The Real Reason We Don’t Take a Sabbath

Traffic Jam
One of the many things New Englanders are good at is taking a summer vacation. You see the evidence of this if you are driving on 128, 95, or 93 on a Sunday afternoon or evening, when everyone is coming back from a weekend or day away.

Nonetheless, our life’s work can easily take over if we’re not careful. We forget the truths of Psalm 127—that it is God who makes our work truly come alive. We do our work with a sort of Tower of Babel mentality… I’m just going to get this done really quick by myself.
 

Unless the Lord Builds….

 
Psalm 127:1-2 says:

Unless the LORD builds the house,
      its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
      the watchmen stand guard in vain.
In vain you rise early
      and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
      for he grants sleep to those he loves.

The other day I finished an intensive summer class on Cross Cultural Counseling. The final paper I turned in was in its 7th or 8th draft when I finally clicked the Send button to submit it to my professor.

So recently I can relate to “rise early and stay up late.” If your life’s work involves taking care of other people, early mornings or late nights when they are asleep might be your best time to work through your task list. These two verses don’t say not to do that. But they do caution us against squeezing more hours out of our day without deliberately inviting and acknowledging God’s presence in those working hours.

I can stand watch early over my work, but that work is good only because God stands watch with me. Work without God, Solomon says, is in vain.

Besides that, you need to sleep. God knows that. Sleep is part of the benefits package, if you will, of those who work with the God of Israel.

“He grants sleep to those he loves.”  (I.e., to everyone.)

Our bodies have an amazing way of getting sleep when they need it. If we go for too long without enough sleep, our bodies just shut down. We may fall asleep involuntarily. This is one of the ways, I think, that God grants sleep to those he loves: When we’re tired enough, our bodies will sleep, whether we want them to or not. So you might as well get out of your chair or off the couch, brush your teeth, and get in your bed.
 

Why We Should Take a Sabbath

 
Another manifestation of God’s granting of sleep—rest—to the ones he loves is the gift of a Sabbath day. A Sabbath day of rest is part of the natural, biological rhythm that God set up from the very beginning of creation. God did his work—created the heavens and the earth, life and all that is in them—in six days. And on the seventh day, he rested. He didn’t do or create anything. Six days on, one day off.

Psalms of SummerWe don’t need much intellectual convincing of the value of Sabbath-keeping. We know that practicing the Sabbath follows God’s pattern of six days on, one day off. (Work and rest, work and rest… not: work and work, work and work.)

We know that keeping a Sabbath re-orients us to God, in case we forgot about God during the rest of the week. We experience Sabbath as a gift of refreshment when we most need it, part of the full life that Jesus promised. (A Sabbath-less life is really only half a life.)

And who wants to eat what verse 2 of this Psalm calls “the bread of anxious toil”? We’ve ordered and eaten that dish, right? It’s disgusting. The bread of anxious toil leaves a bad aftertaste; it gives you heartburn.

Besides, we can’t really be productive 7 days a week anyway. Even multitasking doesn’t really give us an edge. A New York Times article says, “In fact, multitasking is a misnomer. In most situations, the person juggling e-mail, text messaging, [on] Facebook and [at] a meeting is really doing something called ‘rapid toggling between tasks,’ and is engaged in constant context switching.” We can’t just keep switching contexts and rapidly “[toggle] between tasks” for 7 days. That’s exhausting.
 

Sabbath: Not Just a Day, A Mindset

 
The practice and mentality and posture of Sabbath-keeping is not just for one day, but we can practice a Sabbath mindset in all of life, turning to God and acknowledging his presence in our work and in our rest, in our waking hours and in our sleeping hours.

Clement of Alexandria, one of those highly quotable early church dudes, said,

Practice husbandry if you’re a husbandman, but while you till your fields, know God.  Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the while on the heavenly pilot.

Here’s how The Message puts Jesus’ words in Matthew:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out…? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

That’s what we want. That sounds amazing. We need no convincing whatsoever of the value of Sabbath-keeping, both as a distinct day of the week and as an ongoing daily mindset.
 

Why We Don’t Keep Sabbath, Really: Internal Competing Values

 
And yet, we don’t take a Sabbath as we should. Or we do, but three days into the week, we forget to practice a daily Sabbath orientation toward God with complete reliance on him. We turn to our own inner resources to face our life’s work.

