The Divine Shepherd
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;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
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
my whole life long.
Many of you likely know LeDayne McLeese Polaski ... she is the program coordinator of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. She preached here a month ago or so following the peace fellowship’s board meetings that we hosted. Recently I saw references on LeDayne’s Facebook update to “boot camp”. Now that’s a pretty odd reference for someone who helps direct a peace organization. I dropped her a note about this expressing my curiosity ... it turns out that it’s an exercise class ... a very rigorous and demanding exercise class ... it’s exhausting, but, I guess, also exhilarating.
Life can be like an ongoing boot camp, don’t you think? A boot camp that strips you, disorients you, leaves you panting with thirst ... but it can be exhilarating as well.
Lent is kind of like our annual “spiritual boot camp” ... it challenges us ... puts us to the test ... it invites us to draw on whatever inner reserves we have. And it can exhilarate us, all the same.
Lent is a season where we consider a bit more plainly some of the challenging conditions and questions of existence. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live on this earth? What does it mean to inhabit this unique body of mine? What does it mean to suffer? What does it mean to live in relationship with people who are so terribly imperfect ... just like me?
In the past three weeks of Lent, we have used the weekly lectionary texts to suggest some of the challenging conditions of life and living that we encounter on this winding journey we call life: the condition of being naked (that is: being stripped and vulnerable, yet finding grace) ... the condition of being lost (that is: leaving behind the familiar and losing our way, and finding new ways)... the condition of being thirsty (that is: naming the parched and fearful places within, and then discovering Jesus’ water of life). Painful though they can be, these challenging and sometimes painful conditions can be a means to spiritual growth and the deepening of our lives and faith. As one of my Lenten authors has said: “pain makes theologians of us all.”
Naked, lost and thirsty are only a few of the many challenging conditions of body and soul that we encounter along the way. It is to say, in part, that the journey of life is exceptionally “REAL”.
I have a close friend who has been living with prostate cancer for 20 years now. For a good number of those years his PSA count was so low as to almost declare the cancer gone. Almost. Recently his PSA levels began to rise and he and his physician decided it was time to get stern with the disease once more. For the past 8 weeks, my friend has been receiving daily radiation treatments ... nearly a hundred zaps each day from a machine that he has named “the Beast”.
My friend is a retired pastor who has heard it all and seen it all. One of the things he has decided he has seen too much of is “spiritual pablum” ... that is, inspirational drivel that too many of his friends and former church members send him that seem to him to trivialize life’s challenges and struggles and pain. Recently he decided to start his own blog with a few like-minded friends. In an introductory statement at the top of the blog, he expresses the reason for the blog this way:
He says: Sometimes, we grow weary of the inspirational stuff we receive over the Internet and long for something a little more personal, something that reveals the struggles, hurts, and doubts that occur in our lives, something that is “Skin Horse real.” “Skin horse real” is the name of his blog. He goes on: “Skinhorsereal” is an idea we borrowed from The Velveteen Rabbit, a wonderful fantasy story written by Margery Williams. In her story, the Velveteen Rabbit asks the Skin Horse, who had been around for a very long time and was very wise and rather beat up, “What is real?” The Skin Horse answers that when someone loves you for a very long time, that’s when you become real. This blog exists for this purpose.
I want to suggest that Lent ... this season of recognizing our nakedness and lostness and thirst is a season of seeking to become “skin horse real”.
VELVETEEN RABBIT by Margery Williams (this starts at the point when the Skin Horse and the Rabbit are talking)
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
When we are naked and know our nakedness, when we are lost and know our lost-ness, when we are thirsty and know our thirst ... it is then that we become most vulnerable to LOVE and most vulnerable to God ... and it is then that we become most capable of becoming FULLY HUMAN and FULLY ALIVE to use that wonderful phrase from St. Irenaeus. Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Or ... to use Margery Williams’ word: REAL.
I want to suggest that the writer of this morning’s psalm—Psalm 23--is one such human being. This anonymous psalmist is, I believe, a devout and sensitive soul who knows his own nakedness, lost-ness and thirst, and knowing these things has become profoundly aware of God’s great care for him in the midst of these things. In the midst of life most challenging conditions, the psalmist has come to a deep awareness of the overriding condition of God’s love ... God’s sustaining love. Naked ... lost ... thirsty ... and sustained.
I think the people who have touched me the most deeply as a pastor are those who can name their pain ... and name the one who yet sustains them. I think of Katherine Crow who has lost two adult daughters in the past few months. I think of my old preacher friend Bill Coffin who lost his son in an automobile accident. Preaching ten days after that tragic loss, Bill said to his congregation: “God may not protect us in the ways we’d like, but God sustains us in the ways we need. I have been sustained,” he said. “I have been upheld.”
In the back of the church I pastored in Vermont so many years ago there is an enormous painting of Jesus, the good Shepherd, on the back wall of the sanctuary. It’s probably a copy of an original, but in this painting Jesus is at least twice life-size. It’s HUGE. Every single sermon I preached in that place was preached looking the good Shepherd in the eye. What I remember best about that painting is that Jesus has a baby lamb slung over his shoulders ... a lamb that he has loved and rescued.
It is just that sense of God that the psalmist speaks in the 23rd Psalm ... loved and rescued by the God who seeks to love and rescue all ... loved and rescued by God who abides with us when we are naked and lost and thirsty ... loved and rescued by God who will never leave us and who seeks ever and always to nurture and sustain and uphold us.
We recently celebrated the life of our dear 105 year old friend, Sue Smith. Sue is one of the great souls of which I speak who had known both the losses and pain that life can bring as well as God’s faithful, abiding, sustaining presence.
At Sue’s memorial, I read a paraphrase of the 23rd psalm that brings the words and the heart of the psalmist even closer to my own heart and life and faith. I close with these words and offer them as a prayer. Let us pray:
God you are my constant companion.
There is no need that you cannot fulfill.
Whether your course for me points
to the mountaintops of glorious ecstasy
or to the valleys of human suffering,
You are by my side,
You are ever present with me.
You are close beside me
when I tread the dark streets of danger,
and even when I flirt with death itself,
You will not leave me.
When the pain is severe,
You are near to comfort.
When the burden is heavy,
You are there to lean upon.
When depression darkens my soul,
You touch me with eternal joy.
When I feel empty and alone,
You fill the aching vacuum with your power.
My security is in your promise
to be near to me always,
and in the knowledge
that you will never let me go.
Psalms/Now, Brandt/Kent, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis 1973