“Green Pastures and Still Waters”
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Ezekiel 34: 11-24
Johnny Ray Youngblood was studying the 23rd Psalm and he came to the line that says the Lord, the shepherd, “makes me lie down in green pastures.” He struggled with this line and asked God why it says the Lord makes me lie down in green pastures. Why makes me? He says he heard his mother’s voice in his head saying: “It says makes me, Johnny Ray, because sometimes we don’t know what’s good for us.”[i]
Life sometimes makes us do things we would rather not do. I guess you might say, life inevitably makes us go through certain things we would not choose to go through if it were our choice.
Sometimes we can not understand, for the life of us, how a good and loving God could be behind certain things that happen in our lives. In his first sermon after his 24-year-old son died in a car accident, Bill Coffin said his son’s death was not the will of God. “For some reason,” he said, “nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths.”[ii]
morning I took a long walk through the war memorials on the mall. School
children were laughing and pushing each other the way they do at the World
War II Memorial. A group of Asian tourists were somberly visiting the Korean
War memorial. At the
God’s will is a world of peace, justice and inclusion. There are some things that happen that are not God’s will although God will work out God’s will in the midst them.
But there are other times that things happen to us in life that are hard to live through, that we would never choose, but when we are on the other side of it we realize that we are the better for it. There are some things that life makes us do in which we can see, in retrospect, the grace of God.
I suspect, if we had to choose to err on one side or the other, it would be better for us for life to be too hard rather than too easy.
There are things that life makes us do and experience that it is impossible for us to see the hand of God in, at least in this lifetime, (read Leslie Weatherhead’s little book written during World War II The Will of God[iii]), but there are other things that life makes us do that we can discover grace in. And there is nothing, no matter how difficult, that we can not learn from.
In his sermon, after his son’s death, Bill Coffin said: “Another consolation, of course, will be the learning – which better be good, given the price. But it's a fact: few of us are naturally profound. We have to be forced down.”
He quoted a poem by Robert Browning Hamilton:
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
The liberation theologian Leonardo Boff says that the green pastures of Psalm 23 are a metaphor for peace. Still waters are a metaphor for peace[iv] Isn’t that an interesting association…the idea that the things life makes us experience or go through that we would not choose if it were our choice are the very avenues to finding peace in our lives?
Isn’t that an interesting idea?
I confess that inner
peace has not been a particular spiritual gift of mine. I fit in well with
all the rest of you Washingtonians, I’m afraid. Lots of us who make our way
Inner peace is not a
Craig Barnes used to be the pastor of National Presbyterian Church. He was called there after a very long and intensive search process. After he accepted the call, he noticed a lump on his throat one day. It turned out to be thyroid cancer. One of the things that happens to you when you get thyroid cancer is that it literally becomes impossible to work beyond a certain amount.
Craig Barnes says that
he had never considered himself particularly gifted but he always prided
himself on his capacity for hard work. He had always assumed that every degree
he got in life, every job, and maybe even every relationship in his life was
a result of trying really hard. And he has just accepted a call to a church
in Washington, DC where, he says, the local myth is that anybody can come
here and work hard and hustle themselves into becoming a somebody. He said he
had the perfect neurosis for
He says he had to learn
to become a minister of God’s grace.[v]
He had a great ministry at National Presbyterian, but a very different
ministry…effective in a much more powerful way, I think, because he had to
learn to become a minister of the grace of God which few of us who minister
It is the things life makes us experience or go through that we would not choose if it were our choice that teach us that our control over our own fate is very partial, very limited. We can eat healthy, exercise, take vitamins, drink at least 8 glasses of water a day, avoid the new gelato store but still there is so much we have no control over.
I had lost weight as a result of a rigorous exercise program and a strict diet just before I went for my annual physical a couple of years ago. My doctor had just returned from a seminar at Harvard where he had learned the latest findings about the impact of diet and exercise. “You’ve done great,” he said. “The latest research shows that if you keep it up you can extend your life as much as three years.”
I said, “Three years? Is that all? I’m going to the gym and rowing and running and walking and doing the weight machines and giving up pretzels and wine and all I’m going to get out of it is three extra years?” I left the doctor’s office discouraged. I was hoping for 20 or 30 extra years.
The things in life that make us to lie down teach us, I think, how little control we have over our own fate and can lead to a strange peace…a peace that passes understanding. I know this because I’ve experienced it but also because so many parishioners have told me about this peace that passes understanding during my years of ministry. It can take a long time to come, but it comes.
