Dwell: In the Overflow

You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Psalm 23:5b

Summer sunshine brings life with its warmth. Plants and trees flourish, fruit ripens, crops mature. And insects multiply. 

Fly swatters stay busy during picnics and barbecues. Spray covers skin to keep bugs at bay. We do just about anything to avoid the nuisance of tiny, flying critters that drive us crazy.

As do shepherds.

Up on that table, the mesa in the mountains, wolves and bobcats are not the only enemies of a shepherd’s flock. Flying pests can make a sheep mad (in every sense of the word)–especially the nasal fly, whose eggs hatch in the mucousy membranes of an unsuspecting sheep’s nose (Keller, 138). This is so hard to write because my vivid imagination goes wild. But, the truth is important to grasp. Sheep bang their heads on anything trying to rid themselves of such affliction, causing damage–and even death–to themselves and chaos for the flock.

To prevent such madness, a shepherd applies the bug spray–or in his case, linseed oil mixed with sulfur and other such smelly, stickiness–so the flies stay away. 

Another hidden enemy is a skin parasite called scab. All it takes is one sheep with some scab to quickly infect the entire flock. Sheep frequently rub their heads together in affection, which becomes the means for a scab spread.

Left unattended, scab can lead to secondary infection, hypothermia, and eventual death. So, a shepherd is quick to coat his sheep with a linseed oil mixture to kill the enemy, taking great care to cover each head by hand (p.142).

Quite literally, a shepherd frequently anoints the head of his sheep–as protection from all that would inflict insanity and as purification from all that would infect.

In much the same way, our Good Shepherd anoints our heads with the oil of His Spirit. His frequent application pours over our minds, helping us overcome irritants and distractions, contamination and bad attitudes. As we receive such anointing, we’ll have a life that overflows with all the goodness He has to offer us. 

Authority and Power

According to Luke, the first thing Jesus does after His forty days of testing in the wilderness is head home to Galilee to teach. One Sabbath, He stands in His hometown synagogue in Nazareth to read a portion of Isaiah’s scroll, declaring it fulfilled in His presence:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:18-19

Jesus, the Messiah–the Anointed One–claims His anointing by the Spirit of God.

Much like David’s royal oil treatment (1 Samuel 16:13), Jesus’ anointing by the Holy Spirit becomes a sign of authority from God. And, with that authority comes power–power to heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead to life (Acts 10:38). 

The moment each of us steps into a relationship with Jesus, we are anointed–God “sets his seal of ownership on us, and puts his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit” (2 Corinthians 1:20-21). Two thousand years later, the winds and flaming tongues of Pentecost fire continue to blow, filling every single believer with the Holy Spirit’s anointing of authority and power (Acts 2:1-4). 

Photo by Leon Wu on Unsplash

Friends, this is you! And me! Holy oil flows over our heads, anointing us SO THAT we can go into the world in God’s authority and the Spirit’s power to fulfill what He has called us to do. Our Good Shepherd anoints our heads with oil so that His Spirit will abide in us for all our days.

Heads and Minds

The disciple John writes a letter to the burgeoning church decades after the Holy Spirit’s anointing at Pentecost. John’s flock has a most insidious enemy: false teachers within the church. He encourages them:

“But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.”

1 John 2:20-21

John, the shepherd of this flock, makes sure his sheep know “the anointing you received from Him remains in you” (1 John 2:27). This anointing of truth becomes a seed within every believer, that when cared for and nurtured, takes root and grows. This anointing of truth remains, or abides, in us. But it must be guarded.

Too easily we are distracted by our devices and the world’s enticements. Too frequently our minds are bombarded by subtle untruths about who Jesus is, about who we are. Too many times a day, our minds are tempted to stray from the truth.

Like the time a bug got in my head, telling me that my mom wouldn’t be with me for another Christmas. Over and over I swatted at that pest, trying to squash what felt like truth. Fear overtook me. My anticipation of her ‘coming death’ distracted me from all the life happening around me. Till I finally told my husband, who compassionately leaned in, telling me that whenever that moment came, he’d be with me through it. He reminded me we never know the number of our days–that we shouldn’t live in fear of death. Bug smashed. Lie squashed. 

I don’t know where that buzz of untruth came, but I needed help to name it for what it was. I needed truth to break through the haze the lie had created. 

Which is precisely the reason our Good Shepherd has prepared a table for us–to feast on His Word, its truth aligning us with His heart and mind. It’s why He has anointed our heads with oil–to fill us with His Spirit SO THAT we’ll keep our minds on Him.

It’s why Paul exhorts his flock (and us):

“…you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.”

Philippians 4:8-9, MSG

Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash

Imagine with me the oil of anointing pouring over our minds, filling our thoughts with its purifying, protective goodness. Our Good Shepherd doesn’t want us to be pestered by the annoyances around us. Rather, He desires our attitudes to be anchored in His grace and goodness. He doesn’t want the pestilence of untruths to settle into our minds, to guide our beliefs and actions. He wants to be our grace and truth, filling every crevice of our minds with His holy oil of presence.

Cups Overflowing

Jesus models for us this way of living in the overflow of our anointing. He consistently gets away to be alone with His Father. He draws on every word of Scripture in order to remain in truth–as He teaches others and as He stands firm in the face of His enemies. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, His anointing is steadfast, giving Him an anchored place from which to do God’s work.

Even as He kneels in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of His arrest to pray, He demonstrates to us how to face our enemies with anointing. Having asked for the cup to pass from Him, He chooses, instead, to let go of fear and embrace God’s will. At that moment, His cup fills with life. His life. The life He graciously pours out on our behalf. 

No matter what we face–the irritations of pests or the infections of parasites–we have a Savior who pours His life into us. No matter how we feel–discouraged by the distractions or defeated by the droning of flies–we have a Shepherd who, drawing ever so close, has anointed us with His Spirit. We can look into His face as He rubs that oil on our heads and say with confidence, our cups overflow!

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  • Rhythms: We rest in rhythms–what Eugene Peterson calls “unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:29). They’re not meant to be striving-based edicts, but a source of true rest. A means of entering God’s presence and aligning ourselves completely with Him. As we do, He bears our burdens, fills us with hope and joy, and covers us in His perfect peace. This week, move your body toward your Good Shepherd, allowing His holy oil to drench You–inviting the Holy Spirit to pull you into His overflow!
    • We add Psalm 23:5b to our memorization this week. Only one verse to go, and we’ll have an entire chapter of Scripture put to memory. I sway even as I begin repeating this Psalm’s words–as if they’ve invited me into a dance.
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • A song poised near the top of our playlist reminds us of a truth we learned at the beginning of the journey, “I Shall Not Want.” And so that refrain continues as we near the end of this psalm. Chandler Moore, singing with Elevation Worship, croons, “I shall not want. ‘Cause my cup’s running over, running over and I shall not want.” He praises with gusto, “And He anoints me, anoints me with His oil, glory hallelujah! Now my cup is running over. Glory hallelujah!”
    • Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23,* informs this exploration of the shepherd’s life, connecting dots as only a man-of-God-and-shepherd can.
  • We’re a flock. We’re a fellowship of believers. We’re a community. Know that you are not alone. You’ll walk these paths with Christ at your side and your sisters hemmed around you.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash
*an affiliate link with which I might earn a bit

Dwell: At His Table

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
Psalm 23:5:a

October turns the corner this week, and November looms large because it ushers in the holiday season. Packed full of traditions, Thanksgiving and Christmas mean much in our culture, but at the heart of all the festivities is the feast. In every culture, on every continent, and in every century there is (and has been) a tradition of gathering around the table for a celebratory or commemorative meal. Food brings people together like nothing else.

It’s what the Jews have done for millennia–since the Exodus with Moses. Every spring, families sit around a table to observe the Passover with a meal. It’s exactly what Jesus was doing that last night with His disciples. They gathered around a table–to break bread, to drink wine. To remember God’s faithfulness.

Jesus often reclined at tables for meals during His three years of ministry. But, Jesus didn’t just sit around tables with His friends. He also ate with His enemies. With:

  • Sinners, like tax collectors (Luke 15:1-2; 19:1-10). 
  • Leaders who wanted Him dead, like Pharisees (Luke 7:36-39; 14:1-4). 
  • Betrayers, like Judas Iscariot (Mark 14:28).

Jesus models for us how it looks to live in the confidence of our identity and in the presence of our Father. When we sit at God’s table, we can rest–because in His presence, our enemies pose no threat. When we trust in who we are as God’s children, we fear no evil because we know we belong to the Father. 

Good Ol’ Shepherds

By now we’re catching on how a good shepherd functions–protector, provider, care-giver. For shepherds like David, those treks through the valleys, dark and dangerous as they may have been, held a big enough payoff to risk the dangers. Above the valleys, hidden among the mountains, mesas awaited. Mesas were flat, plateau-like spaces, shaped a bit like tables (Keller, 126). And they were full of fields perfect for hungry sheep.

Photo by Lilibeth Brogna on Unsplash

Diligent shepherds would set out on their own before the snow melted in the spring, leaving the sheep in the safety of their home pastures. They’d hike the valleys and mountains to the mesa, clearing paths and the mesa itself from poisonous plants while checking for predators who watched from surrounding peaks. Shepherds would go before their flocks to prepare the ‘table’ in the presence of all ‘enemies.’

Then, when the shepherd would lead his flock among the predetermined paths to the mesa, he remained close to the sheep, ever vigilant for the enemies who watched the table he’d made ready (p.129). His preparedness promoted survival.  

At the Shepherd’s Table

So it is with us. Jesus goes before us and makes a way–through every desert, valley, and mountain of our lives. We can trust He’ll do this for us because He has been faithfully leading His followers for thousands of years. He led: 

  • Abraham to a new land (Genesis 12:1). 
  • The Israelites by cloud and fire till they entered the Promised Land (Exodus 13:21). 
  • David safely through the desert while King Saul hunted him (1 Samuel 23:14). 
  • Paul throughout the Gentile lands (Acts 13:4; 16:6-7). 
  • Philip to the presence of the Ethiopian (Acts 8:29). 

Likewise, our Good Shepherd guides each of us. In HIs omniscience, He knows every turn and bump, every threat and blessing before they happen. In His omnipresence, He goes before us–a demonstration of His caring nature–pulling the poisonous weeds, clearing the paths, and making ready a table. And He hems us in from behind–a sure sign of His protective nature (Isaiah 52:12; Psalm 139:5). 

