sounds extravagant.  It means a shiny new iPhone every year to connect to the blue tooth on our washed and waxed weekly Suburbans.  But in context, to not be in want means to be taken care of with our best interests in mind.  Rather than being a call to engage in the commercialism of today, following God as our shepherd means trusting that what we have in our lives is what we might need for the moment.  I guess it means really believing when we pray, “give us this day our daily bread.”

The Good Shepherd has our long-term spiritual health in mind.  We are being prepared not for today or tomorrow, but for eternal life.  As such, we are called to follow the shepherd who provides all we need, not for the immediate, but for the eternal.

Where the Shepherd leads

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A quick image search of the word “shepherd” will bring you any number of bucolic images of Jesus with a crook in one hand, a baby sheep in the other, and a flock of well behaved, perfectly aligned sheep following dutifully behind.  I don’t know much about sheep or shepherding, but I know enough to know those images are garbage.  Jesus didn’t teach the Parable of the Lost Sheep because sheep are well known rule followers.  Rather, as you can see in this photograph of a modern-day shepherd, sheep kind of do what they want, even as they reluctantly follow.  Notice in the back left, as a parcel of sheep veer off to find green pasture while those in front look eager to run off on their own.

This Sunday, we will pray not only that we might hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and hear him call us each by name, but that we might also, by God’s grace, follow where he leads.  That’s all well and good when the Good Shepherd is leading us beside still waters and right pathways toward the green pastures of Psalm 23, but what happens when the path of life leads us through the valley of the shadow of death?  Following the Good Shepherd doesn’t mean we will forever walk in green fields below bright blue skies.  There will be times when the grass looks a whole lot greener on the other side.  There will be moments when the path ahead looks dark and foreboding.  There will come a time when we have to make a real choice between following the Good Shepherd and forging our own path.  What happens when where the shepherd leads looks like a place we don’t want to go?

That’s where trust comes in, I suppose – trust that comes through an ongoing relationship.  When the path ahead looks scary, we can recall other moments when the shepherd safely brought us through moments of trial with care and love.  We can take solace in knowing that the goal is always green pastures and still waters, even if the natural course of life sometimes brings onion grass and dangerous rapids.  It isn’t the moment by moment promise of safety and security that God offers.  Instead, it is the ongoing presence of the Good Shepherd, who has a plan, who watches the skies, and who knows then and where to slow down, hold back, and wait for the storm to pass by.  The journey long, and arduous at times, but the Shepherd is good and there is a whole flock of other sheep who walk alongside to encourage us to stay the course toward the ultimate goal of life abundant.

Supersaturated life

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You may remember from high school science class that a supersaturated solution is one in which more of something is dissolved in a liquid than could be under normal conditions.  The solution sits in supersaturation unless and until something acts upon it to force the excess to precipitate out, or, more spectacularly shown in the gif above, crystallization occurs.  If you have ever enjoyed a piece of rock candy, you have experienced a crystallized supersaturated solution.  In two of our lessons on Sunday, we learn that the Kingdom of God is something like that.

Psalm 23, everybody’s second favorite Olde English thing (next to a good Thug Life tattoo) is often remembered for the “valley of the shadow of death” in verse 4, but I love Psalm 23 because of verse 5.  The Book of Common Prayer translation reads thusly,

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

God’s grace supersaturates our lives such that feasts can be enjoyed right in the midst of our enemies.  Our heads, like those of kings, are anointed with oil.  Our cup runneth over.  The Hebrew word there is literally translated as “saturated.”  Its root word carries connotations of abundance, soaking wet, and drunkenness.  The cup that God has prepared for us, even in the valley of death, right in the sight of our detractors, remains abundantly full.  In God, even in the midst of hardship, our blessings are supersaturated.

Our Gospel lesson from John 10 suggests something similar.  Jesus, you’ll recall, is standing in the presence of his enemies when he tells the man born blind, the Pharisees, and anyone who would here, that he has come into the world so that we might have abundant life.  The Greek here suggests excessiveness, superabundance, and even superfluousness.  God’s grace acts as a supersaturated solution in our lives.  When acted upon by outside forces, it sometimes precipitates out so that in the midst of hardship we can see it, taste it, and feel it.  Sometimes, the pressure to lose sight of it is so great that it might have to crystallize in spectacular fashion.  I think maybe that’s what miracles are all about.

This Sunday, we will hear about the overflowing love of God.  We’ll be reminded that even in the hard times, God’s grace does not shy away.  Once again, we will bring to mind the gift of abundant life that God offers each of us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Even as we give up on resurrection accounts, we will hear of the power of Easter,  the abundant resurrected life that God desires to pour out on all of humanity.

The LORD Restores My Soul

Sorry for being less than stellar in blogging this week. I’ve got a good excuse, though any excuse is a bad one. So, I guess I’ve got a good bad excuse. I’ve spent the last 3 days at Bexley-Seabury on the campus of Trinity Lutheran Seminary with members of the Acts 8 Moment Steering Committee. We worked hard: we listened and learned, we prayed together, we shared meals and fellowship time, and we decided on some specific action items to be announced soon. As I sit in the Columbus airport, waiting for my plane to arrive, I am exhausted and my brain hurts, but I feel as if my soul has been restored.

There is a lot to complain about in The Episcopal Church these days. I won’t rehearse that list here because a) it depresses me, b) I don’t want it to depress you, and c) this is blog read by many non-Episcopalians. Suffice it to say, there is a lot wrong in The Episcopal Church, but the last three days have minded me that if I’m placing my trust in the Church as an institorution, it will let me down. Instead, I, we, are called to put our trust in the LORD, the Good Shepherd, who encourages me to rest in the green pastures, helps me pay attention to the still waters, and restores my soul.

The great part of this Good News from Psalm 23, is that it applies to every frustration life can through our way, every valley of the shadow of death that we stumble upon. God’s goodness sustains us in the midst of illness, job loss, institutional dysfunction, familial strife, finals week, you name it. When we are able to remember in the midst of those difficulties that the LORD is there, we are then able to tap into God’s restorative grace.

I’m thankful for three days to be reminded of my deep frustration with the Church that I love so that the LORD could restore my soul.

Poured out to overflowing

The end of the Romans lesson for Trinity Sunday, Year C really got me this morning.  At the end of that big, long, tempting sentence that I begged you not to preach this week, is an image that is too good not to pay attention to.  “…  hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

My mind was immediately taken to the end of Psalm 23, in which the Psalmist declares, “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  It all got me thinking again about the abundance of God.  God pours out his blessings upon our heads so that it runs down our faces, covers our bodies, and even the tips of our toes (an action that was recreated in ancient baptismal rites, but because of prudence, we no longer strip candidates naked and slather them with oil).  God’s love, unfulfilled (this isn’t the right word, but I can’t think of what I want to say) as it was even within the perfect love of the Trinity, overflowed into creation.   God takes that love and pours it into our hearts, but even that can’t contain it.  Ideally, the love of God overflows even our hearts and is poured out into the world through acts of service and compassion, through charity and justice seeking, and through disciples just being present: shutting up and listening to the needs and hurts of another.

God pours out his love into our hearts, but if we bottle it up, we’ve missed the true blessing of sharing that gift with a world desperate for deep relationship.