Phillip Keller, who wrote the old pietistic classic, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm says that, based on his experience as a sheep rancher, sheep – in order to lie down in their pasture – need their herd to be free from friction. If there is conflict within the herd sheep will not lie down.[vi]
Keller says that in every animal society there is an order of dominance or status within the group. In a penful of chickens, it is called the pecking order. With cattle it is called the horning order. Among sheep it is called the butting order.
“Generally,” he says, “an arrogant, cunning and domineering old [sheep] will be the boss of any bunch of sheep. She maintains her position…by butting and driving other ewes or lambs away from the best grazing or favorite bedgrounds… The other sheep all establish and maintain their position in the flock by using the same tactics of butting and thrusting at those below and around them.
“Hundreds and hundreds of times I have watched an austere old ewe [sheep] walk up to a younger one which might have been feeding contentedly or resting quietly in some sheltered spot. She would arch her neck, tilt her head, dilate her eyes, and approach the other with a stiff-legged gait. All of this saying in unhittable terms, ‘Move over! Out of my way! Give ground or else!’ And if the other ewe did not immediately leap to her feet in self-defense, she would be butted unmercifully.
“This continuous conflict and jealousy within the flock can be a most detrimental thing. The sheep become edgy, tense, discontented, and restless. They lose weight and become irritable.”
Make your own
Keller adds, “But…whenever I came into view and my presence attracted their attention, the sheep quickly forgot their foolish rivalries and stopped their fighting. The shepherd’s presence made all the difference in their behavior.” [vii]
Perhaps the things in life that make us lie down help us find peace by putting all our struggling for power and prestige and status into perspective.
Life has a way of helping us to learn sometimes that the pastures that we saw from a distance and thought were so green are really a mirage. And the pastures we thought were rocky and hard from a distance are really rich with hidden delicious grasses.
We get our hearts set on things – the promotion, the good-looking guy or gal, the house, the car, the vacation, the degree, the achievement. We suppose it, her, he will fulfill us, but it rarely happens.
Changing the circumstances of our lives in some longed for way rarely leads to peace. Green pastures are always inside ourselves.
Max Lacado tells the
story of a man who was a prisoner in a prison camp in Mao’s
The man then quoted the words of the hymn:
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The son of God discloses.
And He walks with me and He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.
Green pastures are always within us.
It was some years after Psalm 23 had been composed.
The prophet of the exile Ezekiel remembered the 23rd Psalm. He said that the good shepherd would gather her sheep again from all the nations of the world where they were scattered. That she was preparing green pastures for them where they could lie down in safety again, watercourses where they could safely be nourished.
Does God do this? During tough times, is God preparing green pastures and still waters for God’s people?
Mary thinks so. In fact, you couldn’t convince Mary otherwise.
We met Mary in
The next weekend when we got to
Jane got restless. So around lunch time, we got in the car to try to
find an open-air market that was supposed to be held Sunday afternoons in
It was almost 1 o’clock. We assumed the service was over but we stopped to take a look at the building. I checked to see if the doors were unlocked. They were. I opened the doors of the church and the place was packed. I immediately closed the doors but in the moment I’d had them open I noticed that the congregation was racially diverse and mostly young.
A man came out of the church and invited us inside. “Isn’t the service almost over?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “but we are about to have lunch. Please join us.” So we did.
We were there for the last hymn and the benediction and then this church full of Africans and Irish young adults uncovered a feast of rich African food and thin Irish tuna fish sandwiches and everybody spread the food out and ate together with lots of children running around and conversation and laughter.
There was one older woman who was overseeing the meal. The pastor told us the church was there because of her. Her name was Mary. Jane had a conversation with her.
The Methodist church in
But strangely, after they moved, they could not forget the Methodist
church back in
African refugees seeking political asylum from places like
Wherever there are Africans, there are Methodists. They began
showing up at the Methodist church. They attracted other Africans. Mary began
a Sunday school. The church grew and grew. The Methodist conference sent a
clergy couple to serve there – he was from
The worship was so vital; the community life so strong that curious Irish young adults became attracted to the place. This is how it happened to be jam-packed full of people the Sunday we happened upon it.
Try telling Mary that God does not go ahead to prepare a place for God’s people. Try telling Mary that God does not prepare green pastures of safety and still waters of nourishment for God’s people in tough time.
[iii] Leslie Weatherhead, The Will of God (Abingdon Press).
[iv] Leonardo Boff, The Lord is My Shepherd (Orbis Books), 64-6.
[v] Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Intervarsity Press), 90-2.
[vi] W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm (Zondervan), 33.
[vii] Keller, 36.
[viii] Max Lucado, Cure for the Common Life: Living in Your Sweet Spot (Thomas Nelson), 100-1.