The Lord is my Shepherd.
– Psalm 23
The 23rd Psalm leads off with a statement of profoundly humble intimacy. If I’m not careful, overfamiliarity to the imagery of God as a Shepherd and myself as one of his sheep can rob me of any sensitivity to the Divine Reality that is being revealed. It’s only been by silently sitting with this passage and slowly reciting it within my heart that it has unfolded with meaning. Or perhaps it would be truer for me to say that my heart is what unfolded, enabling me to discover meaning.
This passage has never meant much to me, after 30 years of exposure to it (and being obligated to memorize it in Christian school). But that says more about my insensitivity than it does about the famed 23rd Psalm.
As I’ve heard this passage be addressed in many different churches, it seems like pastors tend to fixate on the dependent-or-doomed relationship between wise Shepherds and dumb sheep. It’s true, sheep are not known for their intelligence, but this perspective does little to encourage my spirit and enlighten my perspective. Yeah, I get it: I am a hopelessly stupid human being and God lovingly puts up with me like we lovingly put up with dumb animals. But whenever I read a description about us (the human race), it must always be put in the Scriptural context that we are made in God’s own image. Looking at this through that foundational lens, the tone is changed.
“The Lord is my Shepherd,” is a statement of trust, trustworthiness, and intimacy.
Trust: By calling the Lord “my Shepherd,” I am saying there is no truer Guide or Source of life, joy, wholeness, satisfaction, or happiness than God. My every move is made fuller and steadier as I consciously move and breathe and have my being in union with Him. Not only do I “know” this, but I live accordingly. My life is comprised of this single experience of devotion; in all and through all. My ears always attuned to his voice. My eyes ever ardent for His presence. I trust; no desire which can arise in my heart is not able to find its satisfaction and full realization in my Shepherd.
Trustworthiness: God will never fail in being this Guide and Source in all its fullness. Never. My vision or sensitivity to it may fail, but He is not capable of failing. Just as I am made for relationship with Him, He has made Himself for relationship with me. He has made us for relationship with Him because He is made for Relationship; Connection. God is Love. Love is fully realized in Relationship.
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
– Jesus, John 10.10
When I say "The Lord is my Shepherd" with the understanding that we are made in God's image, it means that God is both my motivation and trajectory. This relationship reveals the fullness of my identity and helps me to realize it with each moment. This is the nature of Contemplative Christian Spirituality: no moment is not sacred or spiritual.
That God would be my Shepherd means that there is following. Following goes beyond simply knowing; it also goes far beyond worshiping. Jesus never instructed us to worship him, but he did invite us to follow him. Worshiping can be done from a distance, but the opportunity to “follow” that he presents brings us so close that we become intrinsically connected.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
– Jesus, Matthew 11.29-30
The yoking he is addressing is that of two individuals locked together. It is an intimate relationship where condition, direction, and effort are all shared.