Jesus’ preparedness promises protection. Provision. Plans. Presence. Because He is the Way (John 14:6). 

So even with our enemies sitting in plain view, we can rest. We can recline with Jesus because we’re sitting at our Father’s table where all has been made ready. In His presence, enemies have no power. God is omnipotent. Our Shepherd never fails.* 

Christ’s Family

Long before we choose to follow Him and listen to His voice, Jesus makes a way for all who will believe in Him to have life eternal with Him. As only Jesus could, He made known this plan before the way became a reality.

While sitting at a table. 

Surrounded by the Twelve, Jesus finished the feast by instituting a New Way (Luke 22:14-20). The bread and the wine of the Passover became symbols of His broken body and shed blood–His means for our way. His death would prepare the path toward eternal life (John 3:16). His resurrection would make it possible for us to live above sin (1 John 3:9; 2 Corinthians 5:17).

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

The moment we step onto this path following our Good Shepherd, we become part of His family. Our identity is firmly set as children of God (John 1:11-13; 1 John 3:1). Jesus has prepared the table for all of His brothers and sisters, so like the disciples of old, we can sit with Him and feast. And because we belong to Him, we don’t need to fear evil. His Spirit dwells in us. Paul clarifies, 

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’”

Romans 8:14-15, NLT

The next time you come to the Table–the one prepared by Jesus Himself–remember His faithfulness. Each bite of bread and sip of wine becomes a remembrance of our Shepherd Savior, the One who has made a way for each of us. We can also reflect on the reality that we sit at the table with innumerable sisters and brothers for a feast like no other.

Making It Our Own

Melissa Helser’ song, “Sound Mind,” has been my go-to a lot in this current season, and much to my joy, its anchoring passage is filled with Psalm 23:4 language.  

There’s a table where we meet
In the presence of my enemies
I will listen, I will feast
On every word You are speaking to me
I remember who You are
You’re my fortress and my God
I will stand in authority
In Jesus’ name all this darkness will flee

Melissa has given this sometimes confusing passage a personal context. She has moved from the ‘table’ of the shepherds to the table of Holy Communion to a table where she personally sits with her Good Shepherd. 

Her enemies, as listed in other parts of the song, range from chaos to darkness, anxiety to fear. The truths packed into the song remind her of God’s truths, which keep her on the right path. Truths like, God is her peace and God never leaves. A truth like, she can sit at His table–in full view of her enemies–and feast. On His Word. 

It’s as she feasts in God’s presence that she remembers God’s power. 

My friends, there is a constant battle for our attention. Where will we sit? To whom will we listen? What will we eat? Who will we follow? Psalm 23 arms us with all the truths we need. Our Good Shepherd has gone before us, preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies. When we sit at His table, we feast. We remember His faithfulness. 

And, we fear no evil.

Father God, your faithfulness spans generations. You have always been present for your people. You never once abandoned anyone who followed You. No matter how they suffered or struggled, You remained by their side, willing them to allow You to help carry their burdens, to heal their brokenness. We confess that too often we blame You instead of turning to You when life goes wrong. Forgive us, we pray. Lord Jesus, thank You for being the once-and-for-all Passover Lamb, for becoming the door through which God’s forgiveness flows to us. Your broken body and shed blood have opened a new path into wholeness with our Father, and we’re so grateful to walk that road with You, our Good Shepherd. Thank You for all your preparations. We gladly take our seats at your table. And feast. Holy Spirit, continue to remind us of all that our Savior has spoken, of all He wants us to know so that we never forget His faithfulness–so that we remain anchored in His love and truth and grace. Tell us every day that we belong to Jesus so there is nothing to fear. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
(inspired by Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 Corinthians 1:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:3; Joshua 23:14; 1 John 1:9; Jeremiah 30:17; 1 Corinthians 5:7; John 10:9; Psalm 23:4; John 16:13; Lamentations 3:22-23) 

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  • Rhythms are changing the way I come at the faith journey with Jesus. Instead of striving for balance, I’m finding daily rhythms that help me engage with my Savior Shepherd. Some days are filled with intercessory prayers while others simple solitude. Some days I study the Word for greater understanding while other days I sit in one passage allowing it to do a work in me. I feel my heart and mind and spirit aligning with the Lord’s. So, I invite you to enter into your own rhythms, to find paths that keep you on the heels of your Good Shepherd. In His presence. Always in His presence.
    • One rhythm we’ve been leaning into is Scripture memory. This week we add the first half of verse 5! We’re so close to having this chapter memorized!!
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • *Deliverance from evil doesn’t always look like we expect. Beth Moore taught in her Daniel** study that sometimes we’re delivered from the ‘fire,’ or by it, or through it–into eternity. Our confidence comes from knowing God’s heart and constant presence. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abdenego, God is with us always (Daniel 3:25).
    • So many songs on our playlist help us to abide in Christ–I think because in their own way, holy music helps prepare the table of our heart for Christ’s presence in us.
      • Melissa’s song, “Sound Mind” was on a past playlist, but you can find it here.
    • Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23** paints such a vivid picture of how shepherds prepared the table (in the mesas) for their flocks, comparing those efforts to Jesus’ on our behalf.
    • Beautiful devotions from Aimee Walker at Devoted Collective and JD Walt at Seedbed inspired so much of this post.
  • We’re a flock. We’re a fellowship of believers. We’re a community. Know that you are not alone. You’ll walk these paths with Christ at your side and your sisters hemmed around you.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo by Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash
**an affiliate link with which I might earn a bit

Dwell: In His Presence

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.
Psalm 23:4

A friend reminded me this week how many Christians have bought into the idea that the God of the Old Testament is not the same God of the New Testament. NOT TRUE. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8). He’s the beginning, middle, and end–except He has no beginning or end (Psalm 102:25-27). He’s the Alpha and Omega (Isaiah 44:6; Revelation 22:13). He is the One who was, who is, and who is to come (Revelation 4:8). He is unchanging–as in, He never changes (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). He is the one constant in the entire universe that we can count on being the same, always and forever (1 Timothy 1:17). 

I hope that’s an AMEN, I hear. 😉

Here’s another truth–we can read a list of verses like that and ‘amen’ all day without really believing them. Something deep within us doubts. Maybe because we’ve read passages in the Old Testament that seem incongruent to the Jesus we see in the New. Maybe because we’ve been taught to believe this. Maybe because we doubt that God could be relevant in our present, technologically advanced era. 

Whatever the reason we carry this untruth about God, it’s very good for us to name it and explore it–to get to the heart of why we think this way. Because until we see God for who He is–Alpha to Omega–we only know God partially. We only grasp half His story and part of His perfect plan of redemption. And, not knowing God fully means we also can’t trust Him fully.

So, while the vast majority of us can’t relate to God as a shepherd at first glance, we can dig into the cultural context of the Old Testament in order to unpack the imagery and analogies, metaphors and motifs tucked into its words.* As we begin to see the ancient for what it was, God’s purposes will pop for us now. As we start reading the Old through the lens of the New, God’s plans will start connecting–like dots. Or a string of lights. 

That’s exactly what will happen for us today. We will connect some dots, causing once-dim bulbs to shine brightly. We will see the Shepherd of the Old Testament is most definitely the Good Shepherd of the New, and He’s not only relevant for us in the twenty-first century–He is present.

Cultural Context: Shepherds

What’s the first thing you picture in your mind when you hear ‘shepherd?’ 

Me too–the shepherd’s staff. An ever-present icon for the sheep herder, the staff is not just a prop for a Christmas play. It’s not even just a walking-type stick for the older shepherd. It’s actually one of two pieces of equipment a shepherd always has on his person.

The staff plays a major role in three areas of sheep management:

  • Drawing sheep together or to the shepherd – as when a shepherd wraps the crook of the staff around a newborn lamb, lifting it gently to her mother; or around the neck of a sheep to draw it to himself (Keller, 120).
  • Guiding the sheep – as through a gate or along a difficult path. The shepherd lays the tip of the long stick against the sheep’s side and applies pressure to guide it in the right direction (p.121).
  • Rescuing sheep who are in danger. Usually due to their own stubbornness, sheep get stuck in bramble bushes or fall into the sea. The staff can pull wool off the thorns or lift sheep from the waters (p.124).

So, the staff is practical; it’s useful. It also identifies the shepherd as a shepherd and serves as a symbol of the compassion and concern he has for his flock. The staff is a reminder of all that is longsuffering (patience even in troubles) and kind (p.119).

Photo by Daniel Sandvik on Unsplash

The second piece of equipment for every shepherd is the rod–a thicker, shorter piece of club-like wood that fits perfectly in the shepherd’s hand. Shepherd and author, Phillip Keller, says the ever-present rod serves as an extension of the shepherd’s arm, ready to be thrown defensively at predators with exquisite accuracy and swiftness (p.112). 

A secondary way the rod can used is for discipline: “If the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away on its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger…the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch” (p.115). 

The third purpose is much more intimate: close inspection of sheep. Ezekiel 20:37 uses the phrase, “pass under my rod,” referencing the way a shepherd constantly counts and searches his sheep–because careful examination reveals hidden problems (p.115).

The rod, then, stands for the shepherd’s strength, power, and authority–always at the ready for whatever his flock may need.

Interestingly, not much has changed in the millennia since David the shepherd. Modern Middle Eastern and African shepherds use the same staff and rod. Even American ranchers carry staffs but have substituted the rod for rifles–but for similar purposes (p.111).

Purposes: Then

Our unchanging God stands in His eternal realm, unbound by time (Psalm 90:4)–knowing “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10), knowing all things (Psalm 147:5; 1 John 3:20). So, it is no coincidence or happenstance that God chooses shepherds to be His chosen people (ie: Abraham, Moses, David). Or that He uses shepherding metaphors throughout His Word. 

In the Ancient Near East–the days of Abraham, Moses, and David–sheep herding was the way of life. Every single person in Abraham’s family, in Moses’ freed flock, and in David’s nation would have understood the nuances of caring for sheep. So, God’s metaphor of comparing Himself to a shepherd would’ve clicked. The dots of ‘shepherd’ and ‘God’ would have connected, giving the people a clear sense of who Yahweh meant to be for them.

The Israelites would have understood the rod and the staff–their purposes and what they stood for. They would have grasped that God Almighty would be their dogged defender and devoted discipliner. They would have seen themselves as the stubborn, wayward sheep who needed a shepherd to constantly keep them on course. 

And because the rod and staff demonstrated a shepherd’s nearness to his flock, the Israelites would have known the comfort of seeing these tools in their Shepherd’s hands–because they meant He was present (Keller, 119).