Euguene Peterson warns against “un-Sabbathed workplace” when he says,

[W]ithout a Sabbath…the workplace is soon emptied of any sense of the presence of God. The work itself becomes an end in itself. It is this ‘end in itself’ that makes an un-Sabbathed workplace a breeding ground for idols. We make idols in our workplaces when we reduce our relationships to functions that we can manage. We make idols in our workplaces when we reduce work to the dimensions of our egos and our control.

Why do we do this? We don’t really think about other people as just relationships to be managed, do we? We’re not really egomaniacs, right? At least, in the depths of our beings, we don’t want to live like that.

Is this as simple as just saying, “Okay, well, I guess we need to take a Sabbath more. We should practice a Sabbath mentality more often in our daily endeavors”? We’re just a forgetful and disobedient people and we need to obey to this 4th commandment.

There is some truth to that. But I don’t think it’s just disobedience or forgetfulness or laziness that leads to an un-Sabbathed life.

I think the main Christians don’t take a Sabbath, or don’t practice a daily Sabbath mentality, is because of our competing internal values.

Kegan and LaheyTwo educators at Harvard—Kegan and Lahey—have a diagnostic grid that I’ve found immensely helpful for unearthing my sometimes subtle competing values. It’s from their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work.

The essence of their diagnostic is to begin with a commitment or value or belief—something where we say it’s really great if this happens. In this case, to adapt their language, “We are committed to the value or importance of… Sabbath-keeping,” both as a distinct day and as a mentality throughout the week.

Then we ask, “What are we doing or not doing that prevents this from happening?” So think for a moment, what are you doing or not doing that prevents Sabbath-keeping and rest from happening?

There may be some forces outside of your control—small children, an overbearing boss. But what are you doing that prevents a Sabbath rhythm in your life?

Underneath the answer to that question is a competing commitment or value or belief. Based on what I’m doing to undermine my Sabbath-keeping—checking email on a day off, not calling in anyone else for help–“I may also be committed to…” getting everything done myself and making sure it gets done right. Or, “I may also be committed to” just keeping going, because I have to.

Where Kegan and Lahey’s grid gets really fascinating is in what comes after you’ve unearthed your competing value. They suggest that each competing value carries with it a big assumption that may or may not be true.

If I don’t do this task, it will never get done, and there is no one else in the entire universe who can do it as well as I would.

Or, I’m committed to working 7 days a week (competing value), because (here’s the big assumption) if I stop and take a Sabbath, I’ll be so stressed out the day after the Sabbath with catching up, that it won’t have been worth it.

Or, if I slow down enough to practice a Sabbath mentality, I might become less productive.

Walter Bruegemmann talks about this kind of assumption as a scarcity mentality. He says:

There’s never enough time; there’s never a moment’s rest. … But how willing are we to practice Sabbath? A Sabbath spent catching up on chores we were too busy to do during the week is hardly a testimony to abundance. [It] does nothing to weaken the domain of scarcity. Honoring the Sabbath is a form of witness. It tells the world that ‘there is enough.’”

There is enough. There is enough time for us to stop on the 7th day, and to slow down on the other 6 days and to dwell in the watching presence of God.

It’s true that we have a bundle of competing values, commitments, and assumptions that keep us from fully practicing God’s call to a Sabbath rest.

But ultimately, a Sabbath way of life acknowledges that God is God and we are not.

God can and does complete building projects that we cannot finish. God can and does stay awake watching, guarding, protecting, so we can sleep.
 

A Modest Experiment: Four Weeks of Sabbath

 
Here’s the final square in Kegan and Lahey’s competing values diagnostic: Try “a modest, safe test.”

back to school
NO.

I had to pinch myself the other day when I saw a “Back to School” sign up at the store. Our summer just started! But we’re just a few weeks away from Labor Day.

It’s time to start planning your fall, if you haven’t already. And I would propose that as you do, you try a “modest, safe test,” with regard to Sabbath-keeping.

Plan a Sabbath each week for the next four weeks and keep it. Make it a Sabbath from technology. From your job. From household chores. And after four weeks, evaluate it. See how it went. See if all the things you thought would go wrong (if you took a break), actually did go wrong.

