Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

On God's Leash

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside waters of rest.
  He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of deep darkness,
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.
  Only goodness and steadfast love shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall return to dwell in the house of the LORD
for length of days.

If you are one of those Sunday School graduates who thinks you know this psalm, I have a feeling you found reading the above text a bit jarring.  That's because you "memorized" it in the King James Version of 1611.  By the way, yesterday was Guy Fawkes Day.  If the Gunpowder Rebellion of 1605 had not been suppressed, and the conspirators had actually blown up Parliament, there might never have been a King James Bible, because the goal of the conspiracy was the restoration of Catholic authority in England.   A newsman Paul Harvey used to say, "And now you know the rest of the story."

Like I said, the version most of us have in our heads, while a very good translation from the original hebrew, is more or less just poetry to us.  What I have done with the text here is to utilize all of the alternative translation possibilities from the footnotes of the English Standard Version (2001).  I think  doing this reveals a bit more of the meaning in the text.


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside waters of rest.
  He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.

Jama and I love to take walks down to the lake with our two dogs.  Early on we learned the hard way that Truman, the mixed up yellow lab, needs a leash.  That's because there are porcupines in the brush just off the road.  The most painful thing I've experienced as a dog owner was seeing this poor guy with a mouthful of quills.  The image me on a leash being forcibly led by the Lord grates on me.  I don't like it.  But if that's the only way I can be made to eat and drink well, so be it.  And you know, the wonderful thing about eating and drinking well is that there is something soul-satisfying about doing it.  

It also turns out I've had the whole reason why God leads me wrong in my head all these years.  I always thought the main reason God wanted to feed me and give me drink and lead me to do right was for my sake.  And while it is true that God loves me passionately, the psalm makes it clear God's real reason for doing all this is that his name will not come into dishonor.  He doesn't want people to see me with a mouthful of porcupine quills that got there because of my own stupidity and say, "if that's what you get from walking with God, count me out."

Even though I walk through the valley of deep darkness,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

I've been privileged to share in the hospice experience of a dear woman I've gotten to know here in New Hampshire.  No one knows when she will die, but it is clear that it will be sooner rather than later.  The phrase, "through the valley of the shadow of death" always seems to come up when people get around  hospice care.  And rightly so, because these people are passing their days in a hospice waiting for the end of this life.  Again, the phrase we learned seems to blunt the experience it describes.

Last night I got out of bed to go to the bathroom after we had already turned out the lights.  Because there was no moon out I couldn't see where I was going.  I felt ahead of me as I crossed the room, aware that Jama often leaves baskets of laundry in the path.  I found the presumed land mine and carefully moved it out of the way.  Two steps further along I came crashing directly into the side of my dresser!  At that moment I think I would have been very glad to have had someone alongside who could have guided me.  

The dear saint I've been meeting with at hospice has gone through many stages of the fear of death over the two years I've known her.   But this past Monday evening she quite suddenly sat up and with great determination and energy launched into planning her own memorial service with me!  She was completely lucid, and utterly fearless.  I think most of us are more afraid of what might happen than of what has already come upon us.  The sound of the shepherd's rod hitting the ground with the same familiar rhythm that is there in the daytime and even the occasional whip across my legs to keep me in the path are very comforting when we have to move from place to place in the dark, because I know the shepherd knows the way.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
  Only goodness and steadfast love shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall return to dwell in the house of the LORD
for length of days.

I never noticed before that at this point in the text David totally drops the shepherd imagery.  Sheep don't eat from tables.  But soldiers do.  David was both a shepherd and a military man.  There isn't a soldier on earth who would cook a meal when surrounded by the enemy.   That's a sure ticket to an early grave.  In ancient times people were anointed with oil prior to death or burial.  What is God saying here?   And think of the cup that Jesus had to drink in the Garden of Gethsemane and beyond.  So often when the Scriptures speak of a full cup, they are not talking about something good that's about to happen to you.  

Once again the alternate reading of the text is so helpful.  When Abraham went to the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac as God had commanded (Genesis 22), he told his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and (we will) come again to you.”  What God wants me to know is that if I will submit to "living on the leash," the situations of my life may well look like disaster about to strike.  The table is set for my final meal.  I've been anointed for burial.  The cup is full of something bitter I must drink (poisonous wine is mentioned in psalm 69).  This is the path I am  going to walk, and God has the knife and the torch with which the sacrifice will be made by his own hand.  

In the face of this; only when I have known how really good it is to have that leash on; only when I have been able to say with Job, "even though he slay me, yet will I trust him," then I can know that ONLY goodness and steadfast love follow me up that hill, as Isaac trusted the good father who was following him.  Only then can I know for a fact that "I shall return to dwell in the house of the Lord" -- not just in heaven, for that would be no miracle at all -- I shall return to dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days.  


Jon

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