“thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” Psalm 23
David takes comfort in the Lord’s vigilance. That’s the idea at the heart of this verse. He sleeps better, knowing the Shepherd’s weapons are poised so nothing will disturb the flock.
I’m not sure if sheep rustlers roamed ancient Palestine, but with what I know of the human character, if there was a sheckel to be made out there in the hills some ancient hombres likely pulled on Stetsons and rode out under the cover of darkness. But even if the only danger was wolves or mountain lions, David says the fact that my God has the will and the weaponry to keep me safe is still one comforting bromide.
Sure. That’s easy enough.
But embedded within this famous metaphor one hears the echo of another verse from the Psalms: “Blessed is the man whom Thou dost chasten, O Lord,. . .” (Psalm 94:12). There’s another side to this weapon thing, after all. As anyone who lives out here in livestock country knows, sometimes cattle and hogs need to be prodded. That rod and that staff—they’re not dedicated defensive weapons.
All we like sheep have gone astray. And sometimes we return, not by butterfly kisses, but by being goaded and flummoxed back to the fold. C. S. Lewis famously said of his own conversion that he was brought kicking and screaming before the throne.
I got an e-mail this morning from a former student who was happy to tell me that she was working hard at writing screenplays, having some success, and occasionally remembering my teaching, especially when I said that one basic rule about writing is to “write what you know.” She wanted to tell me I was dead wrong. Maybe I was.
She bore no ill will, I don’t think, but she wanted me to know that that rule was something she’d never followed. “If I did,” she wrote, “I'd be writing about Christian schooling, violin practice, and the time Kenny Loggins yelled at me.” Her note was addressed to an old prof, bringing news from the front lines.
One of the objectives of my teaching for the last thirty years has been to do what I can to nudge students like this one into doing exactly what she is doing. That this young woman is trying to turn out screenplays—I mark that as a success, even if she says that she’s never listened to a word I told her.
But this Sunday morning I feel the Shepherd’s rod and staff. This morning, I feel chastened because the good Shepherd used an e-mail from a former student to remind me that, when it comes right down to it, in his hands I’m little more than Silly Putty. I have this plan, after all—I have these lesson plans. And I have experience, lots of it. I tell the students, “Let me show you how to do this.”
But He doesn’t need me to take care of business. He doesn’t even need my best. God almighty wants our best, our dedication, our resolve, but he doesn’t need it. He’s the Shepherd, after all, and I’m just one lousy sheep.
The preposterous miracle here in Psalm 23 is that I’m loved. That’s the bottom line. He loves every last one of his lousy sheep, loves ‘em enough to die for them. He’s the good Shepherd, and he leads us, all of us, beside still waters. The good news is, as David sings, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and there’s real comfort in his weaponry, even when it’s lovingly, chastise-ingly, turned on us.