1 The LORD is my shepherd. I am never in need. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside peaceful waters. 3 He renews my soul. He guides me along the paths of righteousness for the sake of his name. 4 Even though I walk through the dark valley of death, because you are with me, I fear no harm. Your rod and your staff give me courage. 5 You prepare a banquet for me while my enemies watch. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. 6 Certainly, goodness and mercy will stay close to me all the days of my life, and I will remain in the LORD's house for days without end.
I've must have read or recited the 23rd Psalm at least a thousand times over the years. I remember memorizing it for Junior Church in about the second grade. At bedsides, funerals, in times of trouble and celebration I've pulled out the 23rd Psalm to give adequate words where no other ones could quite fit.
But if I'm honest, I've always focused on the fourth verse: Even though I walk through the dark valley of death, because you are with me, I fear no harm. That's usually the one that resonates, whether it be in an Emergency Room while doctors are prepping a stroke victim for a life flight to Columbus or if a soccer team is about to face their arch rival. The witness of David of God's presence, even in the places where death surrounded him, threatened him.... that's usually the word people need to hear when the 23rd Psalm is read.
For this sermon, though, my attention went somewhere else. I got caught up in verses 1-3a: The Lord is my shepherd. I am never in need. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside peaceful waters. He renews my soul.
Those words, "makes" and "leads" got my attention. David tells us that the Lord makes him rest and leads to places that are peaceful. He doesn't give him permission to rest. He makes him rest. And this is essential, we're told, to the Lord providing for our every need.
How odd I've never picked up on that before. That a condition of David never being in need, in being guided to do the right thing, to be blessed and comforted by the presence of God... a condition of goodness and mercy and to be in a place where God is present, we must rest.
Daniel joked last week when he preached on confession that I gave him that week because confession isn't an easy subject. But as difficult as confession would be for me to preach on, it's not the same kind of challenge for me personally as the topic of rest.
I don't rest very well. It isn't a gift I've been given. I'll bet in this room this morning, I'm not alone.
I can remember even back in the very first year I was hired as a youth director here, that the little Sunday only side job I took to pay our lot rent, the job that paid $4000 yearly, how quickly (just weeks) it began to consume my thoughts. Call it ambition. Call it a fear of failure. Call it a call. If 10 kids showed up to Senior High YF, I spent most of the next week thinking of reasons why those ten were there, why others weren't there, and how to broaden that circle. My wife can tell you stories of me standing outside the door all the kids used to use trying to will more cars traveling up and down Shawnee and Zurmehly Road into the parking lot.
I'd like to tell you I've changed. Grown. Wised up a little bit. And maybe in some ways I have, but this relentless drive, this belief that somehow we'll always need to stretch a little further as a church to be who God has called us to be - A people who lead others in connecting with God and with others, equip disciples who change the world, and restore this community one heart, home, and block at a time - I'm still dominated by the compulsory belief that it will be, in part, my own hard work that will make this happen. And when I don't feel like it's happening (when attendance falls short of last year's or giving is down or something isn't going to plan, etc...) the misguided belief I can somehow will better results into being through my own sheer determination still rests as my default.
They'll probably carve, "He believed it all rested on him until the moment he collapsed under the weight" on my tombstone.
Can anybody else out there relate?
So, while I don't stand outside trying to will cars into the parking lot on Sunday morning (very often), when I look at other indicators - giving and attendance - on down weeks I still feel this pang in my chest. My remedy for this is to go away is by spending more time in the office or out visiting people trying to make thing happen, and when for whatever reasons life gets in the way in times when I'm particularly focused, I don't handle it well.
And yet, there as those words, "He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside peaceful waters. He restores my soul." These words should, if you are like me a workaholic, create in you some pause. Discomfort.
The journey of discipleship isn't complete without rest.
I've been thinking a lot about this lately. I've had to. This summer every weekday I haven't been coming into the office before 11am. My wife decided that during summer swim season, for a change, it would be my responsibility to get the boys to the pool for swim practice so she could get caught up from the six weeks she had to take off when she had her surgery in May. I have to have Max to the 8:15am practice, go home and make sure the younger boys are fed and ready to go, get them to practice by 9:45, come home with Max, do some cleaning and laundry, pick up the younger boys, make sure lunch is ready, and then I can go to work.
