The Good Shepherd

darkest valleyNext 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

Forever.

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More on “Rest”

NOTE: A few weeks ago, I posted this piece about the word “rest” in the book of Ruth. In the last week, I’ve encountered two things that have really resonated with me regarding that topic: 1. a quote from Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471); and 2. a song from church this past Sunday. Hope these are encouraging. ~Jen

  1. If you are constantly in search of this or that, wanting to be anywhere but where you are, believing that you will be happier having more or being somewhere else, you will never know peace, never be free of care. In everything and every place you will find something lacking. Adding things to your life, multiplying them, will not bring you peace. Only be cutting back and breaking their control over your life will you find peace. This applies not only to money and riches, but to the desire for honor, for praise, and for an undemanding life. Don’t desire what you do not have. And do not cling to anything which stands in the way of your freedom in God. Thomas à Kempis
  2. “Restless” by Audrey Assad and Matt Maher. Click on the title below to listen to Assad sing this song. The lines that spoke most to me are these: “I’m restless ’til I rest in you” and “Without you I am hopeless, tell me who you are/You are the keeper of my heart.”

RESTLESS

You dwell in the songs that we are singing

Rising to the Heavens, rising to your heart, your heart

Our praises filling up the spaces

In between our frailty and everything you are

You are the keeper of my heart

And I’m restless, I’m restless

‘Til I rest in you, ’til I rest in you

I’m restless, I’m restless

‘Til I rest in you, ’til I rest in you

Oh God, I wanna rest in you

Oh, speak now for my soul is listening

Say that you have saved me, whisper in the dark

‘Cause I know you’re more than my salvation

Without you I am hopeless, tell me who you are

You are the keeper of my heart

You are the keeper of my heart

Still my heart, hold me close

Let me hear a still small voice

Let it grow, let it rise

Into a shout, into a cry

“Restless” words and music by Audrey Assad and Matt Maher, © 2010 River Oaks Music Company, Thankyou Music, Valley Of Songs Music

The Tiger Within

*Scroll to the bottom to hear me read this post.

This picture has no relation to today's post, but I'm reminding myself--as it was only 12 degrees when I woke up this morning--that the time of beautiful green crickets clinging to open screen doors will come!

This picture has no relation to today’s post, but I’m reminding myself–as it was only 12 degrees when I woke up this morning–that the time of screen doors and beautiful green crickets clinging to them will come!

I sat on his bed to kiss him goodnight and saw it the moment his head turned toward me.

His lips were pinched, his eyes hard.

“What’s the matter, Bud?” I asked.

His voice had an edge as he reminded me that the birthday party we’d talked about a month ago has not yet happened. “You said we might do it this weekend,” he accused.

Never mind that he has just spent more than twenty-four hours with a best friend.

Never mind that we’d never done more to plan the party than simply talk about it.

Never mind that I’d told him several days ago that the party would not happen this weekend—we simply had too much going on.

He was so focused on self that gratitude and perspective—logic, too—had fled.

I could completely identify.

“You’re miserable, aren’t you?” I asked him.

The flat look stayed a second more but then slipped. He nodded.

We prayed together, and I reminded him of all the “never mind’s.” We talked about all the good he’d experienced this weekend, and the things we could be thankful for in that very moment.

Suddenly his small chest rose and fell with a great breath, and he smiled at me.

I smiled back. “It feels good to let it go, doesn’t it?”

I told him then I have the same, awful struggle, and sometimes I imagine SELF (or rather the focus on self) to be like a coiled kitten deep in my gut. When it slumbers, it seems harmless, so I pet it a little, and it raises its head. I continue to stroke it, and it rises higher, higher. Still all seems well, but then it stands on hind legs and hooks its needle-sharp claws into my heart.

And I am overcome.

“Why don’t they see what I’m doing?”

“It wouldn’t hurt them to be just a little grateful!”

“Well, I did that for her. Shouldn’t she do something in return?”

“All I do is clean up (cook/work/drive/do) for everyone else.”

“Don’t they notice all I’m doing?”

“When is someone going to do something nice for ME? When is it MY turn?”

“How is this going to affect me?”

The thoughts bombard, and I can’t stop them. I am miserable in my self-focus, but I’m also powerless to do anything about it. I try to pull the claws from my heart, but as soon as I get one free, another is entangled, and they keep sinking deeper and deeper! I realize what I thought was a harmless kitten is in actuality a tiger, fierce and strong, with not a hint of give in its eyes.

“That’s why we had to pray,” I told my son. “We can’t fight the tiger in our own power. We have to come to Jesus and tell Him we need Him. I have to keep re-learning this very lesson.”

Recently I discovered this song by Audrey Assad (©2013) about this very thing. I’ve been praying it lately. I hope you find it helpful as well.

 

“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, oh God.

 

From the need to be understood;

From the need to be accepted;

From the fear of being lonely;

Deliver me, oh God.

Deliver me, oh God.

 

And I shall not want; I shall not want

When I taste your goodness I shall not want.

When I taste your goodness I shall not want.

 

From the fear of serving others;

From the fear of death or trial;

From the fear of humility:

Deliver me, oh God.

Deliver me, oh God.

NOTE: The title link above leads to a video of Assad playing and singing this song.