The Divine ShepherdPSALMS 23 (NRSV)
A Psalm of David.
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 right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I 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 goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Assurance of God’s ProtectionPSALMS 121 (NRSV)
A Song of Ascents.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
So, as we continue our journey through Lent, I am very conscious of the question we have been asking each week, “How is your soul?” I have been trying to ask that question as I talk to people on the phone. Now granted, there is usually a little pause after I ask it, because it is a little different than being asked, “How are you?” to which most people respond, without even thinking, “Good” or “Okay.” But when asked, “How is your soul?” many people stop, and their thoughts go a little deeper.
Now, two weeks ago, many of the answers I heard were anxious, frustrated, and nervous, while this week, I heard more responses of “overwhelmed” and “lost.” Overwhelmed by the news, social media, and constant advice as to how we should be doing just about everything. And lost because we are all trying to find a new normal in a not-so-normal situation.
Many of us are struggling to find our way because the road isn’t going the way we thought it would. Our regular routines are turned upside down. Everything is different, and sometimes it feels like we are caught in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Many people are asking, “Why, God? What else can go wrong? What about my plans and my hopes and dreams? If you really loved me, God, why would you let me feel so lost and frustrated and afraid?” If that is how you are feeling right now, know that you are not alone!
Now the tough part is that, as human beings, our reaction in situations like this is usually to complain and to let everyone know what we think and how we feel.
That’s why the news and social media are busy twenty-four hours a day, with updates and opinions and advice of all kinds. Of course, you need to keep up to date on the important information, but please friends, don’t let it overwhelm you. Check the news, but then turn off the TV. Set times to check your social media if you need to, but don’t let every ding or post pull you in. Because there is a lot more going on that deserves your attention! Sure, there is a lot of struggle right now. There is sickness and fear and anxiety, but you know what? There is also an amazing amount of generosity and kindness and love of our neighbor going on.
Friends, as many of you know, one of my personal daily practices is that no matter what situation I find myself in, I try with every ounce of energy that I can muster to look for the good, to find the joy, and the recognize the presence of God in the midst of whatever I am going through. That’s not always easy to do, but one thing that I always find is that the good and the joy and the presence of God are always tied to something simple, something everyday and ordinary, something that is not crying for attention or looking for something in return, but something that is overflowing with unconditional love and grace.
In searching for a scripture to share with all of you today, I thought about the classic stories of people and things being lost and then found, like the prodigal son, and the lost coin, and the lost sheep. All wonderful stories of redemption and recovery and rescue. But what I struggled with from all of those stories is that the celebration only came when the person or thing was found or fixed or saved. The good news came once the story was over, but I want us to search for the gift that we sometimes receive when we are in the midst of being lost. Now that may sound like a strange concept, the gift of being lost. But as the great Henry David Thoreau once said “Not until we are lost… do we begin to truly understand ourselves.” Did you hear that? “Not until we are lost… do we begin to truly understand ourselves.”
A few years ago I read a book titled Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Moon tells the story of losing his job and his wife on the very same day, and in that moment, he decided that if he couldn’t make things go right, he could at least go. Moon set off in his van to travel the country following only the “blue” highways, the back roads, allowing the journey to help him to find himself. In every city and town, he found a diner and met the locals, learning more about life and what people thought really mattered. After traveling fourteen thousand miles lost and alone, through the kindness of strangers and the stories they shared, Moon finally found himself and realized what life was really about. In the midst of being lost, he began to remember his roots and his faith, and his heart was opened once again to who and whose he truly was.
Friends, Jesus never said the road would be easy. On the contrary, He spoke of all the ways the world would affect us and the troubles we would face. Jesus knew. He knew that we would struggle to hold on to him when things got crazy. Because when we face feelings of emptiness, it is usually because our hearts have grown heavy and we have lost sight of the simple gifts that we have been given. And when we feel lost, it is usually because we have allowed that heaviness to hold us back from seeking a connection with God in our lives.
For those of you that get our daily email Lenten devotionals, this week’s spiritual practice is the practice of Prayer. Each day you’ll receive a different practice of prayer that you can use to stay connected to God. But as with all of our spiritual practices, please remember that they are not called spiritual “perfections” because there are no right or wrong ways of doing them. They are simply suggestions to help you on your faith journey.
Friends, I’ve got one more story to share with you. It’s about a great teacher who I was blessed to learn from, a wise man who taught me in life and in death to never be afraid, but in every circumstance to always look to God for comfort. He spent many years alone after his wife passed away. His body grew old, and it didn’t work the way it used to when he was a strong young man. But his mind was sharp, and his heart was full. I visited him often at home, or at the hospital, or in the nursing home. And no matter how frustrated he was with his ailing body, we would always take time together to celebrate and thank God for the good things in life. At the end of each visit, we would always recite the twenty-third Psalm together, which he said each night before he went to bed because he told me that it reminded him of God’s constant presence in his life and it assured him that, no matter where life’s journey led him, he was never alone.
Together we would say: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the 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; 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 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)
On tough days, when he was really struggling, he would also recite the words of Psalm 121, reminding him that, even when he felt lost and alone, God was always there! So when I sensed that he was really frustrated, or weary, I would often ask, “Conrad, where do you lift your eyes?” To which he would respond: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let my foot be moved; he who keeps me will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is my keeper; the LORD is the shade at my right hand. The sun shall not strike me by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep me from all evil; he will keep my life. The LORD will keep my going out and my coming in from this time on and forevermore.” (Psalm 121)
Friends, life is not always easy. We face all kinds of complications and delays and difficulties and sometimes we just feel downright lost. But if we are courageous enough to let go, to lift our eyes to the hills and allow God to guide us, then we sometimes find ourselves traveling down roads that we never expected to travel And we see and experience new and amazing things, things that may not have been part of our plan, but awesome gifts just the same.
So brothers and sisters in Christ, the next time you are feeling lost, remember that sometimes being lost is a gift because it opens our eyes to new paths and exciting adventures that we never imagined possible. So friends, in the days and weeks ahead, turn off your TV and your social media every once in a while, and spend some time looking for the good, for the joy, and for the presence of God that is all around you.
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God! Amen!