Or… see if you find yourself refreshed and living with a heightened awareness of God’s watching presence. See if you find the scarcity you feared… or, if you find instead an abundance of good gifts from the God who gives rest to the ones he loves.

I preached on Psalm 127:1-2 this last Sunday, from which the above is adapted. See my other Psalms sermons here.

When Your World Gives Way, Sing it ALAMOTH (Or, Why Obscure Liturgical Notes at the Top of the Psalms Matter)

 
Psalms of Summer
 
Psalm 46 begins with some liturgical instructions, one of which is unclear. Here is the superscription to the Psalm, a sort of post-it note tacked onto the sheet music:

For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A song.

The Psalm itself will divide thematically this way:

  1. Natural Disasters: 
But God is a strong refuge 
(vv. 1-3)
  2. Human Violence and Tragedies: 
But God rules over violence
 (vv. 4-7)
  3. Be Still and Know: 
Despite both of the above, God is God; God is with us
 (vv. 8-11)

11 Psalms are attributed to the Sons of Korah. Korah himself is not a major Biblical figure, but he and his descendants were Levites, involved in musical leadership. This portion of the inscription is clear enough—it’s “a song.”

Alamoth, a Hebrew word that goes untranslated in the 1984 NIV, means “young women.” Alamoth could have been just the name of a musical setting—like singing the doxology to the tune of Old 100th. Or Alamoth could have meant that this song was to be sung by young women—by sopranos—and so it is high-pitched. (HT: P. C. Craigie)

Or Alamoth could have just been how the choirmaster preferred to take his apple pie.

(Sorry.)

But—back to business—the fact that this is a song, and marked as a song, with details about how to sing it, is significant.

Here you have a people confronted with natural disasters, human violence, and tragedies… and their worship leaders call them in response to sing!

Lord, open our lips.
And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
 
I preached on Psalm 46 this last Sunday, from which the above is adapted. This is the final of three posts this week about that Psalm. I wrote about it here and here, too.

The First Youth Ministry Talk I Never Gave

A Day of Hope cover slide.001

On September 16, 2001, I was planning to deliver my first ever message as a vocational youth minister. It would have been about Philippians 3.

I had just taken a position at an Episcopal church in Illinois as part-time youth minister. In my excitement to start ministering among youth and families, I invited all the parents of youth to come to our first youth worship service that Sunday. In the weeks leading up to that service I worked hard on my sermon, which was going to be about Paul’s pressing on toward the goal and striving to know Jesus Christ more and more. I hoped this would be a central theme in my new ministry.

On Monday, September 10, 2001, I went for a long run and mapped out the outline to my talk. I came back from my run refreshed and ready to go; I couldn’t wait to begin that Sunday.

The next morning, as I walked to a youth ministry class, my friend Michael asked me if I had heard the news. What news, I asked? He told me about a plane, commandeered by terrorists, crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, taking the lives of thousands of people. When I arrived at class, my professor turned on the TV as our session was set to begin and just said, “I’m going to stay here and watch the news about this; feel free to stay if you like; feel free to go home if you need to.”

Maybe it goes without saying, but I didn’t preach to the youth and their families that following Sunday about Philippians. Instead, I turned to Psalm 46, and tried to convey some sense of hope, because of the strength we can find in God, even when awful things happen.

To try to do that I used a collection of projected images (that we had been seeing in the news all week anyway), with the text of Psalm 46, bit-by-bit, underneath, next to, or on top of the images.

Here is a .pdf version (unedited since then) of our worship focus that morning. Though it’s been almost 13 years since that Sunday, I’ve found myself–still–turning to this Psalm in the wake of tragic events.

I preached on Psalm 46 this last Sunday, from which the above is adapted. See also here.

An Interculturally Aware Read of Psalm 46 (Location, Location, Location)

Psalms of Summer

As I have read and preached on some Psalms this summer, I’ve appreciated the importance of trying to practice intercultural sensitivity in reading the Bible (and in all of life).

I am working on a course on intercultural counseling this summer, one purpose of which has been to help build intercultural competence and sensitivity.

The readings, lectures, and class discussions have reminded me of the important truth that reading and interpreting the Bible is an exercise–whether we realize it or not–in intercultural relations.

