the Lord as “my” Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd…

Psalm 23:1a

It was pointed out to us in seminary, rightfully so I think, that spirituality in the Bible is communal, or meant to be lived in community. Yes, and we lose so much when we don’t understand this, or take it seriously. We are so steeped in an individualistic mindset in our western culture, that we see most everything in terms of individuals, rather than of each individual as part of the whole. And God though One is also revealed as Three, so that while there’s only one God and God is One, in that Oneness somehow, God is also Three: Source, Word, and Spirit, one way of putting it; or Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So that God is also in God’s Self, communal. So when we read a Scripture like Psalm 23, one might say that we’re considering one important aspect of our existence: the reality that we are an individual, and that God deals with us as such. The Lord takes seriously each one of us as individuals. And this most classic of all the psalms one might say, probably most loved and memorized brings this out clearly.

I was sharing this psalm with our grandson this week, and later meditated on it for myself. Yes, the Bible repeatedly likens us humans to sheep. We’re so easily lost, flustered, and then upset. Bleating, often injured, and again lost, again and again. This is the reality we live in. I personally am amazed at my own experience, how a kind of deep settled peace can be so rudely interrupted by what sets me back into an unhappy state, where I no longer feel at home, but long for home as something like the idyllic state which is touched on in this psalm. But we have to read the entire psalm. And happily remember too, who it was attributed to: To David, himself a shepherd as a boy, who became shepherd of God’s people Israel, and who certainly did not live an unblemished life.

If we read the entire psalm, we see that the Lord has us covered. That the Lord as our shepherd, yes “my shepherd” is present with us through everything, through the mess and the hardest times, as well as the good times. Through all of our days, right to the very end. What if we really believed that? What difference would that make?

It doesn’t mean that life becomes easier, that circumstances change, that all is well and good. It does mean that through the better and worse, even through the most troubled and troubling times, the Lord is with us as the shepherd each one of us needs.

I want to dwell on this psalm for a time myself, let it soak in. So that hopefully I can begin to much better appreciate the faithfulness of the Lord as my shepherd whatever circumstances and experience I’m going through. In and through Jesus.

A Psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;[a]
he restores my soul.[b]
He leads me in right paths[c]
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
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[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.[g]

more cushion

I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

John 10:14-15

Jesus is our shepherd, and he knows each one of us. A good pastor knows his people. He understands their felt needs, their propensities, what they need to realize their full potential- what God created them for, to be fulfilled in the new creation in Christ. And it comes out of a heart of love. Pastor is another word for shepherd, and Jesus knows us, his sheep through and through. Out of a heart of love, he gives us the cushion we need, grace to continue on in spite of ourselves and all the troubles we face. We then pass that same love to each other, as we continue on in our quest to follow him.

a proper stimulus: the word, tradition, scholarship, and pastoral reflection

Having internet access and many books, probably best not in that order, but probably in that order in our practice, can be helpful to provide a stimulus for the body of Christ, to help us do the works of service to which we’re called.

We need to be in the word, and tradition, both. The word, scripture, is the final authority, but an authority dependent to some extent in its outworking on tradition, the church, by the Holy Spirit.

We benefit from good biblical scholarship feeding tradition, the church, whether or not we delve into it ourselves. It shapes how we approach scripture, and through that, all of life.

Pastoral reflection is just as serious in the mix of what we humans do in response to God’s revelation, as anything else. In fact the shaping on the human side goes both ways: the insights we need from scripture are best worked out in a church setting, in the church itself. A good pastor, and good theology is reflective of listening to God’s voice and seeking wisdom and direction within the context of real life, and the community in Christ, the church, is the kingdom in which this life takes root and bears fruit.

I have been a word person, but not enough a person of the church, though I’ve always either attended or have been a part of one, so that it has rubbed off on me, or at least has been present in the good ways that come from the Spirit.

What we need to realize is the reality and importance of the stimulus, and we could say stimuli which God provides for us in Jesus. We need to acknowledge what already affects us in that, and deliberately take it in all the more, with an emphasis on the word of God and prayer. All of this together, in and through Jesus.

naming one’s sin

Scripture doesn’t hide sin, in fact it is replete with sin, sometimes to the point that it is hard to read (or listen to). Sin is defined here as that which is contrary to God in attitude or act, such as an anger which can give rise to murder, or at least murderous thoughts. The saints are not excluded: David, if I may include him, notable. And the New Testament does not shy away from this problem, either.

There is something to be said for naming one’s sins at the proper time, place, and to the proper person. There is something of wisdom and insight in what in some church traditions is called the confessional, in which one names their sin to a priest. The priest in the name of Christ, then pronounces absolution, meaning forgiveness of their sin, in and through Christ. Of course there is only one mediator between God and humanity, even if God’s people are a kingdom of priests, as well. All forgiveness is in and through Christ.

In evangelical circles, I’m afraid that people are largely left on their own. Not so in terms of preaching the word, though that can be spotty, as in hit or miss. People need pastoral care and spiritual direction. We are so removed from that, that we probably often don’t see the need for it. We think we can get along quite well with life on our own, and we can deal with our sin. After all, everyone sins, we are no exception, we go to church and hear the word preached, the gospel proclaimed and taught. What else do we need?

Of course we need what we find in scripture. Our spirituality is to be rooted in Christ and found in the church. And that finding is in terms of the gospel and within the life and practice of the church. An important aspect of that spirituality is the ongoing need of confession. And pastoral care along with spiritual direction, which helps us, as those righteous in Christ who also sin, to receive forgiveness of sin. Call that righteous and sinful at the same time, or not; let’s not quibble about that, I think. And by the Spirit to grow so as to overcome that sin.* I’m not referring to sinless perfection, but toward maturity in Christ. Too many of us for too long have been on our own. And the result is not pretty, sometimes actually catastrophic.

Yes, we need to personally appropriate the truth of God’s word and the gospel. But that should be from the church. We are not on our own, we are members of one body in Christ. Therefore we are to get help within the church. We are to take responsibility and grow up into Christ within and as members of his body, the church. A church which fails to work out some way of helping its members deal with sin is one in which its members will fail to find the help they need. I’m afraid too many evangelical churches neither have this in their practice, or their life. It is not a part of their DNA. If people get help in these churches, it is because of a pastor bent that direction, or them taking the initiative. Churches simply are not set up, it seems, with this in mind.

The church Deb and I are members of actually is much better with regard to this, even if it could be better still. We need help beyond what we can get just between ourselves and God. Life is not meant to be lived out that way. It is lived and we grow in community. And an important aspect of that, like it or not, is naming one’s sin.

*Not excluding professional counseling at times, which can be part of God’s general revelation in common grace- of wisdom. See this post from a fallen evangelical leader.