The last three weeks our giving, which always goes down in the summer, has nosedived as people have taken off to go find their muse. And Everyday I feel like I'm cheating God or letting down the congregation because I'm not at work before 11am, as if getting in two hours earlier will somehow change the situation. As if the financial health of the congregation lay only on my back. And in the meantime, last Thursday as I was stewing about all the time I was spending at home while driving home from the pool, Xavier was sitting next to me and out of the blue he says, "I like this summer schedule. For a change I get to spend time with BOTH of my parents (emphasis on "BOTH") each day. Dad in the morning and mom in the afternoon."
Don't think the "both" in "both parents" didn't sting a little. Here I am fretting I'm not in the office somehow willing more income to fly magically into the office, and there is my son. David struck down idols others erected for the purpose of child sacrifice, and here I am more than will to sacrifice time with my sons in some warped belief if I work harder, God will loves us and bless us more.
Rest is essential in the life of disciple. Repeatedly we're told that Jesus goes off by himself, particularly after a long day of healing, miracles, and preaching, to rest. He walks on the water because the disciples leave without him because they don't know where he's gone to rest, and his his water stroll is the means he uses to catch up with them. Psalm 23 brings out three aspects of why rest is essential to discipleship:
1. God restores us through rest.
Our cousin CJ is one of those people who has made his living using a cameras and computers to make the shows and commercials you and I watch every day. I remember when he first graduated he worked for a large production firm in Chicago whose offices took up multiple floors in a building located in the heart of downtown. In these office were places where all these creatives who worked crazy hours editing film or creating animation, could blow off some steam and play. Whether it be a video game, ping pong, or even mediums involving shooting nerf darts at one another, the company understood that at some point everybody hits a wall. And the only way to get over that wall is to rest. It's no accident in Psalm 23 that restoration comes in the aftermath of lying down and chilling in a peaceful place. As many have discovered, you can choose to follow the order and leading to rest, or your body, wracked by fatigue, will choose it for you.
2. Rest is essential to our experiencing God's presence.
I'm intrigued in Psalm 23 in how David describes his relationship with God.
You are with me. You prepare a banquet. You anoint my head. You. You. You. Each time in the present tense engaged in direct action.
Today, a number of our teenagers are heading to Lakeside for a week of High School church camp. In a couple more weeks, another group of teens and pre-teens will do the same thing. For generations Methodists living in Ohio have been doing this to the point that Lakeside has become for us a special place. A place where you get away from the normal grind and routine, and instead exchange that for a different routine where seeking God is first, instead of seeking his presence as we focus on our life's normal priorities.
Many times over the years I've heard adults lament that the change of scenery and exchange of priorities at Lakeside has led many a person to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, but upon coming home promises made to change a life don't get carried out very long. And they wonder whether or not it was really the Holy Spirit showing up to convict those kids, or if it was something else (groupthink or emotionalism or some such thing)
What I've learned is that too many people take for granted the need to regularly lie in green pastures and walk beside peaceful waters. Or in other words, the problem isn't that the conversion wasn't real, but that the lesson of the experience was missed. We need to make it a regular practice to to off into a green pasture or walk beside a still water not just in middle school or high school, but all of our lives.
Just as David says in describing the Lord, "You are with me", in the present tense, and "You are anoint my head", engaged in a direct action, we must mutually reciprocate. You must go be with God and you must praise his name and be his blessing. Rest is the way we are physically and mentally restored, but breaking the same routine for the PRIMARY purpose to put aside the regular grind and routine to exchange it for a different pace where seeking God is the primary aim is an important means finding renewal through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Spiritual retreat.... it's not just for teenagers any more.
Mission trips. Emmaus weekends. Retreats for men, women, families, marriages, or just plain ol spiritual renewal. Going off in a small group to hike out in the woods in a guided experience to encounter the Living God through the beauty and harshness of His creation. Traveling to Israel to walk where Jesus walked. The problem isn't Lakeside. The problem is that Lakeside might be all the only experience, or might be the only place people can envision God showing up, when really, the promise is if we put everything aside and seek Him, we will find His presence.
