God is My Shepard: Insights From the 23rd Psalm

 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.

Even when the way goes through
    Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
    when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
    makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
    right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
    my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
    every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
    for the rest of my life.

(The Message)

I always think of Psalm 23 as “The Death Chapter.”  I mean, it seems that it is rather often spoken at grave sites and funerals.  Whenever there is a traumatic scene where a funeral and a church are involved, they are reading the 23rd Psalm.

I am a fan of Jason Upton.  I listen to him a lot, and he has a song called Psalm 23.  He has a way of singing scripture that leaves it raw and yet whole.  I realized recently that when I listen to this song which, as you may have guessed, is about Psalm 23, I do not listen to it in the context one might think. Oblige me as I pontificate…

I have recently come to think of this scripture differently than as “The Death Chapter”.  I realized one day that I was using it was warfare.  It is not some lazy little portion of scripture that sits by idly until we need comfort.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it is comforting, and comfort is good!  But, it is also a club we can pick up and fight with.

Most people, no matter the spiritual background, are familiar with the 23rd Psalm.  “The Lord is my Shepard…”  reverberates through the memory banks and transcends many other texts we have heard.  And yet, how much do we actually use the scripture?

The version of the scripture I have posted above is lesser known from the Message, but no less poignant.  I think it paints a very vivid image, and for those who are unfamiliar with the Message, don’t discount it because of its construction.  It was written with much knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew and is exceedingly eloquent, textual, and vivid.

“…you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction.”

Wow.  I love the wording of that.  There are so many days I just need to STOP.

Stop the push and pull.  Stop the obligations and expectations.  Stop the performance and the accomplishments.  Stop resisting.  Stop fighting. Stop the fatigue.

Stop.  And catch my breath.

What do you stop?  What do you do to catch your breath?

And not only do I, we, have permission to stop, but then He will send us in the right direction.  And I think it is not coincidence in the set up of that scripture there.  Is it possible we miss the right direction because we do not allow ourselves to catch our breath?  Maybe we don’t hear what God is saying and how he is directing because we won’t slow down and take a breath.

“Your beauty and love chase after me.”

Again.  Wow.  That brings me to tears just to read.  It seems fantastical that not just God, but specifically, his Beauty and his Love chase after me, us.  Wow.  Just wow.  You know why I say that?

Because I know what a vile little shrew I so often am.  I know that that there are times the fallible people around me can hardly stand me, so how can the perfect God of the universe not only look at me but have his love and beauty chase me around.

Seriously?

Hard to wrap my head around.  But here is the lesson therein.  We are so busy looking to others and seeking approval that we are lovable and beautiful and worthy, when Psalm 23 says that God’s beauty and love is chasing us around.

What does that even mean?

I will tell you what it means to me.  It means that each day I live, I am renewed with the beauty of Almighty Yahweh.  It means that no matter how I am treated or even how I treat myself, his love endures through every moment of my human life.  It is like a heat seeking missile, and as long as I draw breath, it will find me.

Verse 4 says, “I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.”

If you are a person who deals with the darkness of life on a regular basis, no matter how fearless you are by nature, there comes a point when the human factor simply isn’t enough to combat some of the monsters crouching in the dark.  This chapter is about stepping into those dark places knowing that the kind of fear that is elicited from what lurks in those depths can only be negated by God alone. Knowing that even though you walk into darkness, with God you will walk back out into the light again at some point.

It is God walking with me that helps me step fearlessly into what would consume human strength.  That is how this scripture moved from a poem to a living breathing torch full of permission, comfort, protection, and hope for me.  It now breaths into the icy chill that life sometimes is, bringing a flicker of light to the dark night.

It is not difficult to understand why this Psalm is popular at funerals, for it is often at funerals where we find ourselves in the darkest night of loss we can image. That is why the scripture is iconic for the lost and mourning, and why it endures not only as solace but as a weapon.

 

 

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Gideon: Rescuer

We left Gideon (in the last blog) finally convinced that the direction he has been getting is coming from God.  Through this revelation we have learned about fleeces in the context of testing and can understand their use when trying to make certain the direction we feel we are getting is coming from God.