Photo by Tanner Yould on Unsplash

Purposes: Now

While we have to put more effort in understanding the deeper meanings of shepherds, staffs, and rods, God’s purposes carry over into our day. In short, the staff is seen as a symbol of the Holy Spirit and the rod as the Word of God.

Just as the actual shepherd’s staff had three main functions, so too can we see the Holy Spirit’s roles:

  • The Spirit draws believers together–in fellowship and unity in Christ (Acts 4:32; Ephesians 4:1-6). And He draws us closer to Christ (John 17:20-23).
  • The Spirit guides us, leading us into all truth (John 16:13). “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21). The Spirit enables us to sense our Good Shepherd’s presence and plans.
  • The Spirit rescues us from troubles–often of our own making–through His teaching and advocating (John 14:26). By His freeing power (2 Corinthians 3:17), He lifts us out of pits and poverty of spirit. 

The Greek word for Holy Spirit, paraklétos, carries with it layers of meaning–advocate, intercessor, and helper–but also, comforter. Like a shepherd, our Comforter gently leads and guides us through life. And His presence in us brings the greatest comfort of all.

And, just as the shepherd’s rod serves as a weapon of defense, discipline, and close examination, so does the Word of God work in our lives. Scripture is the very extension of God’s mind and will (Isaiah 55:11). Its power and truths defend us from the enemy’s attacks (Ephesians 6:17). Its authority bows to no one and nothing (Isaiah 40:8; Luke 16:17), and in God’s generosity, He has extended the Word’s authority to us through Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:17-19; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).

The Word of God keeps us from confusion and from wandering to our own man-made paths (Psalm 119:105). The Word comes swiftly to mind–to convict and nudge us back toward our Shepherd (2 Timothy 3:16; 4:2). And by His Word, God searches us, going below the surface to expose things that need to be made right (Keller, 116; Psalm 139:23-24). 

So, when David exclaims that God’s rod and staff comfort him (Psalm 23:4), we can connect the dots. 

The rod, God’s Word, comforts us with its truths.
The staff, God’s Spirit, comforts us with His presence.

Whatever valley you find yourself in, know that God’s Word equips and sustains you, and His presence goes with you. He’s here to guide you. And to give you comfort.

Go string those lights! All around your house and throughout your heart. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is your God, too. The Shepherd of old seeks to lead you in all the ways you need today. Look to his rod and staff to give you comfort and to build your trust that the Ancient of Days is the Good Shepherd, the One in whose presence we dwell.

Father God, our minds cannot fathom how You can be everywhere at once–east to west, past to present to future, here and there. We struggle to grasp how You can be unchanging and how your plans have been set since the beginning of time. How incredible that You are omnipresent. AND, You are with us. Always. Forever. It’s such a humbling truth, and one we deeply desire to believe and live out. You are with us. Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, thank You for being the Word made flesh who not only walked the earth but embodies the written Word. As the Word, You guide us in truth, teach us in power, and uncover deeper realities within us that need to be rooted out and made new. Thank You for all the ways you defend and discipline us. The more we know You, the more we trust that the work You want to do in us is always for our good and for your glory. Holy Spirit, how incredible to think that You dwell in us, helping us and interceding for us. We have an entirely new appreciation for You as Comforter. We ask that You would help us receive the comfort the Father has for us through your presence in us. In Jesus’ name, amen.
(inspired by: Matthew 24:27, Hebrews 13:8, Revelation 4:8, James 1:17, Zechariah 2:11, John 1:1-4, Psalm 32:8, Hebrews 4:12, Psalm 9:9, 1 John 5:18, Romans 8:28, Romans 8:26, John 14:26–KJV, John 14:26)

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  • Rhythms: Daily receiving the love and grace and direction from Christ in us is a rhythm–one that we must step into regularly instead of parking ourselves in ruts or stubborn pride. Our Good Shepherd brings Himself to us through His Word and His Spirit, so let’s step into rhythm with Him, in these.
    • We’re still memorizing Psalm 23 as a major rhythm for this season. Add to what we memorized last week: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now we’ll have verses 1-4 put to heart. And at the ready–just like a rod or staff.
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • *Elizabeth Woodson taught at the Bible study I was in last year, and she’s fabulous. Now I get nuggets of her wisdom via Instagram (@missjazzyliz). Here’s one of those tidbits that TOTALLY fits today’s topic: “The Bible was written FOR us, not TO us, which means we need to consider the meaning for the original audience before we try to figure out what Scripture means to us.” Hello! For us. Not to us. (insert mind-blown emoji)
    • Chris Tomlin’s song, “Impossible Things” is on our playlist. And it captures so much of this series, and specifically this post. Here are a few of its lyrics. Enjoy:

      You lift the heavy burden
      And even now, You are lifting me
      There is no healer
      Like the Lord our Maker
      There is no equal to the King of Kings
      Our God is with us, we will fear no evil
      ‘Cause You do impossible things
    • So many sources have influenced this series–even when I don’t directly quote them within my posts. Aimee Walker’s mini-study on Psalm 23 for Devoted Collective is one of those. Here’s an incredible quote that helped me connect the dots!

      “God gives us the gift of His presence, of all that He is, in the valley, but He particularly wants us to experience these specific aspects of His character: His power and authority over our circumstances and His comfort for our troubled hearts. And He has left us with tangible reminders of both His rod and His staff that we might not forget these attributes.”
    • I have been soooo excited to share the details from this particular chapter from Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, because of all the facts about rods and staffs. And, how they can be interpreted as the Spirit and Word–just incredible!
  • We’re a flock. We’re a fellowship of believers. We’re a community. Know that you are not alone. You’ll walk these paths with Christ at your side and your sisters hemmed around you.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo by Keenan Davidson on Unsplash

Dwell: In the Valleys

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
Psalm 23:4a

Valleys – verdant pastures, flowing rivers, and breathtaking views of the mountainous horizon. In the days of the pioneer, valleys were settled first because of the natural protection mountains provided, the necessary life-source of water, and the fertile soil. On two different trips, I saw valleys through this lens.

In Israel, most of the terrain is rocky and dry. We rode jeeps along dusty peaks and peeked into caves carved out of rock, surrounded by nothing but sand and stone – as far as the eye could see. Then, we took a road east that went down…. As we descended toward the valley, the colors shifted from stark beiges and browns to shades of greens, covering the ground like a patchwork quilt. 

The Jezreel Valley in northern Israel

In Colorado, we took a turn north, following a river as we climbed, until we could see actual mountain peaks. With the tallest mountains in the near distance, we came upon the greenest patch of earth I’d ever seen. In a valley fertile with mountain run-off waters, cattle grazed contentedly and log cabins dotted the edges of the river. 

With these peace-filled, luscious valleys in mind, I’ve had a hard time relating to the dark valley verse of Psalm 23. 

It is true–for shepherds, valleys hold all the treasures we’d imagine: water, food, and a gentle grade leading upwards into the mountains. But, they also hold much danger: cliffs contain predators like coyotes, sudden storms bring flash floods, and rock slides crush flocks in seconds (Keller, 99). The valley–the land flowing with milk and honey–is also home to some looming, dark shadows.

The ten spies who were sent into the Promised Land to scout the area found “a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them” (Numbers 13:23). Yet the Israelites refused to claim the land God had given them–because of their fear of the giants who lived there. 

And, this, my friends, is what Psalm 23:4 is all about – not letting our fear of evil keep us from walking through the valleys that our Shepherd beckons us into.

Dark and Shadowy

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”–the verse of funeral fame – is the version most of us know best, and it happens to capture the Hebrew connotation with greater impact than other translations, such as the NIV’s “darkest valley.”

The Hebrew word, tsalmaveth, means ‘a death-like, deep shadow’ and carries with it a shroud of darkness. It’s only used eighteen times in all the Old Testament, most of which occur in Job – a story about a man who has been hit with deep darkness of death in every area of his life.

Dark valleys can seem like certain death – of body or relationship or career. The shadow cast over the valley can hint at evil lurking behind rocks, ready to pounce on us if we come near – true evil, like Satan and his henchmen. Or perceived evils like conflict or pain or failure. 

However we view the dark, shadow-shrouded valleys in lives, our Good Shepherd is inviting us to enter them. As His sheep, we’re meant to follow–but the choice is ours.

Fearing Evil

The Israelites’ fear of death-by-giant in Numbers overtook their faith in God. They encountered a valley full of the shadow of death, tsalmaveth, and could only see the ‘extreme danger’ it posed (Strong’s)–the kind of danger a shepherd might encounter with his flock. The kind of looming threat that hangs in the distance like an early morning fog, arousing a fear that might keep some from entering the valley. 

Shepherds know the risks of leading their flocks through such valleys, yet they choose to do so anyway–not blindly. Not cruelly. Not even indifferently. They enter the valleys because they know the good outweighs the risks. They have learned that to give-in to their fears is to deny their precious sheep the goodness of the valley.

In contrast, the Israelites, sitting at the Jordan River and looking into the great Promised Land, did not follow their Shepherd into the valley. Their fear led to great consequences and loss – forty years of wandering in the arid wilderness and an entire generation missing out on a land to call their own. 

God called them to enter, and He would have made a way. But fear kept them from trusting this truth.

Photo by eberhard 🖐 grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Similarly, God desires for us to trust Him when life leads us to dark valleys. Like the Israelites, we often stand at the precipice and resist because we’re afraid. It’s hard for us to grasp that dark valleys can do a deeper work within us, that the good is bigger and better than we think. Paul teaches that trials (suffering, tribulations, problems) build within us character traits like patience and endurance, as well as the holy habit of hope (Romans 5:3-4). In other words, if we’ll follow the Good Shepherd through the valley, good will come of it.

But, most of us are quite averse to the hard feelings that come with pain and loss. Looking back, I can see how I avoided facing the feelings our move had wrought. For several weeks, I stayed busy, numbed with TV, and even studied the Bible in order to keep emotions at bay. I wouldn’t enter the dark valley because I feared feelings would gain control over me.

So, I paid the price. My body revealed the stress of stuffing feelings – headaches, churning stomach. Other emotions belied the truth – irritability, impatience. I also had this unhealthy grip on things I’d left – namely, our adult children and church. 

Bits of light pierced my darkness a little over time, but it took months before I finally ran into the source of all my struggles. Grief. As I entered that valley at last, waves poured over me. Tears flowed. But they didn’t drown me. In fact, once I named my grief and entered into it with Jesus, the power of it lost its grip on me. I could navigate the ebbing tides, free to move through the valley and discover what God had for me in our new place.

