Psalm 23 My Shepherd July 22, 2012
Ever since the fall, human life has consisted of struggle.
It’s consisted of Challenge.
It’s consisted of Hard work with no guarantees.
For the majority of human history, the majority of people eked their living from the ground, one season to the next, relying on God’s grace to provide the sun and rain, and their own hard work to keep pests and threats at bay.
For the majority of human history, and for the majority of the world today, life is struggle.
As the story of Jacob wrestling with God reminds us, life has long been a wrestling match that marks you with injury…and blessing…at one and the same time.
The struggle defines us.
It renames us.
It injures us.
But blessing comes to those who pursue it, even as it throws us on our back in our quest for the upper hand.
Life is struggle.
But our struggle is not against flesh and blood.
Rather, our struggle is against the rulers, the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
…Now, the Psalm we heard this morning; that familiar passage of comfort, hope, and peace…
I’d like to suggest that there’s more to it than simply comfort and hope and peace.
Indeed, the imagery is serene.
When the Lord is our shepherd, we can trust in his provision. The poet knows that God leads us into abundance, not want…green pastures and still waters are symbols of refreshment and peace…not struggle and hardship.
It is not wrong to hope and trust in the peaceful imagery this passage offers, and to seek comfort in these words when life threatens to overwhelm us.
There are times in life when we need this psalm and the comfort it offers, not unlike a toddler needs a teddy bear to sometimes get through the night.
But I’d like to suggest this morning that we can read Psalm 23 in a different light.
It’s sometimes more important to read this passage as a battle cry than a balm…to use it more like a training plan than a teddy bear.
Let me explain what I mean.
It’s a fact worth noting that yesterday, a number of people in this room participated in the first ever Holmes County Triathlon!
Christine and I were spectators, but did not participate otherwise.
For most of the participants, yesterday’s event was the culmination of weeks and even months of preparation.
Sure, the race itself took place on one day.
There was a starting line and there was a finish line.
There was a beginning and an end.
Nobody who ran the race yesterday is still running the race today…and even if they ran the course on Friday, it didn’t count unless and until they lined up on Saturday.
…But isn’t the preparation just as important as the race itself?
Couldn’t we say that the preparation is part of the whole experience?
You have to be at least somewhat healthy to compete in a triathlon.
But more than that, you have to have a certain set of skills.
You have to be able to swim, ride a bike, and run…and you have to be at least competent in each of those areas in order to finish.
That’s why you don’t just wake up and decide to go do something like a triathlon.
You plan for it.
You prepare for it.
You make healthy choices about what you eat and how you spend your time…not just on race day, but in the weeks and months leading up to it.
In short, you develop healthy habits…and it all begins with a plan.
I’m sure there are all kinds of training plans out there to help somebody work towards completing a triathlon, just like there are all kinds of training plans out there to help somebody prepare for their first 5k.
Athletic events are one thing where training pays off…but there are countless other areas of life where it’s helpful to have a training plan, too.
Things like when we work on a marriage relationship, either before or during, or sometimes after…we call it counseling…but isn’t it really a training plan?
Or when we obtain a diploma of any kind…we call it education, but isn’t it really a training plan?
When a seamstress or a woodworker follows a pattern to guide their work…it’s a plan, and we can say they’re training themselves to do the work.
Musicians follow training plans every time they pick up an instrument.
There’s a reason doctors and lawyers call it a practice, right?
It’s not just athletes who train.
Life is filled with struggle.
It’s filled with challenge.
The valley of the shadow of death is not just a poetic touch.
It’s a very real place that we all find ourselves in from time to time.
When we’re in the valley of the shadow of death, we rely on our most basic instincts to get us through.
We rely on our training.
I just finished reading a book about the power of habits. In it, the author makes the claim that %40 of what we do in a given day…is simple habit.
Apparently, when you rehearse a routine enough, like say backing your car out of a driveway…your brain and your body begin to adapt to the point where you’re not even thinking about it. Your brain activity actually decreases as the behavior becomes automatic.
In other words, at one point you decided how you were going to back out of your driveway. You thought about it, and you were intentional about what you were doing.
But after doing it that way long enough, it became a habit…something you can do without consciously thinking about it too much.
I think that’s actually pretty interesting. Our brains are fantastic creations.
Habits are what make it possible to think about other things while we’re backing out of the driveway or taking out the trash or even cooking a meal.