Now, we look at the action part of this story.  Gideon is now ready lead an army as God has directed.  Judges 7 starts out with God giving direction by telling Gideon he has too many men.  In verse 2 we find that the reason God doesn’t want Gideon to use a big army is because God wants to show Israel that he is the rescuer and deliverer.  He wants to make certain they know, when it’s all said and done, just whose hand delivered them.

He has Gideon announce that any of the men who are afraid to fight must leave and go home.  22 thousand take off, leaving 10 thousand men (v. 3).  Still that is too many, so God has Gideon take the remaining 10 thousand to the river for a drink.  Those who kneel and cup the water into their mouths are sent home. Those who get down on their bellies and lap the water like dogs are kept.  That whittles the numbers down to 300 (v.7).

Meanwhile, in the enemy camp, one individual is telling his friend about a dream he has just had where a loaf of barley bread comes tumbling down a hill and plows into a tent and causes it to overturn. The friend interprets the dream and explains that the dream is about Gideon and that the whole camp has been delivered into his hands.

Gideon, who God has sent on a reconnaissance mission hears the dream AND the interpretation and knows that it’s a done deal.  He rallies his band of warriors, telling them God has delivered the enemy into their hands, and they head out (v. 15).

I think this next part is ingenious.  God has Gideon divide the army into three companies.  He has each of them carry a trumpet and an empty jar with torches inside them.  They surrounded the camp and all together blow their trumpets and smash their jars crying, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”(v.20)

The enemy is caused to be thrown into a state of confusion (Nice having God on your side isn’t it?), and they turn on each other.  Long story, short, the enemy is vanquished.

A couple of interesting things I ponder in this last part of Gideon’s story.

First, why were they to cry “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon“?  I mean, God made it a point to stack the deck so far against Israel, just to be able to show that HE was what the victory was all about.  So why have them throw Gideon’s name in there?  Why had the person in the enemy camp dreamed that the sword of Gideon was coming for them all?  Why not the sword of the Lord?”

Second, what does this story show us in the here and now?

For the first, I am certain there are many ideas on why God did that and none of them wrong.  For me, I like to think that God cared about Gideon, personally.  I believe that he saw Gideon’s heart and knew there was no hubris.  So, he was good with allowing acknowledgement for a man who was so willing to do what he asked in the humblest manner.  Plus he was wise enough to check and make sure that he was actually getting his direction for God.  There was, after all, so much at stake.

And the second part can then dovetail off of the first.  For me, much of that practical application is a directive on how to best serve God.  I so often hear people, and I have done so as well, asking what they should do or how to know what God wants for them.  I think that this story shows that it is never about how insurmountable something appears.  If we have God on our side, he can always make a way.

We must seek him, ask and wait for confirmation that it is he who is directing us.  Once we have confirmation, we must look to him to show us exactly how to go about accomplishing what we are doing, always remembering it is never about us and our skills.  The victory always belongs to the Lord.

Through that acknowledgement, we may find ourselves winning something far greater than our original goal.  We may find our names being announced alongside that of Yashuea, the Rescuer.

 

Rescuing Gideon 2

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So if you have been reading my blogs (and thank you very much), you will have read Rescuing Gideon.  The story of Gideon is so good!  There are so many life-applicable truths within!

I spoke in my last blog about accountability.  Gideon was so ready to say to God, “How could you abandon us like this!!!”  I can hear him, wailing the sentence in desperation. That’s most likely because I have heard myself doing the same.  But the truth of the matter was that Israel was suffering the consequences of their actions.  God had told them, “Don’t worship any other god before me,” and they didn’t listen.

I have heard this come from people so often, and once again I must cop to the fact that I have done so as well.  I try to do my own thing. I make decisions that either I haven’t consulted God on or have simply thumbed my nose at him when he told me to go a different route.  And then I rail at the outcome.  “God how could you let this happen to me?”

Dontcha love me, Abba?

And the answer is never changing.  “I love you with an everlasting love.”  But it’s the second part that humbles me. “Therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jeremiah 31:3 ET).  And the reason it humbles me is because I know he is saying he is faithful in spite of the fact that I have not been faithful to him.