JD Walt poses a question to help us grapple with the power of our ‘fear of evil:’ “What if it is our fear of evil that keeps us from the abundant life of Jesus—even in the midst of the deepest, darkest, shadowiest, deadliest valleys of life?” (Seedbed Daily Text, February 27, 2020). 

It’s helped me to consider such a question by looking to Jesus Himself. Like the time He stood in Jerusalem, teaching crowds that He’s the Gate and the Good Shepherd, warning that there will be bandits who try to get through His gate and mislead His flock. He explains that the thief–our enemy–comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). If we stopped there, fear could paralyze us. Our fear of evil would prevent us from ever following Jesus anywhere. 

But, Jesus doesn’t leave us there. He swiftly follows up with the truth that He came so that His flock would have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). The Good Shepherd leads us along right paths. He goes with us through the dark valleys. And when we follow Him, we will have abundant life.

JD asks a second question – equally powerful but even more convicting: “What if it is this fear that brings us into anxiety and leads us into sin which shields us from awareness of the presence of God, our Good Shepherd?” (Seedbed Daily Text, February 27, 2020).

Many times, fear is the thief itself, stealing our Savior-sight, taking our ability to abide with the Shepherd. ‘Fear of evil’ can bubble up as anxiety, pulling us into a vortex of worry that causes us to distrust God. I recently confronted the weight of this truth when my anxiety ramped up for my adult sons. In my spiraling, debilitating angst, I began looking deeply at the life of Moses, and I realized God had commanded me to entrust my sons to Him – but I had been ignoring that command. I’d quit trusting God’s plans and purposes for them. The shock of such truth shifted me back onto the right path, straight into the dark valley of unknown futures. 

So, I continue to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But I fear no evil.

Because God. Is. With. Me.

San Juan National Forest, Colorado

Holy Presence

It may seem too simple. Too easy. But I’m walking it and living it — and it’s just true. Nothing has changed in any of my son’s circumstances. Paths are unclear. Futures are foggy. Consequences of past choices still linger. But I’m moving forward. I hear my Shepherd’s voice, and I choose to follow – each and every day.

The protective wall I’d built around my heart in an attempt to shield myself from the pain I feared had kept me from fully dwelling with my Shepherd. But, the wall has finally fallen. I’m free! Now, walking in full obedience has changed my outlook because the pressure is off. I don’t have to have all the plans and answers. I don’t have to help or fix or do anything unless God asks me to. I’m trusting my Savior even in the shadow of giants. And so can you.

To dwell with our Redeemer is to follow Him into the darkest valleys, knowing that we have no reason to fear. Because He is with us. As our Good Shepherd, He goes before us to make a way where we don’t see a way. He walks beside us, helping us navigate every fissure, flood, and foe. He will never, ever leave us. In Him we are safe and loved and cared for.

Friends, we can enter our dark valleys, trusting that there is good work to be done in us and abundant life to be lived – with Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

Father God, we praise You for your constancy–for all the ways You care for us–even when, in our stubbornness and fear, we resist the good work You want to do in us. Forgive us for choosing fear over faith. Open our eyes to your presence. Awaken us to your truths. Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, we’re so grateful that You meet us at the valley of the shadow of death and lead us through it. Thank You that You go before us, walk beside us, and hem us in from behind. We feel your love as it surrounds us and fills us. We know You have loved us from the beginning, so with open hands, we step into the full flow of Your love. Holy Spirit, what a miracle that You dwell within us. Truly, You never leave us. However dark the valleys may seem, your light never ceases to shine. So, lead us, we pray, by the light of the Word – step by step along the right paths and through the dark valleys. And we know that we know abundant life awaits us! In Jesus’ name, amen.
(Inspired by: Hebrews 13:8, 1 Peter 5.6-7, Romans 13:11, Luke 1:78-79, Isaiah 43:5, Psalm 139:5, Ephesians 3:19, 1 John 4:19, John 14:16, 1 John 1:5, John 10:10)

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  • Rhythms: Stepping into holy rhythms continues to make such a difference in my walk with Christ. I think for too long I tried to find balance. I tried to force feed myself. I tried to make my own plans and stick to them in my own strength. Rhythms, however, are fluid and inviting. As if in a dance, we can sway in step with our Shepherd and rest in His arms. One rhythm I’ve been leaning into is reading Scripture, not for knowledge, but for presence — my presence with Him and His with me.
    • Memorizing passages in Scripture can be another rhythm we can engage. Locked in our hearts and minds, the Word frees us from lies and casts out our fears. This week we add the first portion of verse 4 to our Psalm 23 memory work. As you recite the verses of Psalm 23, allow its rhythm to wash over you and pull you into your Shepherd’s presence.
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • There are SO many songs about the valley on our playlist — because we all encounter dark valleys. And songs packed with truth can help us to keep moving through the valleys with our Shepherd.
    • Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23* continues to move me and inspire me. Its influence in this post is much bigger than my one reference indicates. 😉
    • JD Walt–a constant influence in my life–did a series on Psalm 23 that awakened something within me. Now that I’m rereading it, his post on verse 4 was more pivotal in my own journey than I realized at the time. And, those revealing, challenging questions continue to help me lean into the work God wants to do in me — whether I’m in the valley or up on that mountain.
  • We’re a flock. We’re a fellowship of believers. We’re a community. Know that you are not alone. You’ll walk these paths with Christ at your side and your sisters hemmed around you.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo taken by me at the Rio Grande River Headwaters Valley, Colorado.
*an affiliate link with which I might earn a bit

Dwell: On Right Paths

“He refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.” 
Psalm 23:3

The ‘power of three’ exists all around us, conveying to us perfection, completion, and wholeness. We see it in nature: morning, noon, and night. Birth, life, death. And in literature: beginning, middle, end. Musketeers, little pigs, and blind mice. In art: primary blue, red, and yellow, as well as, the ‘rule of thirds.’ And, in sports: ready, set, go! Gold, silver, bronze. Even the Latin phrase, omne trium perfectum, is a trio of words meaning, “everything that comes in threes is perfect.”

Threes in Scripture hold similar value–the perfection of the Holy Trinity; the wholeness of body, mind, and spirit; and the completion of Jesus’ descent into death for three days. To name a few.

So, on this 9th day of October–a day of three threes–we’ll dive into Psalm twenty-three, verse three, which is packed with three phrases that will guide us toward a better understanding of God, our dwelling place.

Restoration of Soul

Translations can confuse us. In versions like the NIV, of which I am quoting in this series, the first third of verse three (in italics below) is the final third of a long run-on sentence (which begins in verse two). See the sentence in its full glory:

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3     he refreshes my soul.

Psalm 23, 2-3a, NIV (italics mine)

Three complete thoughts, each making sense on their own. But when they’re tied together by the commas, a relationship is communicated: because we’ve been lying down in green pastures and beside quiet waters, our souls are refreshed. And it makes sense.

But, in other translations, such as the New King James Version, the punctuation implies “He restores my soul” connects with our being led by God:

He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Psalm 23:3, NKJV

This hair-splitting exercise is less about being ‘right’ and more about understanding what is meant by He restores my soul. And, what I’ve been discovering is that to know sheep–as our author David did–is to better understand how it looks for God to refresh and restore us.

Sheep who get too fat, too cozy in hollows of the ground, or too heavy with wool can easily become cast, an “old English shepherd’s term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself” (Keller, 70). If a shepherd isn’t able to act quickly enough to get the sheep set upright, the sheep dies.  

Similarly, we can get so fat with self-assurance, so comfortable with our cozy lifestyles, and so heavy with the burdens of our worldly possessions or pride that we get dragged down. We topple. We can’t get up without help.

Then, our Good Shepherd comes along. And as part of His flock, we know His voice (John 10:3), so we allow Him to right us–perhaps with discipline (Hebrews 12:5-11), or pruning (John 15:2), or refining fires (Zechariah 13:8-9). By whatever method He chooses to restore us, we can trust that He knows what He’s doing, that He knows the best way to restore our heavy, prideful, or apathetic souls. 

So whether we need our souls refreshed or restored, we can celebrate that we have a Good Shepherd who knows just what we need and how to help us get there.

A beautiful path, holding much promise, in Charleston, SC

Paths of Righteousness

And our getting there depends on us being on the right path.

Sheep are creatures of habit. If not led by a strong, caring shepherd, they’ll wear down paths in pastures until the land becomes desolate and polluted. Overgrazing is a real problem in the sheep world because, on their own, sheep get stuck in ruts (Keller, 83).

And so can we. 
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
    We have left God’s paths to follow our own.

Isaiah 53:6, NLT

Like our sister sheep, we can be stubborn and overly self-confident, sure that we know what’s best. How many times a day do I either ignore God or choose to avoid Him so that I can do what I want? In college it looked like too much drinking. In my 20s it looked like too many plans so that by my 30s busyness had me running in circles. In my 40s it looked like knowing what was best for my teen sons so that now in my 50s I still have urges to fix their lives. I’ve given myself over to repeated behaviors of overindulgence till I’m trapped in my self-made wasteland.

But Jesus.

To read my decades-long journey above is to assume I’ve done nothing but spiral in my own stiff-necked, strong-willed ways. But my Good Shepherd–over and over–has come along to set me right. He has reminded me that He is the Way (John 14:6). He has taught me to understand that following Him is to deny myself and take up the cross (Mark 8:34). He’s pruned my pride. He’s refined my self-indulgence and self-assurance. He’s allowed me to live in the consequences of my choices. But in all of it, I’ve felt nothing but His love and kindness. By His Word, I’ve seen “the right ways of truth, and holiness, and righteousness” (Poole). By His Spirit I’ve been empowered to obey. Through it all, I’ve been learning to trust Him–and follow as He leads even when I can’t see where the path is going.

A winding path, full of mystery, in Saluda, NC.

To faithfully follow our Good Shepherd, our attitudes must shift. We need a willingness to keep laying down habits and comforts that lead to our destruction, to continually surrender our will for His, and to consistently choose obedience.

His Name Sake

Sheep literally leap with joy when their shepherd opens the gate to a new pasture full of green grass (Keller, 87). In the same way, we can delight in our Shepherd as we trust Him to lead us in paths that are right and good.

Just as good shepherds receive much joy in flocks that are healthy and happy, our Good Shepherd rejoices in seeing us content and flourishing under His care (Keller, 35). He restores our souls by leading us along right paths for our good. Absolutely.