Intercultural Sensitivity=Better Bible Reading

The culture, values, and practices, for instance, of ancient Israel differ from those of 21st century North America in a number of ways. If I read a passage with only an awareness of the cultural values I carry with me, I very well may miss an important truth or robust reading of a text. Or I may map a “truth” or value judgment onto the text that the author didn’t necessarily intend to be there. (I’m not discounting the potential value of so-called reader-response criticism, but I am suggesting we seek to avoid a monocultural or culturally hegemonic interpretation of a text, if possible.)

In a 2008 article for Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care (“Relational Spirituality and Transformation: Risking Intimacy and Alterity”), Steven J. Sandage, Mary L. Jensen, and Daniel Jass write:

Since hermeneutical understanding is always intercultural and contextual, cultural self-awareness is a prerequisite to responsibly interpreting Scripture and spiritual experience.

I mentioned here how the idea of intercultural sensitivity helped me read Psalm 23 in a fuller way. The same thing happened as I prepared to preach on Psalm 46 this week. I got a little extra help this time from a Bible atlas I’ve been reading.

Psalm 46: God Is Our Refuge

Psalm 46 begins:

 1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

How should we understand the scenario the Sons of Korah (writers of this Psalm) describe?

Mountain and WaterThe sons of Korah don’t just paint a picture of tragic events befalling God’s people—it’s the complete disintegration of all of life that is the dominant metaphor in these verses. A number of commentators point out here that the effective merging of the land (mountains) and waters (sea) harken back to the pre-creation state of chaos that existed before God separated the land from the waters, bringing order to life. The sons of Korah, then, describe a sort of uncreation.

But even in the midst of an envisioned chaos and uncreation of the world (!), “God is our refuge and strength.”

Verse 2 says, “though the earth give way,” or, though the land give way. Here is where an interculturally aware read of the Psalm helps it to come alive even more profoundly. (The below was inspired, in part, by Paul H. Wright’s Rose Then And Now Bible Map Atlas® With Biblical Background And Culture.)

Life for Israel: Location, Location, Location

Before there was such a thing as real estate, life for Israel already was location, location, location.

The topography or shape of the land had a lot to do with whether a given area would be suitable for habitation. Mountains, in particular, provided a sort of natural buffer of protection against enemies… a hiding place to run to, if need be. Water, of course, was necessary for life and the production of crops.

Mountains in Edom (photo: Garo Nalbandian, from Carta's Sacred Bridge atlas)
Mountains in Edom (photo: Garo Nalbandian, from Carta’s Sacred Bridge atlas)

The congregation of Israelites who would sing this Psalm understood their identity as intricately tied to the land. The land—which God had given them—was part and parcel of his covenant relationship with them. It was part of his blessing, a sign of his love. If we don’t have this land, how can we really call ourselves God’s people? This is still a live question for many.

Yet even if we were to lose this fundamental aspect of our identity, the Psalm declares, even if the world were to be uncreated and fall back into chaos, “we will not fear.”

The congregation can still say—can still sing, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

Given how important land was to the people of Israel and the construction of their collectivistic identity, this is an amazing affirmation of trust in God.

Intercultural Insight from a Bible Atlas

Paul Wright AtlasPaul H. Wright’s cultural awareness and sensitivity is present from the very first chapter (“The Landed Context of the Biblical Story”) of his biographically-arranged atlas:

To start, it is perhaps appropriate to define a few aspects of location that have impacted living conditions in the lands of the Bible over time. The building blocks of biblical geography include the following….

He lists topography, climate, and available resources. He goes on:

The particular mix of elements such as these plays a significant role in determining whether any given plot of ground can support permanent settlements and how large and well-established these might have become, or if the land is better suited for herding or desert lifestyles.

Here’s the intercultural piece, which I so appreciated:

Specific geographical realities have also helped to shape cultural values and norms that defined individual societies. For instance, protocols of cooperation, hospitality and defense that functioned well in arid, shepherding societies in biblical times developed differently than did those that attained to urban centers located in fertile areas, or to sailors who frequented foreign ports-of-call. And aspects of geography gave rise to specific images that biblical writers used to describe God and the people of ancient Israel.

Understanding the value of land to the people singing Psalm 46–it was an essential component of their identity and experience of God’s love for them!–makes the affirmation of trust in this Psalm even more remarkable.