There have been many times in the past when I have stepped outside of God’s will for my life; times when I have willfully and purposefully disobeyed.  And he has ever been faithful when I have come back.  He has loved me with an everlasting love.

As he loves you.

But here is the kicker.  When I disobey; when I go off on a trail of my own making, there is grace and forgiveness just for me when I cry for help.  BUT there are also consequences.  There are ramifications for my willfulness, not because God wants to punish me, but because he has tried to protect me from that which would render those consequences.  But he isn’t going to force me.  I am not a hostage.

You have heard of cause and effect, right?  Step back from your life for a moment and look at where it is at right now.  Whatever is going on didn’t just happen to you.  Where your life is right now is a result of a web of choices made over time by you and those in your life who have impacted you.  Good.  Bad. They are effects of a decision somewhere that caused them.

And that is what Israel refused to lock and load on.  They did it over an over again.  They refused to see that the bad things weren’t just happening to them.  Their history is a record set on repeat.  Over and over the same scenario played and is still playing.  They cry out to Yashuea.  He rescues them.  He tells them to love him over everything else.  They get lazy, selfish, and indulgent.  They replace him with idols.  He warns them of the consequences of their actions, and they choose to ignore Him.  Back to bondage.

Rinse and repeat.

And here is the thing.  We do the same thing.  I do the same thing.  Gideon just said what everyone was thinking.

And what did God do?  He gave the thing perhaps humans crave most in times of crises.  He gave Gideon something to do.  He gave him a plan of action.

God tells him, (some theologians believe it was actually Jesus who came and sat under the tree and spoke to Gideon because of the way the text is presented) “Go in the strength you have, and save Israel out of Midian’s hand.  Am I not sending you?”

Whoa.

God puts the responsibility back to Gideon.  He doesn’t waste time mincing words.  He just tells him, “Go get it.”

Gideon, after lamenting to God; after letting God know how much he had failed Israel (remember this is from my perspective of Gideon’s perspective), God gives him a solution and turns it back to Gideon.  If I were writing the dialogue I might insert here, “You are so sure I abandoned you?  Let me fix that.  I will send YOU.”

And Gideon…

Well maybe he didn’t like that thought so much.  Again if I were writing the dialogue based on Gideon’s thoughts, I would imagine him thinking, “Whoa.  Wait a second.  I was just asking for help and letting you know where you failed us.  I never planned on you sending me.  That is so not gonna work…”

What the scripture actually states in verse 15 is a list Gideon presents to God of why he is not the one to go.  Reminds me a lot of what Moses said to God.  And it reminds me a lot of things I have said to God.  “How can I save Israel?  My clan is the weakest in  Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”

The Lord says, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.” (verse 16)

This is a beautiful piece of the story.  Do you see it?  This is ancient story, applicable to right now.

How many times have we, you, me, cried out to God, and in hubris and desperation, have combined a cry for help with an accusation.  And God being, well, God, doesn’t grab us by the throat (although I confess he has had to grab me a time or two as I tend to be rather stupid).  He just, in one action or statement, presents us with a solution.

But here is what Gideon missed.

God gave him a solution and he also empowered him.  “Am I not sending you?”(v. 14)  This is huge.  When the God of the universe says, “Am I not sending you,” I assure you, the question is rhetorical.  He is not asking who is doing the sending.  He is saying, “You have all you need because I am sending you.”

Makes the hair stand up on my arms, frankly, because I know for a fact he has done the same with me, and I have missed it every stinking time.  There was power in that statement.  There was the power of the God of every generation packed in that statement.  The power of a God who decides the final outcome.

And here is where I leave you for this missive…

There is a reason Gideon’s story is in God’s Word.  There is a reason your story is in the world.  God has a plan for you.  In spite of you.  He is not limited by anything finite.

And neither are you.

We are who we allow God to make us.  And no matter how many times we “rinse and repeat” our scenario before we realize that obedience is freedom and God has committed to loving us eternally with a faithfulness that outlasts our disobedience, He never removes his commitment to grow us in him.