However, there’s even greater joy for the Shepherd when one in His flock learns to love Him and others more than herself. “Once a person discovers the delight of doing something for others, she has started through the gate, being led into one of God’s green pastures” (p.91). Selflessness is a hallmark of one who walks the right path.

And yet. There’s a greater good here than our own or others’–it’s God’s. God’s glory. That’s always the bottom line, the endgame, the grand finale. 

When we obey by doing what He tells us to do, we’re acting in a manner that maintains God’s good reputation (p.94). Friends, when we allow our Shepherd to lead us in all His righteous, holy ways, our following brings His name into the bright spotlight of goodness. Our lives reflect who God is to the world. 

Our Good Shepherd dwells with us, running toward His upturned sheep to restore our souls. Guiding us along right paths–for our good and others’. And, always, for His name’s sake. 

Father God, You are perfection. You live in perfect harmony as the Triune God; You make broken hearts whole; You make me complete in Christ. In your loving kindness, You exert your will over me in order to restore my soul to the place of wholeness and holiness. You are holy, holy, holy. And I am yours. Lord Jesus, my Good Shepherd, You always set me back on my feet when I fall flat on my face. You’re faithful and loving and oh-so good. I feel my trust in You growing, so I choose to follow You–wherever You lead. Even when I can’t see where it is You’re taking me. Holy Spirit, thank You for enabling me to trust my Good Shepherd, to follow Him obediently. Help me to anticipate the joy of entering His gate to find a field full of grace and hope and peace. I pray that You’d continue your work of pruning and refining in me so that I will always choose to follow in the ways of my Shepherd. May I surrender my will, my mind, and my heart to You so that I can live as a living sacrifice, reflecting the goodness of my Shepherd to all who meet me. I pray this for my good, for the good of others, and for your glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.
(inspired by: Psalm 23, Matthew 28:19, Psalm 34:18, Colossians 2:10, Revelation 4:8, John 14:15-18, Romans 5:1-2, John 15:2, Zechariah 13:8-9, Romans 12:1)

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  • Rhythms: Just as the Waltz flows with its 1-2-3 cadence, we can move in rhythms of holiness.
    • 1-getting still, 2-entering God’s presence, 3-breathing Him in. OR,
    • 1-sing in worship of Him, 2-raise our hands in abandon, 3-adore Him with words of praise. OR,
    • 1-read His Word to see more of Him, 2-allow the Spirit to open our eyes to a truth we need, 3-sit in the revelation, allowing it to cleanse or fill or encourage.
      • Scripture memory is a much-needed rhythm in our days of bombardment and busyness. We’re so easily thrown out of sync with the Spirit that we need a verse or chapter at hand to empower us over all the irregularities. To be able to speak God’s Word over ourselves, our people, and our situations pulls us back into rhythm with our Good Shepherd. So, this week, add verse three to what you’ve already memorized. Three verses at the ready. Three verses packed full of promise. Three verses that will have us back on the right path.
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • One song on our playlist, “Restore My Soul” by Vertical Worship, cries out three lines of rhythmical prayer, then points us back to the right path:

      Restore my soul, revive my heart
      Renew my life in every part
      Reveal to me what sin remains
      Then lead me to the cross again
    • Each chapter in Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23* has its own great rhythm–sheep’s lives, Christians’ lives, God’s way and invitation. I have loved rereading it for this series!
    • I also mention Matthew Poole. I loved the line in his commentary on Psalm 23:3 about how the Word and Spirit work together to keep us on the right path with God.
  • We’re a flock. We’re a fellowship of believers. We’re a community. Know that you are not alone. You’ll walk these paths with Christ at your side and your sisters hemmed around you.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo taken by me in Asheville, NC
*an affiliate link with which I might earn a bit

Five Minute Friday: Become

A fluttering throng of brown flitted so quickly my eyes couldn’t focus on any one of them. As I stepped closer to the river’s edge, toward a space of overturned dirt, my breath caught. Hundreds of wings erupted into flight.

I’d never observed so many butterflies in one setting, and I’d never seen this type of butterfly. They didn’t seem to seek out flowers. Maybe bugs. My mind spun with questions. Where did they come from? What kind of caterpillar had they been? How long would they live?

Later at lunch, we turned the corner from an outdoor garden to see a large bush full of flowers–its leaves seeming to come to life. But, no, butterflies. Bigger ones. Black and iridescent blue. And these liked the blooms.

I marveled at their masses. Just. So. Many. I filmed them. Took pictures. And simply took in the sight of them.

The mystery of metamorphosis moved in a rhythmic dance before me. How beautiful they’d become. And by no effort on their part. As caterpillars they feasted on what God had provided. Then obediently allowed themselves to be cocooned, seemingly dead–but merely asleep–a season of preparation that would burst forth in glorious new life.

Oh, that I would surrender to such rhythms, trusting my Creator to feed me and lead me. Believing that every step and stage and season held promise of the new person I’d become.

Dwell: By Still Waters

“He leads me beside quiet waters.” 
Psalm 23:2b

Sitting on the riverbank, I perched at the water’s edge on a tree root protruding from the ground like a small bench. It had taken half an hour, easily, for me to finally sit still once I’d reached the river. Fluttering butterflies had beckoned my attention. Turtles and minnows had drawn my eyes–and my camera–to them. 

But, even as I sat, I had the hardest time quieting my thoughts, which darted from one topic to another, much like the dragonflies around me. 

Up at the house, before I made the trek downhill to the river, I’d opened my laptop to ‘complete’ my post–this post–on the verse about being led to quiet waters. To my disappointment, I hadn’t written a word the week before. So, I began making the mental adjustment to start from scratch–when it hit me. I’m sitting in a very quiet place beside a very still river. What more inspiration could a writer want?

And that’s when I marched myself right on down to the quiet waters known as the Frio River. 

Only I couldn’t get my mind to stop thinking. Frustrated with myself, I finally took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I listened. The faint rumble of distant rapids up river. A Carolina Chickadee chirping playfully nearby. Acorns dropping with gravity’s pull–thud, smack, crash. Singing cicadas up in the top of a 1000 year old cedar tree.

I smelled and relished the freshness of the air. No dust. No pollution. I felt the sun’s warm rays on my arms and the cool breeze coming off the water, blowing my hair gently across my face. 

Then I opened my eyes to see water so still that if I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t think the current flowed. My eyes caught signt of a leaf floating across the water, caught in the breeze, making me think of my boys when they used to race leaves down creeks and streams.

The water was so clear that I could see the shadow of a fish. Only to my shock did I realize that was no shadow but an actual fish. A BIG fish. My vision zoomed out to see several fish. Of every size–from the tiniest minnows to the grandaddy catfish. And I smiled, thinking my brother would be disappointed not to be here to drop a line in.

My thoughts no longer swirling–sufficiently stilled–I called on God to lead me. And waited. 

Everything about me felt at rest. My lungs pain free. My breathing steady. My feet content to sit. My hands empty of phone and other futile tools. My whole body at peace. 

That’s when I realized what it means to be led by God to quiet waters. Yes, to quench our thirst. But also to be so at rest that all fear and urgency and to-do lists have been replaced by the peace of God’s presence.

This is where God wants to lead us.

This is dwelling with God–intentionally getting our bodies and minds still long enough to seek Him. And wait. And receive. And just be.

JD Walt challenges me all the time with his out-of-the-box thinking because he is one who dwells with God most intentionally–in His Word, in His presence. And when we dwell with God like that, we can’t help but be changed. Transformed.

But, too often in our western way of doing things, we come at our faith more transactionally–God, I’ll do this so You’ll do that. God, You do this, and I’ll do that. And, absolutely, the cross calls us forward to trade in our sin for His grace, to give up a life without Him for an eternity at His side. We call out to Him believing Him for all He has done for us, and we become His. Transaction complete.

That, however, is only part of the faith life, or what JD calls the first half of the gospel. The first half of the gospel is transactional; the second half is transformational. In other words, to believe IN Jesus is only the first half of the game. Jesus also wants us to suit-up and jump in for the second half. He wants us to step into a life where we are shaped and transformed by Him–what theologians call sanctification. It’s a daily dying to self and living for Christ. THIS is living the abundant life Jesus died for us to have (John 10:10).

Verse two of Psalm 23–the making us lie down in green pastures and being led to still waters–is not saying, “God will help me find green pastures and He will help me locate still waters or He will help me do a better job with my soul care. Help me. Help me. Help me.“** That’s transactional faith.

That’s not to say we don’t ask Him for help. It is just not all there is to God. 

In fact, what God would love to hear from us more than “Help me” is “Have me.”** JD calls this transcendent faith. Jennie Allen has dubbed this way of  living as an anything attitude–where our minds, hearts, and hands are open in such a way that we can honestly and wholly say, “God, I’ll do anything.” It’s a rising above fear and rationalization. It’s a transcendence of what the world (our famillies, our friends, even our own minds) would say is normal or good or right.

Like Abraham saying yes to a big move without knowing where God was leading.
Like Noah saying yes to build an ark for a flood when he’d never seen rain before.
Like David stepping up to kill a giant that no other soldier in Saul’s army would.
Like Jesus stepping forward to be arrested even when He knew what awaited Him.

So, as I sit here watching a quiet river subtly float by, I take in the beauty. I breathe in the gift of being in such a peaceful place. I receive God’s reminder of what it feels like to be in His presence. Then, I release everything that hinders me from giving God my everything. I name the fears. I name the doubts. I let them go, to float away like a leaf on a river. 

And I say, God, have me.

