Thursday, November 30, 2023

Everything, Everywhere... just not All at Once


Hey, Cobblestone,

     Call me silly, but I’ve never understood why the passengers and crew of the SS Minnow worked so hard to get off Gilligan’s Island. Never got why, when they cinched up the scrawny first mate to a wayward weather balloon, everybody groaned so loudly and Skipper threw his hat to the ground when Gilligan got no farther than the lagoon. Seems to me they had everything they needed – fresh water, food sources, sun, sand. True enough, it was an inconvenient life, as the theme song singers sang: “No phone, no lights, no motor cars – not a single luxury…” but my bride and I have paid good money to get just a week or two of what the Professor was trying to undo for himself and his shipmates.

     It’s a sitcom parable on the human condition, I suppose, and one more way to sell Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in the Sixties. Everything, everywhere… just out of reach. Coconuts will only take you so far. Life is a desert island, and all the good stuff is somewhere else.

     I’ve had some extra time to read this week, Church, which will be evident to you shortly. On the advice of C.S. Lewis, I decided to get-the-heck out of my own daggone century. That’s not exactly how Lewis put it, as you might imagine, but the concept is the same. I’m a product of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, and Lewis the Nineteenth and Twentieth, so I figured – even sticking to my home continent – the Eighteenth would be bare minimum. Get some perspective, unaffected by sitcoms. Found a volume titled Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings.

     Following is an excerpt from a sermon Edwards preached in July of 1731 at Boston. At the time, he was under close scrutiny, his mentor and tutor having recently bolted from the “proper” denomination of the Christian church. Those who had invited him to preach were curious if the twenty-seven-year-old Edwards would hold to sound doctrine. He chose a passage from First Corinthians as his text…

     …God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:28-31).  

     And then he preached. Be advised: there’s some 300-year-old Colonial English coming up. Go slowly… stick with it… it’ll be worth the effort, I promise.

      “The redeemed have all their objective good in God. God himself is the great good which they are brought to the possession and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good, and the sum of all that good which Christ purchased. God is the inheritance of the saints; he is the portion of their souls. God is their wealth and treasure, their food, their life, their dwelling place, their ornament and diadem, and their everlasting honour and glory. They have none in heaven but God; he is the great good which the redeemed are received to at death, and which they are to rise to at the end of the world. The Lord God is the light of the heavenly Jerusalem; and is the “river of water of life” that runs, and “the tree of life that grows, in the midst of the paradise of God.” The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will for ever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast. The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things; they will enjoy the angels, and will enjoy one another: but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or any thing else whatsoever, will be what shall be seen of God in them.”

     How’s that for sound doctrine?

     Everything we’ve known, anywhere at any time, will eventually become as the SS Minnow: tossed up on the beach and useless, big whopping hole in its side. But the redeemed are not marooned. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” It’s OK; he can make good on whatever checks your boasting writes. Edwards chose to boast in the Lord, to lay off whatever luxuries might otherwise have been his, if he had preached only the “party platform” in Boston that day.

     Honestly, Church, I have a hard time imagining what it’s like for God to be all sufficient. I want to live in the vigor of Edwards’ sermon, but like the castaways, I build signal fires on the sand; I lash together rafts and paddle out toward the horizon, convinced that redemption can be earned with a little more effort than I gave last time. Convinced, to exactly the same degree, that redemption can’t be earned.

     So I take it on faith, and look for evidence. I take God at his word that everything I need – temporal and eternal – is found in him. I choose to believe that before Skipper and Gilligan’s blunders; before the first cathode ray tube ever received signal through the airwaves; sixteen centuries before Jonathan Edwards gave his proof-of-concept sermon – an ordinary chosen man breathed in the words God breathed out, and put truth to parchment, guarded and preserved by the Almighty in every age.

     To those he has redeemed, Christ is:

    Wisdom from God.




    What else is needed?

     “So join us here each week, my friends / you’re sure to get a smile…”

(I always did.)

“…from seven stranded castaways / here on Gilligan’s Isle.”

        But in between episodes, maybe go back and read that Edwards piece again.


