Green Pastures? This? YES.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday!  And what is Good Shepherd Sunday? Well, from that fount of all contemporary knowledge (no, you weren’t mistaken, that was sarcastic), Wikipedia, here is a fairly accurate definition:

Good Shepherd Sunday occurs on the third or fourth Sunday in the Easter Season. The name derives from the gospel reading for the day, which is taken from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. In this reading Christ is described as the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for his sheep.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Shepherd_Sunday)

In the Episcopal, and many other “liturgical” churches, the Scripture lessons are predetermined by the lectionary, or the established schedule of Scripture readings over the course of three years.  Apparently, it’s set up so that, if you follow it daily, you will read the Old and New Testaments (additional, alternative Scriptures not included, although on occasion they do sneak in some of the Apocrypha) over the course of three years.  There’s an Old Testament reading, a Psalm or other poetry/wisdom passage, a selection from one of the Epistles, and, last but certainly not least, a reading from the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  The one that gets the most attention, with lots of pomp and procession as THE BOOK is carried into the midst of the congregation who are all standing in reverence, of course, is the Gospel reading.  The one that gets the least attention and is even sometimes skipped, is the Psalm.  But it’s the Psalm that got my attention today, because it’s what’s been getting my attention all week.  Fitting, I suppose.

On Good Shepherd Sunday, what do you think a suitable psalm would be?  It’s kind of a no-brainer: “The Lord is my shepherd” immediately comes to mind, and you’re right.  Today’s Psalm, dutifully read in responsive fashion, was Psalm 23.

I have warm, fond memories of Psalm 23, hearkening back to my nearly-faded-from-memory toddler years.  Psalm 23 was very important to me, because, in Sunday School, if we could memorize and recite 50 scripture verses, we would win our VERY OWN New Testament.  Not that my home didn’t have shelves upon shelves full of Bibles, but this New Testament spoke to me, called my name: “Han-nah, you want me!”.  It had a little girl and boy with Jesus on the cover and by golly, I was gonna get it.

And I did.  I memorized 50 scripture verses, straight from the hallowed pages of the AUTHORIZED King James Version.  (On a completely unrelated side note, I didn’t deviate from that narrow path until I was 18,  when I gave in and went New International.  I have since returned to my King James home.  I once had a sweet Baptist friend who called the NIV the “Nearly Inspired Version”…my apologies to those of you love it…really. Whatever floats your boat.)  Those 50 verses included the standard John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  It included Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and have fallen short of the glory of God”, as well as the rest of that evangelical super-highway, “The Romans Road” (Billy Graham, eat your heart out).  I don’t know what else it included, except for this: Psalm 23.

psalm 23
Thanks to the designer, To Such As These.  For some great Scripture art for your home, please visit their Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/ToSuchAsTheseDesigns

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  I could recite it, but I couldn’t quite understand it.  To my little 3-year old brain (and this 3-year old knew exactly who Jesus was), it didn’t make any sense that I should not want the Shepherd.  That’s what I heard every time I repeated it: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.”  Of course I wanted the Shepherd!  Who wouldn’t want the Shepherd, what with all the green pastures and still waters and tables placed and oil running over and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever!  Who wouldn’t want that?

Nonetheless, 50 scripture verses later, I got that New Testament.

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I loved it well.  I made sure I would always remember why I got it,

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practiced writing my name in it, and, as any 3-year old girl would, promptly fell in love with the handsome shepherd boy depicted there.

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But it it took me a long time to really understand what Psalm 23 meant.  I certainly missed what I now know really is the message of that Psalm…by the time I could really read the Living paraphrase of that psalm on the back cover, I’d moved on to my first King James Bible, an 8th-birthday present; it was white bonded leather with GOLD LETTERING ON THE COVER and a ZIPPER!  I don’t have that white Bible any more; somehow part of the Noah and the Ark story went missing and I stopped using it, but I still have this very loved and worn Living New Testament; it’s been with me for just over 44 years now and sits in my living room with my collection of Bibles in multiple translations.  When I look at it, I feel immense gratitude for being taught to love the Savior at such a young age.

And, those same 44 years later, I am reminded that, still, I sometimes don’t know what that Psalm really means.  Life gets hard.  As we follow Jesus Christ, we often forget that He warned us, basically, “If you follow me, you’ll get what I got.  It ain’t a rose garden; in fact, it’s usually more thorns than roses on any given day.”  We like to skip to exaltation and glory without putting in our slow-going, right choosing, intentionally-placed-there, seemingly unending wilderness time, much like my piano students want to skip to being awesome without putting in the requisite thousands of hours of slow, correct, intentional, and seemingly unending practice.  And we whine, and pray for deliverance, and wonder just when the wilderness will end.

Some people desert the Shepherd in the middle of the wilderness: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want [anymore]”.  It reminds me of the account given by John, in his gospel.  John 6 has Jesus feeding the 5,000 off of a few tuna sandwiches – now we’re talking green pastures!  The crowds followed Him willingly.  But when tuna sandwiches turned into the idea of true loyalty to Jesus Christ (who was starting to suggest that He, Himself, was the Messiah), and the difficulty that following Him often entails, the change of heart and mind and walking away from what we think we know and understand…well then, we have 6:68: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.”  When the green pastures turn into rocky cliffs, many turn back.  “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes” (Numbers 11:5-6).

(Another side note: how many remember Keith Green?  Can’t continue without leaving this; he really nails it.)

As I was considering my own personal wilderness (and we each have our own, tailor-made, in fact), which happened to coincide with a mindless browse through my Facebook news feed post, this popped up.  I’m sure it was just a coincidence…(yes, more sarcasm).  Take five minutes out of your life and watch it; it’s really good:

Belly deep alfalfa.  I love how Mr. vander Laan depicts our understanding of “green pastures”, and how he shows, so clearly, what this psalm is talking about.  The Living paraphrase nails it: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.”  How would my life have been different if, at the age of three, I had absorbed that, instead of the images of belly deep alfalfa in my spiritual life?  And for sheep in Israel, there is never belly deep alfalfa, only the sparsely scattered tufts of grass, just enough for them to keep going.

Mary Poppins is another fount of all wisdom…probably more reliable than Wikipedia!  In that scene where she’s giving the kids some cough syrup (that magically tastes like their favorite treats, which are different from person to person…wonder if she went to Hogwarts?), Michael starts begging for more, to which she replies:

mary poppins enough (2)
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My dad used to, at holiday gatherings (usually at my mom’s folks’ house with her family), stand up and, in his booming New York accented voice, declare, “Thou hast prepared a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”  Yes, there’s a double entendre there…but he generally meant that he was grateful for the immense amount of food he was about to pack into his belly (which was sizable).  As disciples of Christ, we so often are deluded to think that God’s provision – materially or spiritually – means that we will never want for anything, that said table prepared for us in the presence of our enemies means that we are feasting as gluttons while they starve.

But that’s not what scripture says.  It says that, as we follow the Shepherd, who leads us into those green pastures (which look an awful lot like rocky wildernesses!), we will have everything we need.  If we don’t have it, we obviously don’t need it but, like children, we often think that we need many things we don’t.  Nonetheless, our Shepherd, our Savior, knows exactly what we need, and He delivers all our needs right when we need them the most, just enough to get us over that next rise, where our next need will be fulfilled.  And He does this, truly, to the amazement and often conversion of onlookers, and He does this to bring glory to His, and our, Heavenly Father, as He brings many, many children of God to glory.

It really reframed how I look at what has been a very long journey, or what I think has been a long journey, through the wilderness.  But, in the distance, I can smell the water, I can see a slightly more abundant patch of grass.  We’ll get there.  He won’t leave me, and I truly do, and will, have all that I need, in this life, and in the next.

Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need…Your goodness and failing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with You forever in Your home. (Psalm 23:1,6 – The Living Bible)

Happy Good Shepherd Sunday!

#seethebigpicture

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, mostly because life has been so busy and, even though God is very much alive and active and always communicating with me, I haven’t been much about the journaling lately.  Thank the Lord for emails and Facebook messages…eventually I’ll print those out and paste them in my hard journal; my conversations with friends are as close to documenting what the Spirit has spoken to my soul over the last month or so.

But today the message was so strong and loud and persistent that 1) I snuck a Facebook post in the middle of the sermon (#seethebigpicture), and 2) I knew I had to blog it before the muse drifted away.  So here we are. Today is the 5th Sunday of Lent and we are traveling with the Savior ever closer to Jerusalem, where His destiny – our Atonement – waits.  In fact, where we find ourselves today is so close to Jerusalem that His closest pals, the 12 disciples, wonder what He’s thinking.  As we look at John 11, we find ourselves in Bethany, a little suburb outside of the metropolis that was Jerusalem, along with a trio whom some consider to be Christ’s closest friends outside of The Twelve.

But not at first. No, at the end of John 10, Jesus and The Twelve have gone beyond the Jordan, after the religious leaders thought they would kill him in the Temple for yet another mouthful of blasphemy (what was Jesus thinking? SMH…).  We’re not sure just how long He was “beyond the Jordan”, but after whatever length of time He was there, He received communication that may have, for all intents and purposes, changed everything:

“Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick” (John 11:1-3).

