The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
When I was in my early 20s, navigating the complicated and confusing terrain of young adult relationships, my priest at the time offered a word of counsel that I have never forgotten: seek out relationships, she suggested, with people who bring out the best in you. Pay attention to those relationships that you can feel at home in, free to be your true self and inspired to become your best.
Around that same time, I came across a similar definition of vocation as work that makes us more of who we are, the things we can do and offer that not only make a positive contribution, but help us realize something important in ourselves. The poet David Whyte speaks of setting out boldly in our work, making a pilgrimage of our labors, understanding that the consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task. (David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001), 15.)
Finally, in this same theme, consider the following passage from Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity about finding a faith community that resonates with your soul: “In my judgment,” he writes, “the single most important spiritual practice is to be part of a congregation that nourishes you even as it stretches you…If you are not involved in any church or are part of one that leaves you hungry and unsatisfied, find one that nurtures and deepens your Christian journey. Find one that makes your heart glad.” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: How We Can Be Passionate Believers Today (HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 194-5.)
What I’m trying to describe through these three examples is the experience of finding oneself at home—in relationships, through our work, and in community—free to be who we are, and also called forth to become our best selves through our engagements and endeavors. It isn’t always smooth sailing in those places where we are at home; challenge, struggle, and doubt are part of the experience as well. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we are never called outside our comfort zones, for, of course, we are. But it’s one thing to face challenges and reach beyond our comfort in the context of a fundamental at-homeness in the world, as opposed to when we feel perennially like a fish out of water. Indeed, we’re less likely to reach out beyond ourselves if we’ve never found comfort in our own skin.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
The 23rd psalm is quite possibly the most-well known and memorized text in all Bible, It speaks of our true home in God, the one who cares for us and looks out for us as the most devoted shepherd would care for his sheep.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus often speaks of himself in the imagery of a shepherd, as we heard read today: “My sheep hear my voice”, he says. “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. In another place he says even more plainly, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” (John 10:1-18)
This is a classic expression of the kind of intimacy we can experience in relationship with Christ. At its essence, the Christian isn’t about following a set of religious rules or ascribing to set beliefs, but rather about finding oneself at home in God and God at home in us.
What is that experience like? The hunger for it is universal enough, but where do we go to know God in a way that moves us beyond rules to follow, and beliefs to accept?
We may not have to work as hard at experiencing God in this way as we think. In the introduction to her book, Altar in the World, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor sets up the now-familiar distinction in our culture between religion and spirituality.
“If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’”, she writes, “I may not be any wiser about what that means, but I would be rich.” “I think I know what they mean by religious,” she writes, “the creeds, confessions, rituals, and religious wars, large or small, that are part of any so-called organized faith system. It’s the spiritual part that’s harder to grasp.” She then goes on to describe what she thinks people mean when they speak of spirituality: that longing for more—more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life. Even religious people, she says, those of us who tend to show up and be part of a church community, are filled with this longing. We all have this sense, deep down, that there’s more to life than what we experience. “Where is the hidden secret?” we wonder. “Who has the key to the treasure box of more?”
The last place we think to look for the treasure of more life is right where we are, in our own skin, in our own lives and everyday routines. Yet this great gift of the spiritual life—being at home in ourselves, in our work, in the world, and in God—begins right where we’re standing. “All we lack,” Taylor suggests, “is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), xiii-xv.)Once we consent, we can begin to practice; practice, as each chapter in Taylor’s book, “waking up to the presence of God,” practice “paying attention,” practice “walking the earth,” practice “feeling pain,” practice “living with purpose.”
Years ago, when as a teenager I was first introduced to the concept of having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the minister of the church I had stumbled into asked me if I was ready to invite Jesus into my heart. I didn’t know what he meant, but my heart was a lonely place at the time and so I said yes. The earth didn’t move under my feet, and the pain inside me didn’t disappear, but something in me shifted with that ‘yes,’ through that small step of consciously opening myself to the presence and love of God. Looking back, I would say that Christ was already inside me, but because the presence of Christ never forces itself upon us, my consent was an important part of the spiritual equation for me, as is for all of us. That consent takes us deeper into God’s presence, both in and around us, and gives us a place to call home in God, no matter where we wind up, no matter how many times we fail, or make mistakes, or hurt another, or are hurt ourselves.
It’s Mother’s Day. Because I’m lucky enough to still have a mom, and be a mom, and as of four weeks ago to be a grandmother, I’ve both given and received flowers today, which is a nice thing. But the mother on my mind is a woman I knew when she was a teenager, as a member of the parish I served in Toledo, Ohio nearly 30 years ago. Her mother had died when she was 12. Her father did his best to raise her well despite their great loss, and he succeeded. I met her when she was 15, and she was, like her dad, a joyful, thoughtful, compassionate person. I asked her once about her mother. She told me some things about her, and that she missed her every day. She told me that her mother’s death had taught her, at a tender age, that life is precious.
The daughter grew up, went to college, then to graduate school, and eventually she married a man who took a teaching position at University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. Her father moved to Eau Claire to be close to them, and by that time I had moved on to serve a congregation in Minneapolis. I would hear from them from time to time, and on their occasional cultural outings to the Twin Cities, they stopped by our house. Once I was with them when the young woman was pregnant with their first child. A few months later, she and her husband became parents of a sweet baby boy.
About a year after that, I received an email from the young woman’s father. I need to warn you that the story is about to take a very sad turn. For he wrote with tragic news: the baby had taken a fall, sustained severe injuries, and was flown to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he died. I called later that evening and he told me that his daughter had been carrying her child down the stairs when she missed a step and fell with her baby in her arms.
You and I know that such tragedies occur every day. We all carry intimate knowledge of deep loss and routinely hear of such sorrow to the point we are desensitized to it until it touches us personally. I think it’s a miracle that we, as a species, have survived, given the pain we must endure. When I thought of this young woman who knew the loss of her own mother, now required to bear loss again as a mother, it was more than my heart could imagine at the time, and could imagine still.
My prayer in those years was simply for God to be with her, to walk with her through the valley of the shadow of death, to make a home in her grief and sustain her through the long process of mourning that lay before her, until she comes at last to a place of peace. I’m pleased to report to you that now, over 10 years later, that she and her husband are, indeed, in a better place. One way they channeled their grief was to establish a foundation in honor of their son. They eventually had another child. There was no shortcut through the valley of the shadow of death for them, but the grace of God, and the love of her family and friends, and the resilience of the human spirit, they made it through.
Life is precious, she told me years ago, and it is. It is precious, and vulnerable, and we hold it in our hands.
If you have the opportunity to shower someone you love with affection today, do it. If you have the capacity to forgive someone who has hurt you and be reconciled today, do it. If you have the chance to walk in a park filled with spring flowers, do it. If you have the strength to reach out and make the world a better place, to be a voice for justice and a force for good, do it. And if you ever hear the voice of Jesus speak to you, with an invitation to trust in his love, to find your home in his heart and trust that he dwells in yours, say yes. Say yes, and know yourself as you are: a beloved, cherished child of God.