Father God, You, who spoke all of creation into being, continue to speak. Sometimes your voice comes in the earthquakes of life or in the burning flames of disaster. But most often, your voice comes like the gentle breeze across a quiet river. I realize now that if I’m not sitting still and quieting my mind and body, I’ll miss what You are saying. Lord Jesus, You, who willingly stepped into the chaos and pain of crucifixion on my behalf, continue to step into my life. Sometimes I need your help, and I boldly call on You in those moments. Sometimes I simply need YOU. Lord, I call out to You, HAVE ME. I know that You are mine. Today, I make sure You know that I am yours. Holy Spirit, You, who hovered over the waters that knew no boundaries, continue to hover over my life. Yes, You are IN ME. But, somehow, You are also WITH ME. As You hover with me, I pray that You will enable me to see each way I hesitate and resist giving Jesus my all so that I can surrender them to Him. I pray that You will empower me to speak “have me” every single day–and really mean it. I desire to be a follower who consistently and increasingly finds her soul restored not so much by the green pastures and the still waters but by the presence of God himself. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.
(Inspired by Psalm 23:1-2, Genesis 1:1-3, 1 Kings 19:11-14, JD Walt)

  • Rhythms: A rhythm I have been hearing about a lot lately and have acutely felt the need for is Sabbath rest–taking set aside time on a regular basis to rest. And for each of us that may look differently. For me quiet walks, journaling while listening to worship music, or talking with a good friend at a coffee shop fill my soul. I am, however, learning the technique of just being. Especially with God.
    • A consistent rhythm for this series is to memorize Psalm 23. This week we add, “He leads me by quiet waters” to what we’ve already put to memory–so now we have verses one and two locked in our brains. What translation are you memorizing?
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • I quoted JD Walt from his Seedbed Daily Text, February 25, 2020. He did a brief series on the Twenty-Third Psalm that I love referring back to.
    • I cannot overstate how pivotal Jennie Allen’s book, Anything, has been for me. In telling her story, she has challenged and equipped mine. I knew as I read her book that I was not at a place in my faith journey to be able to pray “anything, God” as she had. About ten years later, I can say I do make that my prayer now!
    • Our current playlist is packed full of songs that help us settle into a quiet, restful space–led to quiet waters and the peace of His presence.
  • We’re a flock. We’re a fellowship of believers. We’re a community. Know that you are not alone. You’ll walk these paths with Christ at your side and your sisters hemmed around you.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.
  • All the photos this week are by me (or of me).

Dwell: In Green Pastures

“He makes me lie down in green pastures”
Psalm 23:2a, NIV

Can you think back to a moment in your childhood when your parent’s presence calmed you? Like after a bad dream, and you sneak to their bedroom. Just lying on the floor next to my parents’ bed made me feel better because they were close by.

Michael Jr, a Christian comedian, created the coolest Father’s Day video a few years ago. His newborn daughter, literally minutes after delivery, is screaming and flailing on her ‘bed.’ Michael, her daddy, leans near her and speaks soothing words. And she stills. No more cries. 

A few minutes later, as the nurse is working on her, the baby screams again. And, daddy gets close and speaks. She quiets. Then as he says, “I love you,” she opens her eyes. It’s beautiful. And it illustrates just how much presence matters.

For newborn babies. For sheep. For each of us.

Sheep Need Presence

An interesting fact about sheep that I learned while reading Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm, is that four things have to happen before sheep will lie down. All four. Freedom from fear, tension, aggravations, and hunger. 

  • If a sheep is afraid for her life, she runs. She “bolts in blind fear” (p.42). 
  • If a sheep struggles with tensions between others in her own flock–which happens if the head ewe is a bully–she remains standing, always ready to defend herself. 
  • If a sheep is aggravated by pests–like flies and ticks–she incessantly moves to be rid of them.
  • If a sheep is hungry, never able to get filled, she constantly grazes.

There is no lying down in peace for a sheep if she’s afraid, tense, irritated, or hungry–and freedom from all of these depends on the presence of the shepherd. Only the shepherd can make it possible for sheep to lie down, to rest, to be content.

  • When her shepherd draws near, fear evaporates.
  • When her shepherd appears, the sheep’s attention goes to him. In fact, all the sheep forget their rivalries and in-fighting (p.47).
  • When her shepherd comes close to do the diligent care of preventing and ridding her of pests, the sheep calms.
  • When her shepherd calls to her, leading her to a lush, green pasture, she follows and eats her fill. Then she’ll lie down and rest as she ruminates.

The shepherd’s presence makes all the difference in a flock’s behavior. Left on their own, they exist anxious, defensive, miserable, and unsatisfied. But with a good shepherd’s presence, all four deterrents to rest can be eliminated.

Then, and only then, sheep lie down. 

Green Pastures

With a little context, we can better understand the significance of green pastures. Where David kept flocks, near Bethlehem, green pastures were nearly non-existent. To this day, the terrain of this area is dry, brown, and sun-scorched. In other words, “green pastures did not just happen by chance. Green pastures were the product of tremendous labor, time and skill” (p.53). 

Labor–like planting seeds and irrigating water. 
Time–it takes a while for seeds to germinate and plants to grow. 
Skill–there’s much to know about growing edible green plants for sheep in a desert.

This is a flock of goats just east of Jerusalem. Not much green here.
This shot is closer in, so you can see the scraggly vegetation available to herds in the desert of Israel.

So, when a flock of sheep–who can never lie down and rest until they’re full–is led to a green pasture, they’ve been taken to a place of extravagant provision. The shepherd has sacrificed much to make it happen. But, we remember there’s no deeper satisfaction for a good shepherd than seeing his sheep content (p.35).

With all this in mind, we can imagine David looking back on his abiding life and to speak over us just how much like a good shepherd God has been. David is proclaiming that God prepared places of peaceful provision for him throughout his life. 

Which is why when David describes God as “making him lie down in green pastures,” he is not implying a use of force. Rather, God’s presence and provision made David so content and safe that he was able to lie down–like a sheep in a green pasture–without fear or tension, aggravation or hunger. 

People Need Presence

Like sheep, we need presence–of other people, but even more so we need the presence of our Good Shepherd.

When fear–in all its forms, like worry, anxious thoughts, or dread–pulls me into its grips, my only escape is recognizing Jesus is near. I’m learning to replace the spinning, ‘what if’ thoughts with truth. Jesus is here. Jesus is my shepherd. Jesus has not given me a spirit of fear but of power, love, and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). I name the fear, and I remember Jesus is near. Many times and in many different ways I keep at this pattern until I rest, at peace.

When insecurity and pride cause me to act out divisively and unjustly, I’m like a bully sheep who wants her way, who wants to be right, who wants the accolades. But, when I put my eyes on Jesus, all the jealousies and divisions fall away. His presence unifies and clarifies. His presence somehow makes all the silly, worldly priorities dissipate. His presence helps us focus on what matters most: Him, love, unity in His name and for His kingdom. To be close to Jesus, “conscious of His abiding Presence, made real in my mind, emotions, and will–by the indwelling gracious Spirit–is to be set free from fear of my fellow man and whatever he might think of me” (p.50). To walk in intimate companionship with Christ is to be glad to lie down and let the world go by (p.49).

When life ‘bugs’ us, all the irritations can nag at us till we’re grumpy, unpleasant to be around, and even self-destructive. We can never settle into a comfortable position or place because everything gets on our nerves. We fidget and fight back. We languish in misery and lash out. But when the Holy Spirit reminds us of Christ’s presence, He brings quietness, serenity, and strength (p.52). Like a calming, soothing oil, the Spirit pours Himself over us. As we quiet, we can align our hearts and minds with Jesus and find a peace that surpasses all understanding and circumstance (Philippians 4). 

When we insist on eating from the barren soil of the world’s fallow fields, we starve. We move from place to place, anxiously striving to find something to satisfy our hunger. All the while Jesus beckons us to His fertile field. “Come eat,” He calls to us. “Come to me and never hunger” (John 6:35). And as we make our way to his green pasture, we wonder how He alone could possibly make us content, but we’re desperate. So we eat. And for the first time, we find satisfaction. Fulfillment. Contentment. And we lie down, ruminating over all He is and does.. 

Friends, to fully dwell in Christ–to find the peace and true rest we crave–we need to enter our Good Shepherd’s green pasture. He’s gone before us and sacrificed much so that we can eat to our content. So that we can feel safe in His presence because we trust He’s there to protect and provide.

I don’t know about you, but this is the life I long for. I’m so tired of worry. I’m so tired of being tired. I’m ready to be fearless and full in spirit, free of aggravations and tensions. I desire to be so content that I’m made ready to lie down. And rest with my Shepherd.

Father God, Your generosity and care astound me. Like David, I look back over my life and am in awe of all the times You’ve been there for me. All the ways You’ve provided for me and protected me. Forgive me for forgetting just how close You are. Lord Jesus, thank You for the great sacrifice You made so that I would have all I need to grow and thrive in this world. And, because of the mystery that is Ascension and Pentecost, I know You are always with me. I long to remain with You always. I am so humbled to know that You’ve gone before me and prepared green pastures for me–so that I can eat and be satisfied in Your presence. Holy Spirit, thank You for pouring yourself out on me, a balm on my irritated, restless soul. I soak in Your presence and peace. I welcome all your work in me. I listen for your nudges as You speak to my spirit all that the Father has given You to say over me. And I ask for your help to keep my eyes on my Good Shepherd. I know that it’s only in His presence that I’ll find true contentment and rest. In Jesus’ name, amen.

(inspired by The Believer’s Warfare Prayer, Psalm 23, Jeremiah 8:22 & 33:6, 2 Corinthians 5:15, Matthew 28:20, John 14:17, John 6:55-59, John 16:13, Psalm 4:8)

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  • Rhythms: The more I enter into these rhythms of time with the Lord–entering His presence through prayer and His Word–my body stills and my spirit calms. I feel myself letting go of to do lists and the incessant need to learn or accomplish. I feel myself enjoying these moments of simply ‘being.’ And after researching and writing about ‘lying down in green pastures,’ I realize where my Shepherd has been leading me. So, I hope that you are discovering your own rhythms–not legalistic lists that must be checked off, but the ebbs and flows of time with God, getting to know Him better and allowing yourself to remain with Him.
    • One rhythm this series is to memorize Psalm 23. This week we add, “He makes me lie down in green pastures” to what we’ve already put to memory (verse one). If it helps to put these verses to a tune, do so! If it helps to write it out and see it everyday, do that! Knowing this incredible Psalm by heart will be a rhythm for our souls for the rest of our lives.
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • I know you want to see it. 🙂 Michael Jr’s baby video
    • It was tempting this week to tell you to just go read chapter three of Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.* He shares some amazing stories to go along with the four deterrents to a sheep’s contentedness.
    • Though I didn’t quote it directly, Aimee Walker’s devotion, “He Makes Me Lie Down,” inspired me. It’s from Day 3 of her Psalm 23 Mini Study at The Devoted Collective.
    • Matthew’s The Believer’s Warfare Prayer continues to be a steady part of my daily/weekly rhythm as well as an influence for my thoughts about God and His will–and my own emotions, body, spirit, and will.
    • Our current playlist is a great resource for settling into worshipful rhythms. I added a song this week because I kept hearing its lyric about REST in my mind. MercyMe’s “Word of God Speak” embodies the idea of resting in God’s presence beautifully:

Word of God speak
Would You pour down like rain
Washing my eyes to see
Your majesty
To be still and know
That You’re in this place
Please let me stay and rest
In Your holiness

  • We’re a flock. We’re a fellowship of believers. We’re a community. Know that you are not alone. You’ll walk these paths with Christ at your side and your sisters hemmed around you.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo by Jessica Anderson on Unsplash
*an affiliate link with which I might earn a bit

Dwell: Without Lack

A great majority of Christians on the planet today have grown up hearing verse one of Psalm 23 this way:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
(Psalm 23:1, KJV)

Pausing to reread those nine words, try to take in what is meant by, “I shall not want.” If you read it as I do, it sounds as if we’re being told what to do: don’t want. It reads like a prescription for believer-behavior because the Old English word, shall, brings with it a sense of obligation, conveying a high moral should-ness.

