Saturday, April 20, 2013

Green Grass - Still Waters

Psalm 23
 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,  he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,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 your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

            There is a passage in the Old Testament when a prophet named Jeremiah, who describes a time when people say “Peace, peace, but there is no peace.”  (Jeremiah 6:14)

            There certainly is no peace in our world today.

            I don’t know anyone who feels at peace.

            We feel fear.

            We are afraid for our military members who are spread over the world, serving in dangerous places.

            We are afraid of the future of our nation.

            We are afraid for where our nation and world are headed.  North Korea rattles its sabers to remind us to be afraid.

            We are afraid of terrorist attacks here at home.  Boston reminded us this week to be afraid.

            We go to the doctor, and we are afraid of what we will be told.

            We take our kids to school, and we are uneasy about what their friends will teach them.

            And then we look at the Bible, and we are given this image of being so free from fear and anxiety, that we become like sheep resting in fields of green grass beside quiet waters.

I  know very little about sheep.  In fact, I have no first hand information at all, it all comes second hand from listening to others talk about sheep.

I’m told that a sheep will not lie down until it has had a sufficient food to eat  Apparently, if a shepherd leads sheep to a field that ran out of grass before the animal’s hunger was satisfied, then the sheep would just start wandering off to find other pastures. So to lie down in green pastures means that all of the basic need for food has been satisfied.

As for the quiet waters, sheep are so skittish that they are afraid of running water.  They prefer to drink from still and quiet waters.

But our world is anything BUT quiet waters.  And our lives never seem to reach the point of calm satisfaction.

In the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, wrote these words.  He was writing of his own day.

He could have been writing about today:

We have heard a cry of panic,
    of terror, and not peace.
    Why has every face turned pale?
Alas! that day is so great
    there is none like it;

How do we find this place of green grass and quiet waters?

Like so much of the 23rd Psalm, the promise is discovered by a spiritual maturity, not a material possession.

We may or may not be able to change the world around us, but we can change the heart within us.

We can’t change the ways of the terrorist.  We can do some things to make our world safer, but not safe.  

The doctor might be able to heal our cancer or restore our sight – but maybe not.

All around us the grass may be dead and dying and the waters may be turbulent, but inside we can find a place of green grass and quiet waters.  Peace.  Peace.

Someone emailed me with a story this week about a 92 year old woman whose family decided it was time to move her into a nursing home.  The family worried about the change, but the woman took on a positive attitude.  On the long drive, the family began to talk positively about the nursing home, talking about wonderful staff, the nice view, the good food.  Finally the woman declared, “I love it.”

Her son said, “But you haven’t even seen it yet.  But just wait, I’m sure you’ll like it.”

“I don’t need to see it,” she said.  “Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room or not doesn't depend on how the furniture is arranged... it's how I arrange my mind.”

That is a rare gift! 

I know that there are some folks who never experience peace because they have such a bad attitude about life.

Several years ago, I met a fellow named Andy.

Andy was without doubt the most depressed person I have ever met. 

He was so gloomy and depressed, that he radiated gloom and depression.

All you had to do was to come within 10 feet of the man, and you began to feel gloomy and depressed yourself.

Andy never looked on the positive side.

He always looked on the negative side.

I remember he came to the Men’s Club at the church – and I was serving a very small church at the time.  He came to the Men’s Club and said, “You know, I don’t understand this church.  We never seem to get people interested in our events.  Look at this.  There are only 20 people here.”

Well, I thought – hey – we have 20 people here – that’s great.  There are only 25 men in the whole church.  Besides, the Men’s Club met for breakfast.  On Sunday mornings.  At 6:30 AM.  I was always amazed that anyone would get up that early on a Sunday morning for breakfast.

But that was Andy.  Never looked on the bright side.

One day I went to visit Andy to try to get him out of his gloomy attitude.

He told me he was gloomy because he was so lonely.

I suggested that he invite some folks over, have a small get together, a party.

“Wouldn’t work,”  Andy said.  “My wife wouldn’t want to do all the work to get ready for it.”

I suggested that he have a dinner with just one other couple.

“Wouldn’t work,” Andy said.  “People don’t like the kind of simple foods I like.”

I suggested that he go out and visit other people in their homes – just drop by for a visit.

“Wouldn’t work,” Andy said.  “People don’t like you dropping by like that.”

Finally, I suggested to Andy that nothing was going to work because he liked being gloomy and depressed.

Andy agreed.

He was lonely, anxious, restless, never had a moment’s peace, because he was allowing his bad attitude to become a stumbling block in his life.
Some people are like Andy.   They let their bad attitude become a stumbling black in their search for peace within. Others however, seem to find a sliver lining in the darkest cloud.  For example, during the Second World War, General Creighton Abrams found himself and his troops surrounded on all sides.  With characteristic optimism, he told his officers:  “For the first time in the history of this campaign, we are now in a position to attack the enemy in any direction.”
Paul in the New Testament letter to the Philippians tells his readers, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”
Paul was not sitting on a lanai sipping from a drink with a little umbrella in it while propping his feet on a cushion.

Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison, facing death.

And yet he had this wonderful contentment.  He was not in a state of denial – he knew what he was facing.  Yet he had this wonderful attitude of peace.

Spiritually speaking, he was on a field of green grass, he was beside the quiet waters.

How do you get to that point in life?

While you are in the hospital with doctors puzzling over you, while you are paying bills that stretch your funds to the limit of their resources, when you deal with unemployment or underemployment, when your family is torn by strife, how do you find this promise of Psalm 23?

            Prayer, family, support of the church, developing a discipline, having experienced suffering in the past – all of these are great – all of these are needed – but the first step and the last step and the most important step – is to keep your focus on Christ.

            Christ is the shepherd, we are his sheep.  Don’t let go of that thought.

            So often we are distracted.  Easily distracted.  But in the New Testament, Jesus talks about how he knows his sheep and the sheep know him and listen to HIS voice.

            When the bombs blasted in Boston, it was easy for us to hear the voice of terror.

            When the bullets were fired in an elementary school in Newtown, it was easy for us to hear the voice of an angry, possibly mentally unbalanced individual.  

            When the doctor tells us we have cancer, it is easy for us to hear the mortician waiting.

            But in the midst of this often terrible world, we need to keep our hearts focused on Christ.  He is our shepherd.  He is leading us.  He will comfort us.  
When the armies of Napoleon swept over Europe, one of his generals intended to make an attack on a little town  on the Austrian border.  It was Easter, and as Napoleon’s great army maneuvered nearby, the citizens gathered together  to decide whether to surrender or to attempt a defense, useless though it seemed.  The pastor of the local church stepped forward  and told the people, “We have been counting on our own strength, and that will fail.  This is Easter Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection.  Let us ring the bells and have worship service as usual, and leave the matter to God.”
The council accepted his plan and in a few minutes the bells were ringing, calling the community to gather for Easter services. 
Meanwhile, back at the front, Napoleon’s army heard the bells and got worried.  The triumphant bells sounded like they were announcing joy, not the despair that was actually being felt by the townspeople.  The invaders decided that the bells must be announcing the arrival of Austrian reinforcements.  They broke camp and retreated from the area as fast as possible.
The people of the town had lifted up the problem to God and went peacefully to church, and God redeemed them, granting them peace of mind, and even peace from the invading army.  (History of Feldkirch, Austria
So often, we wring our hands in despair over things that we cannot control.  We worry and we become anxious about the situation.
We need to trust the shepherd, follow the shepherd, and listen to the shepherd:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort