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.

Named and Naming

cross picI can still see in my mind one picture from my very first children’s Bible. There’s Adam, his back facing me, a plant strategically covering his butt. Both arms are by his sides, but one hand is lifted slightly. The pose seems to say, “I’m thinking. The right name will come to me, and it will be perfect.”

In front of Adam is a vast line of animals, stretching off into the horizon. I remember a few of them: the lion, his mane-surrounded face looking wise and calm, a giraffe just behind, its neck and head arching toward Adam, and a gazelle-like creature, poised as if standing still was an extreme effort.

I’ve always been fascinated with this story, with humans having the privilege of naming. Naming, I feel, is a small act of creating, a small act that opens the door to vast possibility.

We humans love to name—our children, our pets, our businesses, even inanimate personal belongings. We seem to think that when we name, we hold a bit of interest in that person. We feel we’ve set them on a path because names carry connotation for us. Some names are strong; others are beautiful or quirky or unique. When we name, we confer not only possibility, but a hoped-for direction or purpose.

Could this love for naming be a longing for the privilege we had pre-Fall?

We lost so much at the Fall, relationship with God paramount, so perhaps the loss of our naming privilege does not seem very big, but I wonder about that. I think it must have been fairly significant: names are a big deal in Scripture. In historical accounts, the naming of children or places is often included. God changed people’s names several times, and in each instance the name change carried weight. It signified a new direction, a new identity, and a different relationship with God.

I’ve learned that the very fact we have names is important. I’m reading a book on Genesis* right now, and in the section about the serpent/Satan in Genesis 3, the author made this statement: “What is interesting is that in all but one of these … occurrences (of the name ‘Satan’), ‘satan’ has attached to it the definite article, ‘the satan.’ This indicates ‘the satan’ is a title, not a personal name. Satan is not who he is, but what he is. He does not merit a name, and in antiquity, not to have a name was to be reduced to virtual nonexistence.” (emphasis mine)

I often tell my children Satan is not capable of creating. He can only twist toward evil what God created for good, and this quote expanded my thinking: Satan un-named himself when he turned away from the Creator, and in so doing, he separated himself from any participation in creation. In a way, he undid himself. He made himself nothing, incapable of doing anything true.

In the Fall, we, too, un-named ourselves. We spurned “beloved” and “image-bearer” and put on false names like “self-sufficient” and “independent.”

But God snatched up the true names we cast off so flippantly. God kept them safe, and through the magnificent work of Immanuel, God restores them to us. Truly named ourselves, we can once again join God in the creative work of naming others.

I’ve been pondering this idea for a long time, particularly in my context as a mother. Each day I contribute to the naming of my children. With the attitudes, actions, and words I direct toward them (and in the absence of those as well), I shape their concept of themselves. I can name them “beloved” and “valuable” and “growing.” But I can also twist their concept of their name: “You are a bother.” “You are incapable.” “You are not worth my time right now.” I can reinforce their un-naming.

This is not only true for parents. We all have people we are called to nurture in one way or another, and we can be a part of naming them as God wants them named: valuable, unique, and beloved.

We can name even the people we simply pass on the street. When we make eye contact with a person, we “say,” “I see you. I acknowledge you as a fellow human being.” That is naming.

And when we avert our eyes, what then?

In I Peter, we are told we are “chosen (to be) God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for (us)—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.” **

And in this “telling,” we get to name others—with the names God has for them. He says, “I’ll call nobodies and make them somebodies; I’ll call the unloved and make them beloved. In the place where they yelled out, “You’re nobody!” they’re calling you “God’s living children.” **

We name: You are Somebody. You are Beloved. You are God’s living child!

What incredible work!

*Handbook on the Pentateuch by Victor P. Hamilton, published by Baker Book House, 1982. The quote I reference is on page 43 in this edition of the book. The link in the book title takes you to its page at Christianbook.com’s site, where you can buy the 2005 edition.

**The Scripture links take you to Bible Gateway, to that Scripture in three versions (The Message, the Amplified, and the NIV) side by side. It’s awesome to look at them in this way!