Grace and Peace (aka sufficiency in the Lord),



Friday, November 17, 2023

All the Right Enemies


Hey, Cobblestone,

     The story was related to me as factual, and it came from a man in whom I had found no guile at all in the many years we worked together. I’ll relate it to you as accurately as I’m able. My coworker had helped a relative, his brother-in-law, work on the brother-in-law’s car. For the sake of not writing “brother-in-law” another 50 times, let’s call him the owner. They had done what’s known as a brake job, and after replacing the friction materials and a caliper or two, it was time to “bleed” the system. Every last pocket of air must come out, or the hydraulics won’t work, and the system is no good. Alas, bleed as they would, some air remained. More bleeding, no better results. As the night wore on, the owner became more agitated. At some critical moment, he snapped.

     The storyteller wasn’t surprised to see the owner start circling the car, shouting profanities. Nor did his eyebrows raise much when the owner began kicking the defenseless vehicle. But his attention was fully arrested once the owner had ducked into the garage, returned with a can of spray paint in each hand, and launched into creating visual expressions of the verbal explosions. And I can still remember the puzzlement on the storyteller’s face – a thoughtful and even-keeled man, mind you – as he told how the owner, having spewed the last of his paint, commenced to urinating on every fender and door at least once. I didn’t ask how much beer had been involved in this brake job – didn’t want to know – but we could make a good guess, couldn’t we?

     What, exactly, was the vehicle owner up against? Was it thoughtless engineering, a bad design? Was it a sudden reversal of the laws of physics, in which gases no longer move upward in fluids? Was it too much beer? Well, maybe the last thing. But essentially, he was up against the one or two things he didn’t know about how to properly bleed that particular hydraulic braking system.

     I’m going to scooch out onto a limb here and say that the owner and I are not the only two people who have ever fought the wrong enemy. I believe it’s common in the human experience to expend vast amounts of strength and passion on the wrong battlefield. Victory is unattainable because the enemy is laughing from the bushes next door.

     For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).

      If you’ve been in churches more than a tiny bit, you’ve heard that verse preached – both well and poorly. Among Bible verses, this one lands somewhere in the Top Ten Most Likely to Become Trite. I can still picture some of the old-timers in my life saying, “Now, ya know, we wrassle not against flesh and blood…” followed by a tilt of the head and a crinkling of the crow’s feet on one side. Brace yourself, brother; brace yourself, sister; I’m about to ask a few sobering questions about this cosmic wrestling match.

     Did those first-century Ephesians have any better access to truth than we do right now? In the interest of saving time, the answer is No. Is the statement encapsulated in Ephesians 6:12 any less true than when it was first penned? No again. And since the end of the story is still in our future, is there any reason to think that the present darkness of long-ago Asia Minor isn’t THIS present darkness? Stick with a No, Church, it’ll help you be ready for what comes next.

     Everything perceivable in the natural is animated by a spiritual reality. God, who is spirit according to Jesus, created all things out of nothing. He spoke the dust into existence, then formed the first man out of the dust. Without a spiritual origin, nothing happens. Why, then, do we focus our life’s force on what is cultural, social, political – anything but spiritual? I’ll present a hypothesis.

     We have educated ourselves into delusion. Ever since the Enlightenment, there’s been a growing disdain for whatever is spiritual, even among Christians. We favor what we think we can control, and marginalize what we can’t. And again, the Church is not exempt. We shine artificial light into dark places, and call them no longer dark. But speaking as an old electrician, I can tell you for a fact that those bright artificial lights are exactly one missing electron away from going out.

     “What spiritual reality is animating what’s happening in the natural right now?” Put that question up front, and we are well on our way to knowing how to pray, how to do battle. God helping me, I’m done fighting the wrong enemies for the wrong reasons. Throughout my childhood, it was in my family and schools; through the first half of adulthood, it was mainly in the workplace; through forty years as a Christian, it’s been in various churches; lately, it’s been as a public servant. There’s been much flailing and wailing, every shred of it in vain – unless. Unless the spiritual origin was considered first, and considered foremost.

     I’m finding myself in a lot of meetings lately that don’t seem to be spiritual at all. I’ll be in another one soon after finishing this letter. You can be sure: the spiritual aspects will be at the top of my agenda. If the other attendees don’t take those into consideration, then they won’t have any explanation for what God will accomplish through our time together. They’ll have to find out on the tail end. Oh, well.

