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Posts Tagged ‘Psalm 23’

I have always longed to be an artist. I would love to be able to create beautiful scenes or stunning portraits for others to appreciate. Instead, I am a writer who weaves together words and sentences, in the hope of inspiring my readers to create their own scenes in their imaginations as the story unfolds. And I have to say I love doing this. But, while I might admit to being a tad envious, I also love celebrating those with different, God-given, creative gifts—artists, sculptors, photographers, craftspeople of all sorts—and allowing their creations to speak to me in their own unique way, maybe even revealing more of God in the process.

IMG_20171001_103745359And right now, there is a unique opportunity to do just that at our church’s Art Installation, which features a variety of creative works, all centred around our church’s vision statement—Led by God’s Spirit. Compelled to share Christ. Restoring the broken. Each weekday evening from 7.00pm to 9.00pm and on weekends (Sat 9.00am to 12.00 midday; Sun 9.00am to 1.00pm, 4.30pm to 8.00pm) until Sunday 15th October, someone will be present in ‘The Basement’ at our church, Parramatta Baptist, 84-94 Kleins Rd, Northmead, Sydney, to greet visitors and invite us to wander and look or simply sit and reflect on what God might be saying to us through the various creative works on display.

I hope my piece of writing below that is included in this year’s Art Installation will bless and encourage any who pause to read it. It is more a brief meditation than a poem and came to me one morning as reflected on the beautiful, well-known words of Psalm 23, the ‘shepherd psalm’. As you too read it now, may you be reassured of the presence of God’s loving ‘Shepherd Spirit’ with you to guide, restore, comfort, strengthen and encourage.

 

Shepherd Spirit

you long to lead me in paths of peace

to provide for me,

to empower me to live and serve.

You whisper gentle words to me–

‘This is the way–walk here!’

‘Don’t be afraid–I am with you.’

‘Not yet–wait!’

                Shepherd Spirit,

at times your voice is firmer, more fervent,

impossible to ignore, urging me

to lay down the old,

to explore the new.

Even when darkness descends and loneliness engulfs,

Even when I stumble on, seeking my own path,

you rise to rescue me,

securing my steps,

attending to my needs.

              Shepherd Spirit,

as I come to my senses, I see you are there,

offering me the finest of fare,

seating me at your table,

where healing and wholeness await.

Shepherd Spirit,

I stand in strength,

inspired again to write of you,

empowered again to speak of you,

rejoicing in your love,

relishing your leading,

ready to be all you call me to be.

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Jo 23‘Do you think a visit to IKEA might be in order soon?’ a friend texted me.

‘Great!’ I texted back. ‘I’ll look around here and see if I can think of anything we need.’

Then it struck me how ironic my response was.  If I had to work hard at thinking of something I might need, then the chances are I do not truly need whatever it might be at all! If I have to wrack my brains to come up with something that would make life better or easier for us, then it’s more than possible we can well do without it.

A few days later, after visiting a nearby weekend market, I sat down and enjoyed a lovely cup of coffee my husband had bought for me.

‘I really needed that!’ I told him, as I swallowed those last few drops.

But did I? Yes, it gave me that temporary energy boost I was looking for—and yes, it made me feel less thirsty. But I think I might have been able to survive without it. I wanted it, but I didn’t really need it—unlike people lost in the desert need water or a newborn baby needs milk to survive.

Then yesterday, I found myself using that little word ‘need’ in yet another context.

‘I need to fit in a swim this afternoon,’ I told my husband. ‘I’m heading up to the pool now.’

Yes, I do need to swim to help my back recover from past damage. So I am grateful for that heated pool in our village—and that I had it all to myself yesterday! But did I really need to relax in that beautiful, warm spa right next to the pool for as long as I did afterwards? Still, it was wonderful—and, all the while, I felt God was smiling and saying to me, ‘It’s okay to relax, Jo-Anne, and enjoy my company in the process!’ Sometimes we do need those moments of pure relaxation, don’t we—doing nothing except letting those ideas flow in and out of our minds and talking to God in the process, as I did while the water bubbled around me in that spa?