But that’s not David’s intent. A quick overview of his life helps us understand:

As a young shepherd, David faces and fights-off ferocious animals.
As an awkward teen, David has to kill a giant. Or be killed.
As the hero of his people, David slays tens of thousands–in battle after battle (1 Samuel 18:7).
As the anointed king, David runs for his life from mad King Saul. For years.
As the proud king of Israel, David dances but his wife despises him (2 Samuel 6:16).
As the restless king, David sleeps with another man’s wife. Then kills her husband.
As the repentant king, David grieves the loss of his child.
As the aging king, David watches as his children spiral out of control.

And yet. David looks over his life and announces, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

This list of life’s hardships and losses seems harsh. In fact, the world would tell David to give up on God because He’s failed him. The world would look at this list and say God can’t be good because David’s life has been way too hard.

But, David says otherwise. To make sense of his assertion, let’s begin our search of Scripture with a working-out of word choice.

Comprehending Want and Lack

In this Psalm, which is a descriptive poem, David sets out to express the result of a life in the care of the Good Shepherd. So, with these two opening statements that make up verse one, he establishes the Who (God) then emphasizes the Who. To clarify, “I shall not want” serves as a magnifier to express a reality: with God as his shepherd, David wants for nothing.

It also helps to know that the Hebrew word for ‘want’ means ‘to lack,’ which is why a translation like the NIV helps us hear David’s intent a little more clearly (despite the comma splice):

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
(Psalm 23:1, NIV)

JD Walt helps differentiate: “To say, ‘I have a good shepherd; therefore, I lack nothing,’ is quite a different thing than to say, ‘I have a good shepherd; therefore, I should not want anything’” (The Seedbed Daily Text, Feb 25, 2020). The difference is more like cause-and-effect rather than behavior modification.

Interpreting That Lack

So, now that we understand what David is saying, we can work toward knowing what he means. Shepherd, pastor, and scientist, Phillip Keller, helps us make further sense of the relationship between the Shepherd and this lack of need. He observes, “It is the boss–the manager–the Master in people’s lives who makes the difference in their destiny” (Keller, 33). 

As a scientist, Phillip has observed wealthy men who dazzle with their outward show of success yet remain “poor in spirit, shriveled in soul, and unhappy in life” (p.33). However, he’s witnessed people in great physical poverty radiate “a deep, quiet, settled peace that is beautiful to behold” (p.34). As he’s analyzed this incongruity, he concludes the two groups serve two different masters: money and God. Perhaps too often we try to convince ourselves we can manage both. But, Jesus warns, we can’t serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We either serve money or God–but never both.

Phillip attests that those who wholeheartedly follow the Good Shepherd are content. They’ve put every piece of their lives under the faithful care of the Master who loves them. God is enough, and their lives reflect that truth. 

As a shepherd and pastor, Phillip has watched his flocks with curiosity, noting how some have deep wells of dissatisfaction–always wanting what they don’t have. Sheep who look for holes in the fence in order to get to other pastures. People who covet what others own. Neither are ever satisfied (p.34).

So, when David says he lacks nothing, he’s expressing a contentedness of spirit that goes beyond the physical. Even in all those hard circumstances, David’s Master has been there for him. The Good Shepherd has always provided. And David’s spirit rests contentedly.

Photo by Sabina Sturzu on Unsplash

Applying the Truth

When we come up against our own discontent, the lies of the enemy, or the pull of the world, truth will be our anchor. Jesus says He is the truth (John 14:6). Paul instructs us to buckle on the truth (Ephesians 6:14). Peter warns us we require constant reminding of the truth (2 Peter 1:12). And truth is always at the ready in God’s Word (John 17:17). 

While the world balks at believers who stubbornly stand on faith in the face of adversity, trying to convince us that God is fickle, the truth is God remains firm and steady. While some will tempt us with the grass on their side of the fence–to follow their master–the truth is, we can remain firm and steady in Christ.

When we pick up truth, we remember that Jesus told us we will have trouble in this world (John 16:33). In other words, life is hard, but our Shepherd always leads and never leaves–He has overcome the world! 

Truth can be bolstered each time we reflect on God’s past provisions–to carry, nurture, feed, and lead us. As we look back, we remember the truth: God is faithful. As such, we can put trust in our Shepherd, who will be there for us, now and in the future. 

As I am learning how my role looks in this season as a parent of adult children who have not yet fully launched into the world, I have come face-to-face with truth: I have not fully released my sons to God–even though He has promised He has them in His hands. I feel the reality of my lack of trust in God when overwhelm rises because I’ve taken on responsibilities that are my sons’. Or, when dread creeps in as I anticipate confrontations. Or, when anxiety rises because I worry about their futures. Overwhelm, dread, anxiety. These are not the feelings a mom wants to have when she thinks about her kids. And that’s my clue I’m not dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. Instead, I’ve stepped away from truth and picked up old habits. 

It helps so much to think back over my sons’ lives and recall all the times God showed up and provided. When I focus on the many moments of God’s faithfulness, my own faith in Him reignites.

It also helps when I spend more time in His presence–because it’s with Him that I find covering and peace and hope. So, when I woke up with anxious thoughts this morning, rather than feeding them with conversation rehearsals or controlling plans, I grabbed my Bible. I went out on my porch and sat in with Him. I filled my mind with His Truth. I focused on Jesus, choosing to trust that 1) He really does have my sons in His hands, and 2) He will give me all I need to say and do–in His time.

A miracle happens each time I do these things. My spirit rests; the anxiety dissipates; my heart finds peace and joy. 

And, “there’s not a deeper satisfaction for the Shepherd than seeing His sheep contented” (p.35). 

Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

Dying to Self

Much comes against our desire to live content lives with our Shepherd. Temptations teasing us to ‘want more’ flash across screens and flaunt in the stores. Our own tendencies to compare ourselves with others leave us with that feeling of lack. Lies within the Church that say material prosperity is a sign of God’s favor beckon us to their fallow fields. 

But, in writing this Psalm, David has left us a treasured truth. With God as our Shepherd, we truly lack nothing. Because in Him, we have everything. 

And there’s the ‘dwelling’ truth for us today. To dwell fully in God is to know Him as the Good Shepherd–the One who provides for every need and carries us through every valley. 

To dwell fully in God is a ‘dying to self’ decision (Galatians 2:20). It’s to choose our Master. As Kendra Adachi, the Lazy Genius, would say: decide once. Decide once that God is your Master. Decide once to believe His promises and trust His good nature. Decide once to follow the Shepherd–and keep following!

Then look for Him in every moment. Choose to dwell in His pastures. Choose to go where He leads. And discover a deep contentment in your spirit. Encounter the peace and joy you’ve been seeking. Become a sheep who knows she lacks nothing–because she has the Shepherd.

Father God, You are good. You promise to always be with me, to guide me with your counsel and lead me to a glorious destiny. Lord Jesus, I belong to You. You’re my Good Shepherd. And I know that by belonging to your flock, I will discover depths of love and goodness, of hope and joy, of peace and faithfulness that I cannot find anywhere else. So, as I stand at the edge of your green pasture, I look not at the world beyond but at You. And I see everything I could ever want. Holy Spirit, I know my weaknesses–I easily compare myself to others and covet what they have. I fall into the trap of discontent and get restless for more. Remind me, I pray, each day to whom I belong and that He’ll always provide and protect and prepare all that I need. It is with great belief that I choose to follow You, Good Shepherd. Help my unbelief. In your name I pray, amen.
(influenced by Psalm 23, Psalm 73:23-24, John 10:11, Galatians 5:22, Philippians 4:19, 2 Thessalonians 3:3, Mark 9:24)

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  • Rhythms: As sheep in our Good Shepherd’s flock, we’ll be most content when we live in His rhythms–like prayer-speaking, Scripture-soaking, and praise-worshiping.
    • Specific to this series is the rhythm of memorizing Psalm 23. Now that we know David’s intent behind verse one, let’s put it to memory, then it becomes our reminder that our Shepherd calls us to a content life. “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.”
    • Then we have the rhythm of looking back, of remembering God’s faithfulness of the past. David employed this rhythm on the regular (see these Psalms as examples: Psalm 63 and 77). And, when we list those times He came through for us, our faith builds. Our trust grows because we know He’s always faithful. Always.
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • Audrey Assad’s song, “I Shall Not Want,” beautifully captures many of the desires and fears that can creep in and crush us. Discontent has many sources, but our Deliverer has power over them all. You’ll find her song on our Dwell: Psalm 23 playlist.
    • Phillip Keller’s chapter, “I Shall Not Want,” in his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 has informed much of my understanding of verse one. He brings much wisdom as a scientist and experience as both pastor and (literal) shepherd. I’m so grateful.
    • Bible study teacher, Jen Wilkin, uses a three step method when diving into Scripture: Comprehension, Interpretation, and Application. It was fun applying her strategy to today’s verse. You can read more in her book, Women of the Word.* Or, she has a video series: Step One, Step Two, and Step Three.
    • In a moment of sheer fun, I mentioned Kendra Adachi. But including it was also my way of putting that principle into action in my own life. Kendra’s life strategy brilliantly offers thirteen principles that can be applied to any situation. One of those principles is “decide once.” I’m discovering to ‘decide once’ means you have to stick to that decision, like choosing to trust God with my sons. She has a book, The Lazy Genius Way,* and a podcast, The Lazy Genius Collective. Here’s an episode that talks about all her principles. And with Emily P Freeman, she discusses the “Decide Once” principle, specifically.
      • In ‘decide once’ fashion, decide once to follow Jesus as your Good Shepherd, following Him in full trust. Write your decision down and date it. Then when you’re tempted to to doubt or worry or go your own way, go back to your decision and keep choosing it!
  • Today’s post lent itself more personally than corporately. But, friends, we need each other. There are days we need someone to encourage us or to speak truth over us–or just have fun with. We are community. So, let us know how we can hold you up today.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo by Elias Maurer on UnsplashUnsplash
*affiliate links with which I might earn a bit

Dwell: With the Shepherd

“The Lord is my shepherd.”
Psalm 23:1a

For twenty years we lived on nearly an acre of red dirt land in Oklahoma. No fences. No outdoor animals. Just three boys who came and went through our back door. No one in our neighborhood had horses, cows, or sheep. So I have no working knowledge of what it takes, day-in and day-out to care for livestock. As I’ve met people in the broader urban and suburban communities most of us inhabit, very few have an inkling of what it takes to run a ranch, to lead a flock. It’s just not part of our experiences.