     I get it, Church: our natural methods are familiar to us, and they usually make something happen – for better or worse – right away. But if we step back to see the full range of human suffering and the mountains that seem impossible to move, can this be anything less than spiritually dark and cosmic, just as God said through the apostle?

     Jesus, teach us to engage at the spiritual first. Oh, and increase our faith… please!

     I like to get to a car show when I can. The story I told you up front is so old that, even if the car in view was late-model at the time, it’s an antique by now. I’m going to keep my ears open for the new story, the one that goes: “Picked ‘er up for next-to-nothing, but – Good Lord, the smell! Anyways, the brakes weren’t hard to fix, and with plenty o’ EL-bow grease, we got the graffiti off, and here she is!” That’s the kind of story I like: the right effort in the right places for the right reasons.


 Grace and Peace (for all the right work),



Thursday, November 2, 2023

Losing Well


Hey, Cobblestone,

     I posed a probing question to a couple of friends lately, and begged their brutally honest responses. The question was: What do you do when it looks like you’re losing?

     Think on it for a minute, Church, and jot down a few answers of your own. When your plan is falling apart, shot full of holes; when you’re caught in the crush of money and power; when the universe, nor any particle thereof, will turn your direction – what are your go-to tactics?

     For my friends and me (no, I did not stand aloof from the question), I opened it up to pre-salvation days, before we were Christians. I’ll make you the same offer because, even though as Christians we do have regenerated souls and the mind of Christ, we will, at times, revert to some oh-so-not-Christian methods. At times. You know, those times when the sovereignty of our King is in question, and trust is just out of reach, and doubt wins the day. Yeah, those times. Have I opened up the range of responses for you yet? As you ponder and wrestle with your conscience, brace yourself for some of what my friends and I tossed onto the whiteboard.

     “What do you do when it looks like you’re losing?” And of course, we got:


    Trust God.

    Lean on faith.

     But just when it appeared we were only going in that direction, we also got:

    Fight dirty.

    Change the rules.

    Run away.

     From that point onward, we could respond freely and openly:

    Give up.

    Get help.

    Blame somebody else.

    Work harder.

    Get violent.

    Get drunk and/or buzzed.

     Of all the responses we came up with, I’ll nominate this one as the most helpful:

    Read the end of the story.

     There’s a word I’d like you to consider, Church, along with its many connotations. The word is “remnant.” From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition reads “a usually small part, member, or trace remaining.” An alternative definition goes “a small surviving group – often used in plural.” For the quilters and sewers among us, the following definition has a special intrigue: “an unsold or unused end of piece goods.”

     Has it ever occurred to you that all of humanity was once pared down to eight persons on Noah’s ark? Or that the entire race of the Israelites once consisted of only six dozen blood relatives coming out of Canaan? Or that, of the whole generation of Hebrews who left out of Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb entered the Promised Land? In the history of God’s people, the remnant is a thing.

     In the English Standard Version of the Bible, “remnant” occurs 84 times across both Testaments. In the Old, the remnant were those who stuck with Joseph or Joshua or Jehoshaphat, for example. In the New, the remnant were those who stuck with Jesus, even after his mind-blowing discourse in the synagogue at Capernaum. Whichever Testament you check, the remnant shared this distinction: It looked, for all the world, like they were losing.

     In this present time, here’s the trouble for Christians: the remnant don’t weigh heavily in the so-called balance of power. The remnant don’t win elections with votes. Remnant and democracy are not on happy terms. When I look around – and I look around a lot, and God helping me, with clear eyes – I can’t see a single social issue in which morality is winning. Whatever God has described as good and just and pure, throughout all ages, is currently losing in the polls. The really big money is on immorality. Of every flavor. And money talks.

     That’s why it’s essential for us to keep the end of the story in view.

     For the Hebrews in the wilderness, the end of the story was getting to the Promised Land. In this present age, the end of the story is called out in the Gospels and Epistles, and most clearly in the Revelation. Here’s a sampling:

    For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1Thessalonians 4:15-18).

    Encourage one another, also, with these words:

    Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:11-16).

