The Shepherd’s Psalm

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Whether you are a person of faith or not, it is highly likely that at some stage in your life, perhaps at a wedding, christening or funeral, you would have heard the famous Psalm 23:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

This magnificent poetic prose is often read without providing any context. However, context is what makes this Psalm ring with hope.

The authorship of this Psalm is claimed by King David, who once was a shepherd himself. Tradition holds to the idea that it was written in one of the most difficult seasons of his life. His nation and people were at war with one another. Civil war is traumatic in any form, but this civil war carried its own deep level of agony. He was at war with his son, Absalom.

The words of this Psalm came from an exhausted, humiliated, betrayed and heartbroken king and father.
In his darkest day, David remembered God as Shepherd.

A shepherd who knows and cares for his sheep.
A shepherd who would lead his sheep to good pasture and clean water.
A shepherd who would protect his sheep against their enemies.
A shepherd who would carry the young and risk his life to rescue those who have wandered into precarious spaces.
A shepherd who inspected each sheep as they entered the fold at night to ensure they had no cuts that needed tending.
A shepherd who had a horn filled with olive oil and cedar tar for scratches and pests.

As a shepherd, David knew what it was to love and care for his sheep. In his hour of peril, he reflected on God being such a shepherd.

A few thousand years later we find Jesus speaking to a crowd of tired and oppressed people. His words are not ones of zealous patriotism, neither are they warlike speeches of triumph. Rather, he looks at these people with mercy and his words are like cold water to a parched soul:

“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I know my sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” John 10:11-18

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In Africa, we lived for over a year on a farm that was surrounded by mountains where shepherds kept their sheep. In the evening I would race to our gate and sit there and watch as these shepherds came down the hills, often singing and carrying lambs on their shoulders. Some would stop and chat to me, I would pat their sheep, as they impatiently jostled each other to get closer to the shepherd. This picture remains with me to this day

In some of my darkest moments, I think of David, huddled around a fire, tears streaming down his face, composing his beautiful poem.

I think of my African friends who tended their sheep with such compassion.

I think of Jesus, whose life and death, whose words of mercy and non-violent subversion, forever altered my life. This Jesus who identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.

… my Good Shepherd
… your Good Shepherd

I find hope.

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Scars Sealed In Gold

“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be effort, and the law of human judgment, mercy.”
– John Rushkin –

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It seems that “banishing imperfection” is the obsessive past time of our modern society. Current ideas about beauty, success, wealth or piety become enshrined upon the golden altar of desire and happiness that the faithful flock to. Perfection is the ultimate goal. It is celebrated and rewarded. Individuals or groups who achieve this rare state are paraded around platforms, their voices filling our sound waves, their images filling our screens, and their formulas filling our bookshelves. It is a lucrative business to be perfect. No wonder we are living in such an epidemic of human anxiety and fear as the banishing of imperfection is not working out that well for 99.99999% of us!

There are many reasons why we may crave perfection. Perhaps the fear of vulnerability is one of the greatest? When we are vulnerable we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection. Vulnerability is risky. Vulnerability destroys the enshrined ideas of perfection. When we choose vulnerability we choose courage instead of fear, authenticity instead of image, and the messiness of what it means to be human, instead of perfection. Vulnerability takes a sledge hammer to the golden calf of perfectionism that reigns supreme in our political, religious and celebrity spaces, and in our own lives.

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I am someone who, especially in my first half of life, struggled with the constant need to get it ‘right’. The fear of failure or not being the ‘good girl’ left me open to all sorts of dreadful possibilities. Ones on the Enneagram are known for our often unhealthy relationship with perfectionism. Over the years it has been crisis and wounding that have served as my faithful and undesirable coaches, calling me out of this unhealthy obsession. Like Rushkin (and my parents) would say, life is not easy. We live with effort and we all need mercy and compassion, not just for others, but most often we need a healthy dose for ourselves.

There is a Japanese philosophy of ‘wabi sabi’ which compels us to consider the beauty in the flawed. It is hinged to the Japanese feeling of ‘mottainai’, the regret of seeing anything wasted. In other words, in Japanese thought the idea of suppressing something that has happened because it is considered painful, a failure or imperfect, is a total waste. There is something beautiful in life’s imperfections. It is this philosophy that undergirds the art of ‘Kintsugi’, of mending broken pottery not in a way that makes the breaks invisible, but rather highlights them with gold.

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These exceptional pieces of art are not only beautiful because they are crafted by a master potter, but because their imperfections are displayed for the world to see. In a sense, Kintsugi art is a celebration of scars. What a totally different philosophy than the angst-inducing ones that permeate our modern culture.

