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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Welcome to the Table

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with them … the people who give you their food give you their heart.
– Cesar Chavez
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The dining room table is a most significant and symbolic piece of furniture in my life. It invokes childhood memories of joy and lament, of delicious meals, of arguments, jokes, intense debate and tantrums. It recalls the many different faces that shared the table with my parents and I, and the lives and stories they represented. My parents welcomed many people to the table.

Today we have a large, circular, red gum table that dominates our dining room. It is so heavy you can’t lift it. It is round to remind those who gather there that there is no hierarchy. Many nights it has family, friends and strangers crammed around it. The conversations are as diverse as the people that hold them – laughing, joking, angry, opinionated, silent, sullen, quiet, peaceful, heart-felt and sometimes simply exhausting. Mouths crammed with food with water and wine being passed from one to the other, we defy every meal etiquette. Politics and religion, no doubt, will always be discussed! I often stop and look around with deep gratitude. There is no better place than to be seated by a table, sharing a meal, sharing our lives.

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Tables have been around for literally ages. Different designs were used by different civilisations. Egyptians used wood or stone and their tables were fashioned like pedestals, the Assyrians used metal, Greeks used bronze, others used marble. The use of tables evolved over time and it was in the 16th century that the dining table really came into its own. The earliest Western tables were simple wooden boards on trestles that were set up for eating and then packed away. Today tables come in all shapes and sizes and man-made materials like plastic or fibreglass.

The dining table has held emblematic significance throughout the ages. It symbolises unity, celebration, togetherness, belonging, and acceptance. Cultures across the world view the dining table as very significant. It is tPeople_eating_in_Tunisiahe heartbeat of a home. The importance of sharing meals features in many religions, like the sharing of the Shabbat meal amongst Jews, or the house-hopping and sharing of meals during Eid al-Fitr for Muslims, or the sharing of the Lord’s supper amongst Christian faith traditions.

In ancient traditions, eating together was a way of forming and forging relationship. It was a sign of acceptance and reconciliation. Ancient Israel had strict dietary laws and maintained clear social and religious boundaries – it was very important to obey laws surrounding what you ate and who you ate with! No wonder Jesus was so irksome to a religious establishment that saw his total disregard of meal protocol and tradition as dangerous. He invited himself to the table of ‘filthy’ tax collectors! This wasn’t just a little step over the etiquette boundary. It was the flipping of the proverbial middle finger to the carefully constructed boundaries that ensured racial and religious purity. This rebel seemed to think that all were invited to God’s table – what a ridiculously scandalous idea. A table without boundary or exclusion?? One commentator suggested that Jesus got himself crucified by the way he ate.

In our hurry-sick world, suffering from a loneliness epidemic, it is time to bring the table back to centre stage. It is time to remind ourselves that we become better people when we welcome others to the table. People from all walks of life, people who are different to us, who may not share our views or faith. Something miraculous happens around a table, whether in a home, restaurant, workplace, a table carved of sand on the beach, or flimsily thrown together in small huddles in our faith communities. That moment of sharing food and stories deepens us like no social media network ever could. In times of violence and sadness in our world we need to remind ourselves of our shared humanity and refresh ourselves with new hope and courage in each other’s company. Around a table we don’t just nurture our bodies with food, we heal each others soul.

I want to live my life with a welcome sign on my table. A place where the stranger can find refuge, where the hungry can be fed, where the marginalised can be affirmed and accepted, and where the sad heart can find hope. I often fail in this endeavour but I will not give up. To me that round red gum table reminds me of welcome and belonging, it reminds me of amazing grace, and most of all it reminds me that love is greater than fear. Welcome to the table.

And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table; he was lame in both feet … II Samuel 9
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