     When, as a newly minted Christian, I first came across those two Bible passages, I thought they were too good to be true. I expected, once I became better-versed in Scripture, to find other passages that cancelled them out, or some technicality that left me, at least, outside of their promises. But forty years in, no such passage has appeared. Without abandoning humility entirely, I can claim to be fairly well versed in Scripture, and I’ve quit expecting to find any such technicality. The end of the story, in all its glorious detail, is thoroughly true – and believable. Will we believe? Jesus, help our unbelief, and compel us to act on truth.

     Anything that doesn’t work toward the end of the true story is wasted blood, wasted sweat, wasted tears, wasted time and money. There’s a commission on us, we who are the remnant right now, to pull for what is right and just and pure, as declared by our true King – to use every ounce of righteous energy to slam the door on immorality. Even when it looks like we’re losing. Jesus, help us again, to use righteous energy, and not the other.

     As pilgrims in this walk-around world, when we’re faced with a decision, the question on our minds must be: “Is there a moral issue in view here?” If so, and the world’s system provides a moral option, go with it. If there’s no moral option, work to change the system. But by no means are we cornered into choosing from nothing but immoral options just because the system has hijacked moral issues. We are free to choose only what works toward the true end.   

     The crucifixion of Jesus looked like utter defeat. Remember how the apostles, all but one, refused to make an appearance on that awful hill. And for the next several weeks, they huddled and hid behind locked doors. No, the remnant don’t win every battle. But we win some. And we certainly win the war. And as the sons and daughters-in-law of Noah repopulated the earth, we also are called to repopulate the number of those who believe the end of the story – until we become, as John the apostle saw, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”   


Grace and Peace (as we wait for you, Lord Jesus),




Thursday, October 19, 2023

Shepherd King, Part 9: Surely


Hey, Cobblestone,

     I’m afraid of absolutes – the words known as absolutes, I mean. My tongue is reluctant to form the syllables that make up words like “always,” “never,” “forever,” and “shall.” They’re just too big. Words like those write checks my strength can’t cash. Therefore, I am happiest to leave the absolutes in God’s vocabulary.

     Thankfully, God uses those words generously, without flinching and without apology. Oh, not for his benefit – he has not a thing to prove to anyone – but for ours. He even lets us borrow them, as long as we’re talking about what he, not we, will certainly do. Thus is my “abso-phobia” put at ease.

     In our ninth and final meditation on the Twenty-Third Psalm, we’re going to take the sixth and final verse, the closing sentence, as a chunk, paying special attention to the absolutes within. The psalmist has been making some monumental claims about the Shepherd King already, and saves the biggest for last:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:6).  

     Count the absolutes – one “surely,” a pair of “shall’s,” one “all,” and the clincher: “forever.” That’s a lot of high-caliber words to show up in so little space. How could one human be so presumptuous as to borrow so heavily on accounts he doesn’t control? To answer, let’s consider briefly the life of the psalmist, David, son of Jesse, who was the second king of Israel.

     The timing of Psalm 23 is up for debate. Some scholars say it was written in David’s early youth, others during his warrior phase, still others say it was after he’d gained experience as king. For what it’s worth, I favor the earlier-origin theory, in which the psalm would have been written when David was a shepherd lad himself, walking with the sheep into green pastures – and, of course, through the valley of the shadow of death. Not that the later-origin theories have to be wrong, but if David wrote and sang this song just as he launched out into the big-scary world, his use of so many absolutes is even more presumptuous – and faith-filled.

     As the eighth and youngest son of Jesse, there was nothing but tending sheep in David’s foreseeable future. With all of David’s life in our hindsight, we know that’s not how it turned out. Try to imagine, then, what it must have been like to encounter his experiences in real time, and then overlay the biblical record.

     There were times he thought he had sinned beyond forgiveness, but called to the Lord for mercy anyway. More than one once he faced annihilation at the hands of an enemy, but called for deliverance. He lost an infant son, but rose up to worship God. He lost an adult son who had led a bloody insurrection, but returned to Jerusalem to carry on as king, according to the Lord’s anointing. In all these troubles and more, David, in many ways the archetypal child of God, certainly stumbled, was certainly bruised in battle after battle – but never crushed. Why?

     Because of the absolutes.