And in between those time of spiritual rest and renewal, creating times of rest to seek God with others - families, friends, colleagues - isn't a bad idea either. God is doing his part to break through your day to speak to you. Somehow each of us has to figure out a way to step back, and meet him halfway.
3. Goodness, blessing, and mercy cannot be separated from rest.
My Dad is a self-made man. My brother and I talk often talk with awe what he's accomplished in his life. One of six children raised in Lima's south end, neither my Dad's father or mother graduated from high school. And yet, despite the family's poverty and lack of education, my Dad graduated from Ohio State with a degree in Civil Engineering. When I was in high school I was fretting over how uncool my car was. When dad was in high school, he worked nights at a trucking company to help support his mother and brother after his own father died.
Everything my father he earned. Everything. Nothing was given to him.
I am grateful for the sacrifices both Mom and Dad made so they give Andy and I the best start in life possible. My mom put off college for years to raise me while Dad worked long hours building bridges in West Virginia and designing them all over Ohio. The food put on the table. The clothes hung on our backs. All the advantages that were paid for.... I take none of them for granted.
I'm grateful too for the life of righteousness my parents have set as an example for me. Church has never been a place. It's always been a community. A family. Born out of mom teaching VBS or Dad serving election night dinners for Methodist Men. Listen parents... this is fourteen years of youth ministry talking to you: Children rarely end up loving the faith just left unto themselves. Most of them love the faith because it was passed down like a cherished gift. The flavor of that faith might change from one generation to the next, but if you think that by just showing up that somehow you've fulfilled your duty as parents, well, guess again. Kids know when you're just checking off a box.
But the love I have for my parents wasn't forged while they worked or sacrificed. The love grew out of evenings spent throwing a ball, swimming in a pool, lounging at a library, eating smores around a campfire, and gathering around the TV to watch our beloved Buckeyes.
Love isn't born out of what someone does for you. Gratitude and thanks are maybe, but not love. Love comes out of what you experience together. It comes when we put aside the routine, and spend time together.
I'm doing a funeral today for a man whose came to this church many, many years ago as a child with his mother. She was the first person to man the newly built nursery in the office wing, watching the growing number of baby boom babies being brought to church by their parents. The most precious moments the family shared with me yesterday all revolved around moments they shared with a husband, father, and grandfather who is now gone. They appreciate the sacrifices he made to provide for them, but their love was born out of conversations, camping trips, yard work done together, time spent in the car as he drove them to work.
They said they knew he loved them, even though when they were younger he never said it. The last ten years, though, as he's battled leukemia he started saying it everyday.
One of the things Larry did was carry in his pocket, peppermints. He'd hand them out to kids he saw at the store. He'd hand them out to the nurses and doctor during his appointment. He handed them out to co-workers and fellow members of the VFW. Larry was quick with a mint. It made people smile. It broke the ice. It changed things up a little bit, and provided a little crack where grace could race in and fill up the space. It was the first thing the family shared with me, and one of the things they'll all miss about him.
Today, I want to take a page out of Larry's playbook. I'm gonna do something I've never done in over 20 years of ministry. I'm gonna give you a mint. I want to change things up a bit. Break us out of the same ol routine. I want you to take a moment, and if you like mints, enjoy the one I gave you today.
And I'd like you to also take a second one. Give it to someone you love, tell them you love them, and here's a mint... just because. Or go sit by a pool, or lay down on your backporch or your couch, and take that second mint, and eat it too. Just suck on it. Resist the urge to crush it with your teeth pretending your Godzilla and the mint is a Tokyo city bus. Don't do anything until it's gone, and if you fall asleep, all the better.
Or if you can figure out another, better way to tell someone you love them, or if you were planning on taking a nap today anyway, take the mint, lay it on the table, pull out a piece of paper and a pen (or just text yourself on your phone) and list one way you think you'd like to upset your routine and go out and seek God. I'm not talking about taking a long walk in the woods or chasing some little white ball with a bunch of malshaped sticks.... I'm talking about a time of guided spiritual formation. Where you put God first.
And then don't eat that mint until you are standing in that place where you are actively seeking God, made to lie in a pasture or led beside a peaceful water, seeking to be filled in your soul with the presence of God.