Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Lord is My Shepherd

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm of comfort and assurance. As a child I recited it  when I was afraid. As an adult too. Under fire in Iraq, my Christianity was stripped of its superstructure. All of the theological sophistication vanished like the threat of WMDs and my faith was momentarily compressed into its most basic expressions—the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.

With just six verses, the 23rd Psalm is the theological equivalent of the Gettysburg Address—short and profound. It’s a favorite at funerals, and for good reason. Not just because it mentions “the shadow of death,”  but because it avoids easy answers to the problem of pain and suffering. It doesn’t give the glib responses and clichés we often hear from well-meaning believers, such as, “Everything will be OK,” “Every cloud has a silver lining,” or, “You’re young enough to have another child.” No, the psalmist is no Pollyanna. He’s not whistling in the dark to keep up his nerve. He offers no simplistic solutions or pious platitudes—not even the assurance that “God works all things together for good.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, said in an interview “that the 23rd Psalm answers the question, how do you live in a dangerous and unpredictable world?” There’s no denying the darkness in the valley. Yet his solution is very simple: “Thou art with me.” The Shepherd-God—whom the psalmist addresses personally in verse 1, “the Lord is my Shepherd—he does not take away the danger, rather he leads us through it. Again Rabbi Kushner:

People who have been hurt by life get stuck in “the valley of the shadow,” and they don’t know how to find their way out. And that's the role of God. The role of God is not to explain and not to justify but to comfort, to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again.

As much as we say we want our freedom and autonomy, there’s nothing more comforting in a crisis than knowing someone else is in charge. In all of our dark valleys, someone else is in charge. That’s one thing that stands out to me about this psalm—its focus on divine activity. It is God who takes the initiative. He’s the one making us lie down to rest in green pastures. He’s the one leading us beside still waters and in the right paths or “paths of righteous” as the King James has it. Over and over, God is the subject and we are the object.

The final verse contains a surprise. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” The Hebrew word for “follow” actually means “pursue.” God’s goodness is not shuffling along behind. It’s hot on our heels, chasing us like a hungry cheetah after an antelope. Fortunately for us, we get caught. God’s mercy allows us to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This is a promise of the resurrection, when the people of God will be raised up to live with Him. It’s not the punishment we will escape or the perfection we will obtain that brings comfort. Rather, we’re told our reward in the world to come is being with the Lord, not just for a time but for eternity.

It’s not flattering being called a sheep, especially if you know how dumb sheep are, but given the biblical alternatives (wolves, goats) being a sheep isn’t all that bad, especially when your shepherd is God.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Good Story

Set in 1939, the movie Australia tells the tale of an English aristocrat, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who inherits a cattle station down under. She reluctantly joins forces with a rough-hewn cattleman named “Drover” (Hugh Jackman) with whose help she drives her cattle across hundreds of miles of unforgiving landscape only to get caught in the Japanese bombing of the town of Darwin. Early in the movie there’s a dialogue between the two:

Drover: “All I own I can fit into my saddlebag. I’m not saying it’s for everyone.”

Lady Ashley: “Definitely not for everyone.

Drover: “Most people like to own things. You know, land, luggage, other people. Makes them feel secure, but all that can be taken away, and in the end the only thing you really have is your story. I’m just tryin’ to live a good one.”

Think about that for a minute. The only thing you really have is your story. Are you trying to live a good one? 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Amazing Love

I took my Navy physical fitness test yesterday and did well—better than I thought I would. I did so well, in fact, that I suspect the course we ran was short of the prescribed 1.5 miles, since I was only fifteen seconds off my best-ever time and all the other runners said their times were better than they expected too. Whether or not the course was short, I came in only five seconds behind the fastest runner. (Did I ever mention how competitive I can be?) He and I ran the whole way together, but at the end of the course I started sprinting. Unfortunately, I took off too soon (because the test proctors were lollygagging thirty yards short of the real finish line) and the other guy passed me just before the end.  

Marines snicker at the Navy’s wimpy one-and-a-half miler. They run three miles for their PFT. There’s a whole different attitude about physical fitness in the Marine Corps (where it’s considered essential) and the Navy (where it’s nice but not necessary). Before Marines take their test they always ask how many sit-ups and pull-ups they need to do and how fast they need to run in order to “max out.” In other words, they’re aiming for a perfect score. Sailors typically ask a different question: “What’s the minimum I need to do to past this #!@& thing?”