Though the sons of Korah envision a scenario in which their land is gone–having slipped into the ocean–they call on the congregation to praise God still.

The above is adapted from a portion of a sermon I preached yesterday. Rose Publishing has sent me the Wright atlas for review purposes. A full review is forthcoming. You can find the atlas in the following places: Rose Publishing, Amazon (affiliate link), Carta (as Greatness, Grace, and Glory: Carta’s Atlas of Biblical Biography), and Eisenbrauns (same title as Carta).

How My 2-Year-Old Helped Me Practice What I Preach (or, Saying Psalm 23 Through Gritted Teeth)

My two-year-old gave me an unexpected opportunity yesterday to practice what I just preached Sunday. I noted in my sermon that I had been understanding Psalm 23 as a “counter-circumstantial prayer of defiance,” a “subversive prayer when you compare it to what you see around you.”

I mentioned some potential circumstances which make us feel far from the idyllic pastoral imagery of the Psalm, and then suggested that those are some of the best times to (defiantly) pray Psalm 23:

When you hear about wars and rumors of wars, say this Psalm.

When your best friend gets sick, say this Psalm.

When someone in your family grieves you by their seeming lack of care for you, say this Psalm.

When you don’t know what the next year of your life holds, say this Psalm.

An instance I didn’t think to include was:

When your two-year-old daughter draws with permanent marker all over the brand-new cork floor that the church graciously put in last year in the parsonage kitchen… say this Psalm.

When I noticed the damage, this image is about the opposite of how I was feeling:

Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission

I was feeling more like this:

The Scream

For at least 10 minutes as I frantically scrubbed, I didn’t even remember there was a Psalm 23, let alone think to say it.

But then I took a step back (by God’s grace) and began to quietly say–through gritted teeth:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul….

And when my gracious and patient wife came home, she gently reminded me of the “magic sponge” we have under the sink that takes permanent marker off of everything. Within minutes, the green marker drawing on the floor was gone. Gone. The cork floor is good as new.

True, there are much darker valleys in life to walk through, but I think sometimes in parenting those little mini-valleys of frustration and exasperation can add up pretty quickly. And for us parents, they can be the regular “stuff” of our everyday existence. We need good Psalms to pray for the big valleys, and good Psalms to pray for the little valleys.

For those moments–should my two-year-old again somehow elude my watch like she has been so eager to do lately–I will try again (and again) to remember to “say this Psalm.”

Psalm 23: Psalm of Trust, Psalm of Defiance

Psalms of Summer

Psalm 23 is a Psalm of Trust. A Declaration of Confidence in God.

The imagery and tone of the Psalm are peaceful: “green pastures,” “quiet waters,” a restored soul, the promise of God’s presence even when death and darkness are near. The LORD is my shepherd: he provides, he guides, he restores, he is with his sheep, and he comforts.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” With God as my comforting shepherd, there is time to rest. Time to stop. Time to be still.

Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission

Typically a shepherd leads sheep to a pasture where they can graze. The sheep still do work; the shepherd does the leading but not necessarily the feeding. As the Psalm progresses, God as comforting shepherd becomes welcoming host, who sets out a whole banquet for his flock.

Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission

Psalm 23: It Just Got Personal

Psalm 23 is intensely personal. It’s a prayer of an individual to God; a song from one soul, who recognizes that the ruling king of the universe has taken the time to lead him to a restful spot to get a drink… to rest.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul….

David uses the first person singular pronoun throughout the Psalm. God is the shepherd of each individual who would follow him.

This may seem slightly unremarkable to us. We live in a North American society that already tends toward individualism. Our cultural construction of the self tends to be individually-focused.

The culture in which David found himself was much more communally-oriented. The sins of an individual and the corporate sins of the community were not always distinguished. A person’s sense of self was constructed and informed and shaped in a communal context.

Identity for a Hebrew man or woman had much more to do with being a part of a chosen and called-out community. A chosen people, plural.

Even in other Psalms, when God is prayed to as shepherd, there’s a sense in which he’s understood as a shepherd of a whole people:

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

So it’s at least a little remarkable, in the larger context of Hebrew worshiping society, that David begins–the Lord is MY shepherd.

The idea of God as personal shepherd is consistent with Jesus’ interpretation of himself as shepherd. You remember the Christlike image of the shepherd who–even though he has 100 sheep–will stop and go find the one who goes missing.

So it really is okay, and probably even closest to the original intent of this Psalm, to put your own name in there as you read it.

Psalm 23 as Prayer of Defiance

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading this Psalm through the lens of the news this week, but I’m beginning more and more to see Psalm 23 not only as an affirmation of trust and confidence in God, but also as a counter-circumstantial prayer of defiance. It’s a subversive prayer when you compare it to what you see around you.

Verse 4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” David seems to just take it as a given that life contains dark and death-filled valleys.

11,002 ThingsI saw in a bookstore yesterday a little book called 11,002 Things to Be Miserable About. It’s a work of satire, mostly, though not all of it is. Here are a few of the things it listed:

  • Exaggerated vows of love
  • Abysses of regret
  • Tipping over backward in your chair
  • The misery of goldfish
  • Heel pain caused by flip-flops

But we don’t need a book to think of all the ways in which life is full of dark valleys.

You’ve been in a dark valley before. Maybe you’re in one now. It can be a valley of darkness and shadows that you’ve found yourself in due to no choice of your own: some hurt or frustration someone has caused you; prayers that continue to go unanswered in the way you’d like to see answered; illness and physical ailment; unexpected and sudden grief.

You could be in a valley of darkness and shadows that is more of your own making, too. Maybe your whole life doesn’t feel like a valley, but maybe you’re aware of your “shadow side” that you wouldn’t dare bring to church, that part or those parts of you that you don’t want anyone to see. Maybe you’ve looked inside and seen something in your heart that—it pains you to see—doesn’t please God.

Or, to see some “valleys of the shadow of death,” you could just pay attention to global events this week. 4 children in Gaza—cousins—playing at the beach and shot dead from the ocean. An Israeli ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. Another Malaysian Airline plane crash full of passengers, this one shot down by a ground to air missile as it was flying over Ukraine.

And if you really want to lose some faith in humanity, you probably have already heard that that airplane had something like 100 of the world’s top HIV/Aids researchers on their way to an international Aids conference.

So, yes, there are plenty of valleys of the shadow of death and darkness that we walk through.

And yet, even though—“even though I walk through through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” “Even though,” David says, in a hope-filled prayer of defiance.

There’s an old story of a young preacher who was preaching in a rural church in Louisiana during the depression. This church had just one lightbulb coming down from the ceiling that gave light to the whole sanctuary. As Pastor Taylor was preaching, the electricity went out. He was a newish preacher and didn’t know what to do in the now-dark sanctuary. But an elderly deacon in the church, from the back of the room, shouted, “Preach on, preacher! We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

“We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

For whatever reason, when I hear “shepherd,” there’s part of me that thinks of a humble, young boy (or girl) walking sheep through beautiful country fields on a quiet, sunny day.  And that’s right. Leading your sheep to serenity is part and parcel of what it means to be a shepherd.

But there’s this fascinating passage of Scripture, Micah 5, which says:

When the Assyrian invades our land
a
nd marches through our fortresses,
we will raise against him seven shepherds,
even eight leaders of men.

Maybe it’s just me, but reading about a coming invasion by an Assyrian superpower, my first reaction is: What kind of a country would send their shepherds out to battle?

But Micah is drawing on a rich tradition in the Scripture—especially in the Old Testament—of using “shepherd” imagery to describe kings, to describe commanders, to describe strong and mighty leaders.

When Micah says “shepherd,” he is talking about a ruling king who goes to battle for his people.

David, as a ruler himself, surely had this aspect of shepherding in mind. The readers and prayers and singers of this Psalm surely saw not just a shepherd to comfort me, not just a host to welcome me, but God as a ruler to protect me. This ruler won’t do away with all of life’s dark valleys—not yet, anyway—but he will be with me while I walk through them.

The Lord is my shepherd, and his rod and his staff—weapons of protection in the hands of a skilled shepherd—fend off that which would attack us.

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, we see his gentleness in his willingness to lay down his life for the sheep, and we see his ferocity, his power, his authority over all things when he says, “No one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Even the presence of enemies in verse 5 cannot keep this ruling shepherd from playing banquet host, setting out a feast for the ones he loves.

So good shepherds are not to be trifled with, because they protect their flock. They walk with them through darkness. The Good Shepherd is a ruling king, and he keeps our modern-day enemies—shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, the accusations of others, stress, hatred… he keeps our modern-day enemies at bay. Even though life is full of valleys of the shadow of death, tens of thousands of things to potentially be miserable about, Jesus the Good Shepherd is a ruling king who STILL is sovereign over all he has made, no matter how fouled up it gets.

“We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

So—when you’re riddled with doubt and self-loathing, or just questioning your worth? Say this Psalm.

When you hear about wars and rumors of wars, say this Psalm.

When your best friend gets sick, say this Psalm.

When someone in your family grieves you by their seeming lack of care for you, say this Psalm.

When you don’t know what the next year of your life holds, say this Psalm.

When you have to do the hard work of reconciling with someone you have hurt or that has hurt you, say this Psalm.

When you can’t pay your mortgage on time, say this Psalm.

When you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, say this Psalm.

When you get scared of the dark, say this Psalm.

As a holy act of defiance against the darkness,
as an affirmation of trust and confidence in Jesus,
when you come up on one of life’s dark valleys,
get ready to walk through….and say:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.

He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
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 goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today. Scripture quotations are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here, including the first Psalm of Summer sermon here.

Change Your “Pas5w0rd,” Change Your Life

Psalms of Summer

This summer we’re going to delve more deeply into the Psalms. “The Psalms of Summer,” I’m calling the preaching series. (Or, as a pastor friend of mine called it, the Psalms of Psummer.)

We’ll find ourselves here in these poems and see our heart’s desires expressed in the Psalms. Some days we’ll walk out of church with new prayers to pray: prayers we’ve been longing to pray and have already been feeling, but maybe couldn’t put words to.

We’ll seek, too, to be shaped and formed by these prayers.

Psalm 1 as Preface, and Picking a Password

Psalm 1 is, as one early church theologian called it, the “foundation” of the house. It sets up the whole book of 150 Psalms. You could almost even think of it as a sort of “Psalm 0.”

The ones who are blessed, this Psalm says, the ones with the richest, most God-filled lives, the ones who flourish, are the ones who meditate on God’s word. Over and over.

Blessed are those… who delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on his law day and night.

I found myself this week being redirected to an article on NBC’s Today Website, because I had to click on the link that said, “How a password changed one man’s life for the better.”

And how can you not click on that, you know?

Mauricio Estrella had just gone through a painful divorce and was depressed. He says:

One day I walk into the office, and my computer screen showed me the following message:

“Your password has expired. Click ‘Change password’ to change your password.”

His work required a change of password every 30 days. He writes:

I was furious that morning. A sizzling hot Tuesday, it was 9:40 a.m and I was late to work. I was still wearing my bike helmet and had forgotten to eat breakfast. I needed to get things done before a 10 a.m. meeting and changing passwords was going to be a huge waste of time.

As the input field with the pulsating cursor was waiting for me to type a password — something I’d use many times during every day — I remembered a tip I heard from my former boss.

And I decided: I’m gonna use a password to change my life.

He reasoned like this–he has to type in his password several times a day–when his screen saver came up or his lock screen kicked in when he was away from his desk for extended periods of time.

So, freshly wounded from the divorce, he set a password: “Forgive her.”

Except he had to have at least one capital letter, one lowercase letter, one symbol, and one number, so it was “Forgive@h3r.”

Every day for a month he wrote, “Forgive her.” And Estrella said:

That simple action changed the way I looked at my ex wife. That constant reminder that I should forgive her led me to accept the way things happened at the end of my marriage, and embrace a new way of dealing with the depression that I was drowning into.

A month later, his password expired, so his new password–reflecting a new mantra he wanted to take on–became: Quit@smoking4ever.

It was a great article–a little self-help-y for my tastes, and it is true that we find ourselves in way too many situations that we can’t just positive think our way out of. But Mauricio Estrella knew what the writer of Psalm 1 knew–what we meditate on has the power to transform us. 

Two Ways

Here is one way of outlining Psalm 1:

What are the two ways? (Ps. 1:1-2)

What are they like? (Ps. 1:3-4)

What do they lead to? (Ps. 1:5-6)

This Psalm tells us, especially, that what we meditate on has the power to transform us.