I’m so glad God knows what I need and is always there, ready to supply just that. In fact, all the resources I have, material and otherwise, are gifts from our generous and loving God, who, as Paul assured the early believers, is able to meet all my needs ‘according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19). So how can I continually grasp at things, wanting this and that? Instead, I am trying to hold everything more lightly and to be much more willing to supply what is lacking for others.

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:17-18

For me, it’s about walking hand in hand with God each day, listening well, opening my eyes to see the real needs around me—then doing something about them. And because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need to do just that (Psalm 23).

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IMG_20150107_084323086I sat holding our one year old granddaughter as I fed her some dinner. Things went along smoothly at first—but then, as that spoon came close once again, she pressed her lips tightly together and turned her head away. Now I had experienced that tactic before—but it was what happened next that almost caused me to drop spoon and plate and all.

‘No!’ she declared, with great finality.

At first, I thought I had imagined it. Surely she couldn’t talk yet? Of course, I had heard her previous vague attempts at ‘Hi!’ and ‘Up!’ and ‘Boo!’ Now, however, she had said a word I could not dispute—a word she had clearly decided was most useful to have in one’s vocabulary.

I’m sure our little Maxine will have many opportunities to employ this word in the future—much to the annoyance of her parents at times! There will come moments too when it is important she does say it and turn down others who might lead her astray. Even with regard to eating dinner, she seemed to know when she had had enough. But the shock of hearing this tiny word emerge from her mouth caused me to reflect later on how I use it in my own life—for good or for ill.

I wish I had learnt years ago to say no to certain requests a little more often. On occasions, I have too readily agreed to do things—and almost burnt myself out as a result. Yet sometimes I have said no simply because I did not care about someone else’s welfare enough to put myself out for him or her or because I wanted to do something much more enjoyable. And what about those occasions when I have turned God down? How many times has God gently prompted me to take some course of action or challenged me to attempt something new and my immediate response has been a resounding ‘No!’?

I am not so fond of the word ‘obedience’, I have discovered. For some reason, if I am told to do something, I often want to do the exact opposite. I want to reach my own conclusions about what I do or don’t do. I want to weigh it all up and decide for myself. Yet, at this point in my life, I have also realised that, when God calls me to act in a certain way, it truly is much wiser to say yes rather than no. I know I can trust God to lead me well, as Psalm 23 clearly shows. And I know I need to learn from Jesus who always did what his Father called him to do, who chose in that Garden of Gethsemane to do his Father’s will and not his own (Mt 26:39), who did not say no but instead ‘humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!’ (Phil 2:8)

I hope our little granddaughter learns to say no when it’s right to do so. But I also hope and pray she learns to say yes to the many things that will be good for her—and especially to God. And I hope and pray I continue to do the same.

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I love Psalm 23. To me, it’s a psalm to be absorbed slowly, phrase by phrase, image by image. And that’s exactly what I was given the opportunity to do again at a recent retreat I attended, along with around twenty-five others. Together—and alone—we walked through this psalm with our Shepherd, listening, reflecting, praying, waiting, imagining, allowing our own spirits to be stilled, comforted and strengthened.

And at various stages throughout our day together, we were invited to put ourselves right in the centre of that psalm—to picture what those green pastures and quiet waters might look and feel like, to walk again in our minds into those deep valleys and sense that right path beneath our feet, and even to sit at a table with the Lord, watching our cup overflow and sensing that goodness and mercy all around us.

Now I am in no way an artist, but twice when we were invited to draw what we saw as we reflected, I did just that. At one point, I drew an expanse of green grass and those quiet waters flowing nearby, surrounded by lush vegetation. I drew myself seated on a rug on that grassy bank—and there with me was the Lord. But more than that, he was holding my next book Soul Friend—and enjoying it immensely! Now I have been looking towards the release of this book with some anxiety, even foreboding. Not only is it my first work of non-fiction, but it reveals a great deal about me and my journey over recent years and gives my own personal perspective on all sorts of events in my life. But here was Jesus, reading and enjoying it, looking at me and smiling, with a twinkle in his eyes. And he was saying, ‘Oh, Jo-Anne, I love this! I know I was with you when you were writing it, but it’s wonderful to hold it and see it completed. Well done!’