So it’s no wonder that we read right over all the mentions of sheep and shepherds in Scripture. Maybe we grasp that the majority of the people in our collective history, dubbed the Old Testament, were shepherds. Maybe we mentally nod to what was important then–to what became a helpful metaphor as God led His people into a monotheistic relationship. But we don’t really ‘get it.’

As we seek to live the abiding life–to dwell fully with our God–it helps to know a little something about sheep and shepherds because all the biblical references to them build a picture that is not only relevant to us but adds a depth of care and compassion, of intentionality and intimacy that no other analogy can offer. God is our Shepherd. We are His sheep.

Sheep and Shepherds

Sheep don’t take care of themselves. In fact, “they require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care” (Keller, 22). Sheep, despite their fear and timidity, wander through life stubborn and, well, not-so-smart. They get lost and easily separated from the flock, becoming easy targets for predators. They can’t fight or flee when in danger, so they ‘flock,’ circling together instinctively like wagon trains of old. They eat the wrong foods and fall into crevices. They get swept away in floods and follow the crowd–sometimes right over cliffs. They’re also susceptible to parasites and diseases. They’re grazers so they need a full-time supply of grass to munch. In other words, sheep won’t make it without a shepherd.

From Abel to Abraham, Moses to David, God’s people herded sheep for a living. And they embodied the heart of good shepherds–those who desired to watch over sheep in sacrificial ways so that flocks flourished. 

Not all shepherds are good, however. Some neglect, leaving flocks on their own to forage for food and fight off wolves, to die of festering wounds or fatal foliage. But the shepherds of Scriptural lore loved their sheep. And for men like Abraham, Moses, and David, the shepherding lessons of constant watchfulness prepared them for leadership among God’s people. 

So, if the major Old Testament leaders shepherded God’s people–literally with skills they learned from herding sheep–then the people themselves were like sheep. Lost in a world full of threats to their way of life, God’s chosen people needed protection, provision, and direction. Prone to wander from the ways of God, they needed boundaries to keep them safe and in good standing with their Creator. Easily defiled by the toxins of worldly ways, these sheep needed constant care.

Photo by Judith Prins on Unsplash

David–Shepherd and King

Before he slayed Goliath, David killed lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-37). Before he became king, David shepherded his father’s flocks: 

[God] chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheep pens;
from tending the sheep he brought him
    to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
    of Israel his inheritance.
 And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
    with skillful hands he led them.

Psalm 78:70-72

God sees a man’s heart (1 Samuel 16:7). And in David, he saw a shepherd ‘with integrity of heart’–a good shepherd who would care for His flock.

It’s believed this shepherd king penned Psalm 23 in his later years both as a reflection on why he consistently chose to walk closely with God and as a declaration of who God had been to him through all of life’s ups and downs (Walker, Week One). The great king of Israel returned to his childhood memories as a shepherd to describe his life with God.

He begins by acknowledging, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 1a). 

In other words, David the shepherd recognizes his truer calling is to be a faithful sheep. After a full life of successes and great joys, David knows these came to him only because he’d followed the Shepherd. He also knows that he made it through the depths of failures and grief because he’d remained with his Shepherd.

David’s life reflects to us a life of trust. Like a sheep, David trusted his Shepherd. More than not, he laid down his tendencies to listen to other voices or his own misguided pride in full faith that his Shepherd would lead him well. At the end of his life, he feels these truths deeply.

And, he bequeaths the words each of us, who wander lost in the world, need most:

The Lord is my shepherd.

God as Shepherd

But not all Israel’s kings were good shepherds. Most kings after David led God’s flock astray–toward the depravity of pagan worship and child sacrifice. These kings neglected the sheep who needed tending, taxing them into poverty and making alliances with oppressive nations. 

It’s into this context that God raises up the prophet Ezekiel to speak: 

“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool, and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd.”  

Ezekiel 34:2-5, NIV

God laments how his flock has been led. The language of shepherding pulls us into a deeper understanding of just how grievous the failures of the kings of Israel have been. To see these kings as shepherds helps us grasp the completeness of their disregard and destruction of God’s people. We can picture the scattered sheep–scared, lost, and bloodied from battle–starving for what only a good shepherd can provide.

So. God steps in–to shepherd His flock Himself (Ezekiel 34:11-15). And that’s how the Old Testament ends: with the promise that a Good Shepherd is coming.

Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash

Jesus–the Good Shepherd

Hundreds of years later, the leaders of Israel are once again mistreating the sheep they’re charged to keep. Yet, God doesn’t neglect to keep His promise. The Word-Made-Flesh comes and walks the dusty roads of Israel, and “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

Embracing His role in God’s plan to save His people, Jesus confronts the Jewish leaders and declares:

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

John 10:14-15

The promise has been kept. God has come to earth to become the Good Shepherd His people need. And, with this Shepherd, the flock expands–more sheep are to be brought into the fold (John 10:16). 

We, the Sheep

Friends, we are sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd. Collectively, we get to follow the One who will only ever love and care for us. He’ll lead us to good places and through the hard ones. He’s not neglectful or cruel. He’s good. And, like David, we can trust Him enough to follow Him all the days of our lives.

We’re sheep. We wander. We follow crowds. We get sick and hurt and lost. We need a Shepherd.

I’ve felt this need for a Shepherd acutely over the past week. Over and over I’ve jumped into places where I didn’t belong–’helping’ a son who needed to help himself, ‘speaking truth in love’ to someone I wasn’t called to do anything more than just love, ‘planning’ for all the possibilities instead of following the One who already knows. I recognize I’ve been on my own path, out from under the watchful hand of the Shepherd because anxiety tenses my shoulders and keeps me awake at night. My thoughts and emotions spiral. I’m not dwelling in Christ. 

Our summer series about abiding wholly–with all our minds, hearts, and spirits–has equipped me to recognize these non-abiding tendencies of mine. I am more aware of frenzied feelings and frantic thoughts. I am more attuned to my propensity for planning as a means of self-preservation. I’ve not yet given over my full trust to my Good Shepherd.

But I want to. 

So, I’ve been leaning into those rhythms of prayer and presence more intentionally and consistently the last few days. I’ve sat in silence, focusing on Jesus, so my mind can get still. I’ve prayed aloud the Believer’s Warfare Prayer and put on the Armor of God (Ephesians 6). I’ve dug into the Word to remind myself who the Good Shepherd is and what He’s capable of. 

I don’t know what you face today, this week, this season. But I do know you’re not alone in it. I also know it’s a very good week to say to yourself again and again, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And, as you do, visualize how a good shepherd looks and acts, then receive all the care and guidance and goodness He offers–and trustingly follow. Like a sheep. 

Father God, You are my shepherd! I stand in awe of everything that means. I admit I need to more fully embrace all its nuances. You provide all I need. You protect me from those who want to harm me. You lay your healing hand on me. You fight off my enemies. You lead me into green pastures where I can eat and rest. You offer me living water so I’ll never thirst again. You help me through dark valleys and across flooding streams. You take me to the highest heights and along paths that are good and right. Lord Jesus, You are my Good Shepherd! Never again do I have to wander alone–for You are always with me, never to leave or forsake me. And I never have to doubt your goodness because, as You promised, You did lay down your life for me. You. Died. For. Me. There’s nothing more to ask of a person than to give up His life for someone else. And You did that. For me. Willingly. And for my good. So, Holy Spirit, help me to live like a devoted sheep. Help me to follow after my Good Shepherd with love and trust. Help me to dwell in God. In Jesus’ name, amen. 
(inspired by Psalm 23, Isaiah 41:10, John 10:11-15)

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  • Rhythms: I was in such a good rhythm with the Lord a few weeks ago, then the disruptions and distractions happened. My own small choices, like not getting up earlier, and bigger stresses, like a son’s decisions, added up. Totally out of sync with God, I felt the panic rising and the lament of what was. But, instead of stuffing feelings or giving in to fear, I told a friend. Then my husband. The tears flowed, and I began stepping back into practices to restore peace and purpose and arming myself against the attack I felt. At first, I wanted to berate myself for failing, but as I sat with Jesus in the quiet, He began speaking the truth I needed to hear. I am His, and He is mine. Always. Forever.
    • Having been in Psalm 23 recently, the words were fresh and quickly became my sword of the Spirit as I fought off lies spinning in my mind this week. Sometimes I couldn’t get past the first few words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” But, it was enough. I hope you are picking up this rhythm of memorizing Psalm 23. Let it begin with this first line, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • Music full of God’s truths pours over me like an oil of anointing–especially on those days when I feel so out of sorts. So, I love having our playlists handy. I’m not yet very familiar with our Dwell: Psalm 23 playlist, but its newer melodies, paired with the familiar lyrics of Psalm 23, have moved me into a posture of worship and release often this week. I hope they bless you, as well.
    • I only briefly mentioned Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 in this post, but I reread his first chapter on sheep and shepherds–and loved it all over again. It certainly is the inspiration for this post.
    • I referenced Aimee Walker’s The Good Shepherd: A Devoted Collective Mini Study, as well. But I don’t have a way to link to it. 😦 I will say, though, that Devoted Collective is an amazing place to connect with other women who desire to go deeper in God’s Word and ways. Twice a year we do a deep dive into a book of the Bible, and the rest of the year we soak in smaller studies–like the one on Psalm 23. I’m blessed to be a contributor at Devoted, but bigger blessings have come in being part of the community.
  • If you’re like me, it’s a little hard to settle into the role of SHEEP. We kinda want to be the shepherd–even if it’s without a flock to lead, we desire to lead ourselves. But, maybe it helps a little knowing that sheep live in flocks. That means, together, we are sheep in community. We’re not alone. We walk these paths together.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo by Jessica Anderson on Unsplash