Next week I will teach preschoolers the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, incorporating Psalm 23. I will use objects and songs and movements to help these little ones remember that Jesus leads them and cares for them and finds them if they get lost.
I am meditating on Psalm 23 and John 10 as I prepare for this teaching, and the pictures that keep rising in my mind are not of green pastures and still waters but of the wolf and the dark valley. I find myself singing phrases from two songs based on Psalm 23: Audrey Assad’s “I Shall Not Want” and Marty Haugen’s “Shepherd Me O God.”
These two songs are expanding my understanding of the dark valley and the wolf.
Not long ago my youngest child and I were talking about the wolf, the evil one. My child wanted to know how the evil one feels about people, specifically about him. And we talked about a depth of hatred that is beyond what we can understand, a desire for our destruction that is so great it will not be satisfied except by the complete separation of humans from all that is good and right—from God.
We talked about the varying tactics of the evil one, how at times he appears as an angel of light—as comfort and safety and self-interest and belonging—how at others he beckons with the dark seduction of power and fame and revenge. How the effects of the evil one’s deception might be more obvious in the broken families, high drug use, and violence of at-risk neighborhoods but the complacency, independence, and aloofness of well-off neighborhoods is just as much his work.
Both distract us from our greatest, deepest need. Both blind us to the goodness of God.
This past week I told the story of the Fall in church and then taught the children to tell it. “Did God say…?” the evil one asks, casting doubt on God’s truthfulness, on God’s goodness. God has lied to you, he suggests. There is a way for you to be like God, and God, being greedy, does not want that. He wants you stupid and grateful and content in not knowing what you lack. He has tricked you.
We have believed this lie ever since. It has its many variations—for the evil one is forever subtly and craftily undermining the goodness and trustworthiness of God toward us.
In the prayer of St. Francis, these lines appear: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console/to be understood as to understand/to be loved as to love.” I see these same ideas in Assad’s “I Shall Not Want.”
From the love of my own comfort/From the fear of having nothing/From a life of worldly passions/Deliver me O God
From the need to be understood/And from a need to be accepted/From the fear of being lonely/Deliver me O God/Deliver me O God
From the fear of serving others/Oh, and from the fear of death or trial/And from the fear of humility/Deliver me O God/Yes, deliver me O God
The needs identified—for comfort, provision, passion, understanding, acceptance, belonging—are good. They are among our deepest desires. It is these needs the evil one taps into, magnifying and twisting them. We cannot, do not trust God to fulfill these needs. He is either not big enough to or not good enough to want to. He is not the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. So we must take matters into our own hands; we must prize our own needs above those of others; we must lose our good sense of smallness—as one among many created in the likeness and image of God, as one of many, many beloved sheep. We leave the fold and strike out on our own.
We cannot, will not trust the perfect love of God to provide our needs and wants, and, ironically, only that perfect love drives out the fear that keeps us from trusting.
And this brings me to Marty Haugen’s song “Shepherd Me O God,” with its chorus that puzzled me the first time I heard it: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants/beyond my fears, from death into life.
Beyond the shallow wants that distract me from my deepest needs.
Beyond the fears that blind me to true goodness and faithfulness.
It is in the “beyond” that we are fully satisfied.
And it is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who takes us there.
The chorus of Assad’s song looks to this “beyond.”
And I shall not want, no, I shall not want/When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want/When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want
Our Good, Good Shepherd did not abandon us to the wolf but laid down his life for us, so we could be his own, could be his known sheep who know him, who live in his goodness and in the fullness of life.
And in this life, there is no want.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
For his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff—
They comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
In the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord