news of the world

If you watch, listen to or read the news at the moment it can make for miserable reading. There’s hideous violence committed at individual, community and international levels. There’s devastating poverty that is affecting people, countries and whole regions of the world. There is hideous greed that is making a few rich at the expense of those who can least afford it. Environmental crises are breaking out across the globe with a seeming unwillingness to act from some of those who are most able to make a positive difference, preferring short term economic gain while sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring the clamour for action. There is blatant racism, sexism and other prejudices that seem to be encouraged or at least not condemned at the highest level.

It’s not likely to lead us to a happy place is it? Even the ‘and finally’ lighthearted items on the news or the plethora of funny cat videos on the internet can’t lift the sense of gloom.

So what can we do?

Have another look at Psalm 23. You probably all know it, or have heard of it. Yes, that’s right: the Shepherd one.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will 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 your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.

(NIVUK)

Most of us don’t have a lot of experience of shepherds, especially ancient near-Eastern ones, so what can this ancient piece of poetry do for us today?

First of all, recognise that an ancient near-Eastern shepherd was responsible for protecting the whole flock and providing for them. It wasn’t simply a question of leaving them out in a field, the flock would roam the countryside. And they would follow their shepherd who would go ahead of them (not driving them from behind as in the UK), listening for his voice and trusting him because he had provided for them in the past. No sheepdogs were needed because the shepherd was trusted and known. David, who wrote this psalm, had experience of this as he had been a shepherd, and that was one of the ways in which he experienced God – someone he knew, whom he trusted, whom he was willing to follow, whose voice he knew.

Green pastures are always good places if you are a herbivore. It’s easy food and provides the nutrients that are needed. In the ancient near-East green pastures would have been at a premium, bearing in mind that it was/is a hot climate. Much of the land would be dry scrubland with not so much to eat, so if a sheep found theirself led to a green pasture it was bliss , especially if there was also a source of cool water there. If you have been in the hot Mediterranean sun you would be refreshed and feel restored at such places. When we find ourselves in green pastures or beside still, refreshing waters we should not forget to give thanks to the one who has led us there. We should find ways that our soul is restored – what works for you?

The shepherd would know the local terrain and would know which were the paths to follow. Some might be difficult but they would go to the right destination. Here ‘right paths’ doesn’t just mean those that go to the right places, however, it also refers to ‘righteousness’ or ‘faithfulness’ and means that the flock benefits from the shepherd’s faithfulness. ‘For his name’s sake’ means that God acts consistently with his character. There are many names given to God in the Old Testament and all of them reflect something of his character. Even referring to him as ‘The Lord’ as David does at the beginning of the Psalm is bigger than we imagine. The word in Hebrew is YHWH – the Hebrew word for God that was originally unpronounceable because there were no vowels but is now sometimes pronounced ‘Yahweh’. It derives from the Hebrew for ‘I am’ and reminds us of the eternal nature of God, the existence of God, the constancy of God, the self-sufficiency of God and so much more. That’s the One who’s our shepherd!

Following the shepherd does not mean that we’ll always be in green pastures and beside still waters. There are times when we go through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death). We all know that to be true even though we hate to admit it. The difference for those who follow the shepherd is that they know he is with them as they travel through that dark valley. They may be frightened, worried, anxious or even terrified of what is in the shadows, but they know that the shepherd is there with them and is committed to them. You’re not alone if you don’t want to be.

The psalm abruptly changes from a pastoral metaphor to a banquet scene. There’s a celebration, a meal in our honour, and we will be vindicated in the sight of those who have opposed us. The host is generous to us and honours us. Did you notice too how the language changes from an impersonal third person (‘he’) to a personal second person (‘you’). This is not a theoretical expression of faith, it’s a personal relationship with YHWH. God’s care for us is genuine: not just a story of a shepherd but an experience of love, care, honour and justification.

And there’s an eternal dimension to this that can never be taken away from us.

Add to that what Jesus said about being the Good Shepherd and it becomes spectacular!

None of this changes the news. But it may help us look at it differently knowing that YHWH is leading us, with us, for us and we are his eternally.

Be blessed, be a blessing

honest soul searching

This is a ‘thought for the week’ that I wrote this week for the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association. I offer it to you for your reflection…

DSCF1884

I have been reflecting on Psalm 139 recently. To save those of you who can’t remember it entirely word-for-word I have copied it below (NIV UK)

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,’
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand –
when I awake, I am still with you.

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

It’s an amazing poetic reflection on who we are isn’t it? When I read the psalm I find it helps me to get a healthier perspective on who I am in Christ, and who God is.

We are fully known – even before we speak God knows our thoughts and what we are going to say. We are constantly in his presence, we can never hide from him (even naked in a garden or in the belly of a great fish). He knows the way ahead even if to us it seems bleak or impossible to discern and he will hold our hand and guide us. We are the complex and complicated product of his knitting (and he doesn’t drop stitches). God’s thoughts are way beyond our counting and comprehension and yet he shares some of them with us.

And that’s often where I have wanted to stop. Or if I have to go on I prefer to jump to verse 23. Why did David have to spoil things by pouring out a litany of bile and hatred against the wicked and those he counts as his enemies? That’s not likely to end up in the latest worship song is it? But I wonder whether verses 19-22 are actually the heart of this psalm. I think that they are the reason David wrote the psalm in the first place: he wanted to be entirely honest with God and himself and set it in the context of his awareness of who he was in God.

The first 18 verses are the (wondrous, amazing, inspiring, truth-laden) preamble. If God knew him so intimately; if he was so incredibly made by God; if he could never leave God’s presence; if God knows the way ahead: then it was pointless for David to be trying to pretend to God and himself that he was not incredibly upset by some people. There was no sense in him smiling sweetly and brushing it all under the carpet to keep up appearances. He had to tell God how it really was for him. And he was livid. He couldn’t cope with the wicked, blood-soaked things he saw others doing. He couldn’t cope with how people were misusing God’s name (perhaps invoking him on their side to bolster their cause). He had genuine hatred for the way that people hated God. So he let God have it. In both senses of that phrase.

Maybe there was an element of catharsis here. Maybe it was therapeutic. Maybe it was giving it over to God. It was, above all else, honest. I believe that David also knew that there was a good chance that he had overstepped the mark in his rant… hence verses 23 and 24. He asked that God would reveal to him if there were elements in his attitude that were akin to the things he had just railed against. He didn’t want to be guilty of the things he was accusing others of doing.

If we find ourselves wanting to say, “Amen” to verses 19-22 about other people, we must also pray verses 23 and 24 about ourselves because God knows all about us we should be honest with him and with ourselves. When I read this psalm I am reminded of what Jesus had to say about specks of dust and planks, blind guides and the danger of judging others.

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Be blessed, be a blessing