What are the two ways? (Ps. 1:1-2)

Ps 1:1    Blessed are those
who do not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,

2 but who delight in the law of the LORD
and meditate on his law day and night.

Or, get this–I’d never read Psalm 1 in this translation until this week:

Happy the man
who did not walk by the counsel of the impious,
and in the way of sinners did not stand,
and on the seat of pestiferous people did not sit down.

(Stay away from the pestiferous ones!)

Walk… stand…sit. There’s a progression into wickedness here. At first you might be walking on by, just taking a look at–thinking about–going down a road you shouldn’t. If you slow down enough to stand there and look at the way of the wicked–that’s worse… when you stop to sit in the chair of those pestiferous people, well, then… you’re done for. Because what we meditate on has the power to transform us. And the ones that we spend time with also have the power to transform us, for better or for worse.

These are the two ways: the way of the wicked, the way of the righteous.

Righteous ones “delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on [it] day and night.”

Remove@clothingm1ldew?

Later Psalms will echo this. In Psalm 119, verse 97, it says, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” Then in verse 103, the Psalmist writes, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

I suspect that this idea of loving the law of God can sound a bit strange to us. We all see the value in laws and rules and regulations, sure, but to love somebody’s laws more than the summer season’s first ice cream?

We hear the word “law” and might think about some of the detailed instructions given in, say, Leviticus, regarding physical hygiene and ritual purity, such as Leviticus 14, which is about cleansing from infectious skin diseases and what to do when you notice mildew on your clothes.

So your new computer password becomes: Remove@clothingm1ldew.

Or we hear the word “law” and think of it as opposed to “grace.”  They were living under “law”; we are living under “grace.”

So what’s the Psalmist talking about?

He’s talking about his equivalent to our Bible. The Torah–the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This is “the Law”–it’s “God’s Word.” And not just the laws part of God’s law–but the revelation of God that it brings, the story that it tells of a compassionate God who is, in fact, slow to anger and eager to show compassion on all he has made.

In meditating on God’s law–God’s very words–the Psalmist is meditating on God: his guidance, instructions, blessings, love, character.

And I think Psalm 1 is self-referential, too–those who meditate on these Psalms will be blessed, will experience the favor of God.

What are they like? (Ps. 1:3-4)

3 [The righteous] are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

4
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.

Those who meditate on God’s word are rooted, strong, nourished, bearers of good and visible fruit to all who walk by them. The wicked–in this case those who ignore God’s truth and go their own way–they are the chaff that has fallen to the floor. The grain is kept and preserved, the chaff just blows away. No roots, no fruit, no nothing.

What do they lead to? (Ps. 1:5-6)

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will be destroyed.

Then in verses 5 and 6 there is what one interpreter calls a “parting of the ways.” God watches over them. What we meditate on has the power to transform us, so the righteous one now is a rooted and well-watered tree, bearing fruit like it should. She or he receives God’s blessing, God’s preservation.

The wicked one has been transformed by the bad company he keeps, so he just floats away with the next wind, on his way to judgment.

It’s God who does the planting and watering and blessing here, but it’s the righteous person who has done his or her part to meditate on God’s word. And that meditation has caused a transformation.

Scripture Memory

Over the last month or so I’ve gotten back into Scripture memory. I have these little cards I bring in my pocket with verses on them. The pocket is a great place for them because I might reach for my phone to check for messages, and I’ll feel the little packet of cards instead. This is a prompt for me to either pull a card out and learn a verse, or if I already know it, to try to say it and pray it.

There are many ways to meditate on God’s Word. We’re going to try one particular way this summer, and that is Scripture memory….

[AKJ note: Here we looked at some Scripture memory cards I made up for Psalm 1:1-2, as a way to put into practice what this Psalm preaches. Make your own, using this document, if you want!]

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached last Sunday. Scripture quotations are from the TNIV. See my other sermons gathered here.

Free in Logos: Brueggemann on the Psalms

Free Brueggemann on Psalms

I was checking to see what Fortress Press books Logos was offering, when I saw–to my very pleasant surprise–that they are offering Walter Brueggemann’s Spirituality of the Psalms for free. You can get it by clicking the image above.

I’ll be preaching through some Psalms this summer, so will be glad to have this short volume at hand. I’ll also be reviewing it from a print edition from Fortress, so keep an eye out for that in the coming months, too.