I don’t know about any of you, but if I receive an intentional message about someone’s illness, it’s usually pretty serious.  I’ve only received a few phone calls about urgent health conditions, and those calls usually indicate imminent death and “let’s gather round” is either implied or stated directly.  As Facebook was not even a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s ancestors’ eyes, we can be pretty sure that someone went out of their way to deliver this message to Jesus, with the understanding that He was being asked to come.

So the next little bit really disturbs me:

“When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was. Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again” (John 11:6-7).

Not one verse earlier, the text clearly, directly, no-questions-asked states that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  They weren’t mere acquaintances; they were friends – and not the Facebook type.  These were people who opened their home to Him, had dinner ready when He came knocking, and, based on other passages, understood who He was and His mission, and fully supported Him.  But He didn’t go.  He waited two days and then, walking, as they did 2000 years ago, made His way to Bethany.  But it was okay, because as He Himself said in verse 4, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.”

But it wasn’t okay.  Because when He got there, Lazarus was gone.  Dead.  Putrefying in the family tomb.  Just look at the sisters’ reactions when He does arrive:

“Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house. Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world. And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee. As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him. Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met him. The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there. Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

For some reason, even knowing how this ends, this is one of the most heartbreaking passages of Scripture I can ever read, because it echoes the cry of my own heart when I don’t understand why God doesn’t jump when I call. Why He doesn’t resolve situations when and how I think He should, why He lets me sit behind a piano at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church every Sunday, weeping the same prayer over and over and over again.  The tears of those two sisters are my tears: “Lord, if You had only…Lord, if You would only…”  And as He wept with those two women – not because He didn’t know the outcome, but because He fully felt and experienced their pain with them – I have to believe He weeps with me; not because He doesn’t know the outcome, but because He fully feels and experiences my pain with me.

But that’s not the point.  He gave us the point in verse 4 – this whole scenario was to what? To bring glory to God, and to glorify the Son of Man.  And so, without much further ado, He raises Lazarus to life.  4 days after the fact.  That’s pretty amazing.  The crowd goes wild, and gives praise to God.  But that’s not the glorification to which verse 4 alludes; it’s what we find just immediately after this:

Image source: https://www.lds.org/bc/content/shared/content/images/gospel-library/manual/10734/lazarus-leaving-tomb-swindle_1164995_inl.jpg

But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done. Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death” (John 11:46-53, emphasis added).

Jesus waited – not to test people’s faith, not to create a spectacle, not to prove anything at all – but to set in motion the events that would make the Atonement possible.  It was this event that unified the Pharisees in their plan to kill Him.  Verse 4 wasn’t talking about the glory that people gave God at Lazarus’ resurrection, it was talking about the glory the God receives as He, even to this day, gathers together His scattered children, which was only made possible through the tragic beauty of Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane, death on Calvary, and triumph over the grave on Easter morning.  Yet in the middle of their pain, in the depths of their self-centered (and naturally so) tears, no one could see the bigger picture.

It’s the same in our lives.  God often waits so that His glory may be revealed and that many people may believe.  I have to remember that.  My struggles – those things for which I plea to be resolved – are not necessarily all about me.  If God is making me wait (and I don’t like to wait), it surely must be so that His glory may be revealed and so that many, many people may believe.  God can see the big picture; with faith, so can I.

UNANSWERED YET? – THE PRAYER  

Lyrics: Charles D. Tillman, 1894

Performed by Michael McLean

Unanswered yet?
The prayer your lips have pleaded
In agony of heart these many years?
Does faith begin to fail, is hope departing,
And think you all in vain those falling tears?
Say not the Father hath not heard your prayer:
You shall have your desire, sometime, somewhere,
You shall have your desire, sometime, somewhere.

Unanswered yet?
Though when you first presented
This one petition at the Father’s throne,
It seemed you could not wait the time of asking,
So urgent was your heart to make it known.
Though years have passed since then, do not despair;
The Lord will answer you, sometime, somewhere,
The Lord will answer you, sometime, somewhere.

Unanswered yet?
No, do not say ungranted;
Perhaps your part is not yet wholly done;
The work began when first your prayer was uttered,
And God will finish what He has begun.
If you will keep the Spirit burning there,
His glory you shall see, sometime, somewhere,
His glory you shall see, sometime, somewhere.

Unanswered yet?
Faith cannot be unanswered;
Her feet were firmly planted on the Rock;
Amid the wildest storm prayer stands undaunted,
Nor quails before the loudest thunder shock.
She knows Omnipotence has heard her prayer,
And cries, “It shall be done,” sometime, somewhere,
And cries, “It shall be done,” sometime, somewhere.