Our brains form habits so we can seize every opportunity to tackle other, more complex problems.
The question, of course, becomes “what habits are we forming?”
There are good habits, and there are bad habits.
But another interesting thing in that book was that there are “keystone habits”, certain habits that seem to support a whole bunch of other habits for good or for ill in a person’s life.
Smoking is one example.
A woman in this study set off to change just one habit in her life…she wanted to give up smoking.
And they’ve learned that you can’t really drop a habit, you have to replace it.
The urges and the cravings that make a person smoke aren’t going to go away. There’s a loop where they feel the need to smoke, then they smoke, and they receive the reward they were craving.
Now, I’m not saying it’s this simple…I’ve never been addicted to anything that I know of, and I’m not interested in judging people who are for whatever reason.
But for this lady, she focused on that one habit, and she replaced smoking with exercise.
And as a result, lots of other bad habits she had began to change.
She held a job longer than she ever had, she started saving money, enough to eventually buy a house, she committed herself to a romantic relationship, paid off her enormous credit card debt…all because she worked on replacing one keystone habit with another.
Now, that all sets me up for the main question and the main point that I want to make this morning.
Coming to church is a good habit to be in. I’m not going to suggest otherwise.
I believe it’s even a keystone habit…a habit that supports a lot of other habits in our lives that work together for our general health and well being, and the health and well being of our community.
But the very thing that makes habits so powerful…that is, our tendency not to think about them…is what robs them of power as well.
We can call it ‘going through the motions’, but that doesn’t really get at it.
Everyone who entered the competition yesterday was going through the motions.
Swimming, biking, and running…all those things are is going through the motions.
They’re all activities that are ingrained in the athlete.
They’re habits, skills that have been developed so that you don’t really have to think about how to run…you just do it.
Like coming to church.
Or staying home.
It’s more than that though…the concern I have is that because of this habit (coming to church), we lose sight of the struggle in which we are engaged.
We are surrounded on all sides with messages telling us that the struggle is over, or that it’s only imagined…that it’s not even real.
We’re surrounded on all sides with signs that tell us church isn’t important, that it’s just a habit, and that habits are wrong.
We’re enveloped in a cloud of apathy towards anything religious, apathy towards anything that dares to make particular distinctions between right and wrong.
And so it’s easy to lose focus.
It’s easy to fall into rest-mode…where our former commitments start to waiver, and other concerns begin to rise.
I was talking to Daniel Raber yesterday after the final leg of the triathlon. I asked him what the hardest part was, and he said the running was the most difficult.
Then he said something to the effect of trying to keep his focus on running, because he wanted to walk so badly, but he knew if he walked it would be really hard to start running again.
We talked to a couple of other friends yesterday who said similar things. One had just finished and said how he so badly wanted to sit down, but he knew he wouldn’t stand up again if he let himself do that…so he eventually went to find some water and food.
What does it mean to make this passage a habit?
To walk through the valley of the shadow of death…to face the challenge we’ve been given, to look it straight in the eyes, and just going on instinct declare to it “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”?
Can we develop a habit of fearing no evil? If so, what’s it look like?
Can we work this psalm into our training regimen as a keystone habit…so that following the good shepherd becomes second nature, so that we are not in want no matter what the advertisements say…so that even in the darkest valley, we have no fear of evil?
This kind of living doesn’t come easy.
It’s not for the faint of heart.
It takes practice.
It takes hard work to not want.
It takes discipline to fear no evil.
In other words, the LORD is our shepherd, but we are no sheep!
It goes against every fiber in our being, to content ourselves in the green pastures and the still waters that God offers, when the noise around us clamors so loudly, and when the darkness falls along the valley of the shadow.
Those are the times the commitment matters more than anything else.
Will you help me practice this Psalm? Can we help each other to develop the good habits in our struggle…can we commit together, to train for the challenge that lies ahead, come darkness or dawn, sickness or health, anger or joy?
I’m almost finished, but I’d like to close with 4 areas of training for us to consider…four areas of challenge to help us make Psalm 23 more of a battle cry.
1. Worship, to help us internalize our rightful place before the good shepherd.
2. Fasting, for we have deeper needs than food.
3. Sabbath, for it is good to take one day a week to simply recognize that you don’t make the world go ‘round.
4. Give. Generously. Of your time and money, for God is a God of abundance, who sets the table for friend and foe alike. He gives with no strings attached, as should his people.