Believers can also be sorted into two categories. There are those who are just looking to do the minimum to get by in their spiritual lives and those who are “going all out” for God. Funny thing is God loves both groups the same. My perfectionism fights against it, but it’s true. God loves me when I’m living right, and he loves me just as much when I’m messing up. If anything, his love is stronger when I am weak and need him more. I don’t know why sometimes I have such a hard time believing in God’s unconditional love. Maybe it’s because my love, even at its altruistic best, is still conditional.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spiritual Fitness

I ran four miles yesterday. I’ve been running more lately, because I have a mandatory, semiannual Navy physical fitness test coming up. I used to hate to run. My body hurts. I get tired. It’s no fun. Same goes for other sports. I’ve always been more bookish than brawny. A couple years ago when I was living alone in Germany that all changed. I started running more. Then I joined a gym and began working out. I lost weight and got in shape. At first it was hard. I had to make myself do it. But after six months I was hooked. I became a physical fitness junkie. I actually got to where I enjoyed the workouts and runs. (Imagine that!)

In the past year or so, I’ve slacked off. Busyness with work, family, and dissertation became excuses not to exercise or run as much. When I did, it was hit and miss. I hurt more and didn’t enjoy it as much. Lately I’ve had to force myself to run and I don’t workout, ever. (Just one more thing on my long list of regrets.)

St. Paul uses the Greek word “agon”—where we get “agony” and “agonize”—to describe the Christian life. It’s translated “struggle,” “conflict,” or “contest.” The Apostle encourages his protégé Timothy to “fight the good fight [agon] of faith, lay hold on eternal life”(1 Tim. 6:12). It’s the same word ancient Greeks used for athletic competitions like the Olympics. Some of the early monastics were called “athletes for Christ” because of their extreme, and at times competitive, asceticism. Both sports and spirituality involve struggle, conflict, determination, sometimes even agony.

Right now I don’t like either physical or spiritual training, but I’m trying to thank God for the struggle, even when it hurts and I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. Maybe if I do this consistently I’ll get to the place where I appreciate, perhaps even enjoy, the struggle. Maybe. For now I’m in no danger of becoming a spiritual fitness junkie.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering" (Letters and Papers from Prison).

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday

In the ancient Mesopotamian myth the Epic of Gilgamesh, a selfish and abusive King Gilgamesh of Uruk is seeking immortality. By the end of the tale he becomes benign and benevolent but only after suffering loss and coming to grips with his own mortality. After losing his best friend Enkidu and going through a deep depression, Gilgamesh embarks on a long journey to see the Noah-like Utnapishtim and his wife—the only two mortals who have been granted eternal life by the gods. After a harrowing trip fraught with many perils, Gilgamesh arrives and learns from the ancient one secret stories of ancient times. Gilgamesh is then given once change at immortality. If he can stay awake for six days and seven nights, he will transcend his mortality and achieve eternal life. He fails. He falls asleep. He’s mortal and will remain so until he dies. After much suffering, loss, and failure, Gilgamesh finally reconciles himself to his own mortality.

King Gilgamesh then goes back to Uruk and surveys the wall he built around his capital to protect his people. He realizes that the wall is his legacy—that and the sacred stories of ancient wisdom he has brought back from his journey.

Today is “Maundy Thursday” or “Holy Thursday” or, if you’re Baptist like me, the Thursday before Easter. It commemorates Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, when he washed their feet and gave them a new “commandment” (Latin mandatum or “maundy” in English) to love one another “as I have loved you” (John 13:34). That night the disciples followed him to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus told them to watch and pray, but like Gilgamesh they fell asleep (Matt. 26:36-46). They failed the test, and they would fail again. They ran away and hid when Jesus was crucified. Peter, who said he would never deny Christ, denied him three times before sunrise.

Wisdom only comes through suffering. Gilgamesh did not gain wisdom until he lost a loved one, suffered through mental illness, and failed an ordeal. The disciples did not gain wisdom until they too had fallen asleep, lost their master and friend, and failed miserably. Through their experience of loss and humility the disciples gained wisdom. They gained wisdom and a lot more. They did not merely resign themselves to fact that they mortal and must do good on this earth while they are alive. They received transformation through the resurrected and living Jesus and the Holy Spirit, who descended upon them at Pentecost (which is a story for another day).

Before we can experience the transforming power of the Easter miracle, we have to accept our own weakness, our frailty, our sinful humanity. A good place to start is by allowing someone to wash our smelly, ugly feet.