     What does it mean for goodness and mercy to “follow” someone? The details of your story and mine will be different from David’s, but as children of God and joint heirs with Christ, the outcome is the same: to dwell in the house of the LORD forever. From a mortal perspective, it’s an odd arrangement: goodness and mercy following. We’d prefer them to be out front like a shield – or maybe a plow, pushing troubles aside and clearing a level path. We’d prefer to be spared the troubles altogether. The temptation is to think there’s been no goodness or mercy involved, since the troubles weren’t prevented. But where do you find that in the human story, including the story of God’s kids? Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, had to ask if there might possibly be an alternative to the cross.

     The absolutes are proven by way of two measurements: hindsight and hope. Pause and reflection are required to see where goodness and mercy have done their work. We can’t live every moment of every day rushing headlong into the driving rain.



     Give thanks.

     And just before resuming the headlong rush, let’s remember what our hope is. True: we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:23-25).

     Whether in the green pastures, on the battlefield, or to the throne, the words God breathed out, and David breathed in, are immortal – living and active (Hebrews 4:12). One very famous pastor has said that all the Psalms can be summed up in six words: life is hard; God is good. As we close out this meditation on Psalm 23, feel free – and I will, too – to presume upon the Shepherd King’s absolutes.

     He’s good for them.

 Grace and Peace (surely),




Thursday, October 5, 2023

Shepherd King, Part 8, Prepared


Hey, Cobblestone,

     Have a seat. Relax. Be nourished. Take your time. Stick around for seconds. There’s no rush.

     As you graze the abundance of the table, your enemies will snarl and slobber, straining at their harnesses to have at you. They will wail and moan at their sudden misfortune, for they thought you were easy prey. But you are not. And neither am I.

     Our eyes will be no help in seeing the greater part of what happens around us – the reality that is no less real for being invisible – the reality described by the psalmist as follows:

    You prepare a table before me
        in the presence of my enemies;
    you anoint my head with oil;
        my cup overflows
(Psalm 23:5).  

     Our Shepherd King creates sanctuary in the unlikeliest places. That is his specialty. He is the one who makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire (Psalm 46:9). He piles up nourishment and refreshment and Shalom in heaps – and invites us to table. He turns to the enemies of our souls, puts a holy and unapproachable finger in the middle of his chest and says, “Nope. These are mine.”

     Our eyes, truly, will be more hindrance than help in understanding what the Shepherd King is up to, but our souls will perceive his power and love, and long to enter in. The question “on the table” at the moment is, What will we do with the sanctuary and abundance he creates for us?

     In our family history, there was a time when our early brothers and sisters ran to find help somewhere besides the Lord our God. If you’re not familiar with the story, their choice of allies will shock you. The prophet Isaiah recorded the Father’s displeasure like so:

    “Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord,
    “who carry out a plan, but not mine,
    and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
        that they may add sin to sin;
    who set out to go down to Egypt,
        without asking for my direction,
    to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
    and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!”
(Isaiah 30:1-2)

     Shocked? I used to be – until finally I noticed the same tendency in myself (and many of my contemporaries… nothing personal, Church) – the stubborn inclination toward finite resources.

     There’s a tattoo I’ve wanted for years. Being a cheapskate, I’ve so far avoided it, but if ever I cut loose the funds, the tat will consist of two phrases from the same chapter of Isaiah that I drew from just now. In Hebrew script, reading right-to-left, beginning on the lower right forearm and moving toward the wrist would be “In repentance and rest is your salvation” (Isaiah 30:15a). Hopping over to the left wrist and continuing up onto the lower left forearm would be “in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15b). Whaddya think? Good?

     Well, besides fiscal conservatism, there’s another stop sign in the way of going under the pin-and-ink, and that stop sign consists of the next phrase from Isaiah 30:15 – “but you would have none of it.” Surely, this bit of prophecy would have to go on a gluteus maximus region. But(t), would have none of it – and I’m just not ready to go there. Unless/until the Lord confirms that he has squashed in me those stubborn inclinations toward finite resources, I dare not receive the first two phrases, and tattoo artists will have to drum up business elsewhere.