The idea that we can eradicate imperfection is a futile one and the pursuit of perfection is ultimately meaningless. Consider this in light of ‘body image’, wealth, work, religion, and the expectations of modern life. Humans are not meant to be displayed as a piece of perfect pottery on some grandstand built on cultural, religious or relational accolades. We were meant to live life to the full – to love, to embrace, to listen, to consider, to risk, to fall, to fail, to triumph, to trudge through valleys and to scale mountains. In order to do that we need a huge supply of special golden lacquer so that we can take time to highlight our story when the cracks appear.

So, dear friend, stop listening to the voices from without and within that demand your perfection. Take the risk of becoming vulnerable. You may lose some ‘friends’ and no longer sing in the choir of the impeccably dressed, or stand on the platform of the piously accomplished, but rather you will join the crack pots on the margins, with their bucket loads of gold lacquer … and there you will find grace beyond measure.

“There is a Japanese word, kintsukuroi, that means “golden repair.” It is the art of restoring broken pottery with gold so the fractures are literally illuminated – a kind of physical expression of its spirit. As a philosophy, kintsukuroi celebrates imperfection as an integral part of the story, not something to be disguised … In kintsukuroi, the true life of an object (or a person) begins the moment it breaks and reveals that it is vulnerable.”
– Georgia Pellegrini –

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Father, Forgive Them, For They Do Not Know What They Are Doing …

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In a few days time, those of us who hold to a faith in Christ will remember his brutal murder. Good Friday normally fills homes, halls, churches and cathedrals with people commemorating the crucifixion. I am not sure why the day is called “Good” Friday in English. In German it is called “Karfreitag” – The Day of Lament or Sorrows – which to me is a far more apt description of what transpired on this day, over 2,000 years ago.

The reason why Jesus had to die remains heavily debated amidst various atonement theories. What is not disputed amongst people of faith is the example of forgiveness that Christ modelled as he hung dying in the grotesque execution method implemented by the Romans. His words, “Father, forgive them, for they do now know what they are doing”, have been providing preachers, teachers and authors with material for hundreds of years.

The forgiveness that Christ offered from the cross towards those who betrayed and murdered him stands in stark contrast in a world that, more often than not, models itself on karma and revenge. In his last few breaths, this murder victim pleads for forgiveness for his perpetrators, indicating that they did not know what they were doing. I often think that they knew exactly what they were doing – from Judas, to the priests representing the fine religious institution of its day, to his own people, to the Roman oppressors, and finally to Pilate, they all knew they were executing a perfectly innocent man because he had upset their collective applecart.

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So what did they NOT know they were doing? Did they not know they were crucifying the Messiah? And if that was the case, and if for a moment they did realise this, would they not have been forgiven? Or did they simply not recognise their own evil? Their own shadow? Their own fear, bitterness and violence? Had the inner voice of conscience been silenced a long time ago in lieu of power and wealth so that they forgot simple things like compassion, kindness and honesty? Had they lost their souls defending the Empire?

The generosity of spirit that permits such forgiveness is confronting. When I was younger I would speak rather glibly about the necessity to forgive. I would idly banter around all the cliches and ideas, including the assertion that if you do not forgive it will only hurt you, or, the chest-beating proclamation that only “strong” people forgive. Now I am older. And I carry in my heart the scars of betrayal and wounding. I have also been the one who has wounded others. And these platitudes no longer fall off my tongue that easily.

Forgiveness, in many cases, is not that straightforward. Struggling with reprieve does not make anyone “weak”, rather it makes us recognise the enormity of letting go of the power we hold over our offender(s) (and I am not talking about letting go of justice – where a crime has been committed, justice must/should follow). Unforgiveness provides us with power. In our minds and actions we hold the offender prisoner. This power may be imaginary, but it still brings us comfort. To forgive is to relinquish this power.

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If you are anything like me you would have heard dozens of speeches on forgiveness and read even more articles or books on this topic. I am not here to outline what forgiveness is or your ten steps to reach this goal. I, like you, wrestle with this extraordinary act of the human spirit. Forgiveness is a sacrifice. The words of forgiveness, uttered from the cross so many years ago, framed the very heart of what Good Friday is all about. His words and his death were the ultimate sacrifice.

When or if we choose forgiveness, we refuse to hold on to power. The promises that accompany forgiveness ring hollow at times, they are not always guaranteed. Ultimately, we forgive because we realise that our human family is sick, wounded and traumatised because of our addiction to power and retribution … and we are tired of it. Through the example of Christ we have been offered a different path.

Easter is approaching. Whether you are a person of faith or not, it is a good time to reflect on wounding and forgiveness. What does this look like in your own personal life, your family, your tribe? The road to forgiveness is different for every human being. Ultimately it is a personal choice to take that journey. It is a personal choice to lay down your right to power and walk away …

“It Is Finished”

– Jesus – (John 19:30)

 

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