Was this just my imagination? Even if it was, surely this is a God-given gift, to be able to imagine and see beyond what is there in the natural? Even now I can picture that scene, feel the warmth of the sun there, hear that running water and know the delight of the Lord who sits nearby. And that to me is what Psalm 23 is all about—the wise and loving Shepherd walking our journey with us, refreshing us, guiding and comforting us, protecting us, providing for us, renewing us, loving us.

I encourage you to walk through this psalm again with the Lord—perhaps even now. And as you do, may you know his close, loving presence and sense his great delight in being there with you.

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.

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Many years ago, one of our daughters who was only very little at the time was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her answer was a doctor or – wait for it – a shepherd! She had heard various bible stories about shepherds and must have decided they were a kind lot who helped and cared for others. The interesting thing is that while she did not take up either of these occupations, she nevertheless clearly conveys these traits in the way she has related to others throughout her life. Next year she is heading out with a volunteer organisation to spend some time working with orphans in Rumania – still the doctor and the shepherd at heart.

I think of her almost every time I read or speak on Psalm 23. This psalm is so well-known that the temptation is to gloss over the richness of its words and to read it only at funerals or memorial services. Yet I think it gives such encouragement to us as we seek to live our lives well right now, and deep comfort whenever we find ourselves in a hard place.

Right off the bat, the psalm begins with the strong assertion that ‘The LORD is my Shepherd’. What a statement! David, its author, is declaring that Yahweh, the most high God, the ‘I AM’, the one whose name was too holy and too awesome even to be spoken aloud by the ancient Hebrews, is prepared to take on the lowly role of a shepherd and, furthermore, lead and guide him personally through his life. That blows my mind and immediately takes me back to my teenage years when I realised for the first time that the mighty God of the whole universe knew me and cared about me personally – enough to send Jesus to die for me, in fact.

As the psalm continues to unfold, we read wonderful statements about the Lord that I have found so true since then:

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 present of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

The key factor in it all is that presence of the Shepherd walking closely with me, strengthening me, showing me the way forward, defending me, healing me. My task is to ensure I keep my eyes on my Shepherd, listening for his voice, trusting him when he takes me in a particular direction. In John 10:27, Jesus himself says:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

What a privilege to have Jesus, the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:14-15), intimately involved in my life journey, with all its twists and turns! In fact, he has told us this relationship will never end, that no one can snatch us out of his hand (John 10:28). So it is with a grateful heart that I agree with David as he concludes his psalm:

Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Can you hear the voice of this faithful Shepherd too? Are you listening?

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I was in the middle of one of those surreal kind of experiences.  As the rain came pelting down, I focussed all my attention on keeping up with the car in front of me, who in turn was trying to keep up with the one in front of it.  We were both part of a funeral procession, wending its way at quite a fast pace through unfamiliar streets in an unfamiliar town.  I had to get to the lawn cemetery – after all, I was leading the service there for my young friend who had passed away after a long illness.

The rain had eased by the time we arrived, but the clouds hung low on the surrounding mountains, dark and threatening.  Very tentatively, I squelched my way across the grass towards the designated spot.  People were gathered around in a horseshoe shape, only a few able to shelter beneath the nearby canopy.

I began the service.  I read the beautiful, age-old words of Psalm 23:

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. …

I prayed, committing my friend’s body to its resting place and her soul to God.  I was vaguely aware, as we each placed a flower provided for us on the coffin and said our final goodbyes, that the sky had cleared and the sun was shining.  I was focussed on the next part of the service, however – I hoped it would be just what her parents wanted and  needed.  I thought I had known how it should all go – but then it came to me.  We would sing the simple old chorus ‘Be still and know that I am God’ together, as my friend’s coffin was lowered into the ground.

And as we did, unbeknown to me, but visible to the mourners as they stood facing me, the clouds parted a little above the surrounding mountains – and a beautiful rainbow appeared.  It was a sacred moment.  God was present, offering peace, comfort and hope in the midst of great sadness.

The rain held off until most people had left.  At home once again, I emailed a friend, telling her what had happened.  She wrote back, almost immediately, still in shock.  That day, she had prayed specifically for a rainbow of hope for the grieving family, as a tangible sign of comfort and encouragement to them.

God knows.  God cares.  I am sure of that.

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