     While we have a moment yet, let’s get our heads together and see if we might begin to find a way out of the illusion of self-sufficiency. I have a few ideas, beginning with…

     Give up on claiming victim status. Though it’s the front-running tactic of our day, timeless Scripture says you and I are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39). ‘Nuff said on that idea. One more…

     Stand in the option that glorifies our Shepherd King. Up until lately, the only two options offered by the world have been “fight” and “flight.” More recently, we have “shelter in place,” which is far worse than either of the previous two. And all along, the children of the eternal Father have had this standing offer: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today” (Exodus 14:13). Give the enemy a black eye without even taking a swing, simply by giving credit where credit is due.

     If today resembles any other day, you and I will have multiple occasions to roll out those tactics and disassemble the illusion.

     If it takes a psalmist to give us words for describing what is already real, where’s the harm in that? Most of our walk-around-world existence is tied to metaphor anyway. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” And in addition to what our minds are able to do with the words, I think the Father would be pleased if we asked for another dimension of understanding: the ability to project the whole scene on the backs of our eyelids. Picture it as a panorama – the table spread over with goodness, and yes, the snarling, slobbering enemy too – and the Shepherd King, fierce and invincible, standing between.

     There could, very well, be more light and less shadow when our eyes are reopened.

 Grace and Peace (and tats, too, if that’s your thing),



Thursday, September 21, 2023

Shepherd King, Part 7: Rod and Staff


Hey, Cobblestone,

     The one thing that puts the Twenty-Third Psalm almost out of reach, in my mind anyway, is the shepherd/sheep metaphor. You and I could drive all the backroads of our nearby counties and not find a lot of sheep-herders. I’ve driven hogs a time or two, and rounded up a couple of cows, but the concept of a whole segment of the population who spend 24/7’s with a flock of sheep has had no visual manifestation during my lifetime in this part God’s good Earth. I have to turn on my Old Testament brain to receive much of what Scripture says about our Shepherd King.

     Psalm 23 is roughly 3,000 years old. From what I gather, back in the day a shepherd had two tools: the rod and the staff. Good shepherds were set above the rest of the pack by their ability to wield both with efficiency and justice. To do that, the shepherd would first need to know what each tool was made for.

     Let’s look at the staff first. Unlike Little Bo Peep, a good shepherd is someone who has lost a sheep but knows doggone good and well where to find it. A good shepherd would use the staff – or shepherd’s hook, as it is sometimes known – to pull a wandering sheep out of the thicket, or the ravine, or the not-so-still waters. The staff is a tool for guidance and retrieval – or we could just as easily say it’s an instrument of discipline.

     The rod is a weapon. In a world before bazookas, the rod was a good tool for a shepherd to have. With enough skill and determination, a predator could be run off. Or killed. The rod is an instrument of punishment. The sheep should be glad if their shepherd knows how to use that rod.

     …your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).

     In this latest segment of our leisurely meditation on Psalm 23, we’re getting an idea of what the shepherd – or more precisely, our Shepherd King – has at his disposal. He has a tool for discipline and he has a tool for punishment. And he never gets them confused.

     But we do.

     The Father’s wrath is not for his kids. Jesus changed that all up: …but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:8-9).  If you’re a saved person – a little brother or sister to Jesus – and you’re thinking the Father is punishing you, please let the work of your eldest brother give your thinking a tune-up. True enough, For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, as the writer to the Hebrews has said, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11). This is the Shepherd King using his staff, and using it well.

     When the wolf or the bear or the predator of any species makes an appearance, the Shepherd King is not shy with the rod. Skeptical? Check this out:

Arise, O Lord!
    Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
    you break the teeth of the wicked
(Psalm 3:7).

    Toothless predators don’t prey much once they become toothless. And for your part (and mine) it’s OK to ask the Lord of Glory to do, in this walk-around world, what he’s going to accomplish in eternity anyway. May his kingdom come.

     The sheep/shepherd metaphor may stretch us a bit, at least for now. But there’s coming a time when faith will be sight, and metaphors will be completely redundant. Meanwhile, the Shepherd King wields a skillful staff and a mighty rod, for our comfort.

 Grace and Peace (under his careful gaze),




Thursday, September 7, 2023

Shepherd King, Part 6: With Me

 Hey, Cobblestone,

     Anybody over about 60 will remember when these cutsie little figurines started showing up in stores. Made to look like they were hand-carved and finished in antique-y shades of tan, most of them carried a simple caption like “World’s Greatest Dad… or Mom… or Babysitter,” and so on. And then, as it goes with most things most clever, they got ornery. As if the others weren’t presumptuous enough, one of the blasted figurines stands out distinctly in memory. It was a caveman-ish dude carrying an oversized club, and the caption below read: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil… ‘cause I’m the meanest S.O.B. in the valley!”

     Nah. That’s not how it works.

     In our long and leisurely meditation on the Twenty-Third Psalm, this may seem to be an odd way to get back into it. If that’s what you’re thinking, I will humbly disagree, and attempt to make my point. In forty years as a Jesus-follower and twenty as a Christian counselor, I’ve come to see that believers understand well enough that we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but we don’t understand so well why we get to fear no evil.

     Where are we exactly in Psalm 23? Let’s get a run at it and catch up…

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
     He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
     He restores my soul.
He leads 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…
(Psalm 23:1-4a)

     And let’s pause – not too long – before considering the next few words of this psalm/prayer. I’ve yet to meet the Christian who claimed to be “the meanest S.O.B. in the valley” in so many words. But I’ve met many a Christian, including the one in the mirror, who walks through the valley as if. As if there were no one greater to help, or if there is, he might be off somewhere helping someone else. We tiptoe cartoonishly through the valley hoping no one meaner springs into the path.

     In all the universe and all of eternity, there is a singular reason why you and I – brothers and sisters together and joint heirs with Jesus the firstborn – get to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil:

…for you are with me… (embedded in verse 4).

     This phrase, the object of our meditation today, sits at the mid-point of Psalm 23. Of 108 words in the psalm, you are with me brings us to #53. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the psalmist realized he had used precisely enough words talking about God, and it was time to start talking to him. The psalm continues in this theme: the Shepherd King is with his flock, his people, always and everywhere.

     The valley is long and indeed shadowy. And as I heard lately, we’ve all got to go through just enough to kill us. According to 1Corinthians 15:26, The last enemy to be destroyed is death. We would have had death destroyed yesterday, if not before, but that’s not how this rolls. Wishful thinking and whistling in the dark will only take us so far, which is to say, not nearly far enough. Fearing no evil would be stupid – evil’s a thing, I’m sure you’ve noticed – if the Shepherd King weren’t with us.

     There’s a trick we play on ourselves, and if this letter to you accomplishes anything at all, Dear Church, my hope is that it begins to put an end to the self-deception. Like the popular singer, Jelly Roll, we stride up to the microphone, hit a few licks on the guitar, and belt out, “I only talk to God when I need a favor. I only pray when I don’t have a prayer. So who-the-hell-am-I, who-the-hell-am-I to expect a Savior?” It’s not a bad psalm if you ask me, mainly because it sets up the necessary question, When don’t I need God’s favor? When don’t you?

     Since the offer is let loose in creation and can never be rescinded, let’s take the Shepherd King up on his promise to be with us. For the sake of building up our most holy faith (Jude 20) and maintaining hope, let’s give a nod to the valley and its realness, and then take another step. “This hurts… you are with me.” “The way is dark… you are with me.” “The enemy is smarter than me… you are with me.”

     It might do each of us some good to take a quick inventory of times we’ve needed to be especially aware of the Lord’s closeness – and ask, Was I or Was I not… especially aware, that is? Better still to take this very moment, if you’re able to at all…

     (We interrupt this letter to bring you an important news flash…) No, really, Church, check this out. In the middle of writing this letter, the Lord brought a young brother to me I hadn’t met before. For my part, I was simply on the front porch (my favorite office) tapping away. For his part, this young brother had taken an entirely literal step of faith, out of his house and onto the sidewalk, hoping the step after that would make him aware of the Father’s presence. Knowing that my block is about 1,200 steps around, I’d say he took about 200 of those next steps before the Lord brought us together. Turns out we were after the same thing: a sign of the Father’s favor. And we got it. Maybe someday I’ll tell you the rest of his story. Better yet, maybe he will. For now, my fingers are trembling so that I can hardly type – Glory!

     There. I’ve testified. I’m done for now.

 Grace and Peace (all over you like it’s all over me),